READ : Matthew 27:46
With the fourth word from the cross we come to the very heart of the gospel. “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)
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)
Mark 15:22-37, 33-39, NIrV
THE PLACE CALLED GOLGOTHA
With the fourth word from the cross we come to the very heart of the gospel. In a sense, everything else in the biblical 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 the place called Golgotha, and the heart of what happened there is summed up in this terrible cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
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 proclaimed that this man must have been the Son of God. But it seems clear as we read the story in its earliest recorded form in the Gospel of Mark that the heart of the mystery of the meaning of Jesus’ death is expressed in the mournful cry that he uttered: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”
The four Gospels as we’ve noted do not offer identical accounts of all that was said and done at Golgotha. Each is selective. As I have also noted before in this series, it’s only by combining all four accounts that we come up with the familiar “Seven Last Words” from the cross. Mark (and Matthew) report just one word spoken by Jesus at Golgotha. But it was the most significant, the most 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. And then from out of the gloom, an anguished cry came from the one on the center, from the one handing on the center cross:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani
My God, my God, why have you forsaken 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) in which Jesus spoke them. That’s why the gospel has that sentence in Aramaic, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani.
But what do those words mean? This cry from the darkness has long troubled many people. Can Jesus’ cry of dereliction or 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 himself in human form. How can God desert himself? How is it even possible for God to forsake God?
Some people have tried to find a different meaning in this haunting fourth word from the cross. Perhaps he was simply expressing his feelings. Jesus wasn’t really deserted by God; it’s just that in his human weakness he 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 deeply he identifies with us. Here is Jesus, asking our most common, most troubling question: God, Why? It could even be that Jesus’ words are a sort of confession of trust in God. As you may have heard, this sentence is actually a quotation from the book of Psalms. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the opening verse of Psalm 22. And this psalm, a powerful Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah’s suffering, ends with a wonderful expression of trust in God. So maybe Jesus was really thinking about those concluding verses. He was reciting the psalm to himself and all we have is the opening verse.
But according to the record, those are the words and the only words that he actually spoke. It’s hard to see why he would use these words about desertion if what he meant to express was the opposite idea. I think that any interpretation that tries to make Jesus’ words mean something other than what they say is off track. People who think they know more about God than Jesus did, or who are confident they can read his mind and thoughts, have always struck me as unconvincing, to say the least. Do we really believe we are qualified to say that Jesus was mistaken in his cry of dereliction? Do we really think we know better than he did whether or not God had abandoned him?
We must beware of the attempt to psychologize Christ on the cross. There’s no way we can enter into his mind and read what was going on there. It’s a mistake to speculatively project onto him our weaknesses, our doubts and fears. And it’s 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 than 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, hard as it may be to believe, true reality. He said what he did because, as incredible as it sounds, God had actually at that moment abandoned him, deserted him, left him alone.
THE GOD-FORSAKEN GOD
No one, I think, can ever fully 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 deepest suffering. It was not just physical (the wounds, the weariness, the thirst), or psychological (the taunting by the crowd, the 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 being cut off from God, alienated, separated from the living God. He, who from all eternity had never known an instant without the conscious delight of perfect fellowship with 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 forsaken.
That does seem incredible. How can the Father desert the Son? How can God forsake himself? It’s a mystery that 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. That’s what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians chapter 5:
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. . . . For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:19, 21
Christ took our place on the cross and suffered sin’s ultimate penalty there. 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. You know how when children break something, they’ll sometimes say, “It doesn’t matter – we can just buy another one.” They say that 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 fact of how he has made this full and final payment. It reveals the lowest depths to which he went in order to save us. Jesus literally descended into hell. Hell, after all, means being separated from the presence of God. And that is exactly 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 repeat these words:
We remember how 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 this 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?