“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Mk. 15:34
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” 1 Pet. 2:24
Along with the Resurrection, the crucifixion of Jesus will always remain at the very heart of our Christian faith. A proper and accurate explanation of the cross will always be the most important issue of Christian faith. It was the crucial need of the bewildered disciples when they first met with the risen Jesus; the crucifixion had been traumatic, bizarre, unjust, brutal, final, and so inexplicable. What was it all about? Jesus responded very quickly to their need, beginning indeed on the very day he rose from the dead. He showed his disciples, by means of the prophetic scriptures, that it was an utterly essential act of love, planned, purposed, prophesied and carried out by God himself in order to bring renewed life and eternal life for humanity. The crucifixion was supreme love in action. It is a matter for great thankfulness that this same teaching he gave to the disciples undergirds and is preserved in our New Testament.
There are many starting points for looking for an explanation of the cross (not least the Old Testament scripture!), but for this study we engage with the words of Jesus himself on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry came at the end of the three hours of darkness, at three in the afternoon, just before Jesus died. It was quickly followed by three further cries, “I thirst!”, “It is finished!” and “Father into your hands I commit my spirit”.
What is its significance? The first thing we have to be clear about is that when he spoke of being forsaken by God, he meant exactly what he said. God (his Father) had forsaken him. It is quite gratuitous to suggest that he was suffering from the trauma of crucifixion – a purely psychological/emotional response that blurred his normal thinking. He was forsaken, and he knew it and felt it. God was no longer there for him. He no longer had the fellowship and relationship with his Father that had been the hub of his previous life; he could no longer say, “I only do what I see the Father doing” or “I speak only what I hear the Father saying”. He was “forsaken”, cut off, abandoned, out of sight, out of touch. God seemed to have finished with him. It was a cry of anguish and bitter despair, a complete loss of hope. Forsakenness which has any perception that one day it will end is not forsakenness.
The question, “Why?” is very revealing. It implies that Jesus had lost the perception of any purpose in the cross. He made it quite clear during his ministry that he would “give his life a ransom for many”, be crucified and then rise from dead. This was his Father’s purpose for his life, he was fully aware of it and he tried to prepare his disciples for those events. He was still much aware of this during the first three hours on the cross, telling the dying thief that he would join Jesus in paradise. As Hebrews tells us, his usual mind-set was, “for the joy set before him he despised the cross”. In other words he could see beyond the cross. But in the final three hours this awareness had gone, replaced by a heart rending “why?”
This can be explained. Jesus was utterly dependent on the presence of the Holy Spirit to give him knowledge of the presence and love of the Father. He was dependent on the Spirit for the revelation of his destiny as a sacrifice for sin, and for the grasp of the prophetic scriptures that mapped out that destiny. But all this was now gone because God had now in fact “forsaken him”, and there was no longer any such enlightenment of the Spirit. Thus Jesus was unable to see he was paying the price for sin, nor that he was for a time the “guilt offering”. All he knew was that he had been abandoned by God, separated from Him. And it seemed final. There was for him no grasp of what was happening to him. This was “darkness” indeed. The depth of the darkness was eerily and graphically portrayed by the physical darkness that came over the land during those last three hours – the sun could no longer be seen, or its warmth and light felt.
There is only one thing, however, that causes such a forsaking and abandonment of man by God, and that is sin. And we have to very clear in our understanding that sin actually does cause abandonment and forsakenness by God, and that it plunges humanity into gross darkness. And we have to be clear also that we are all tainted with sin – it’s in our spiritual DNA. There is nothing in the cry of dereliction to suggest that Jesus felt he was suffering for any sin of his own – he just felt an abandonment that was completely (at that point) inexplicable. Had he felt any sense of personal sin, the cry would have died on his lips! But “he knew no sin”. What was actually happening, even though he simply could not appreciate it at that moment, was that he was “bearing our sins in his own body on the cross”. As Paul put it, “He who knew no sin was made sin for us”. There is no other explanation.
The cry of dereliction was, however, addressed to God; “My God ……” was how it began. Thus even in the midst of the darkness Jesus did not lose his consciousness of God. An abandoned child does not lose the knowledge of its lost parent. That parent still means life and security. Indeed the knowledge that what the child longs for is still there somewhere but can’t be found is what that causes the agony.
It is very natural that Jesus, so utterly soaked in scripture and particularly the scriptures that prophesied his death, should have found himself expressing his condition in the words of Psalm 22:1. But at the same time it is significant that this was the only occasion on which Jesus did not use the more familiar term “My Father”. That relationship was dimmed. If the Spirit had left Jesus he would be struggling for any sense of reality in the word “Father”. What a contrast this is to the words which were very shortly after to fall from his lips and herald his death, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. At that point the reality of the Father was back, the relationship with Him was restored, and he was safe once more in the Father’s keeping as he died. Just before he commended himself to his Father in this way he cried out “It is finished”. This did not mean his life was finished, or the crucifixion was finished, but that his dereliction, his abandonment, his bearing of our sins had been successfully concluded.
What Jesus suffered as he hung on the cross suffering for sin may be described in a number of ways. “He was punished for our transgressions …. It was the Lord’s will to crush him … his life was an offering for sin … he was numbered with the transgressors … he bore the sin of many” are Isaiah’s prophetic descriptions (Isaiah 53). Gethsemane shows us Jesus clearly struggling with drinking “a cup” of wrath. He was under the judgement of God. The crucifixion reveals, therefore, in the person of Jesus the appalling consequences of sin before a holy God. He became sin for us. Until this truth is fully grasped, and the scriptures are allowed to speak for themselves without any humanistic or liberal sanitising, we can never appreciate fully what Jesus has done for us. We have to face up to words like wrath, judgement, punishment as the true biblical perspective on what was happening as Jesus suffered. To see the crucifixion only in terms of an example of how to suffer in the face of injustice and persecution, or as a sort of gratuitous demonstration of how much God loves us (but with no real objective purpose) is to utterly empty it of its glory. He was a “sacrifice for sin”, a “guilt offering”, bringing “redemption” from the slavery of sin, an “atoning sacrifice” and “propitiation” against wrath. “He who knew no sin became sin for us” 2 Cor. 5:21
It is only when we have grasped this full import of what was happening to Jesus on the cross that we can go on to truly grasp the immense depth of the love of God demonstrated in the death of Jesus. John, that most perceptive and loving of the apostles’, wrote, “This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” 1 Jn. 4:9. God himself provided the sacrifice. This was no human sacrifice offered to appease a malicious angry God. This was, in a sense God himself propitiating his own anger. In the human realm for a father to give up a son to death for the sake of others is an ultimate in pain and sacrifice. We cannot penetrate or comprehend the pain of God the Father, but its reality stares us in the face. His love is marked by his pain. This is no cheap love that costs God nothing. There is no easy forgiveness because “that’s God’s trade”. Neither can we point at a Father who ordered his Son to die for others, as though the Son had no choice. John also reminds us, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” 1 Jn. 3:16. Jesus himself, alongside his Father, shows us divine love by willingly allowing himself to be a sacrifice for sin. He made this clear to his disciples; “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord“. Jn. 10:17-18. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked his disciples’ attempt to defend him by reminding them, “Do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Matt. 26:53 . His was a willing sacrifice, battled through in prayer in the garden.
The Father loved us, the Son loved us, and the Son died for us in the agony of separation between them.
What love! “How, then shall he not with Christ give us all things”
I do hope this resource maybe helpful, and please feel free to print them out for your own purposes.