The Forsaken Christ
May 5, 1991
Until a few days ago most of us had never given any serious thought to a place called Bangladesh. We knew it was somewhere on the other side of the world, but that’s all we knew. Then a typhoon hit the Bay of Bengal and suddenly Bangladesh was front page news. The latest reports suggest that 125,000 people are dead and millions more were left homeless. Many people simply vanished beneath the rising water, their bodies swept out to sea. As the waters abate, rescuers are finding devastation that is almost beyond belief. Bangladesh was already one of the poorest countries in the world. Now amid the death, disease and starvation, the anguished cry rises from the survivors, “Why has God forsaken us?
In a hospital room in a major city a little girl lies quietly. She has a strange form of cancer, a strain so virulent that it has her doctors baffled. No one knows how a girl so young could become so sick so quickly. Although they do not say it, the doctors doubt she will ever see her tenth birthday. The little girl’s mother tries to be brave, but it isn’t easy. In her heart, in words she dares not utter aloud, she wonders, “Why has God forsaken us?”
In the same big city a mother stirs when the alarm clock rings, 5:30 A.M. Another day is beginning. She slips out of the sheets and tiptoes to the bathroom. Quickly she showers, dresses and gets breakfast ready. Mean-while three children sleep quietly in the next room. Before 7:00 A.M., all four of them will be on their way—the children to a day-care center, the mother to her job. The hours rush by and the sun has almost set when she picks her children up again. Then home, and suppertime, and “Read-me-a-story” time, and bath time and finally, bedtime. The children safely asleep, the mother relaxes in front of the TV. After a few minutes, she goes to bed. 5:30 comes all too soon. She sleeps alone. Her husband left her 2 1/2 years ago. Alone with her thoughts she considers her life and asks, “Why has God forsaken me?”
Not many miles away a middle-aged man sits with his head in his hands. Today had started like any other day. Get up, go to work, do your job. Then at 2:45 P.M. his boss called him into his office. “Charlie, I’ve got bad news.” Just like that it was all over. Over after 16 years, 4 months and 3 days. Over with nothing left to show for it except a pink slip. How will he explain it to his family? What will he say to the guys on his bowling team? Here he is with a family, a big mortgage, two kids who need braces, and no job. In anger—Yes! in anger—he cries out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”
It is Friday morning in Jerusalem. Another hot April day. It’s killing time. Death is in the air. The word has spread to every corner of the city. The Romans plan to crucify somebody today.
A crowd gathers on the north end of town. Just outside the Damascus Gate is a place called Skull Hill. The Romans like it because the hill is beside a main road. That way lots of people can watch the crucifixion.
On this day more people than usual have gathered. They come out of the macabre human fascination with the bizarre. The very horror of crucifixion draws people to Skull Hill.
This day seems like any other, but it is not. A man named Jesus is being crucified. The word spreads like wildfire. His reputation has preceded him. No one is neutral. Some believe, many doubt, a few hate.
Three Hours of Darkness
The crucifixion begins at nine o’clock sharp. The Romans were punctual about things like that. At first the crowd is rowdy, loud, raucous, boisterous, as if this were some kind of athletic event. They cheer, they laugh, they shout, they place wagers on how long the men being crucified will last.
It appears that the man in the middle will not last long. He has already been severely beaten. In fact, it looks like four or five soldiers have taken turns working him over. His skin hangs from his back in tatters, his face is bruised and swollen, his eyes nearly shut. Blood trickles from a dozen open wounds. He is an awful sight to behold.
There are voices from all three crosses, a kind of hoarse conversation shouted above the din. Little pieces float through the air. Something that sounds like “Father, forgive them” something else about “If you are the Son of God,” then a promise of paradise. Finally Jesus spots his mother and speaks to her.
Then it happened. At noon “darkness fell upon all the land.” It happened so suddenly that no one expected it. One moment the sun was right overhead; the next moment it had disappeared.
It was not an eclipse nor was it a dark cloud cover. It was darkness itself, thick, inky-black darkness that fell like a shroud over the land. It was darkness without any hint of light to come. It was chilling blackness that curdled the blood and froze the skin.
No one moved. No one spoke. For once even the profane soldiers stopped their swearing. Not a sound broke the dark silence over Skull Hill. Something eerie was going on. It was as if some evil force had taken over the earth and was somehow breathing out the darkness. You could almost reach out and feel the evil all around. From somewhere deep in the earth there was a sound like some dark subterranean chuckle. It was the laughter of hell.
It lasted for three long hours. 12:30—still dark. 1:15—still dark. 2:05—still dark. 2:55—still dark.
3:00 P.M. And just as suddenly as the darkness had descended, it disappeared. Voices now, and shouting. Rubbing the eyes to adjust once again to the bright sunlight. Panic on many faces, confusion on others. A man leans over to his friend and cries out, “What in God’s name is going on here?”
All eyes focus on the center cross. It is clear the end is near. Jesus is at the point of death. Whatever happened in those three hours of darkness has brought him to death’s door. His strength is nearly gone, the struggle almost over. His chest heaves with every breath, his moans now are only whispers. Instinctively the crowd pushes closely to watch his last moments.
Suddenly he screams. Only four words, but they come out in a guttural roar. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” The words are Aramaic, the common language of the day. The words form a question that screams across Skull Hill and drifts across the road. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Take Off Your Shoes
In his book, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, F.F. Bruce discusses 70 of the hard-to-understand sayings of our Lord. The last one he discusses is this statement. Of these words of Jesus, Bruce comments, “This is the hardest of all the hard statements.” (p. 248) All the commentators agree with him. No statement of Jesus is more mysterious than this one. The problem is not with the words. The words (in Aramaic or Greek or English) are simple. The words we can understand. But what do they mean?
The story is told that the great Martin Luther was studying this text one day. For hours he sat and stared at the text. He said nothing, he wrote nothing, but silently pondered these words of Jesus. Suddenly he stood up and exclaimed, “God forsaken by God. How can it be?”
Indeed, how can it be? How can God be forsaken by God? How can the Father forsake his own Son?
To read these words is to walk on holy ground. And like Moses before the burning bush, we ought to take off our shoes and tread carefully.
What Do These Words Mean?
Let me say frankly that it is far beyond my meager ability to fully explain this saying of Jesus. My problem is not that I do not have enough time; I have plenty of time. And in the time I have, I will tell you what I know. But what I know is only a fraction of the story. There are mysteries here which no man can explain.
Let us begin by surveying some of the inadequate explanations that have been given to the question, What do these words mean? To say the following ideas are “inadequate” is not to say they are necessarily wrong. It is only to say that they do not tell the whole story.
1. It has been suggested that this is a cry stemming from Jesus’ physical suffering. Without a doubt, those sufferings were enormous. By the time he uttered these words, he had hung on the cross for six hours—exposed to the hot Palestinian sun and exposed to the taunts of the crowd. He was nearly dead when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Perhaps (it has been suggested) he said that in view of all that had happened to him.
There are two problems with that view. For one thing, the consistent emphasis of the New Testament is that Jesus died for our sins. Although the gospels speak of Jesus’ physical suffering, they do not emphasize it. The central issue of the cross was not the physical suffering of our Lord (as terrible as it must have been); the central issue was our Lord bearing the sins of the world. This suggestion tends to weaken the truth that Jesus died for our sins and at the same time it tends to overemphasize his physical sufferings.
2. It has been suggested that this is a cry of faith. A surprising number of commentators take this view. They note that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is actually a quotation from Psalm 22:1. In that particular Psalm, David speaks of his own sufferings at the hands of his enemies in a way that ultimately pictures the death of our Lord. Although Psalm 22 begins with a description of intense suffering, it ends on a note of confident trust in God. For that reason, some believe that Christ quoted verse 1 (a cry of desolation) as a way of expressing his trust in God even while he was on the cross.
Unfortunately, that view seems to turn the words of Jesus upside down. It virtually makes the words mean something like this: “Although it appears that God has forsaken me, in truth he has not, and in the end I will be vindicated.” As true as that might be (he was ultimately vindicated in the resurrection), that does not seem to be the meaning here. The words of Jesus ought to be taken at their face value—as a cry of utter desolation.
3. It has been suggested that this is a cry of disillusionment. Skeptics read this as proof that Jesus ultimately failed in his mission. To them these words mean something like “God, you have forsaken me and all is lost. I came to be the Messiah but my mission is a failure.” To those who hold such a cynical view, we can only say, Read the whole story! Keep reading and you will discover what happens to your “failed” Messiah. Whatever else these words might mean, they are not the words of a defeated man.
The God-Forsaken Man
What, then, do these words mean? I suggest that we will never grasp their full meaning until we see that Jesus was truly forsaken by God. In that black moment on the cross, God the Father turned his back on God the Son. It was, as Martin Luther said, God forsaking God. True, we will never plumb the depths of that statement, but anything less does not do justice to Jesus’ words.
The word “forsaken” in very strong. It means to abandon, to desert, to disown, to turn away from, to utterly forsake. Please understand. When Jesus said, “Why have you forsaken me?” it was not simply because he felt forsaken; he said it because he was forsaken. Literally, truly and actually God the Father abandoned his own Son.
In English the phrase “God-forsaken” usually refers to some deserted, barren locale. We mean that such a place seems unfit for human habitation. But we do not literally mean “God-forsaken” even though that’s what we say. But it was true of Jesus. He was the first and only God-forsaken person in all history.
A Father’s Chief Duty
As many people have pointed out, this is the only time Jesus addressed God as “My God.” Everywhere else he called him “Father.” But here he said, “My God,” because the Father-Son relationship was broken at that moment.
Is it not the chief duty of a parent to take care of his children? Is it not our job to ensure that our children do not suffer needlessly? Will we not do anything in our power to spare them pain? And is that not what makes child abuse such a heinous crime?
I ask you, then, what would cause a father to forsake his own son? Can you explain it? Is that not a breach of a father’s chief duty? I ask myself, what would cause me to abandon my sons? As I ponder the question, I cannot even imagine the answer.
But that is what God did when Jesus died on the cross. He abandoned his own Son. He turned his back, he disowned him, he rejected the One who was called his “only begotten Son.”
We may not understand that. Indeed, it is certain that we do not. But that is what these words mean.
In Time and Eternity
That brings us to the great question: Why would God do such a thing? One observation will help us find an answer. Something must have happened that day that caused a fundamental change in the Father’s relationship with the Son. Something must have happened when Jesus hung on the cross which had never happened before.
At that precise moment Jesus was bearing the sin of the world. During those three hours of blackness, and in the moments immediately afterward, Jesus felt the full weight of sin rolled onto his shoulders. All of it became his. It happened at that moment of space-time history.
(Someone may ask, “Does not the Bible teach that Jesus was the ‘lamb slain from the foundation of the world?’” The answer is yes. But the slaying itself happened at a particular moment in time—specifically a Friday afternoon in April, A. D. 33. But since Jesus Christ had a divine nature, what happened to him in history has eternal implications. I admit that I don’t fully understand that last sentence, but I am sure it is true. The death of Christ was a historical event in every sense of the word, but it is historical with eternal implications.)
The Trinity Disjointed
Let’s go one step farther. We know from Habakkuk 1:13 that God cannot look with favor upon wickedness. His eyes are too pure to approve the evil in the world. The key phrase is “with favor.” God’s holiness demands that he turn away from sin. God will have no part of it. His holiness recoils from the tiniest tinge of wickedness.
Therefore (and this is a big “therefore”), when God looked down and saw his Son bearing the sin of the world, he didn’t see his Son, he saw instead the sin that he was bearing. And in that awful moment, the Father turned away. Not in anger at his Son. No, he loved his Son as much at that moment as he ever had. He turned away in anger over all the sin of the world that sent his Son to the cross. He turned away in sorrow and deepest pain when he saw what sin had done. He turned away in complete revulsion at the ugliness of sin.
When he did that, Jesus was alone. Completely forsaken. God-forsaken. Abandoned. Deserted. Disowned.
There’s an old Southern gospel song called “Ten Thousand Angels.” It speaks of the fact that Jesus, by virtue of being the Son of God, could have called 10,000 angels to rescue him from the cross. He didn’t do that, and the chorus ends with these words, “But he died alone for you and me.”
It is true. When Jesus bore the sins of the world, he bore them all alone. Christ is now abandoned, the Trinity disjointed, the Godhead broken. The fact that I do not know what those words mean does not stop them from being true. Let it be said over and over again: When Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he was really and truly forsaken by God.
He Became Sin for Us
To say that is to say nothing more than the Bible itself says:
1. II Corinthians 5:21. “God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Think of it. The sinless One was “made sin” for us. When God looked down that day, he saw—not his sinless Son—but sin itself.
2. Galatians 3:13. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Think of it. When Jesus was baptized, the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” No longer would the voice say that. At the cross, the beloved Son became “a curse for us.”
3. Isaiah 53:6 “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Think of it. All the iniquity, all the evil, all the crime and hatred of this world—all of it was “laid on him.”
Thus did the Son of God make complete identification with sinners. Jesus become a curse for us. He died in our place. And all our sins were laid on him. It was for that reason—and only for that reason—that God the Father forsook his beloved Son.
Emptying the Sewer
Imagine that somewhere in the universe there is a cesspool containing all the sins that have ever been commit-ted. The cesspool is deep, dark and indescribably foul. All the evil deeds that men and women have ever done are floating there. Imagine that a river of filth constantly flows into that cesspool, replenishing the vile mixture with all the evil done every day.
Now imagine that while Jesus was on the cross, that cesspool is emptied onto him. See the flow of filth as it settles upon him. The flow never seems to stop. It is vile, toxic, deadly, filled with disease, pain and suffering.
When God looked down at his Son, he saw the cesspool of sin emptied on his head. No wonder he turned away from the sight. Who could bear to watch it?
Think of it. All the lust in the world was there. All the broken promises were there. All the murder, all the killing, all the hatred between people. All the theft was there, all the adultery, all the pornography, all the drunkenness, all the bitterness, all the greed, all the gluttony, all the drug abuse, all the crime, all the cursing. Every vile deed, every wicked thought, every vain imagination—all of it was laid upon Jesus when he hung on the cross.
Two Great Implications
I take from this solemn truth two great implications. It reveals to us two things we must never minimize:
1. We must never minimize the horror of human sin. Sometimes we laugh at sin and say, “The Devil made me do it,” as if sin were something to joke about. But it was our sin that Jesus bore that day. It was our sin that caused the Father to turn away from the Son. It was our sin floating in that cesspool of iniquity. He became a curse and we were part of the reason. Let us never joke about sin. It is no laughing matter.
2. We must never minimize the awful cost of our salvation. Is it possible that some Christians become tired of hearing about the cross? Is it possible that we would rather hear about happy things? Without the awful pain of the cross, there would be no happy things to talk about. Without the cross there would be no forgiveness. Without the cross there would be no salvation. Without the cross we would be lost forever. Without the cross our sins would still be upon us. It cost Christ everything to redeem us. Let us never make light of what cost him so dearly.
“Where Was God When My Son Died?”
Somewhere I read the story of a father whose son was killed in a tragic accident. In grief and enormous anger, he visited his pastor and poured out his heart. He said, “Where was God when my son died?” The pastor paused for a moment, and with great wisdom replied, “The same place he was when his Son died.”
This cry from the cross is for all the lonely people of the world. It is for the abandoned child … the widow… the divorcee struggling to make ends meet … the mother standing over the bed of her suffering daughter … the father out of work … the parents left alone … the prisoner in his cell … the aged who languish in convalescent homes … wives abandoned by their husbands … singles who celebrate their birthdays alone.
This is the word from the cross for you. No one has ever been as alone as Jesus was. You will never be forsaken as he was. No cry of your pain can exceed the cry of his pain when God turned his back and looked the other way.
Thank God it is true.
—He was forsaken that you might never be forsaken.
—He was abandoned that you might never be abandoned.
—He was deserted that you might never be deserted.
—He was forgotten that you might never be forgotten.
You Don’t Have to Go to Hell
And most importantly …
—He went to hell for you so you wouldn’t have to go.
If you go to hell, it will be in spite of what Jesus did for you. He’s already been there. He took the blow. He took the pain. He endured the suffering. He took the weight of all your sins. So if you do go to hell, don’t blame Jesus. It’s not his fault. He went to hell for you so you wouldn’t have to go.
What is the worst thing about hell? It’s not the fire (though the fire is real). It’s not the memory of your past (though the memory is real). It’s not the darkness (though the darkness is real). The worst thing about hell is that it is the one place in the universe where people are utterly and forever for-saken by God. Hell is truly a God-forsaken place. That’s the hell of hell. To be in a place where God has abandoned you for all eternity.
That’s the bad news. The good news is this. You don’t have to go there. Jesus has already been there for you. He went to hell 2,000 years ago so you wouldn’t have to go. He died a sinner’s death and took a sinner’s punishment so that guilty sinners like you and me could be eternally forgiven.
If after everything I have said, you still don’t understand these words of Jesus, be of good cheer. No one on earth fully understands them. Rest in this simple truth: He was forsaken that you might never be forsaken. Those who trust him will never be disappointed, in this life or in the life to come. Amen.