When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they...
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
If I were to imagine myself experiencing the same horrific execution that Jesus suffered on the cross, the least surprising thing I might cry out would be something like Jesus’ 4th statement. So far, he’s made very God-like statements: “Forgive them,” a promise of heaven, and a provision for his mother and favorite disciple. In our often all-too-sanitized, pre-Passion of the Christ picture of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Renaissance art Jesus, he seems to be taking this whole ordeal in stride. After all, he already knows how it’s going to end. He’s going to show those religious hypocrites and conquering Romans a thing or two… in just a couple more days.
But then he shouts out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What’s happening here? Is this a 180-degree turn from the Jesus who’s “taking it like a man…” or is it truly just that… he’s “taking it like a man”—that is, a human being?
Option 1: Jesus just being divine—quoting Scripture
For those already heading down the path of Jesus, the Renaissance Messiah, the answer is very easy. See, I just pull out my concordance, check my footnotes, and find that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. So, this must be part of the Messianic script, he’s fulfilling his role, and just being, well, divine.
Whew. Crisis averted. Jesus is still handling this crucifixion thing like a champ, and my worldview is intact.
Option 2: Jesus just being human—feeling forsaken
The first view doesn’t seem right. After all, in our post-Passion of the Christ world, we know that there’s no such thing as a sanitized crucifixion. It’s excruciating, exhausting, asphyxiating… it’s messy, bloody, and something no one wants to watch, let alone experience.
Was Jesus, then, just being human?
It would only be natural. I mean, Philippians 2 says that Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (niv). It says he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (niv). Is he crying out, “Why have you forsaken me?” because he didn’t see this coming? Did he not really know what he was getting into? Is this what limiting himself to humanity entailed?
Option 3: Jesus was being fully human and divine: fulfilling Scripture and feeling the weight of the sin of humanity
When we think we have to choose between seeing Jesus as human or divine (that is, as God), we’re misunderstanding how it is that Jesus is fully both. He’s not half-God and half-human. We are taught in Colossians 2:9 that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” In John 1:14, the writer tells us that Jesus Christ, who he describes as God’s living Word, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” He’s not part this or that, or half this or that… he is God in flesh. Fully God and fully human.
Jesus felt forsaken
This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.
Jesus has emotions, and they were there throughout his temptations and trials. He’d just been weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying to not go to the cross if there was another way. He responded to traumatic events with emotions—and the reason we have emotions is that God, our creator, has them too.
It also stands out that he cried out in his native language of Aramaic: the language he likely spoke at home, and the one anyone in distress would naturally use first. This wasn’t Jesus just acting like a human. He felt this pain, he experienced these emotions, and he expressed them.
Jesus was forsaken
Accepting that Jesus experienced the feeling of being forsaken is much easier than accepting that he was forsaken. After all, God told Joshua in chapter 1, verse 5, of the book named for him, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (niv). If you’re like me, you’ve been assured over and over that this is a promise of God for every Christian for all time, so, (A) we never need to worry about being alone, and (B) Jesus could never, ever, ever have been truly forsaken on the cross. After all, the writer of Hebrews picks up the same promise in chapter 13, so that seals it.
Except… that promise was, in context, to Joshua. And the quote from Hebrews refers back to Deuteronomy, so it’s important to look back at the context of that promise. God indeed tells Israel in this passage that he won’t leave or forsake them. But… in 31:16-17, God says of the Israelites, “They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them” (niv, emphasis added).
Prophets and kings throughout Israel’s history recognized that being forsaken because of sin and rebellion was a real possibility. King David, following his confession of sin in Psalm 38:21-22 (niv), prays,
Lord, do not forsake me;
do not be far from me, my God.
Come quickly to help me,
my Lord and my Savior.
And, in fact, it is David who pens Psalm 22, which begins,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
God’s promise in Hebrews is sure: when we remain in relationship with him, he will not forsake us. But the result of the sin that Jesus came to pay the price for is broken relationship. Jesus took all that sin upon himself, and God’s face turned from him. Otherwise, Jesus’ words are a lie, and God’s standards are fluid. But there’s still more to Jesus’ 4th statement from the cross.
Jesus fulfilled prophecy
If Jesus was just feeling abandoned, his Aramaic words might have called out to his Father, whom he called Daddy, or Abba. Instead, he quoted an important Psalm filled with prophecies about the Messiah.
This Psalm, Psalm 22, is a lament: its tone is suffering, and in it King David expresses deep pain and loneliness. In verse 11, he cries out, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” He speaks of scorn and mocking in verses 6-8, verses that also find fulfillment in Jesus’ suffering on the cross: “All who seek me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him.’”
It may have even been those in Jesus’ time who fulfilled the mocking prophecy that also thought his words of anguish, “My God, my God!” were a call to Elijah. The Hebrew word for “my God” is truly part of his name. But just as Jewish listeners might be the only ones to pick up on that, they also should have recognized the opening to Psalm 22. But they thought that anyone who suffered so greatly must be a criminal, not the Christ. This should further paint a picture of the gravity of the suffering.
Robert H. Stein, in his excellent text Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ (1996), says this of Jesus’ utterance (p. 251):
Although he was committed to obeying God’s will and suffering death by way of the cross, he could not help but express his agony…. It is here more than anywhere else that the cost of his fulfilling the will of the Father becomes clear. It is here more than anywhere else that the Christian community becomes aware of the seriousness and horror of sin.
You see, as the apostle Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21 (niv), “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” No pretty painting, or ornately jeweled cross pendant can adequately honor, nor thankfully effectively sanitize, the horror of crucifixion. And it shouldn’t.
Today, a Friday called good not because of what Jesus suffered, but because of what we don’t suffer since he took it all upon himself, let us not think less of Jesus. Let us not think that he caved in to merely human emotions, or that he only played a role without truly experiencing the depths of the cross’s misery. He was fully there. He was fully human. He was fully God. And he endured the fullness of broken relationship with his Father—so that you and I can be restored.
Do we need to fear that God might forsake us because of our sin? This is the key: Jesus experienced it, and then he overcame it. With more confidence than ever before, may you now declare Romans 8:38-39 (niv):
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you’ve felt abandoned, alone, forsaken… know that you are never alone. In Christ, who took the full weight of our sin upon himself, we are not forsaken. Remain in him, and you will never be alone.