Mark 15:34-36 “ And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama 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.’ One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,’ he said.”
These familiar words are yet amongst the most astonishing words ever spoken by a man. For the three hours of darkness the Lord Jesus did not say a word, and then utterly unannounced and unexpectedly his dreadful silence was broken by the sound of his loud voice crying out a verse from the Bible, the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The disciples had been with Christ not for three hours but for three years. They had heard him pray on many occasions, but they’d never heard him address the Almighty by the title ‘God.’ He’d always called him ‘Father.’ They had marveled at his closeness to Jehovah; Jesus knew God intimately and lovingly. He was the man most full of God they’d ever met. He walked with God. They’d actually heard the voice of God speaking and saying to Jesus on more than one occasion, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Can you imagine their shock as they heard him shouting these words aloud in the darkness? They were so open to misinterpretation, to the utter despair of his disciples and yet he said them very clearly. Jesus spoke seven phrases from the cross, and yet these are the only words that both Matthew and Mark record, as words of supreme importance. What was Jesus saying? What did he mean?
1. WHAT THESE WORDS CANNOT POSSIBLY MEAN.
Let’s clear away some of the debris that surrounds these words. They cannot mean,
i] “I am crying for help from Elijah.” The mob heard him cry ‘Eli.’ They all knew what that word meant, as much as we know what someone is saying who shouts out, ‘O my God!’ A wag in the crowd on Golgotha makes an insipid pun changing the word to ‘Elijah.’ It was not a Roman soldier who was responsible for that; it came from the chief priests. They knew Hebrew, and they knew Aramaic. They knew Psalm 22 and they knew that the Hebrew word for Elijah does not sound like ‘Eli’. Its sound is very different. They were mocking Christ. It was cruel bluster, to show that this thick darkness was not getting under their skins and chilling their hearts, as it certainly was. “What is the Nazarene babbling on about now?” They knew! Christ had deliberately and loudly quoted the opening words of Psalm 22, one of the great Messianic psalms, which they knew, and they were pretending that the people couldn’t understand what he was saying, that the brain of Jesus of Nazareth was getting confused, that he was faltering before his work was done. “Give him a drink, and then we can understand him better,” someone said, and it’s done. A sponge of rough wine is offered to our Lord on a stick. It was all part of their mockery. “Leave him alone,” they say, like millions say about Christ today. It was not a call for Elijah, neither was Jesus saying something else;
ii] “I feel you’ve deserted me.” Some Christians at times of illness lose the comforts of spiritual certainties. They lie in hospital and feel that God has forsaken them. So it is sometimes suggested that these words simply express what Christ was imagining, as he hung on the cross during those six hours in his excruciating pain, thinking that God had left him. In reality, they say, God was with him all the time. It is suggested that Christ was then like John the Baptist in prison, at a period of doubt, wondering whether Jesus was the promised Messiah or not. So the man Jesus of Nazareth temporarily lost his confidence in the presence and love of God. “I’ve been abandoned by my Father,” he felt.
This cannot be the meaning of these words. Both Father and Son knew from all eternity that he was to become the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world; “Known unto God are all his ways from the beginning,” (Acts. 15:18). Jesus had been walking with destiny up until this very moment, and the hour of laying down his life had finally come. There he would, by himself, accomplish the redemption of sinners by being made a sacrifice for their sin. It would be unthinkable to imagine that the Son of God could be mistaken about what was happening on the cross or perplexed as to the reason for the absence of his Father’s loving presence. Jesus had refused the wine mixed with myrrh at the very beginning of crucifixion so that his senses would be as alert as possible to the end. All his feelings were serving this one redemptive end. Then there is another suggestion that has been made for his question, that this is what he is saying;
iii] “I am angry with you because you have not sent angels to rescue me.” In this interpretation Jesus is judged to be despairing because after a lifetime of obeying God he ends up dying on a cross. “Why?” he shouts; “why have you forsaken me? What have I done to be treated in this way?” In other words, Jesus’ faith failed him, but, men want to add that of course Christ was mistaken.
Again, this cannot be the meaning of these words because they make the Son of God to be disbelieving. They are suggesting that here we meet a sinfully plaintive, petulant and despairing Jesus, a failure at the greatest moment in his life. No, that is quite ridiculous and contrary to the facts for in fact we hear him in a few minutes saying to God, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” He will trust God then, and here in the darkness he is trusting him in the darkness. The question does not come out of angry unbelief. There is even a third wrong interpretation of these words;
iv] “My God is actually with me,” is what Jesus is saying, in other words, the words actually mean the very opposite of what they seem. How is that possible? How can this question of Jesus be not a cry of abandonment at all, but of victory? Men’s explanation is this, that what Jesus was about to do was to quote the entire 22nd psalm which starts with this question, but which ends on a note of triumph. “I will declare your name to my brothers . . . you who fear the Lord, praise him.” Jesus, they say, began to quote it, but then he became delirious and faint and stopped hardly any way into quoting the psalm. However, they claim, all the psalm was in his heart and mind, and he would have quoted it all if he had been able.
That does seem so fanciful. We’re not told in any of the gospels that Jesus became delirious or faint on Golgotha , and in our text Mark tell us he shouted out these words with a loud voice. Why in the world should the first verse of the psalm be quoted aloud when it was the last verses – with their theme of joy and assurance – which are alleged to have been on Jesus’ heart then? Why didn’t he quote those specific words? He’ll defeat the devil in the wilderness by quoting certain verses from Deuteronomy, wont he? Aren’t they verses that are found in the very middle of certain chapters? Jesus didn’t back off to verse one in those chapters and go on and on until he got to his particular verse. He never did that anywhere. He employs the truth that is appropriate. So too on the cross, Jesus quotes the verse in the psalms that was effectual for his condition.
So those four are the most common wrong interpretations of why the Son of God cried these words on the cross.
2. THESE WORDS MUST MEAN CHRIST WAS FORSAKEN.
They mean what they say. The Lord Jesus Christ was actually forsaken by his Father at this moment. He had always been with his Father. In the beginning the Word was with God. All through his earthly life God had been there for Jesus to appropriate; he and his Father fellowshipped together. God was always there to communicate with and rejoice in hour by hour, a God to be thanked at the end of each day for the divine mercies that had been new that morning, and sustained through each day. He felt loved by God, and loved his Father in return. “I am not alone,” he once said, “for my Father is with me” (Jn.16:32). There never was a sweeter Father, and there never was a more loving Son. Yet there came this strange time when God was no longer there. This was uncharted territory for him. Jesus had no rod and no staff to comfort him as he walked through the valley of death. He was abandoned by God; God forsaken by God. No explanation of the cry of dereliction is worthy of acceptance which does not accept that reality.
If Jesus had died exclusively physically he would have been the Redeemer exclusively of our bodies, but it was the complete Jesus of body and soul who was made an offering for our sins. Our affections and spirits and hearts and souls have all alike become polluted. We are totally depraved, and so Christ’s affections and spirit and heart all joined together in his great work of our redemption. The whole God-man bore our condemnation in order to redeem us totally, body and soul for time and eternity in life and death. So Christ was not being troubled by a feeling of abandonment; this was the real thing, divine forsaking. Please understand that it was not that a crack that had developed in the Trinity so that Father and Son fell apart. That is utterly impossible. Father and Son were still one in their being, and one in their wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. The unity of being of Father and Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity was not affected at all, but the awesome fellowship of delight was temporarily severed between these two persons, the God-man and the Father. While he hung on the cross in the darkness accomplishing our redemption God forsook God. God the Son was forsaken by God the Father. Jesus’ cry was in the form of a question not that he was asking heaven for an answer. He knew the answer. It was in the form of a question because the Scripture which most perfectly describes the dereliction of the sin-bearer is found in the book of Psalms, and it is set out in a question.
Being abandoned is a fearful state. There will be people in the month of January who will take a puppy, a Christmas present whom they discover is a lot of trouble, and they will drive out into the country, and abandon the little dog, leaving it to scavenge and die. You hear of a senile parent with a label attached to his or her collar abandoned at the casualty department of a hospital. Wives are abandoned by their husbands and husbands by their wives. I once heard a radio programme from a Russian orphanage. There was a small boy who had just been dumped at its door and a car sped off. The wee fellow’s mother had a new boyfriend and he’d found her son to be a drag. “You’ve got to choose between us,” he’d told her, and so the mother had left her son at the orphanage gate and gone off with her dude. The sound recordist taped the sobbing of the child in an empty room as he faced a future alone in a Russian orphanage. He had been abandoned by his mother. Can a woman’s tender care cease toward the child she bear? Oh yes. His weeping was deeply disturbing.
I am told that children in vast cities all over the world are abandoned every day in their hundreds, left to live by their wits, scavenging from dustbins and hanging around at the backs of supermarkets and fat food shops, sleeping in the sewers where there is some warmth. Finally they drift into child prostitution – the poor abandoned street children. At our Lord’s time unwanted babies would be exposed, abandoned to the elements and the dogs, but do you see the wonder of this, that here is the only begotten Son of God, and he has been forsaken by his own loving Father? What an enormous moral and theological problem! Here is Christ in pain, and it is not merely the pain of the nails, but the enormous grief of the loss of his Father. He had never known what it was to live without his Father’s love, but now on the cross he has been forsaken by the one who loves him the most. God forsook his Son at his greatest hour of need so that Jesus was utterly alone. We can understand Jesus’ disciples forsaking him and fleeing, but how could God desert his Son? What can deliver the Father from the accusation of cosmic child abuse?
3. DOES GOD FORSAKE SINNERS?
Now there would be those who say that God never forsakes sinners. So let me ask the question in this way, whether the God of the Bible forsakes sinners? What do we find in the Garden of Eden after the fall of man? We find that God forsakes the company of Adam and Eve. He drives them out from the Garden and he makes it impossible for them to return there. They are forced to abandon his presence around the tree of life. Or think of the world at the time of Noah; does God forsake that world? Does he condemn it for its sin and destroy it? Yes he does. Isn’t God an abandoning God? Or think of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and doesn’t God abandon them? If there had been ten righteous men in that city he wouldn’t have abandoned them, but there weren’t ten such godly men and they became God-forsaken places. Or what of the children of Israel whom God brought out of Egypt ? They worshipped golden calves, and whinged at God for forty years and finally God abandoned them in the desert where their dust remains until today. None of them entered the promised land. Isn’t he an abandoning God? And what happened to the ten tribes of Israel ? Didn’t God abandon those idol-worshippers so that they were taken into captivity and soon disappeared from the earth? He was no longer their Sovereign Protector.
You may protest that when God abandoned those people it was during the Old Testament. True, but Jesus did say that the Old Testament Scriptures cannot be broken, and that not a jot or tittle of them will fail. Didn’t he refer to our first parents, and to the flood, and to Sodom , and the judgments of God that came upon them? Did he not charge his disciples to remember them? Did he not warn us by these examples? But if you are unimpressed by that, don’t we find in the New Testament a God who abandons sinners? Was Jesus a friend of the Pharisees? Didn’t he abandon and denounce them in the most fearful of language? When Paul describes the immoral and unrighteous climate of the Roman Empire of his day doesn’t Paul say, “Therefore God gave them over”? He abandoned them to their sin. Doesn’t Paul say those words three times in Romans chapter one? The apostle was very conscious of the possibility of God forsaking a community. “That is Paul,” you say to dismiss Christ’s apostle. Well, when Jesus himself addressed the lukewarm church of Laodicea didn’t he say that he would spew that congregation out of his mouth? What an abandonment! Didn’t the Lord Christ speak of the tremendous day that lies before us all when he said that he himself would abandon many, saying to them, “Depart from me. I never knew you”? Is he not a God who separates himself from sinners? Isn’t that the God we meet in the first and last chapters of the entire Bible and every chapter in between?
You say, “But I think of God like this . . .” and you tell me of your god. And everyone in hell today also had their own god, and generally their god was a projection of themselves, because in the end they were worshipping themselves. Let me ask you if you’ve faced up to this possibility that all your life until now you’ve been worshipping yourself? If you would know and worship the one true and living God then he has revealed himself as a God who abandons the unrepentant, and the unbeliever, and the unrighteous man. Think of it, that you went to church one Sunday and discovered for the first time the true nature of God. Until this time you had been vague and muddled about a subject as crucial as this, “Who is the living God? What kind of God is he?” and then and there you heard from the Bible again and again that our God is light. He is a consuming fire. He is angry with the wicked every day. His wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of man.
In God there is no darkness at all, and aren’t we glad of that? We’ve all seen the photographs of a sweet Christian, an 18 year old black boy from Liverpool, who a few months ago was killed with an ax in a park on a Sunday because of the colour of his skin. This week the long and just sentences on the two men who killed him were passed. Those two cruel murderers will be abandoned by all who live in our free society for many, many years because of what they have done, and we are thankful that we live in a land of justice. Murderers cannot act like that and then for the rest of their lives carry on as if nothing really matters, going shopping in Sainsbury’s, or popping down the pub for a drink, watching Coronation Street, or shouting their support for Everton football team, and flaunt their evil actions before the eyes of that boy’s grieving mother and father and sisters with noone doing a thing to express our revulsion at that act. Not at all! The murderers were arrested, given a fair trial and abandoned in prison for killing by an ax a schoolboy who was doing A levels – a lad whom they didn’t know. We were also moved to hear the murdered boy’s mother who serves the Lord Jesus when she, with matchless dignity, offered her son’s murderers her forgiveness.
Hear me! God has put in our hearts as men and women who are made in his image, a conscience, a sense of justice. From the time we were small children we had an idea of what was right and fair, and kids especially will speak up for that – certainly when it is to their advantage. We all know that punishment ought to be deserved, and it ought to be measured out appropriately to fit the crime. It is an eye for an eye – no more – not a life for an eye. That is not primitive blood lust. That is justice. That is how God has made us all. That is how society in a groaning fallen world copes.
We receive many of our ideas about justice from Scripture. God is supremely just. He hates to see the abuse of the widow and the child and the slave. He hates every form of sin. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. When Cain murdered his own brother, God didn’t shrug his shoulders and make no judgment – “So what? Some people are killed and some people are killers.” Would we respect such a monster in heaven? Would we have cosmic malice to reign? No, the Lord is a righteous God who loves righteousness. Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to be avenged. It cried out for satisfaction, and so God abandoned Cain for killing his younger brother. “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 3:12). Cain cried, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Cain was forsaken by God.
Today the idea obtaining in many people in our town is that if there is a God at all then he is not a God of justice. He is a wimp, and so they cannot understand Jesus’ cry of dereliction. Any suspicion of Jehovah being anything other than pitiful, compassionate, merciful, long-suffering, is altogether denied a place in men’s minds, and so there is no understanding of the cross of Christ. You believe that when you look in the face of Jesus Christ you look into the face of God. So far, so good. You say that when you see Jesus Christ pitying the fallen, raising the fallen, performing his varied deeds of love and mercy, there you see what God is like – all of which is true – but there is more to the Lord than that! Did he not call the Pharisees whitewashed sepulchres – the same Jesus? Did he not curse a fig tree? Did he not make a whip and drive the money-changers out of the temple? Did he not say that it were better for Judas never to have been born? He was no milksop nerd. You are disdaining his glorious divine righteousness; God is a God who forsakes sinners. Don’t the seraphim cover their eyes in his presence and cry to one another as they look at him, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”?
How glad we are he is. The Father of lights! No variableness in him at all. Consistently just, good and glorious. No area of weakness under pressure. No speck of defilement. A God who hates sin. That is the God who fills the heavens. He is a God who abandons the defiant and the unrepentant sinner. Now let me ask the next question;
4. DOES GOD FORSAKE THE RIGHTEOUS?
The united answer in the Bible to this is that his love means he will never forsake his own people. We often sing these words,
“That soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose
He will not, he cannot, desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake
He’s never, no never, no never forsake.”
The Bible is full of this assurance, “I will never leave you nor forsake you . . .Though my father and my mother forsake me the Lord will never forsake me . . . I have never seen the righteous forsaken”. There are also the words of the Great Commission when Jesus says, “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Paul tells the Christian that nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. The writer to the Hebrews reminds them, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’” (Hebs. 13:5). Even when Peter denied his Lord with oaths Jesus did not forsake him. He came to him and asked him three times if he loved him and then he told him to feed his sheep.
So here is one theme in the Bible that God will abandon the unrighteous and he has done so again and again, and here is also another theme throughout the Scriptures that God will never abandon his children and not one has been forsaken. There was once a sheep that was lost, away on the mountain wild and bare, but it was only a single sheep. There were 99 others all safe in the pen. The night was cold and wet; the shepherds’ bed was warm and he was weary. “Abandon the sheep,” said a voice. “Leave it alone and it will come home bringing its tail behind it. Let’s go to bed,” The voice was insistent. But a louder voice said, “You are its only protector and only friend. Go and find it; bring it home.” So the shepherd went out into the darkness and searched the mountains and the valleys shouting and listening until finally he had found his sheep and brought it home. The good shepherd does not abandon his sheep. That good shepherd is God, the only God there is, a wonderfully kind and saving God.
So the Word of God tells us that whereas God forsakes defiant sinners, he will never forsake his people.
5. WHY DID GOD FORSAKE CHRIST?
There is something remarkable in the Bible which makes Christianity unique among all the religions of the world. God is just in condemning sin, but God is also loving in never abandoning his people. Yet his people were once all unrighteous sinners. How can God change in his attitude to them from condemnation to the deepest love? The Bible tells us that God himself in his grace introduces the means of satisfying his own justice towards sin. What he does is this, he devises a very elaborate sacrificial system which provides atonement for every kind of eventuality, every form of deviant and aberrant behaviour. By sacrificing something as slight as a pigeon or as enormous as a great ox sinners may receive pardon for their sins, small or vast because this blood has been shed in their place when their sacrifice has been laid on the altar. God is satisfied with the aroma that curls up to heaven from the altar. God’s justice requires condemnation, but through sacrifice and offering there may be pardon.
That, however, is not what makes Christianity unique. Many religions demand sacrifices. What is unique about Christianity is this, that God’s mercy finally provided a divine sacrifice of infinite and eternal merit, a surety who is measureless in its efficacy to cleanse. The millions of slaughtered animals were mere pictures of this one glorious infinite atonement which one day would be accomplished.
God provided a special Lamb; he was not an animal, but one that came from his own bosom, and God so loved the world that he gave him to be our Surety. That Lamb was his only begotten Son. Can you now begin to see how God can remain a just, sin-hating God and yet forgive people like ourselves? His Son made atonement for our sins. That is just what has happened. God remains just, “Angels and seraphim – see my justice. See my judgments on sin!” he cries. He will never be anything less than just when confronted by sin, even when Christ takes full responsibility for them and stands in all their liability before God. It is God’s own Lamb who will be sacrificed; God’s dear Son has come to this world in the likeness of sinful flesh finally to stand in our judgment, to be absolutely and positively our Substitute and the Surety there, on the cross of Golgotha . So in Christ and upon him the divine justice against our sin was fully and honourably satisfied – even in the flesh and blood of Christ. As he hung in that thick darkness God’s justice exhausted its condemnation of our sin in Christ, until finally God said, “My righteousness is satisfied” and Christ said, “It is finished.”
Justice is giving to everyone his due, no more, and no less, doing that which is right to everyone, and God did that which was right respecting every one of his children in the death of his dear Son. He died that we all might live. “By His stripes we are healed,” “the chastisement of our peace was upon Him,” The Lord Christ did all that was necessary to be done that favoured sinners might have peace with God. “It pleased the Father to bruise him.” Golgotha ’s foundation was an act of justice; its spirit was unimaginable love. God the Father condemned sin in the God-man since Jesus lovingly covenanted to stand in our place and remain there in the naked flame of God’s justice until all was done and he had perfected all that the Father had given to him. Here, then, is justice to perfection in the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
This cannot be made too simple, so far as the declaration of it is concerned. It means this, that it is I myself who am the sinner, who deserve to be forsaken by God. God the Son himself chooses lovingly and absolutely freely to take my place, with no “as ifs”, or “likes”, or similitudes about it. The sinless one literally replaces the sinner, himself coming under the just judgment of God. Jesus was abandoned that I might be welcomed. Exactly what would have been my due for my sins came instead upon Jesus on Golgotha , and he entered that abandonment . . . lovingly! He stayed there under the lash, under the nails, in the light, in the darkness and in the tomb. He was indeed the just one, but he didn’t suffer for just people – that wouldn’t have been needed – but for the unjust, which means unrighteous men and women like all of us, people who have never rendered to God his due, who have never acted honourably towards God.
It means wicked, ungodly, unbelieving men and women, and such we all are by nature, yet for us Christ was abandoned on the cross. Jesus became the literal Substitute, so that when he hung in the darkness on Calvary our sins and inquiries were really and actually dealt with by God the Judge in the person of his own dear Son. That is why God forsook him as though he were Cain and not Christ. When he was made sin God didn’t cradle him in his arms clinging tightly to him, giving him his goodnight hug – as if the vast foulness of cosmic guilt mattered nothing to God. He’d made Christ the sin-bearer and then he condemned sin in him. Christ became the scapegoat sent out in the wilderness of God’s condemnation until full atonement had been completed. And the result is that we will never be forsaken.
It means this, that when Christ’s sufferings were over (as they were when he died upon the tree) then there cannot be the slightest place for one grain of penal suffering to be visited upon any member of his people. There is no toehold for it. The Saviour was once abandoned for me, and so I shall never be abandoned. “Christ suffered the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God.” In other words Golgotha will achieve all that God intended it to accomplish. It surely will! Yes it will. I have no doubt upon that point at all. The Son of God came with the set purpose of dying that abandoned death in that dereliction. “I came not to be served but to serve and to give my life a ransom for many.” The greater divine intention was that his people would never be abandoned in their sin again. Every lost sheep would be brought home to God. The good Shepherd will bring them to God in glory. That is what blood theology declares. What a suggestive phrase that is – a blood theology! “Blood Theology!” There is no real saving theology without it. It is all works religion without Christ dying in our place. I tell you what it is, a god without justice, bringing men without sin into a kingdom without redemption, through the work of Christ without a cross. But this theology of the death of Christ making atonement and reconciling us to God honours the Father and also the Son; it glorifies God. As the old hymn claims so simply,
“What if we trace the globe around
From Britain to Japan ,
There shall be no religion found
So just to God, so safe to man.”
When you feel the worry and the blame and shame of having done so many things wrong, and you sigh, “If only I could put the clock back and not have done it. If only I could erase it from the record and the memory.” Christ on Calvary has erased the record. It has been wiped clean. All the guilt has gone, every spot, every wrinkle, every such thing. It has all vanished away for ever and ever. Even the very memory of it has been removed from God himself. Jesus Christ the Son of God did a decent and a proper job of the work his Father gave him to do. On the cross he purged all our sins so that every one has been erased. God himself has dispatched them for ever from his memory. There is now no condemnation for any of his people, not for the chief of sinners whose faith has been lodged in Christ. For God it is as though your vile actions were never done. God will never recall them to our minds again. He will love us henceforth as he loves his own Son. There is for us no abandonment because Christ has ended our estrangement. There is perfect reconciliation. I can today look in the great happy face of Jehovah in heaven and can say to him, “My Father!” and he will say to me, “My own dear son! I will never leave you nor forsake you. You are too precious to me because the Lamb of God has made you my own for ever.”
This is the gospel; Jesus forsaken under the judgment of my sins, while I am never forsaken, held daily in the everlasting arms of the warm love of God. Henceforth, I live for him, yet not I, Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live is by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
4 December 2005 GEOFF THOMAS