June 2, 1991
“Later, knowing that all was now completed and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on the stalk of a hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
It was going to be another hot day. You could tell it early in the morning. It was not yet nine o’clock and already the temperature was pushing 80 degrees. Here and there the city merchants were stirring and rushing around and opening their stalls to make ready for another busy day. This was the beginning of Passover. Lots of things going on. Lots of talk in the city. Outside the city walls they were making ready for another round of crucifixions. Three this time. Two criminals and some fellow named Jesus of Nazareth. The sun was beating down on their heads as the soldiers dug the holes in the ground and made ready with the stakes, with the ham-mer, with the nails. Made ready with the ropes.
At length out came the crowd from the city. The two criminals and this man Jesus. Nine o’clock came. Cruci-fixion time. Hammers and nails. Screams of pain. Gasps. Men stripped naked. Bugs and flies everywhere. The heat beating down. Sweat rolling off the bodies. Blood everywhere. The stench and smell of death. And talking, laughing. “Here he is. King of the Jews.” Twelve o’clock. Darkness. Confusion. The sound of panic. People shouting. Then silence. Thick oppressive silence upon the land. Three hours pass, an eternity of darkness.
Suddenly the light shines. There on the center cross was Jesus. Clearly about to die. Every breath now is huge effort. Heaving, gasping, fighting for oxygen. Resting upon the nail holes while he inhales. Sweat pouring off of him. Making some strange guttural noises. The experienced soldiers had heard it before—the death rattle. With one last gasp a sound comes out. You can barely hear it more than two or three feet away. More like a moan. It is one word in Greek—dipso—”I Thirst.” The soldiers got the bowl, a pail that they always carried with them. It had in it sour vinegar. It was a kind of vinegar wine mixed with water. It was the cheapest drink of that day. It was the drink of the common man. It was the drink of the Roman soldier. Whenever the soldiers went out to do their work they carried it with them in what would be their version of the canteen.
So the soldiers got the wine, took a sponge, dipped it into the sour vinegar wine, and put it on a stalk of the hyssop—Oh, you’ve heard of the hyssop before. You remember, don’t you, that in the book of Exodus, it was the hyssop plant that was dipped in blood and the blood of the lamb was put on the doorpost. Now the hyssop is used again in a biblical story. The sponge dipped in the sour wine is put on it. The soldier stretches it out. In those days they didn’t crucify people very far off the ground. And so with the stalk, which would be about 18 – 24 inches long, a tall soldier could reach Jesus’ lips. As Jesus licked the sponge, a few drops of sour vinegar wine would come into his mouth. Taken in quantity, it was really an astringent that would constrict the throat. But if you drank just a little it would moisten the lips. Moisten the tongue. Moisten the throat. Just enough so you could say one or two more words.
Now Jesus is almost dead. Moments will pass and he will be gone. Having moistened his lips he cries out “It is finished.” Another second passes and then “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He bowed his head and died. In so doing, he fulfilled two prophecies of the Old Testament: Psalm 22:15, “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” and Psalm 69:21, “They gave me vinegar for my thirst.”
As Jesus hung on the cross he made seven different statements. But only one of those statements deals with his personal, physical suffering. It is one word in Greek, two in English: “I thirst”.
It is not often appreciated that our Lord Jesus died in terrible, terrible pain. If you run the clock back from 3 o’clock in the afternoon—the moment of his death—back to about 3 o’clock in the morning and just see what had happened to Jesus as he moves through those hours—what you discover is that our Lord Jesus Christ has just been through 12 hours of torture. Arrested in the middle of the night. Slapped around. Pushed around. Mocked. Slapped again. Crowned with thorns that went into his scalp. Scourged with the cat o’ nine tails again and again and again with those sharp pieces of leather studded with bits of bone and stone and metal. Hitting him again and again and again until the back was shredded. Until you could see right through to the rib cage. They took his beard and ripped it out. They beat him and they beat him again. They made him carry the cross. They nailed the nails into his hands and into his feet. Not for one second did he have a moment’s rest. Not for one moment had anybody offered him anything.
It is not too much to say that when Jesus hung on the cross he was not the beautiful, manicured Savior we often see in the artists’ renditions. It is not too much to say that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was a bloody, maimed, disfigured version of a human being.
No wonder he was thirsty. Loss of blood. Exposure. Heat. Exhaustion. Dehydration. He’s been on the cross now for 6 hours. The sweat rolls off him like buckets. It’s hot. And the flies are buzzing around him. The crowds taunting him. The blood mixes with the sweat as it pours off his body. In the end dehydration sets in. You know what dehydration is like? First it gives you a fever. Then it gives you a terrible throbbing pain in your head. And then cramps in your abdomen. And then nausea sets in. Then your eyeballs begin to dry up in the sockets. And then your lips begin to go dry. Then your tongue gets swollen and thick. And then your throat feels like sand paper. Your vocal cords swell up. In the end you can barely whisper. It doesn’t sound like human words; it sounds like an animal croaking. No wonder Jesus was thirsty.
The Water of Life Now Dies of Thirst
I suppose it is one of the ultimate ironies of the biblical story that Jesus cried out “I thirst.” He who is the water of life now dies of thirst. And I call to your attention this fact. Jesus has not complained at all about his physical condition through all the hours of suffering. When they put the crown on his head he didn’t say “O, my head.” When they ripped the beard from his face he didn’t say “O, my face.” When they scourged him he didn’t say “O, my back.” As the old spiritual has it, through all that they did “He never said a mumblin’ word.”
Now at last Jesus cries out in the last moments of his life, “I thirst.” This is the only reference he ever made to all the sufferings he underwent. Why is that? The Bible says that when Jesus hung on the cross he knew that his work had been completed. He knew that he had borne the sins of the human race. He knew that he had done everything he could for you and for me. And having done what God sent him to do—having cared for the needs of others—only then does he make a comment about his own intense suffering.
Was Jesus a Failure?
That does raise a question this morning, doesn’t it? Was Jesus a failure? You could make a good case for the answer to that question as yes. In fact I think you could make a decent case that Jesus was the greatest failure that the world has ever seen. Just look at his life. He was born into an unimportant family in an unimportant little village. He was ignored, he was taken for granted, he was laughed at. When he talks and when he speaks, the powers that be want nothing to do with him. He faces nothing but ridicule and opposition and misunder-standing all his life. And in the end he is crucified like a criminal. His sufferings in those last few hours are unspeakable. When he dies he appears to be yet another forgotten footnote in history. Yes, I think you could make the case that our Lord was a failure.
Is it not true, however, that you can do everything you know to be right and still end up suffering tremen-dously? Isn’t it true that you can walk the path of righteous integrity and still end up having nothing to show for it? You can pray and pray and pray and your prayers sometimes will not be answered. You can go to work and you can live by the rules. You can do a good job and still the day comes when you are fired without any warning. You may save your money for the dream of your life and suddenly have your money taken away from you. You may work and work and work to make a marriage hold together and in the end it may fall apart though you have done everything humanly possible to save it. You may have dear friends whom you love who will turn against you in the moment of crisis even though you know you have walked in integrity and told the truth. There’s no guarantee, is there? You could do everything right and it could turn out all wrong.
Suffering and hard times are no sign that you are out of the will of God. They’re no sign that you are doing something wrong. Oh, you may be doing something wrong and it is possible that you may have done some-thing wrong back here and that’s why you’re suffering now. We all suffer for our mistakes. But far more often when we face difficulties, they do not come because we have done something wrong. Far more often they come because we have done something right and it just has not worked out. Case in point—the Lord Jesus Christ. Look at him on the cross. Look at that bloody mess on the cross. Look at the Son of God reviled and hated and mocked. Look at him begging for water. What has he done wrong? What sin has he committed? What terrible crime has he done? He has done nothing but obey the Father’s will perfectly. And what he got for it was the cross.
Are you so sure that the same thing won’t happen to you? Or do you buy into that other philosophy that says if you do right everything is going to come up roses for you? It didn’t happen that way for Jesus. Why should it happen that way for you?
Do you understand what this means? I’m saying your loneliness does not necessarily mean you are outside the will of God. Your poverty does not necessarily mean you are outside the will of God. Your pain does not necessarily mean you are outside the will of God. The broken relationships you’ve experienced do not necessarily mean you are outside the will of God. Your sickness does not necessarily mean you are outside the will of God. Why? Because our Lord Jesus Christ did the will of God and he ended up on the cross.
So, I ask the question again. Was our Lord Jesus a failure? No, he was not. He was the greatest success this world has ever seen. Nobody ever accomplished more than Jesus Christ did. But for him success came through suffering, hardship, loss and an agonizing death. Are you so sure the same things won’t happen to you?
Thank God, there’s another part to this story. Thank God, the cross isn’t the end. Thank God, the story doesn’t end at six o’clock on Friday evening. On Friday evening Jesus is dead and buried and He looks like the world’s greatest failure. But early on Easter Sunday morning, the stone was rolled away and Jesus Christ came walking out. Dead on Friday. Raised victorious on Sunday.
That’s the other side of the story, isn’t it? Your sufferings may be used by God in a way greater than anything you ever dreamed of. God may redeem the hard times you are going through right now to bring something beautiful into your life far beyond your imagination.
Most of you know that last Monday I returned from an 18-day trip to Russia with John and Helen Sergey. As we drove to our hotel in Moscow, John pointed to a big building about fifteen stories tall. I would suppose it was 60 or 70 years old—gray on the bottom and then brown on the upper floors. I said, “What is that?” He said, “Lubyanka.” Do you know what Lubyanka is? Lubyanka is the headquarters of the KGB, the secret police of the Soviet Union. Just say the name Lubyanka and it strikes fear into the hearts of the Russian people. In that building, right in the heart of Moscow, hundreds and thousands of political prisoners have been kept. Held without bail. Held without trial. Sometimes held without any formal charges. Held for weeks and months and years. Some of them drugged. Some of them beaten. Some of them terribly persecuted. Some of them who suddenly disappeared never to be heard from again. Some of them held and then shipped off to the concentration camps in Siberia.
As we passed by John said, “Many of the brethren have spent time in Lubyanka during the dark days of repres-sion.” And I thought about what the Russian church has been through. For seventy years they lived under a strict communist system. A system that tried to stamp out the knowledge of God. A system that was avowedly atheist. A system that was built on the teachings of Marx and Lenin. A system that deified Lenin. Do you know what the communists did in the early days of the revolution? They took over the orthodox churches. Some of them were turned into factories and schools. Many of the rest were turned into museums of atheism. Think about that. Orthodox churches and cathedrals transformed into anti-religious museums of atheism. The worst of it happened in the 1930’s under Stalin.
The Pastor’s Story
John introduced me to Michael Jidkov. He is 63 years old. For many years he was the pastor of the Moscow Baptist Church. Back in the 30’s, his father was also a pastor. Michael said that when he was growing up, the authorities would only permit them to have three religious books—The Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and a child-ren’s story book. He said, “We’d be in terrible trouble if we were caught with anything else. That was all the Christian literature we could have.”
Then he told me this story. “I’ll never forget the day when I was ten years old and my father was arrested and taken away. His crime was called Political Activity—that means preaching the gospel. We watched him go away not knowing if he’d ever return. Four years passed without a word from him. We had no idea where he was. One day as I was standing in the yard with my mother, we saw him coming down the road. The commun-ists had let him go.” Then he said, “I’ve never forgotten what that day was like. My father came back but he didn’t stop preaching the gospel. He went right back and kept on doing what he was doing before. And after the Second World War, he became the president of the Union of Evangelical Christians and Baptists in the USSR. He was one of the great evangelical leaders of the last generation.”
But that’s how it was for so many of the Russian Christians. They paid a terrible price for their faith.
I want to tell you something. Fifty years ago it looked like the communists had won. Fifty years ago it looked like they had closed everything down. Fifty years ago the gospel was almost destroyed in the Soviet Union. Fifty years ago it looked like the church of Jesus Christ was done for.
John Sergey’s Story
Let me tell you about a man you’ve never heard of—a man you might call the Martin Luther of Russia. I had never heard about him until I traveled to Russia. In the late 1800s and the first part of this century a man called Brother Prochonoff began preaching the gospel establishing the churches that we are helping to support today. More than anyone else, he is the man who wrote the articles that established the church and the evangelical faith. When you go to Russia and pick up a hymnal, you’ll find that about half the hymns are written by Brother Prochonoff. He was a man of giant faith who stood for Jesus Christ during the last days of the Czars and the first decades of communism.
Toward the end of his life, in the mid-1930’s he came to Chicago to visit a Russian-speaking evangelical church. Those days were dark in Russia. The situation seemed so hopeless. But here in Chicago he met a young man who was 15 or 16. The young man had a deep bass voice and heart that burned for God. When old Brother Prochonoff talked to the teenager, he put his hands on his shoulders and said, “Young man, I believe someday God is going to call you to be a missionary to Russia.” The young man was shocked to hear those words because he was planning a career in music, opera preferably. God had given him this mighty voice.
But the words of Brother Prochonoff were to change the direction of his life. Things in Russia were bad fifty years ago, and after the war, they were bad again. They were bad into the early 1960’s. Christians were thrown in jail for witnessing, for preaching. Some awful things happened. By the mid-1950’s that boy had grown up and started a radio ministry. And with that deep bass voice he began broadcasting from HCJB in Quito and from Trans World Radio in Monte Carlo and from Far East Broadcasting in Saipan and Seoul, Korea, broadcasting all the way into the Soviet Union from Siberia over to Russia. That young man now grown up with the deep bass voice would read the Bible slowly, verse by verse by verse. Why? So the Russian believers would have time to write it down in Russian and that would be their Bible. On the weekends he had another program that broadcast a message in Russian to establish them in the Christian faith.
For so many years it looked so hopeless. But seeds were sown that have now come to bear fruit thirty years later. That young man who was going to be a singer and turned into a radio broadcaster is John Sergey. And everywhere we went and every church we visited, people came up to him. Old ladies. Old men with tears streaming down their faces. Saying, “When we couldn’t come to church we would turn on the short-wave radio and we would listen to you.” One lady said, “My family and another family always got together to hear your broadcast.” Another man said, “All the Bible I learned, I learned from you, because we couldn’t go to church in those days.” That man said to John, “I think you’re responsible for a whole generation of Russian Christians.”
Things looked hopeless fifty years ago. They looked so bad. Communism appeared to have won the day. The church of Jesus Christ seemed a ragtag band of losers. For awhile it appeared that maybe Marx was right—that religion would fade away when communism came to power.
How different things are today. After seventy years of communism, the people are awakening as if from a bad dream. Suddenly in great numbers the Russian people are turning to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Suddenly Christians are free to preach the gospel publicly. Today anyone who wants a Bible can get one. In the last weeks the believers in Leningrad have given away 1 million copies of the story of Jesus—most of them either on the streets of the city or in the public schools. The door that was locked tight has swung wide open!
No one could have predicted this 50 years ago or 40 years ago or even 20 years ago. But it is happening. I saw it with my own eyes less than 10 days ago.
I will tell you one more story and then be done. Last Sunday—just 7 days ago—I had preached my final sermon at a small church in Moscow. As we were driving back to the main church, my interpreter, Alexei Bichkov, pointed to a building. “Do you see that? It’s the political headquarters for the Communist Party in Moscow. That’s where all the propaganda comes out for the whole country. I preached there not long ago.” You did what? “I preached there.” I thought he meant he preached on the steps of the building—an act in itself incon-ceivable even one year ago. “When the authorities heard about what we were doing, they invited me to come and present my message. So I met with several hundred of the top Communist officials and preached the gospel to them—at their invitation—in their own headquarters.” What was the response? “Oh, I tell you they were so happy to hear me. They listened so well, and when I was through, I gave out several hundred New Testaments and answered many questions.”
If you ask me what is happening in Russia, I will tell you that everything you have heard is true, and then some. We are living on the verge of perhaps the greatest revival the 20th century has yet seen. After so much darkness, the light has come flooding in.
Who could have believed it?
From Friday to Sunday
Now we are back in Jerusalem. Moments from now Jesus will be dead. A more hopeless scene you could never imagine. He died in terrible pain. But his death is not the end of the story. On Sunday he rose in glorious victory. The same Jesus who cried, “I thirst,” rose from the dead, victorious over the grave.
Let us learn the lesson well. Your sufferings do not necessarily mean you are out of the will of God. It is entirely possible that you may do everything God wants you to do … and still suffer terribly. Even so, your suffering may yet be redeemed into something much greater than you can imagine! Jesus pointed the way when he cried, “I thirst.” That was Friday. On Sunday he rose from the dead to become a gushing spring of Living Water.
Are you suffering right now? Do you live in darkness? Is the way unclear, the light dim, do you feel the pain
of those you love turning against you? Fear not. And do not lose heart.
What is happening to you happened first to Jesus. And what happened to him may yet happen to you. Your suffering has a purpose, your pain has a reason, your darkness leads on to a brighter, better morning.
Run to the cross. Cling to it. Embrace the sufferings of Christ. Though this cannot lessen your pain, it may give you strength to carry on. Jesus suffered before you; he also suffered for you. Child of God, remember this: As Friday comes before Sunday, so the cross leads on to the empty tomb. And there is no resurrection unless there is first a crucifixion.