READ : Mark 15:22-27, 33-39
“When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him” (Lk. 23:33). With that simple statement, the journey of Jesus’ life reaches its end.
Here is the earliest existing account of the death of Jesus Christ. It is from the 15th chapter of the Gospel according to Mark:
They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha. The word Golgotha means The Place of the Skull. Then they gave him wine mixed with spices. But he did not take it.
They nailed him to the cross. Then they divided up his clothes. They cast lots to see what each of them would get.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. They wrote out the charge against him. It read, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
They crucified two robbers with him. One was on his right and one on his left.
At noon, darkness covered the whole land. It lasted three hours. At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,” Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” This means “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” (Psalm 22:1)
Some of those standing nearby heard Jesus cry out. They said, “Listen! He’s calling for Elijah.”
One of them ran and filled a sponge with wine vinegar. He put it on a stick. He offered it to Jesus to drink. “Leave him alone,” he said. “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
With a loud cry, Jesus took his last breath.
The temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.
A Roman commander was standing there in front of Jesus. He heard his cry and saw how Jesus died. Then he said, “This man was surely the Son of God!”
Mark 15:22-37, 33-39, NIrV
I can understand how people could commit most crimes. I can look within myself and see the seeds – greed, envy, anger, lust – from which every kind of evil grows. I can imagine how someone might be driven to steal, perhaps by hunger or poverty, perhaps just out of covetousness. I think I know what it is that causes people to lie or cheat or commit adultery. I can even understand how someone, driven by rage or a hardened conscience, would go so far as to kill another human being. These are things I can find in my own heart.
But there is one crime I cannot understand. I can’t conceive how a human parent could deliberately abandon their own flesh and blood. As I think of my own children, I can’t see how anyone could desert theirs, leaving them helpless, naked and alone, to die in some alley or garbage hill. Yet isn’t that what God did to his only Son on Golgotha?
THE PLACE CALLED GOLGOTHA
We come now to the heart of the gospel story, to Jesus’ last hour. In a sense, everything else in the gospel narrative has been preparing for and building up to this moment. The basis of the good news about salvation is the story of what took place, not in Bethlehem or Galilee or even in the courtyards of the temple in Jerusalem, but at a place called Golgotha.
“Golgotha” is an Aramaic name meaning “The Place of the Skull.” The early Latin Bible translated “Golgotha” as “Calvarium,” which is how we get the more familiar term “Calvary” for the place where Jesus died. Tradition has it that this place was a skull-shaped hill just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Or the name may have come from its gruesome function: it was the public execution ground.
When he arrived there Jesus was stripped naked by the soldiers. At one point someone offered him a drugged cup of wine as an act of compassion, to deaden his senses. But Jesus wanted to stay alert and in control of his faculties to the bitter end, so he refused it.
Then they crucified him. The horrible act itself is recorded with remarkable restraint. Just the simple statement: “They nailed him to the cross.” The physical suffering, the severe pain and trauma, of our Lord at Golgotha is neither dwelt upon nor even described.
Imagine the scene there on that hill that Friday afternoon. Recall the details: the swirling, taunting crowds, the two criminals who died alongside him, the eerie darkness that descended at noon, the words from the cross of forgiveness, compassion, pain, the final surrender of life, the impressive testimony of the Roman centurion who commanded the execution squad. But it seems clear as we read the story once again in its earliest recorded form in the Gospel of Mark that the most important thing about Jesus’ death, the central truth, is expressed in the mournful cry he uttered from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”
The four Gospels do not offer identical accounts of all that was said and done at Golgotha. Each is selective. It is only by combining all four accounts that we come up with the familiar “Seven Last Words” from the cross, for example. Mark reports only one thing Jesus said. But it was the most important thing, the most fearful and dreadful and terrible thing Jesus ever said. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon. Jesus had now been hanging on the cross for six hours. Since noon the terrible scene had been shrouded in an unearthly darkness, as though creation itself did not want to see what was happening. When Christ was born, the night sky blazed with light; but when he died, the noonday sun was darkened. Then out of the gloom, an anguished cry came from the cross:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani
My God, my God, why have you deserted me?
So powerful was the impression these terrible words made upon the observers who reported the event that years later they transcribed Jesus’ words exactly as they heard them, preserving even the sound of the original language (Aramaic) which Jesus spoke.
But what does this cry mean? These words from the darkness have long troubled many people. Can Jesus’ cry of desertion really mean what it seems to? God would never forsake or abandon his righteous Son, would he? Could he even do that? Jesus, as every Christian believes, was actually God in human form. Can God desert himself? How is it even possible for God to forsake God?
Some people have tried to find another meaning in Jesus’ haunting words. Perhaps he was simply expressing his feelings. Jesus wasn’t really deserted by God; he only felt that way. Maybe he was overtaken by doubts and fears, the way we so often are in our darkest hour. Or maybe he was saying this to show how he identifies with us. Here is Jesus, asking our commonest, most troubling question: Why? It could even be that Jesus’ words are a sort of confession of trust in God. As you may know, they’re actually a quotation from the book of Psalms. “My God, my God . . .” is the first verse of the 22nd Psalm, and that psalm, a powerful Old Testament prophecy of the cross, ends with a wonderful expression of faith in God. So maybe Jesus was thinking about those concluding verses.
But what he actually speaks is only the opening verse of the Psalm. It’s hard to imagine why he would use these words of desertion if what he meant to express was the opposite idea. I think any interpretation that tries to make Jesus’ words mean something other than what they say is off track. I’ve always felt nervous about those who think they know more about God than Jesus did, or who are confident they can read his mind and thoughts. Do we really believe we can judge that Jesus was mistaken? Do we really think we know better than he when God was present and when he wasn’t?
We must beware of the attempt to psychologize Christ on the cross. We cannot enter into his mind and read what was going on there. It’s a mistake to speculatively project onto him our weakness, doubt and fear. It is false reasoning to argue that, because my faith would have been shaken on the cross, and because Jesus is human like me, therefore his faith must have been shaken too. No. We cannot claim to understand Christ’s experience better that he himself did (or, for that matter, better than the evangelists who recorded his words). We must take Jesus’ cry at face value, as expressing reality. He said what he did because, as incredible as it sounds, God actually had at that moment deserted him.
THE GOD-FORSAKEN GOD
No one can ever understand the cross without coming to grips with the meaning of these words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They express the true nature of Christ’s suffering. It was not just physical (the wounds, the weariness, the thirst), or psychological (the taunting by the crowd, desertion by his friends). No. Christ’s deepest pain was spiritual. Before he died physically, he died spiritually. He passed through the dreadful experience of alienation from God. He was separated from the living God. He, who from all eternity had never known an instant without the conscious delight of perfect fellowship with God the Father, suffered ultimate death, death in the final sense – the utter desolation of banishment from the presence of the God of love and life. He was cut off from God.
That does seem incredible. How can the Father desert the Son? How can God forsake himself? This mystery is beyond our grasp, yet in it lies our salvation. Jesus so closely identified with sinners that on the cross he was made to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He took our place there and paid sin’s penalty. He took upon himself God’s judgment against our sin, and was cut off from him as we should have been.
God always takes sin seriously. When children break something, they’ll sometimes say, “It doesn’t matter – we can just buy another one.” They speak so easily because they don’t have to pay for it. So we sometimes make light of sin, try to laugh it off. But God never does, because he has to pay for it.
The truth, wonderful beyond the power of words to express, is that God has paid for sin, in full. There is nothing left for us to contribute; Jesus paid it all. His cry of desertion and abandonment on the cross alerts us to the moment when he made this full and final payment. It reveals the lowest depths to which he went because in order to save us. Jesus literally descended into hell. Hell means being separated from the presence of God. And that is just what happened to Jesus at Golgotha. He went to hell for us on the cross. There was hell for him so that there would be none for those who believe in him.
When we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in my church, we read these words:
. . . [Christ] humbled himself unto death, even the bitter and shameful death of the cross, when he cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” so that we might be accepted by God and never be forsaken by him.
If you believe sincerely in the Lord Jesus Christ, if you have put your faith in him alone for your salvation, then God is with you forever. Because Jesus was once deserted by God, you will never be. Can you ever thank him enough?