This post was first published in March, 2015. —ed.
Famous last words can be tragic or inspiring. Not everyone has the opportunity to choose their last words carefully, but for those who see death coming, what message of wisdom, love, confession, or summation do they deliver with their final breaths?
In preparation for the celebrations of Christ death and resurrection later this week, we’ve been considering Christ’s last words from the cross. What did the Lord have to say to those gathered as He suffered the punishment of countless sins He hadn’t committed? As we’ve seen already, His words pointed forward to God’s redemptive purpose in His suffering, and illustrated His love and compassion.
Christ’s fourth saying from the cross is by far the richest with mystery and meaning. Matthew writes,
Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:45–46)
It might seem at first glance that Christ was merely reciting the words of Psalm 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning?”). But given the fact that all of Psalm 22 is an extended prophecy about the crucifixion, it might be better to see the psalm as a prophetic anticipation of the cry of Jesus’ heart as He bore the sins of the world on the cross. It was no mere recitation.
Corrupting the Cross
Some commentators have gone to great lengths to explain why Jesus would utter such words. To them, it seems unthinkable that Jesus would actually feel abandoned on the cross—and even more unthinkable to surmise that God in any sense abandoned His beloved Son. And so they insist that Jesus was merely reciting Scripture, not expressing what He truly felt in His heart.
But that betrays a serious misunderstanding of what was taking place on the cross. As Christ hung there, He was bearing the sins of the world. He was dying as a substitute for others. To Him was imputed the guilt of their sins, and He was suffering the punishment for those sins on their behalf. And the very essence of that punishment was the outpouring of God’s wrath against sinners. In some mysterious way during those awful hours on the cross, the Father poured out the full measure of His wrath against sin, and the recipient of that wrath was God’s own beloved Son!
In this lies the true meaning of the cross. Those who try to explain the atoning work of Christ in any other terms inevitably end up nullifying the truth of Christ’s atonement altogether. Christ was not merely providing an example for us to follow. He was no mere martyr—a victim of the wickedness of the men who crucified Him. He wasn’t merely making a public display so that people would see the awfulness of sin. He wasn’t offering a ransom price to Satan—or any of the other various explanations religious liberals, cultists, and pseudo-Christian religionists have tried to suggest over the years.
Here’s what was happening on the cross: God was punishing His own Son as if He had committed every wicked deed done by every sinner who would ever believe. And He did it so that He could forgive and treat those redeemed ones as if they had lived Christ’s perfect life of righteousness.
Scripture teaches this explicitly: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. . . . He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief . . . as a guilt offering. (Isaiah 53:4–5; 9-10)
“What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 3:18). “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).
That word propitiation speaks of an offering made to satisfy God. Christ’s death was a satisfaction rendered to God on behalf of those whom He redeemed. “The Lord was pleased to crush Him” (Isaiah 53:10, emphasis added). God the Father saw the travail of His Son’s soul, and He was satisfied (Isaqiah 53:11). Christ made propitiation by shedding His blood (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17).
It was God’s own wrath against sin, God’s own righteousness, and God’s own sense of justice that Christ satisfied on the cross. The shedding of His blood was a sin offering rendered to God. His death was not merely a satisfaction of public justice, nor was it a ransom paid to Satan. Neither Satan nor anyone else had any right to claim a ransom from God for sinners. But when Christ ransomed the elect from sin (1 Timothy 2:6), the ransom price was paid to God. Christ died in our place and in our stead—and He received the very same outpouring of divine wrath in all its fury that we deserved for our sin. It was a punishment so severe that a mortal man could spend all eternity in the torments of hell, and still he would not have begun to exhaust the divine wrath that was heaped on Christ at the cross.
This was the true measure of Christ’s sufferings on the cross. The physical pains of crucifixion—dreadful as they were—were nothing compared to the wrath of the Father against Him. The anticipation of this was what had caused Him to sweat blood in the garden. This was why He had looked ahead to the cross with such horror. We cannot begin to fathom all that was involved in paying the price of our sin. It’s sufficient to understand that all our worst fears about the horrors of hell—and more—were realized by Him as He received the due penalty of others’ wrongdoing.
And in that awful, sacred hour, it was as if the Father abandoned Him. Though there was surely no interruption in the Father’s love for Him as a Son, God nonetheless turned away from Him and forsook Him as our Substitute.
The fact that Christ—suffering from exhaustion, blood loss, asphyxia, and all the physical anguish of the cross—nonetheless made this cry “with a loud voice” proves it was no mere recitation of a psalm. This was the outcry of His soul; it was the very thing the psalm foretold.
We should keep Christ’s suffering in mind, not just this week but always, and remember that He willingly endured the physical and spiritual horrors of the cross for the sake of our redemption. His immense sacrifice on our behalf is humbling.
(Adapted from The Murder of Jesus.)