This is the fifth of the sayings of Jesus on the cross and it is the only one of the seven sayings that refers to his physical distress. When we think of the awful pain he went through, we are amazed at his long-suffering, of the patient way he endured the distress of the cross. But it is important to note that he did utter one cry that was connected to his physical needs. This is a reminder that it is legitimate and important to indicate, in an uncomplaining manner, the distress we are going through. A stoical, sullen silence in times of trouble is not a sign of holiness. The thirst that Jesus endured enables him to have a fellow feeling with us in our times of weakness and distress.
Scholars say that John wrote his Gospel towards the end of the first century. At that time, the church was harassed by a heresy called Docetism which denied the real humanity of Jesus. By describing this episode of Jesus’ experience on the cross, John is able to show that the notions connected to this heresy were false – this incident reveals that the humanity of Jesus was real. We will return later and think about what this verse indicates about his humanity.
As far as we know, the last occasion when Jesus had a drink was during the meal held in the Upper Room on the previous evening. Since then, he has undergone three trials – each in a different place, physical abuse from the soldiers in their guard-room, the exhaustion of carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, and the effects of crucifixion on his body. It is not surprising that he was thirsty.
Worth of the scriptures in Jesus’ estimation
We already noticed with regard to the previous saying that Jesus used the opening words of Psalm 22, which suggests that he was seeing his sufferings through the words of that psalm. Now that the agony of forsakenness is coming to an end, he does not stop thinking about the Bible, for John says in verse 28: ‘After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” ’ Jesus lived according to the scriptures.
We are amazed as we see the manner in which many prophecies were fulfilled when Jesus was on the cross: his being numbered with the transgressors, his making intercession for the transgressors, his thoughts of his mother, and many others. But it is not only us, looking from the vantage point of fulfilled events, who can see how these details were fulfilled. The Saviour, although he was experiencing severe pain, was fully aware that his sufferings on the cross were all part of divine plan. This is a reminder that nothing, even the smallest detail of what happened at Calvary, was accidental. It was all in the plan of God.
Two predictions were connected to the thirst of Jesus. In Psalm 22:15, the Sufferer says, ‘my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.’ In Psalm 69, there are two references; first, in verse 3 it says, ‘I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God;’ second, in verse 21 it says, ‘They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.’
As we think about Jesus’ use of the scriptures, we see once again how consistent he was. Throughout his life he had used the Old Testament in a variety of ways. Through them he received confirmation of his identity and his mission. From the scriptures, he received strength and guidance. By appealing to them he was helped in resisting temptations of the devil. Truly the law of the Lord was in his heart.
Again we can note that Jesus remained in control of his human faculties because he was absorbed in the scriptures. He has just been through the most disorientating experience possible, when his Father removed from the Saviour all sense of his comfortable presence. This was a terrifying position to be in, one in which all human resources of help failed. But Jesus was helped by the contents of the Bible, not just its promises, but also its predictions of his sufferings. No doubt the Holy Spirit was continually ministering to Jesus in bringing continually to his mind relevant scriptures for each stage of his awful journey into the darkness of divine abandonment.
Further we can note that Jesus was also comforted by the full range of what the Bible said about his sufferings. His self-control in the situation was not merely a passive form of submission; rather he was strengthened in his faith, expressed in his cry of commitment (‘My God, my God’), as he endured the deep distress of Calvary. There are many promises that could have brought comfort, such as the assurance that through his sufferings he would rescue many from perishing.
In a sense, this saying of Jesus is a statement of faith. It is not a cry of desperation from a man suffering increasing physical pain and mental torture under the unrelenting rays of the middle-eastern sun. It is a cry of acknowledgement that the scriptures are true, that what was said of his experience in Psalms 22 and 69 regarding his physical thirst was one step of his journey, that these scriptures predicted that his thirst would be relieved by onlookers giving him a drink in sympathy.
Whom did he speak to?
When Jesus uttered this cry, was he only revealing how he felt or was there something more in his words? F.W. Krummacher suggests that this saying of Jesus was directed towards those who had crucified him, indicating that he had no thoughts of revenge against them. Instead of calling down fires of judgment upon them, he asks them to relieve in a measure his distress. This is a reminder of the spotless beauty of the Saviour’s holy life, of his willingness to encourage others to do something for him.
Was this word an encouragement to the soldiers in particular? We noticed in previous weeks how they would have been impressed by Jesus’ gentle response when they were crucifying him, of how he prayed for their forgiveness. It is the case that the drink Jesus was offered here was one common with Roman soldiers. If it was designed as an opportunity for them to do an act of kindness to one whom they had cruelly treated and even mocked earlier by offering him a drink, then Jesus was not disappointed, for one of them put a sedative to his lips. It is likely that the man did not yet realise who Jesus was. In Mark 15:36, it says that ‘one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, “Let alone; let us see whether Elias will come to take him down.” ’ It is not clear if this was a cry of mockery in response to Jesus’ cry to God in his fourth saying (the crowd interpreted his words as a cry for Elijah’s help, Matt. 28:47) or a hope that somehow Jesus would be rescued. But it was part of the process whereby these soldiers would confess that Jesus was the Son of God: ‘Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God’ (Matt. 27:54).
Jesus longs to receive acts of love. As we think of his words, surely our response should be that we should do something for the one who has suffered at the hands of God in paying the penalty for sin. There is a sense in which Jesus still says that he is thirsty, and he describes it in Matthew 25:35 where he says to those standing before him at the day of judgment: ‘I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink.’ When was he thirsty in this sense? He gives the answer in verse 40: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Weakness of Jesus as he suffered on the cross
We see in this saying evidence of the reality of the Saviour’s humanity. Paul reminded the church in Corinth that Christ was crucified in weakness; ‘For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God (2 Cor. 13:4). Thirst is a human experience. No doubt it was caused here by physical effects of crucifixion, for example, by the loss of blood. ‘The nails were fastened in the most sensitive parts of the body, and the wounds were widened as the weight of his body dragged the nails through his blessed flesh and tore his tender nerves. The extreme tension produced a burning feverishness. It was pain that dried his mouth and made it like a burning oven’ (Spurgeon). Jesus had given many evidences of his humanity throughout his life, whether it be his home life, his work, his physical and mental development, his friendliness, his acts of compassion. On the cross he revealed he was a real man by the pain he experienced.
We also see in this saying the extent of his humility. He had humbled himself to become a human, and then he humbled himself to go to the cross. How low he went, that he who had created the rivers, who sends the rain, had to ask for water. His dependence on others was clearly revealed on the cross.
A third detail that this cry reveals is the honesty of the outlook of Jesus. Some warriors on the battlefield have pretended that their weaknesses did not affect them because they imagined that their followers would have regarded an admission of weakness as a reason not to follow them. Yet what a follower needs in such a situation is a sense that his fears are understood by a sensitive leader If he knew that his leader was aware of personal weakness, his leader would receive greater affection because there would be a special bond of empathy between them. So many a sufferer for Jesus has received great encouragement from knowing that his Saviour has been in this place of thirst. The suffering may be the effects of an illness allowed in the Master’s providence or the consequences of persecution for the Master’s sake. In such situations, it helps to know that Jesus knows and cares. As Oswald Sanders observed, ‘There is nothing in the realm of pain that was not experienced to the full by the Son of Man.’
The saying also gives us insight into the horror of his suffering. Why is he there? Because he is the sinbearer. He is suffering because he has taken the place of sinners; not merely coming to the place where sinners are, living in empathy with them in their need, but experiencing the penalty that was due them for their sins. The anguish of his body points to the anguish of his soul.
First, let us note that the One who promised living water had to undergo thirst before he could become the fountain from which others would drink eternal pleasure. He had to suffer before we could be satisfied with the joys of eternal life, the springs of the water of life to which he will lead his people for ever (Rev. 7:17).
Second, let us remember that if Jesus had not gone to the place where he would experience thirst, we would have gone to the place where the rich man, in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, continually cries because of thirst: ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame’ (Luke 16:24). Jesus went to the cross so that sinners would not go to hell. But if we refuse his offers of forgiveness, we will go there.