A Word of Anguish (Matthew 27:46)
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?” Mark 15:34 (NIV)
Of the seven phrases (or “words” as some refer to them) that Jesus spoke from his cross, the fourth is the only one recorded twice, first by Matthew and then by Mark. Why this divine repetition? Is it because the words seem so unbelievable? The Bible could record those words a hundred times—a thousand times—and I still wouldn’t be able to fathom them. Martin Luther once said, “God forsaken of God, who can understand it?” When Jesus spoke this word, he spoke:
- He spoke it because of me
- He spoke it instead of me
“At the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Did you know that Jesus was quoting Scripture? Earlier in the service you sang portions of Psalm 22 in which the Savior’s cry appeared. Take a moment after this service and read the entire psalm in your Bible. Though King David had penned the words a thousand years earlier, it’s as if he had been an eyewitness of Good Friday’s horrors.
This is how two New Testament gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, recorded it. “At the ninth hour Jesus cried out . . .” “The ninth hour,” – the Jews began counting the hours of the day at sunup, about 6:00 A.M. According to Roman time, which is the way we tell time, it was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Jesus already had hung on his cross for six hours.
What was he feeling and physically enduring during those hours? Anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” has witnessed a brutal, gory depiction of the horrors of crucifixion, a sight they won’t soon forget. But any study of Christ’s crucifixion, visual or not, gets pretty intense.
Years ago, a medical doctor prepared a series of bulletin inserts for Lent. In each insert, he described the physical agony that Jesus must have endured. There were no illustrations, only a clinical, matter-of-fact, description of the physical trauma crucifixion caused. One pastor reported that he had to stop using the inserts because worshipers couldn’t handle the graphic descriptions.
What did Jesus endure physically in those six hours? We can’t even begin to imagine. But remember, even before he was hoisted onto his cross, the Romans had brutalized him. With practiced precision, a Roman soldier had used a short, heavy leather whip that most likely had pieces of lead on the ends of the strands to beat Jesus across his shoulders, back, and legs. Each blow bruised his muscles and cut deeper and deeper into his flesh. Only when the Roman centurion was satisfied that Jesus was near death—only then did he stop the beating.
Then came a crown of thorns. First pressed but later pounded into the Savior’s scalp, rivers of blood streamed down his face.
As if this were not enough, those around him began beating him on his head with a staff—again and again and again. They spit on him and finally removed his robe. Since his body was already bruised and bleeding, tearing off that robe must have felt like ripping a surgical bandage off an open wound.
All this took place before the Romans hoisted him up on the cross. Many a prisoner had died from such torture alone, but Jesus would survive – only to continue to suffer. Next came the horrors of crucifixion.
What was it like? In David’s prophetic vision recorded in Psalm 22, the pre-incarnate Savior tells us himself. Listen:
- “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (Ps 22:14-18).
The physical torture Jesus endured would make any of us cry out, but his agony went much deeper than that! Jesus didn’t say, “Father in heaven, why are you letting them torture me like this?” He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did you note that Jesus didn’t address his Lord as “Father?” Have you ever wondered why? God had been forsaken by God. The Father had abandoned his Son. There is distance in his cry – and loneliness. His Father refused to listen. He refused to help! Jesus was suffering the torment of hell! Oh yes, his cry was one of absolute anguish.
“Why?” we ask. That’s not so hard for us to answer, is it? We know exactly why God the Father abandoned his Son, don’t we? He did because “there is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecc. 7:20). The Father abandoned his Son because of us! By sinning, you and I and the entire human race turn our backs on God!
Why did Jesus forfeit his Father’s love? It was because you and I had forsaken our first love. It was because of those days when we aren’t even lukewarm toward the Lord but downright cold. God should have spit us out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16)! But no, in love and mercy that goes beyond our comprehension, he spit out his own Son instead! What does the Bible say? “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). Jesus endured the full brunt of God’s punishment – for you and for me, for our neighbors, our friends, our classmates, our coworkers, yes, for all people of all time!
“From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land” (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33). This is the only detail the Bible provides for that three-hour period of time. That’s because that darkness was no mere coincidence, no mere solar eclipse. Ancient records from Rome, Greece, Egypt, and as far away as China make mention of it. Our Lord also wants us to know about it because this was the darkness of his judgment. His Father was looking away. Jesus was abandoned because the Lord had “laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6).
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Oh, there’s no escaping the horrible truth! Jesus spoke this word of absolute anguish because of me!
And, praise God, Jesus spoke this word of absolute anguish instead of me. God had warned what would happen to those who betray him by sinning. Through his prophet Ezekiel, the Lord declared, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. . . . The wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him” (Ez. 18:20).
The charge for our sin is ever so high—eternal death in hell! But Jesus endured hell in our place right there on the cross. Again we ask why? Because he didn’t want us to find out what it would feel like to say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus didn’t want us to gnash our teeth through an eternity in hell, knowing that it was our own rebellion, our own stubbornness, our own stupidity, and our own spiritual apathy that had landed us there!
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As our perfect substitute, Jesus spoke those words so that we would never have to. He endured God’s wrath so that we would never have to. He paid for our sins in full because he knew we never could.
The result? The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind. “‘For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the LORD your Redeemer. ‘To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you” (Is. 54:7-10).
Moments after Jesus had cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he announced: “It is finished.” Though he spent but a few hours on that cross, it must have felt like an eternity. Then – thank God – it was over. The storm surge of his Father’s anger over sin was washed away by the greater flood of his Son’s holy blood shed on the cross. The Lord’s “covenant of peace” was forever cemented into place by the holy sacrifice of his Son. The Messiah’s anguish as sin-bearer for the entire world was over. Thank God. Thank God!
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I suppose that you and I could read those words a million times and never fully understand. Yet, because of what Jesus endured for us on the cross, we’ll never have to! Thank God! Amen.