The Problem of Pain

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 19:28

There is a chronic tendency among believing Christians to ignore, or at least to downplay, Jesus’ humanity. We tend to focus so much on his divinity that we minimize the authenticity of Jesus’ human nature.

The fifth word of Jesus from the cross was the briefest, and, in a sense, the most human. Toward the end of his ordeal, after hours of suffering, after the eerie noon-day darkness fell, after the terrible cry of abandonment, Jesus spoke once more, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He asked for something to drink. Just a couple of syllables gasped out of a dry throat “I’m thirsty.”

Matthew and Mark both relate that just before the end Jesus was offered a drink of some wine that had been soaked into a sponge and held up to his mouth on a stick. The fourth Gospel says that this was given in response to something Jesus said.

“After this,” John writes, “when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, in order to fulfill the scripture, ‘I am thirsty!’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there, so they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.”

One of the soldiers must have heard Jesus’ rasping words, “I am thirsty” and taking them as a request, he responded with a rough and ready compassion. This last offer of a drink to Jesus was an act of kindness which Jesus accepted.

But what does it mean? Why is this one little detail recorded in scripture for all eternity? It’s easy to see why most of the seven last words from the cross were preserved. Their significance is obvious. They raise big issues or they express important ideas. But what about this briefest, human word? Why was Jesus’ thirst noted and remembered? The answer is that it was remembered because this little word illustrates two important truths about Jesus Christ.


The first is a truth about Jesus’ nature. The words “I thirst” are, as the great Charles Spurgeon noted, the complaint of a man. God would never say he was thirsty; God could never say he was thirsty. He holds Niagara Falls in the palm of his hand. How could he ever have any physical needs or pains? When Jesus calls attention to his thirst, it’s a real person talking, one who is human to the core and to the bitter end.

There is a chronic tendency among believing Christians to ignore or at least to downplay Jesus’ humanity. We tend to focus so much on his divinity that we minimize the authenticity of Jesus’ human nature. This tendency started already in New Testament times with a group known as the Gnostics. They believed that the physical world, including the human body, was evil by nature. Since God could never be connected to evil, he could not have had a real body. So in their view Jesus only appeared to be human. When he died or rather, when he seemed to die he felt no pain, he endured no real suffering, for he was a pure divine spirit. This is what the Gnostics taught, and what many people still think today. It’s one reason why there’s such a strong tendency to denigrate anything physical at the expense of the spiritual.

But the Bible teaches otherwise. The testimony of scripture is that Jesus really and truly became human, that his body was just as real as anyone’s and just as really it belonged to him. His physiology was identical to ours. Jesus possessed all the same organs and tissues, the same muscles and tendons, ligaments and nerve cells. His entire body responded to crucifixion just as yours or mine would have done. His neurons screamed to his brain’s pain center as the spikes were driven home. His lungs burned with the effort of drawing each labored breath during the long hours he hung suspended on the cross. And the trauma of crucifixion produced a fever that parched Jesus’ throat and tormented him until he cried out at the last, “I thirst.” There was nothing superhuman about the body of Jesus Christ.


But as real as Jesus’ physical thirst was, that is not the only, or even the primary, truth which lies behind this fifth word from the cross. Listen again to what John says. He writes that “when Jesus knew that all was now finished (or accomplished), he said in order to fulfill the scripture, ‘I am thirsty.'” One of the fundamental convictions of each and every New Testament writer was that all the events of Jesus’ life, and especially of his death, had been foretold in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Everything that happened to Jesus, even down to the smallest details, took place in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation, and that plan was revealed beforehand in the Hebrew scriptures. That’s why again and again in the New Testament we read that Jesus did or said something in order to fulfill the scripture.

The particular verse John was thinking of in connection with Jesus’ last drink upon the cross was probably Psalm 69:21, which says, “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” But there are many other scripture verses which describe in detail the things Jesus suffered on the cross. Here are some of them:

Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”

They have pierced my hands and feet.

They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.

He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.

They must not . . . break any of its bones (speaking of the Passover lamb.)

They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn. . . .

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, although he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

(Psalms 129:3, 22:7-8, 16, 18; Isaiah 53:12; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Zechariah 12:10, Isaiah 53:9, NIV)

Taken together, those verses draw a remarkably accurate picture of what happened to Jesus Christ on Good Friday afternoon. And every one of them is drawn from the Old Testament.

This is why the apostle Paul could summarize the heart of the Christian message in this way: that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures [and] that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

This is why Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, asserted that Christ was handed over to death “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). Jesus’ death on Golgotha wasn’t an accident. Neither was it an ad hoc contingency plan, as if God had to scramble to put it together at the last minute. No. Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection were the outworking in history of a specific series of events that God had determined from before the foundation of the world for the purpose of saving that world. It was all decided ahead of time just what would happen that Friday afternoon, and not only the what but the why.

This becomes clear when we pay close attention to the story. The apostle John was a writer who loved symbolism. When reading the fourth Gospel, it is always important to notice and think about the meaning of the details. For instance, John reports that the wine-filled sponge from which Jesus drank on the cross was lifted up to his lips on the branch of a hyssop plant. Now that’s an odd little point to take note of in reporting an event as momentous as the crucifixion of the Son of God. Why would anyone care what kind of stick was used to offer the wine? Moreover, it’s an odd stick to use in order to hold up a drink to a dying man.

Hyssop was a short, bushy plant that grew in the desert. Its branches were twisted and gnarled, not long and straight. But to anyone steeped in the Old Testament, to a person who had meditated upon all those prophecies and foreshadowings of the Messiah’s suffering, the significance of hyssop is immediately obvious. For this was the plant that Moses and the Israelites used to mark their houses in Egypt with the blood of the Passover lamb. Hyssop branches were used to spread the blood that identified the Israelites as God’s people and spared them from the angel of death. The hyssop branch marks Jesus. It’s a pointer acknowledging him as the true Passover sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.


So what does this fifth word from the cross mean for us? How can we use it for our own encouragement and blessing? When should we call it to mind or meditate upon it? You might want to do that when you are thirsty yourself, or perhaps on some other occasion when you face physical pain and suffering. I was talking with an old, very mature Christian who had experienced a lot of physical pain in his life. I asked him what he did to deal with all that. How did he handle it? “Sometimes I think about the cross,” he told me. “I remember that Jesus was thirsty there, and I think about how much he suffered for me.”

But this is also a word to remember when the thirst from which we suffer is more than physical.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,” declares
the scripture

Isaiah 55:1

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Psalm 42:1-2

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” promised Jesus, “they shall be satisfied.”

Matthew 5:6

Have you ever felt that kind of thirst? Maybe you have, but you didn’t know what it was. You thought it was dissatisfaction with your job, or family problems, or money trouble, or a mid-life crisis. You didn’t realize that what you were experiencing was really a hunger for God and a thirst for his life and his righteousness. But that’s what it was. And there is only one way to satisfy that thirst. Only by coming to Jesus Christ, only by knowing Jesus Christ, will your inner thirst ever be quenched.

In the chapel of each home of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity two simple sentences are inscribed on the wall. Both are spoken by the Lord Jesus. The first is I thirst. And the second: I quench. Jesus in a sense is still thirsty. He thirsts for you and me to come to him, to know him, to find in him the answers to all our questions. And Jesus alone can satisfy every need and want that we possess. He alone can give us true and lasting life. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day . . . the one who feeds on me will live because of me” (John 6:54, 57). So remember his words. “I thirst.” And “I will quench your thirst.”