An Open Letter to Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, Temple Israel

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Founder & Teacher,

Dear Rabbi Zimmerman,

Thank you for your email of 2-27-04 addressed to some of us among the downtown clergy concerning Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ. I read most of your letter to our people on Sunday morning as part of my sermon. We take heart from your expression of a “deep and abiding commitment to understand each other [with] a willingness to discuss difficult issues.” With that in view I thought I would write, for you and for our people, a response to your letter and to the movie from a New Testament perspective.

We believe that the New Testament, as well as the Tanach, are the inspired word of God and provide a progressive revelation of God's dealings with humankind—a revelation that is unified and reliable. Therefore we try, all too imperfectly, to bring our lives into conformity to what the New Testament teaches about Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all the Scriptures.

We respect the misgivings you have about the portrayal of Jews in the film and the possibility, as you say, “of the potential rifts this film could open once again . . . between Jews and Christians.” There are “rifts” that we do not want to open—rifts of hostility, or stereotyping prejudice, or violence. These we renounce. Indeed we apologize for them and repent of such behavior toward Jews in history from the Christian community.

But there is a tension, isn't there, between what you call “responsible, accurate and sensitive portrayals of the Passion,” on the one hand, and the “mission to build bridges of understanding and peace”? What shall we do when a “responsible, accurate and sensitive” portrayal of the Passion of Jesus builds a bridge of understanding but not always peace? What if the bridge of understanding produces anger? This was sometimes the experience of such bridge-building in the New Testament, and has been the experience of some of us today.

We believe that a responsible, accurate, sensitive portrayal of Jesus' suffering includes the statement of its loving purpose. Here are several New Testament examples: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15); “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8); “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Most Jews do not mind Christians enjoying these religious sentiments. The “rift” comes when the accurate, responsible, sensitive portrayal of Jesus includes his claim to be the only way to God. He made this claim repeatedly. “ I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6); “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36); “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

The bridge that we desire to cross between the Jewish and Christian faith is one that was built for us in the New Testament. It includes an explanation and invitation to all of us—Jews and Gentiles—to know Jesus as the magnificent fulfillment of Isaiah 53. “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (verse 11). The bridge is single. There is one way to God together: the way of faith in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

Peace and reconciliation between humans and God, and between Jew and Gentile, are one of the great achievements of the Gospel of Christ. We Gentile Christians stand amazed that we have been included in the covenant God made through Abraham. The apostle Paul celebrates this astonishing grace: “But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-16).

This is the one bridge to God and each other—the cross of Christ, which Mel Gibson's movie so powerfully portrays. May God give us grace to cross this bridge together. I enclose a copy of my book, The Passion of Jesus Christ, with the hope that it will help advance the aim we share “to understand each other [with] a willingness to discuss difficult issues.”

John Piper, Pastor
Bethlehem Baptist Church