My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
This is the fourth of Jesus’ sayings on the cross. As with the previous three sayings (made intercession for the transgressors, numbered with the transgressors, sword piercing the soul of Mary), it was a fulfilment of prophecy, this time of the opening verse of Psalm 22. It is likely that Jesus was thinking on this psalm when he was on the cross. Does this not show us how much Jesus loved the scriptures, that they were his focus as he suffered on the tree? The cry is also a prayer. Spurgeon remarked that both the Bible and prayer were dear to Jesus in his agony.
In the previous three sayings Jesus had been concerned about the needs of others; in the remaining four he is taken up with his own concerns. The previous sayings were a continuation of his ministry of compassion: Jesus prayed for the soldiers, promised the penitent criminal a place in heaven, and provided for his mother’s needs. But for the last three hours he has been in circumstances where compassion cannot be experienced. He, as it were, had entered the throne room of God, into the presence of the Judge of all who cannot look upon sin with pleasure even when carried by the Sinbearer. Jesus has been in the place of judgement and he discovered that it was a terrible location to be in.
What kind of cry was this that Jesus made? James Stalker wrote that it was ‘a cry out of the lowest depth of despair. Indeed, it is the most appalling sound that ever pierced the atmosphere of this earth. Familiar as it is to us, it cannot be heard by a sensitive ear even at this day without causing a cold shudder of terror.’ And he went on to say, ‘In the entire Bible there is no other sentence so difficult to explain.’ Spurgeon stated that he did ‘not think that the records of time, or even of eternity, contain a sentence more full of anguish. Here the wormwood and the gall, and all the other bitternesses, are outdone. Here you may look as into a vast abyss; and though you strain your eyes, and gaze till sight fails you, yet you perceive no bottom; it is measureless, unfathomable, inconceivable. This anguish of the Saviour on your behalf and mine is no more to be measured and weighed than the sin which needed it, or the love which endured it. We will adore where we cannot comprehend.’
Of course, we are on very holy ground here and we have to approach the scene with reverence. It is not a place for curiosity, not even for pious speculation. Instead we can only understand what occurred because divine revelation has shown us, in the Word of God, what was taking place at the Cross.
Significance of the darkness
This fourth saying followed a three-hour period of silence on the part of Jesus from the sixth to the ninth hour. During this period there was darkness over all the land. This was a miracle because the sixth hour was noon, the time of day when the sun shines brightest. It was not an eclipse, because at Passover time there is a full moon and there cannot be an eclipse with a full moon. The darkness was supernatural and perhaps we are meant to regard it as similar to the darkness that covered the land of Egypt when the first Passover lamb was slain.
There may also be an allusion to the primeval darkness that covered the world at the beginning. This was suggested by R. A. Finlayson, when he wrote: ‘Our minds travel back to the first creation when darkness covered the earth, and the Divine fiat went out, “Let there be light!” And once again a darkness covers the earth as the Son of God is laying down the foundations of a second Creation, and preparing the way for the second fiat, as the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God streams into darkened hearts from the face of a crucified Saviour.’
Probably the darkness indicated the presence of God in judgment. Again R. A. Finlayson helps us appreciate this aspect: ‘It was very significant that when the extreme sacrifice was about to be offered, God stretched out His hand, and drew a curtain over the face of the sun. It was obviously the direct intervention of God, not as an expression of sorrow, not a garment of mourning cast over the world, rather does it express the imposing of judgment upon the lonely, outcast Sufferer. That darkness was to Him the true expression of the Curse.’ The three hours of external darkness mirrored an increasing period of darkness in the Saviour’s soul.
What does the cry tell us about Jesus?
In this incident, there is a climax of Jesus being forsaken. Throughout his earthly life Jesus had experienced abandonment by his family, by the crowds, and by his disciples. Each of these caused him distress but he was able to bear them because he had one permanent resource, that of his Father’s presence. ‘Disappointed of human love he drank the more deeply of the love divine’ (Stalker). The previous evening, at the Last Supper, when predicting the flight of his disciples, he had said, ‘Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me’ (John 16:32). But now he was aware of a sense of abandonment even by his Father.
We can see also in this saying the hold that the suffering Saviour had on the promises made to him by his Father before he came. When he used the personal pronoun ‘my’ he was indicating that he was trusting in them. ‘He had nothing now to rest on save his Father’s covenant and promise, and in his cry of anguish his faith is made manifest. It was a cry of distress but not of distrust’ (Pink). In this he is an example to us when times of spiritual darkness come. The promises of God are to be the basis of our faith whether we are enjoying good days or going through difficult ones.
We noticed too, when considering the previous saying of Jesus on the cross, how he showed his obedience to his Father’s law when he honoured the fifth commandment and arranged for the care of his mother. His love for the law is also seen here as he resolved to obey it, even when in darkness most terrible. With all his heart he still loved God, even when that God could not be sensed.
We also see in this saying the extent of the love of Christ. I do not mean how many people he loved but to what extent his love made him willing to go. He was willing to go the full distance in order to deliver them from perishing.
Also in this incident, there is Jesus’ identification with the cry of his people that they have uttered when facing situations of dark confusion where one’s experience seems to be a contradiction of the promises of God. Obvious examples from the Bible are Job and some of the psalmists. Notice that Jesus did not cry against God but to God. Wayne Grudem notes the possibility that the saying can be translated as ‘Why have you left me for so long?’ He writes: ‘To face the deep and furious wrath of God even for an instant would cause the most profound fear. But Jesus’ suffering was not over in a minute – or two – or ten. When would it end? Could there be any more weight of sin? Yet more wrath of God? Hour after hour it went on – the dark weight of sin and the deep wrath of God poured over Jesus in wave after wave. Jesus at last cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why must this suffering go on so long? Oh God, my God, will you ever bring it to an end?’
The reference to the wrath of God gives us the full explanation of the Saviour’s cry. On the cross he paid the penalty for sin by enduring the wrath of God as the substitute for sinners. He offered himself willingly as the substitute and God dealt with him as if he had committed these millions of sins. Jesus bore the punishment lovingly as he tasted in his soul the presence of an angry God. In a sense it is similar to what the lost will experience in hell. ‘At that moment the finite soul of the man Christ Jesus came into awful contact with the awful justice of God’ (Spurgeon). Jesus went down to the depths so that there would be mercy for sinners. He paid the price and they can go free. So the saying was ‘a word of astonishment and agony, yet also of victory’ (Stalker).
Mystery of Christ’s person
This saying also has a sense of mystery about it, because the words indicate that Jesus was looking for relief, for an answer. One response might be, ‘I thought Jesus knew everything.’ This takes us to the heart of the problem because Jesus was both God and man. He was a divine person who assumed into personal union with himself a human nature. Since then he has had both a full divine nature and a full human nature, although they are distinct and not mixed. Although it is a difficult subject it is important for us to attempt to understand the relationship of the two natures in the person of Christ. It is true that we will have greater understanding of the relationship in heaven. I am reminded of the story of the Reformer Philip Melanchthon who was asked on his deathbed what he was anticipating about heaven and he replied that there he would understand the two natures in the person of Christ.
Simply put, Jesus related to God at two levels: one level was his eternal relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity; the other level was the communion his human nature had with the Father by the Spirit. Sometimes when Jesus spoke he referred to his divine nature; at other times to his human nature. At times, it is clear which nature he is referring to, at other times it is not, although we should always remember that it is the same Person who spoke.
R. A. Finlayson describes this mystery in a way that helped me and I quote it in case it may help others: ‘But we have in the Person, Christ, more, much more, than the mere coexistence of two natures, or an inter-penetration. We have operating within this one Person all that is distinctive of man and all that is distinctive of God. The one or the other became uppermost as the occasion demanded. While He acted often as man, He acted on occasions as only God could act. At times He approached a situation with what seemed ordinary human intelligence; at other times He penetrated into the unseen as only the Eternal Mind could do. Though on some occasions He spoke with true human consciousness, at other times He spoke with a divine consciousness, as when He declared, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Though at times He expressed what was purely a human desire or will, as when He said at Jacob’s well, “Give me to drink” (John 4:7), He followed this by expressing what was a divine will: “If thou knewest the gift of God, thou wouldest have asked of Him and He would have given thee living water.” Yet at Jacob’s well we behold, not a complicated personality, unique and apart, but what the woman recognised Him to be, a wayfaring Jew, and yet one who claims to be the possessor and communicator of eternal life.’
Nevertheless I think Spurgeon is right when he says that we must regard the forsakenness on the cross as referring to the human nature of Jesus: ‘There is such a wonderful blending of the human and the Divine in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ that, though it may not be absolutely accurate to ascribe to the Deity some things in the life of Christ, yet is he so completely God and man that, often, Scripture does speak of things that must belong to the humanity only as if they belonged to the Godhead. For instance, in his charge to the Ephesian elders, the apostle Paul said, “Feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood;” — an incorrect expression, if judged according to the rule of the logician; but accurate enough according to the Scriptural method of using words in their proper sense. Yet I do think that we must draw a distinction between the Divinity and the humanity here. As the Lord Jesus said, “My God, my God,” it was because it was his humanity that was mainly to be considered just then. And O my brethren, does it not show us what a real man, the Christ of God was, that he could be forsaken of his God?’
Can we deduce which nature he is referring to with regard to this saying?
Consider his divine nature. He exists eternally in the full fellowship and interaction of the Trinity. If this fellowship is disrupted, it means that there is a rupture in the Godhead. This cannot be. The Father loved the Son throughout each stage of Calvary and there was no estrangement as far as their involvement in the Trinity is concerned.
Consider his human nature. It was possible for it to lose awareness of the Father’s presence because it was not divine. ‘God the Father deserted his Son’s human nature, and even this in a limited, though a real and agonizing, sense’ (Hendriksen). This does not mean it was not a real forsaking. Of course it was. The forsaking was not merely subjective in the sense that Jesus only felt forsaken in a way similar to believers when they fell forsaken but in reality are not. It was also an objective forsaking in that the Father withdrew from his Son all sense of divine consolation and love, of fellowship and joy. But it was not a separation. At that same moment, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.
How did the human nature of Christ endure this divine abandonment? The answer seems to be by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prepared a body for him, enabled him to grow as a human, descended on him at his baptism to empower him for his public ministry, enabled him to perform miracles, and upheld him in his sufferings and death.
‘In His sufferings our Lord was upheld in His weakness, patience and silence under wrong by the continual ministry and grace of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who brought His human will into full and complete harmony with His will as Son of God. When the supreme and final offering was given, the Spirit was there as His unfailing attendant, sustaining our Lord’s manhood in the act of self-giving. The Spirit who had never left Him for a moment, who dwelt with Him all His earthly life, who perfected Him in His active obedience, now sustained Him in His passive obedience, even unto death. And so “through the Eternal Spirit He offered Himself without spot unto God” (Hebrews 9:14). Thus it was through the power and energy and fervour of the Spirit that the manhood, in all its perfection and submission, was laid upon the altar and offered unto God’ (Finlayson).
As we conclude, I would mention three things briefly. First, if you are Christians, remember where your sins brought the Son of God. Not just your big sins but also your secret sins, your heart sins, the careless words, the selfish attitudes and many more. Hate all your sins.
Second, if the Son of God was astonished at the experience of enduring God’s wrath, how do those of us who do not trust in Jesus hope to cope with that same wrath in an endless, lost eternity? If the agony of divine punishment caused the sinless Son of God to cry out after three hours, how do you expect to cope with it on your own in that endless, lost eternity?
Third, remember that the penalty for sin has been paid. If you want to receive benefit from the payment, you will need to trust in Jesus. Why will you not do so, even at this moment.