I will never forget the first time I was asked to play Jesus. The film was The Gospel According to Matthew, a Word-for-Word dramatization in the NIV. The director (South African, Regardt van den Bergh) was looking for a “more real, down-to-earth looking Jesus” as opposed to the traditional statuesque figure. He was looking for an actor who was born again.
The director scheduled me for an audition and the next thing I knew I had a beard and long hair, and was on my way to Morocco to portray the Son of the living God. Wow! And I would never look back. My life and career would never be the same.
When Matthew was released, I was jettisoned into a speaking ministry that’s taken me around the globe many times over. At the same time, I was asked to portray Jesus again and again… even to this day in The Encounter and my newest film release, Alison’s Choice. It takes my breath away just to type the words. Glory to Jesus!
So what’s it like to play Jesus? It’s equally the most wondrous and responsibility-laden experience you could imagine. I’m deeply aware that people across the world make decisions about Him based on what I do before the camera. That’s a huge weight on my shoulders even as it is an incredible privilege. And the enormity of the task is so incomprehensible there’s only one thing to do in preparation: go to my knees and deep into His Word, crying out to Him to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” as only He can (Ephesians 3:20).
It would take volumes to tell the whole story, but as I prepared for Matthew, I came to base my portrayal of Jesus on Psalm 139:13: “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb…” In other words, in the character of Jesus, every pair of eyes I looked into would be “my baby.” That for me was the key – handle each person, no matter who they were, as if he/she was my very own baby.
Out of that simple reality flowed the depth of care and compassion, love and faithfulness, mercy and forgiveness, authority and truth, leadership and humility…all the aspects of His nature, manner, character and person – the person of the living God! As an actor portraying Jesus, it’s the fountainhead of every moment of joyous laughter, strong rebuke, and tear over the lostness of precious souls. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37).
If I could share just one behind-the-scenes Matthew story, it would be preparing to film 11:20-24. I prayed before every scene but for this particular scene I prayed a very specific prayer: “Lord, show me what it all looks like through Your eyes.” I wasn’t seeking an experience but rather an understanding of His perspective on our broken world.
Well, someone much wiser than I once said, “Be careful what you pray for because you’re going to get it.” And may I add that if I had any idea of the dynamic with which the Lord would answer that prayer I would never have had the courage to pray it.
I was praying and then suddenly, in my heart, I felt a remarkable shock of pain; heartache like I never imagined heartache could be. It was so deeply traumatic it knocked the wind out of me and I exploded in tears. Unable to regain composure I wept for nearly an hour, and in the middle of it, I sensed a Scripture rise in my understanding: “…he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
In the ways the Lord deals with me, I knew He was giving me a glimpse of a billionth of a billionth of His heartbreak over the lostness of His people. It was like a sea of His children living lives separated from Him; in ways He never planned for them. I remember the director came and asked if I was alright. I looked at him through my tears and said, “It kills Him… It just kills Him.”
If you’re interested, I chronicled that story in detail along with my entire account of the making of Matthew in the book, In the Footsteps of Jesus (Harvest House Publishers). But as you may expect, my life was never the same after that day – after every day of that Matthew experience which would prove to be life-altering both inside and out.
Before I knew it I was traveling the world sharing Jesus; going to churches, schools, universities, conferences… The Lord thrust me into a ministry that has taken me to everything from African prisons and HIV hostels to stadium crusades. And all of it fueled by what I learned about Him through portraying Him; the depth of His care, the pinnacle of His joy, the hope through His heartbreak. The unimaginable passion, love, desire…for you and for me.
It has been my greatest honor and privilege to represent Jesus on film – even as it is to represent Him in ministry. I never lose sight of the lessons I learned while filming Matthew. They confront me and compel me every step of my way…
“…you knit me together in my mother’s womb…” “…he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” It’s a privilege that never ceases to take me to my knees. And I thank Him every, single day. Praise be to Jesus!