This is a continuation of a light-hearted movie review I contributed called “Ready Player One vs Paul Apostle of Christ (2018)”. For Christians who wish to be mentored in the Biblical issues raised by the movie, and leaders who want ideas to use this movie as a discussion point with disciples, I present this deeper review.
“Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)” contains 3 storylines revolving around the relationships of Paul and Luke (1), Aquilla and Priscilla (2), and Roman prefect Mauritius and wife (3). The first two are Biblical and historical. Number 3 is fictitious.
What audiences receive from this movie is an introduction to some characters in the New Testament: the Apostles Paul and Luke, who were indeed friends, and the prominent Christian leaders Aquila and Priscilla. The general facts are correct:
- Luke was a physician who hadn’t seen Jesus in person, but collected the historical records from both Peter and Paul;
- Nero did falsely accuse Christians of burning the city of Rome;
- Rome was cruel and barbaric towards Christians; the persecution of the first followers of Christ was real and brutal; and
- Paul was sentenced to death by beheading in Rome.
I suspect many in the audience would not have known these facts otherwise.
The cruelty and injustice of Rome give me a picture of the end times. Modern Europe has begun censoring Christians and labeling Biblical doctrines as “hate speech”. I can see how the anti-Christ will rise in this politically correct atmosphere. I can imagine how the time of Tribulation will similar or worse than the times of Nero or the Holocaust.
What makes “Paul, Apostle of Christ” truly stand out for me: moviegoers will hear more Scriptures quoted in this movie than any other Hollywood movie ever before, and done in an organic way that isn’t stilted or awkward.
So I am overwhelmingly positive about this movie. However, for the purpose of mentoring Christians, I must address some deficiencies of the movie in this blog. Here are 3 things that could have been better.
1. There is no Holy Spirit in this movie.
The main subject of the Book of Acts is not the apostles, but the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent to help Christians carry forward His works. “…he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” (John 14:12). Jesus explained why He had to go to His Father, “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7)
Without the Holy Spirit there is no boldness, joy, and assurance among the believers in the movie. The picture painted in the movie is one in which Christians seemed lost and looking for direction in Paul. No, they would have had direction from the Holy Spirit. And His direction will always be in line with the Word of God.
Aquila and Priscilla’s dilemma of whether to stay in Rome or leave it was already answered by the Lord. Jesus gave specific direction to Christians as to what they should do when they are overly oppressed:
- Matthew 10:23 (NET) “Whenever they persecute you in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
The idea that Aquila and Priscilla struggled with the question of leaving Rome is not found in the Bible. Nevertheless, I appreciate the creative license the young director of only 33 took in this regard. The conflict between the couple may be based on some circumstantial evidence.
Here are the Biblical facts: Paul first met the couple in Greece, which means the couple had already left Rome, not in defiance to the Emperor, but in obedience to his command!
In Corinth (Greece), Paul “found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus lately come from Italy; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome…” (Acts 18:2). The couple accompanied Paul on his trip back to his home base in Syria (Acts 18:18). The couple was with Paul in Asia (modern Turkey) from where he wrote the first book of Corinthians, “The churches of Asia salute you, Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord…” (1 Corinthians 16:19).
Aquila and Priscilla were back in Rome by the time Paul wrote Romans 16:3 (the book of Romans was written after Corinthians). This return to Rome indicates at some point they were separated from Paul and came back to their hometown by their own will.
Thus the setup of the movie is correct: by the time Paul was sent to be judged in Rome, Aquila and Priscilla would have been positioned there ahead of his arrival to meet him or take care of him during his hour of trial. Suggesting they struggled to leave Rome in secret after Paul’s death, however, is dramatization, but does no injustice to the basic truths of the movie.
Back to the Holy Spirit. Because of the absence of the Holy Spirit in this movie, Paul is depicted as a guilt-ridden man. How accurate is this?
- It is true that the devil uses our past to accuse us; and
- it is true that this tactic of the enemy is alluded to in the Book of Acts 28:3-4. “But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.’”
- This false accusation was partially correct, Paul was a murderer before; but it was partially wrong, Paul was not attacked by a snake because God was judging his sins. Not so, because Paul’s sins had already been judged on the Cross of Jesus Christ.
A joyless group of Christians waiting for a joyless leader named Paul to write anything to encourage them is not an accurate depiction of first century Christians. There was and there remains joy in Christian life. Paul was a strong proponent of letting go of the past. He wrote, “…this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
There were times when I thought this movie tried to make Paul more important than he was. It tried to elevate Paul to a role which many attackers of the New Testament wish to do. They accuse Paul of making up the main doctrines of the Bible, such as the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ, but that is absurd from both perspectives of the Old and New Covenants.
The Apostle John, who predated Paul, taught of Christ, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John reiterated this foundational doctrine in Revelations when he recorded four times Jesus’ own words, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” (1:8, 1:11, 21:6, 22:13). If you need proof of the Divinity of Jesus, look no further!
Mark who walked with Peter and was not a peon to Paul (he even had a bitter disagreement with Paul and they parted ways), used the Old Testament as proof of the Trinity, “For David himself said by the Holy Ghost [Person #3], The Lord [Person #1] said to my Lord [Person #2], Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.” The Trinity and the Divinity of the Messiah were fixed in Scripture long before Paul arrived on the scene.
2. There is no healing.
Without the Holy Spirit, it is no surprise there was no divine healing in the movie. Jesus said in the Great Commission to Christians, “These signs shall follow them that believe; In my name….they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 15:15-18)
The Roman prefect Mauritius’ daughter was sick to the point of death. When he asked Paul, “Are the rumors true, can God heal?” Paul didn’t offer to pray for his daughter or lay hands on the sick. What a missed opportunity to show the Biblical ministry of the Christian! We are commanded by Jesus Himself to lay hands on the sick (Mark 16:18).
A bolder producer or director would have used the scene to show the power of the Name of Jesus Christ. (I don’t know why he didn’t because he believed in healing enough to show Ananias healing Paul’s blindness at his conversion.) Instead, Paul in the movie pointed to Luke as a natural doctor. This changed the direction of the setup from God is Healer to the issue of prejudice. Mauritius had to overcome his anti-Christian bigotry in order to rely on a Christian doctor for help. Then, in the movie, Luke worked his wonders which no other natural doctor could do.
In the Bible, Paul would not have hesitated to pray for the sick! No Christian should! Even when Paul was shipwrecked and could have spent time recovering from trauma, he instead met the father of Publius, sick in bed and suffering from fever and dysentery (bloody flux). Paul “went in to see him and after praying, placed his hands on him and healed him” (Acts 28:8 NET). “After this happened, many of the people on the island who were sick also came and were healed.” The real Paul did not point the sick to Luke or any physician nearby, but to Jesus the Great Physician.
3. There is a strong suggestion that Pacifism is the only Christian response to evil.
The movie deals with the great question, “What should Christians do in the face of great evil and injustice?”
When an orphan Christian boy named Tarquin died from being beaten to death, his church-going cousin Cassiusrebuked the Christians, “This is what trust in Good gets you. Why do you blame yourselves and not the one who murdered him?”
The Christians asked Cassius, “What would you do?”
Cassius replied, “We do what they do to us!” This is revenge, and it is obviously not Christian.
The proper, more Biblical response came when Paul admonished, “Evil can only be overcome with good.”
However, pacifism is not the only Biblical response. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, recorded in both Matthew 10 and Luke 10, Jesus told His disciples to pack light, take no purse, bag or sandals; presumably this included leaving your sword at home, too. But later on in another place, Jesus told the same disciples, “But NOW, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip (traveling bag); and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and BUY ONE.” (Luke 22:36). “And they said, Lord, behold, here are TWO SWORDS. And he saith unto them, It is enough.” (Luke 22:38).
In one place Jesus said take no swords, in another place Jesus said if you don’t have a sword, sell your belonging and buy one! Clearly Christians cannot live by formulas. We need the Holy Spirit. He will guide us differently in different contexts. The context will determine whether we lay down our right to fight or call upon manly courage to defend ourselves, our family, our country.
One unnamed Christian woman in the movie said, “Christ asked us to care for the world not rule it.” This is not a quote from the Bible, nor is it accurate in doctrine.
As Christianity progressed through time, there would be many Christians who would be called to rule after the first-century persecution. Imagine if people like Abraham Lincoln had believed this woman’s words and declined to serve as a Christian President during the American Civil War!
This question of whether or not Christians should fight or should be in politics to gain the power of passing laws and rulings, such question would become important to Christians living during the American Revolutionary War period. These Christians faced the choice of whether to fight against or submit to the British Empire. Many Christians struggled with the age-old question, “What should believers do about evil and injustice?”
In this 18th century context, when the Church was far more advanced than during Paul’s time, the Lord wanted an independent nation to be formed, but first her people would have to fight for their freedom, much the same way as the Jews fought for theirs in the Promise Land.
American Revolutionary War fought and won by manly Christians
God foresaw that a free America would produce more Christians, build more churches and send out more missionaries into the world than any other country before her. God also foresaw a better future for the British people. Instead of colonizing and enslaving people globally, the British should become a humbler people. But before all that could come to pass, there first had to be a fight.
Christian conscience had to be satisfied about, “When was it OK to disobey evil government?” Many books written during that period tackled this question and sought to resolve the matter by applying the Bible. Courageous preachers sermonized about what God really wanted the American colonists to do about being mistreated by British tyranny.
While I mentioned 3 things that could have been better about the movie, I found “Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)” refreshingly realistic about our walk with God.
The aged Paul lamented in a prison cell to Luke, “I’ve gone right and Christ had sent me left. I’ve gone left and Christ has pushed me right. I have many regrets.” Being Christian doesn’t mean we hear God all the time.
God gives us glimpses, but He does not reveal the whole future to us, otherwise we could not have faith. God is pleased when we walk by faith and do what is most loving even when we feel unsure.
The depiction of Cassius and his gang of “Christian avengers” is also real. There are false Christians among us. They attend our churches but they have no love. They speak against leaders and brothers, but their own lives do not please God. They take matters into their own hands, not realizing they are being used as accusers of the brethren and agents of the devil. Such so-called Christians go about causing division in the church; unfortunately, this is real and the movie captures it.
John the Apostle faced these divisive churchgoers back in the first century, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” (1 John 2:19).
The movie accurately depicted two kinds of Christians: the ones who act presumptuously in the flesh and the ones who walk humbly in the Spirit. Paul labelled them “carnal” Christians vs “spiritual” Christians (1 Corinthians 3).
When Cassius came to “rescue” Paul by brute force, Paul was astute to first ask, “Who sent you?”
Cassius: I come in the name of Christ.
Paul: You say you come in His name but it’s clear you do not know him.
Some churchgoers blaspheme God’s Name by claiming they are always right, they never make mistakes, or God acts through them to take revenge. Cassius was clearly dividing the church with his hot temper and self-insistent ways. The cure is to be submitted to pastoral authority, like Aquila and Priscilla, but Cassius would not. There are indeed many Cassius’s in the church today, and no Christian movie has so clearly depicted it as this one.
I highly recommend “Paul, the Apostle of Christ (2018)” as a movie all Christians should support. It is a rare accomplishment to teach history by entertainment. It is uncommon to get so much Christian content in one Hollywood movie. Christian leaders can use the movie experienceto springboard into theological discussion about many doctrines that matter to Christian life.
You made it till the end! Here’s a reward for you because you finish what you start: Pastor Steve Cioccolanti’s YouTube video comparing 64AD and 1776, Paul & the American Revolutionary War. Enjoy!
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