The new film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, which hits theaters this Friday, bolsters Holy Week’s annual reminder that “[i]n this world you will have trouble. But take heart! [Jesus has] overcome the world.” Though the film takes some artistic license with history, the story it tells is one we’d be wise to embrace.
Set during Nero’s persecution of the Roman church following the Great Fire in A.D. 64 and the last weeks of Paul’s life, the film depicts the challenges and complications of taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. Luke, played by Jim Caviezel, comes to Rome to minister to Paul (James Faulkner) who is in Mamertine Prison, facing execution, for, according to Nero, setting the fire that destroyed much of the city. The opening scenes of the film depict “Roman candles,” Christians who were bound, doused with fuel, and set on fire throughout the city. There are frequent mentions of, and one scene that focuses on, the martyrdom of Christians in the Roman circuses. The Roman church, led by Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquila (John Lynch) is in hiding.
The surviving Christians are torn between wanting to retaliate, leave, or remain and minister to the city. Priscilla favors staying to serve the Roman people — who else will take in the widows and orphans? Aquila wants to leave and save what remains of the church. Another group of young Christian men, want to take up arms. At the same time, Luke begins making regular visits to Paul, recording what will become the book of Acts. The film contrasts the persecution of the Roman church with Paul’s reflections as a persecutor.
In an interview with the movie’s producer, Rich Peluso, he explained why this particular period of Paul’s life was chosen for what is essentially, the first theatrical feature film about the apostle:
“What could it have been like for Paul in the final days of his life, reflecting on the thorn in his flesh, reflecting on his early life of persecuting believers, knowing he was about to meet Jesus, and pondering the impact of his ministry and the state of the church, and the state of persecution, and what to many people could have felt like the end of the world … I think we're able to tell a story that does not feel like you're going to Sunday school.”
Peluso pointed out that “this movie deals with situations and times which are so eerily similar to what's going on ... in certain parts of the world. The persecution of the church, the martyrdom of the church, of people in the church, and the intense persecution, and how do we respond to that? Do we fight back? Do we form Christian militias and attack? That's not what Jesus taught, that's not what Paul taught. Evil can only be overcome with good, and it is confounding to the unbeliever how you love your enemy ... This movie models that, and Paul modeled it, and it is a very timely message for a world that is dealing with a lot of persecution.”
Indeed, Paul, Apostle of Christ, does not pull punches with the sheer horror and steep cost of suffering for the sake of Christ, something that is occurring daily throughout the world and something that too many of us easily forget when faced with any kind of obstacle in our often comfortable American churches.
In fact, in March of last year, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a report finding that white evangelicals were more likely than other groups to express perceived discrimination, despite the fact that Christians are over-represented in the halls of power. Recently, Michael Gerson wrote a piece recently showing how this perceived fear of persecution has led evangelicals to abandon their mission and witness.
Actor Jim Caviezel spoke with me about the film and said, “When I see this film, when it was being done, and how it was being done, I wondered if the modern-day Christian wouldn't just look at this and say, ‘oh that's nice. Those saints, they died those deaths. And now we live at the table of plenty, we don't have to die that way. Just those people back then, certainly.’”
Caviezel went on to say, “There is one choice, it's Christ. And that doesn't mean it's gonna be easy ... Certainly wasn't easy for Jesus, certainly wasn't easy for Luke or Paul. So what does our faith do? In these tough times, not good times, the world in good times can handle it great. In bad times, what happens to us? That's when we become beautiful. That's when the world goes, how can you love?”
It’s this complicated Christian life that Paul, Apostle of Christ depicts artfully and thoughtfully. The film hypothesizes that the thorn in Paul’s flesh is guilt over the Christians he murdered as a young man. One scene depicts him, haunted by these killings, repeating the phrase “your grace is sufficient.”
In light of the persecution he perpetrated, and in light of the Holy Week we’re about to enter, this theory is one that humanizes Paul and illustrates the radical grace that he wrote so much about. For Paul to confidently write words like “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” means that he had to accept, entirely by faith, that forgiveness and redemption were his. As he faces his death in the film, we see him wrestle with this, saying “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
In Acts 9, Paul’s conversion story, it is encouraging to read verses 4-6, when Jesus appears to him and says “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” It is Jesus, whose body is the church, that Saul ultimately persecuted, and who conquers his enemy by turning him into a son. It is Jesus who has overcome the world. We do not need to take up arms against those who may persecute us, we do not need to lose heart when we face trouble or hardship. We do not need to abandon our call to love and serve the world. Jesus’ grace is sufficient.