The Cry at the Crucifixion
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
These words found in Matthew 15:33-34, record an incredibly powerful moment in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospel writers Matthew and Mark record the words, “Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani?” as one of the final words of Jesus before breathing his last. They are words that, as the story shows, can be misunderstood, as some standing nearby mishear the word “Eloi” and make the assumption that Jesus is crying out to the Old Testament prophet Elijah to save him from the cross. Fortunately, the gospel writer gives us the correct translation of the Aramaic words and so points us to what was going through Jesus’ mind as he approached death.
The words, we are told, are translated into “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As with those standing nearby, a superficial reading of these words could easily lead us to a wrong understanding. We could think Jesus was wondering why God had not saved him. It could seem that Jesus was confused after all the good stuff he had done as to why God seemed to had forsaken him and left him to die. Wasn’t he the Messiah? Shouldn’t he be rescued by an army of angels, proving that he was who he had claimed to be? Only now, as he struggled to breath, knowing death was near, it dawned on him that rescue wasn’t coming and all he could ask God was “why”.
Well, if you read these words in complete isolation to the rest of the Bible, you could be forgiven for concluding that’s what was happening. But as with most confusing verses in Scripture, having a wider knowledge of the Bible is often very helpful. The fact is, these words of Jesus don’t just come out of nowhere. They are actually a direct quote from the opening line of a very relevant ancient poem… Psalm 22.
The 22nd Psalm is an emotional poem written by King David during a time where he faced intense persecution and danger. The suffering that Jesus was experiencing during his execution, powerfully echo the events described in Psalm 22. I recommend reading the whole of Psalm 22 to get all the context, but here are a few highlights, along with the parallel texts from the crucifixion story:
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.'”
“In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel!
Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.
He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’'”
“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
“When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.”
It is amazing that the events described in Psalm 22 were written over 1,000 years before the events described in Matthew 27. Maybe their parallel is not just a coincidence. Maybe Jesus saw all these things taking place before him and quoted the first line of Psalm 22 as a way of expressing this connection. Jesus often described events in his life as “fulfilling” events described in the Psalms an other places in the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus said that much of the Old Testament is really all about him (Luke 24:25-27). Maybe Jesus knew that Psalm 22 was not simply a record of events similar to his own circumstance, but a type of prophecy that pointed to this moment in history? David’s kingship pointed to its fulfilment in the “Son of David” – the Messiah. Maybe David’s sufferings pointed to Jesus’ as well.
Now, although Jesus may be expressing some theological point in quoting Psalm 22, we should not forget that Jesus was also in incredible anguish. The words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” shouldn’t be read as simply an interesting Bible cross-reference. They also speak of the suffering Jesus was going through. I mean, if Jesus just wanted to point us to Psalm 22, he could have chosen a much more uplifting quote like verse 24: “[The Lord] has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” or verse 26: “The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him – may your hearts live forever!”
Now, when reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus, our first instinct is to think that Jesus’ suffering is primarily physical. Watch a movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and you’ll get a graphic picture of Jesus’ physical suffering. But interestingly, the gospel writers don’t actually focus on this at all. The crucifixion, which was a long, brutal and bloody form of torture and execution, is never described in any detail. In all the gospels it is simply mentioned in a rather matter-of-fact sort of way: ie. “When they had crucified him…” (Matthew 27:35) We are not given a blow by blow account of what is happening to Jesus’ body, but rather, the focus is put on everything that is happening around Jesus. Why? Because the real suffering that Jesus was enduring was not physical, it was metaphysical – it was between him and God the Father. This suffering was unseen and so the gospel writers tell us about everything around the cross, that points to this reality.
The crowd’s mock. Jesus is rejected as the Messiah. Yet ironically, the sign above the cross declares that “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Darkness covers the land for three hours in the middle of the day. And at the end of this, after Jesus cries out the words from Psalm 22, he finally breaths his last – which brings a whole new series of events. The thick curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Most Holy Place was torn from top to bottom. There was an earthquake that split rocks. Even some dead people were raised to life and entered Jerusalem!
Now, there’s lots of ideas about what each of these events mean and I’m especially moved by the powerful symbolism of the temple curtain being torn in two, but at the very least it highlights that Jesus’ suffering and death wasn’t anything ordinary. Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t simply an unfortunate act of injustice. It wasn’t an object lesson by Jesus as he taught us to “die for what we believe in”. Something majorly supernatural was taking place. The testimony of Jesus’ words, the gospel writers, the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament Church all points to one simple and powerful word – substitution.
When Jesus suffered, he was suffering on behalf of sinners like you and me. Jesus suffered and died in our place. He is our substitute.
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus explained this during the Last Supper (I explain this in more detail here) and during his prayerful agony in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is grappling with the reality that he is about to drink the cup of the wrath of God spoken about in Isaiah 51:17-23. It’s not physical pain that he fears. It’s the wrath of God. That is the “cup” that Jesus wants the Father to take away from him.
During the crucifixion, Jesus bears the wrath of God that we deserve. As Jesus’ closest friend, the apostle Peter writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) The idea that Jesus is our substitute is the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the reason why Good Friday is called “good”.
Surely, in Jesus’ cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” we should not only hear the echo of Psalm 22. We should also hear the cry of someone experiencing the wrath of God. It’s unclear exactly how Jesus (the incarnate Son of God) could be “forsaken” by God the Father, but his words are a little window into the supernatural suffering he was facing on our behalf.
As Good Friday approaches, and we reflect on the events and words that took place in the last moments of Jesus’ life, may we be filled with awe, with grief and with humble wonder. But most of all, I pray we may be filled most of all with gratitude. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be free of fear and guilt and condemnation. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be reconciled with your Creator both now and forever.
Jesus was forsaken so that we all could be forgiven, and it is because of Jesus’ death, I will never have to cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Those words will never be mine. Jesus said them for me.