When I was in college in the mid-90s, I discovered the wonder of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time. It had always been a bit taboo because of some serious doctrinal issues. Regardless, once I began watching the 1973 movie adaptation, I was enthralled. The music is funky, some of the individual vocals are amazing, and the creators’ take on the last week of Jesus’ life was pretty intriguing.
For me, the penultimate moment in Jesus Christ Superstar happens when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. This particular part of the movie incorporates the three elements mentioned above: funky music, incredible vocals (Ted Neeley’s voice, especially when he belts out the “Why?!”… still gives me chills), and “interesting” doctrine. Take a moment and watch the video below:
Jesus Christ Superstar‘s version of Jesus knows he is heading toward suffering and death and he is struggling with this reality. Now, as compelling and emotive as that scene may be, that ain’t the real Jesus. In this scene, the identity crisis Jesus seems to be having throughout the movie comes to a head: “I’m not as sure as when we started.” When pleading with God to change the plan, he leans on how well he has performed in his role: “Could you ask as much from any other man?” But the real Jesus knew he was not just “any other man.” And he was certain of his mission that night in Gethsemane 2000 years ago.
However, the largest divergence between Ted Neeley’s Jesus and the real Jesus is his attitude toward God the Father. Superstar‘s Jesus is defiant, blaming the Father for everything. He sings of finishing what he started and then his attitude noticeably changes and he accusingly alters his statement to “what you started.” This defiant spirit may make for compelling drama, but it is a far cry from how that evening in Gethsemane actually played out.
As Jesus looks ahead to the cross on the night he was betrayed, the Gospel of Mark records the following (Mark 14:32-34):
They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
About the only thing doctrinally correct in Superstar‘s “Gethsemane” is the deep emotional struggle Jesus experienced that night. The real Jesus felt that struggle too. He was “deeply troubled and distressed.” The following words from Jesus pierce my heart: “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” I’ve tasted a glimpse of such grief before. It was almost unbearable at times, but nothing compared to what Jesus was experiencing that night. But, in response to that almost debilitating grief, Jesus does not turn to defiance.
Instead of getting angry with his Father, Jesus is honest with him about how he feels. He shares his heart with his Father, asking if there is any other way to accomplish his mission. Is the cross really necessary? The picture I see here is one of intimacy between Son and Father. Theirs is a relationship of deep trust. Jesus knows he can bare his heart. While we don’t know what the Father was thinking or may have said to him in those moments, my guess is that he grieved with his Son. He is not the taskmaster holding “all the cards,” standing back unaffected, pulling puppet strings. He is a loving Father who shares deep intimacy with Jesus.
It’s in the context of this intimacy, this deep love, that Jesus determines: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus knew he would suffer and die, but then he also knew he would take up life once again. But in that moment, with betrayal, humiliation, suffering, and death nipping at his heels, he was feeling through the reality of what was to come. No human being can ever truly stand in his shoes and feel what he was feeling in that moment, but I can imagine it would be hard to see what’s supposed to happen on Sunday when your Friday looked like his would. I think it would be natural for trust to be challenged in that moment. Sheez, my trust has been shaken in the face of much lesser adversity.
But Jesus, standing on the foundation of his intimacy and experience with his Father, acquiesces to his Father’s will. And he doesn’t do so in some kind of backhanded “I guess you can have it your way” manner. No, the Jesus I see in Gethsemane, according to the Gospels, actually wants to do what his Father wants him to do. If his Father wants him to die on our behalf, to take on all of our sinful baggage, then Jesus wants to die on our behalf and take on our sin. Such is the seamlessness between Jesus’ heart and his Father’s heart.
I hope to experience more and more of that seamlessness with God’s heart. When I consider what Jesus was willing to endure based on his intimacy with his Father, it makes my heart ache for such intimacy. My prayer (for both you and me), is that, no matter what our circumstances are, no matter if we feel great or our souls are being crushed, we will find the closeness with God that lends itself to deep trust in him.
And, as we look forward to Good Friday, I am grateful that the real Jesus was willing to take the penalty for all my sin. His willingness to endure the cross is what affords you and me the opportunity to not only know God, but to experience deep intimacy with him, the kind of intimacy that leads to deep trust.