Apr17 2011

Did God Forsake His Son At The Cross?

Today is Palm Sunday, a day celebrated by Christians to mark the day that Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem-  a day that would lead to a chain of events that would result, a week later, in his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.  Each year as we celebrate Easter and as we reflect on the events surrounding his crucifixion, questions are often asked by those who seek to make sense of those events.  A question that is frequently asked has to do with one of the statements made by Jesus while he is hanging on the cross.  Two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, make mention of the fact that at one point Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This statement has led some people to ask if God had, in fact, forsaken his Son at that moment and if so, why? 

            The answer given by most pastors and Bible teachers is that God could not look upon his Son as he hung upon the cross because Jesus had taken upon himself every crime, every offense that the human race had committed against God.  Since God is holy and cannot look upon sin, he turned away from his Son in that agonizing moment as he became the sin-bearer of the whole world.

            There is nothing contradictory about that explanation (especially in light of the concept of God’s triune nature, known as the “Trinity”).  Even though I find that explanation to be well within reason, I believe that there is another explanation that is worth noting.  This alternative view was first explained to me by my good friend Brian, who said that it was brought to his attention while he was attending a Bible study led by Bible teacher, Kevin Saunders.  Having spent a great deal of time living in the Holy Land and being immersed in that culture, Saunders’ Bible studies incorporate much of the knowledge and information that he’s gained from that experience.  In fact, Saunders says that the significance of this statement made by Jesus was first revealed to him by one of the rabbis that he met while living in Jerusalem. 

            The general idea that Saunders shares with his students goes something like this:  Suppose that you are attending a special event and the guest speaker opens with the familiar phrase, “I pledge allegiance to the flag….”  Even if he were to stop after the first six words, most people in the audience would begin to follow along and recite the entire pledge because they have committed all of it to memory.  It is deeply ingrained in them and in our culture.  Just the opening line alone is sufficient to elicit this response from those listening.  Now let’s think about how this would apply in much the same way to the Jewish culture living in Jesus’ day.  The Jewish people were diligent in their memorization of Old Testament scripture.  Memorizing the Word of God was taken so seriously that some sources say that boys between the ages of six and ten would memorize the first five books of scripture.  The better students would memorize the rest of the Old Testament by age 14.

            This fact about Jewish culture is extremely significant in understanding Jesus’ statement.  As it turns out, Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Just as with our illustration (the Pledge of Allegiance), when Jesus uttered these words, those standing around the cross would immediately begin to mentally recall the entire 22nd Psalm.  This leads us to the next question.  Why would Jesus want them to recall that particular Psalm?  What was so significant about the 22nd Psalm?   If you read it, you will see that it contains an extraordinarily vivid, detailed description of the events taking place during his crucifixion.  It’s important to keep in mind that this Psalm was written by David about 1,000 years before the events took place!

            To appreciate how powerful this is, imagine yourself as a first century Jew living in Jerusalem.  You hear a commotion out in the city streets and your curiosity compels you to go find out what’s going on. You see the man they call “Jesus” slowly making his way through the city streets, surrounded by a mob of local people and escorted by Roman soldiers.  As you get closer, you can see him stumbling, carrying a wooden cross on his shoulders.  His face is so badly bruised and beaten that he is barely recognizable.  His eyes are so swollen that he can hardly open them.  From head to toe, he is bleeding profusely from multiple, deep lacerations inflicted upon him at the hands of the Roman soldiers who scourged him earlier. 

            Caught up in the moment, you become part of the crowd and eventually follow the assembly up to the top of a hill known as “Golgotha” where Jesus, along with two criminals, is nailed to a cross.  There he is, suspended between heaven and earth, on  display for everyone around to look upon him in all of his agony, pain, and humiliation.  As you stand there in utter silence and bewilderment wondering what this poor, pathetic man ever did to deserve such horrific treatment, you look around and you begin to notice several details as this event continues to unfold in front of you.

            The man hanging on the cross has his arms outstretched, with his hands and feet nailed into place.  His arms look as if they are being pulled right out of the sockets and because he’s been stripped of his outer garment, you can see his ribcage heaving as he gasps for air.  In addition to the excruciating pain of his lacerations and his nail-pierced hands and feet, he is severely dehydrated, which further intensifies his torment.  On the ground near the cross, the religious leaders have gathered around to mock him and to hurl insults at him, challenging him to come down from the cross and save himself.  Off to the side, the Roman soldiers who are there to oversee the execution are now engaged in a cruel game of casting lots to see who will get to keep the dying man’s garments.

            Suddenly and unexpectedly, you hear Jesus cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  His words immediately trigger a response from you as your mind begins to play back, word for word, the entire 22nd Psalm that you memorized as a child:

            “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…..But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me;  they hurl insults, shaking their heads (saying):  ‘He trusts in the Lord;  let the Lord rescue him.  Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’…….”

            “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.   Many bulls surround me;  strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.  Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.  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……”


            As we look at the events surrounding the crucifixion from this perspective, is it possible that Jesus intentionally quoted the 22nd Psalm so that those standing nearby would be aware of the fact that David’s prophetic words were being fulfilled right there in front of them?  It’s entirely possible.  Either way, whether you accept that explanation or the view that I mentioned at the start, one thing is for sure, Jesus’ death on the cross is not to be taken lightly.  As someone has said, “Jesus did not go to the cross so that you could ‘have a nice day’.”  Whatever else the cross may tell us, it tells us that God is very serious about our sin and that he is very specific about what he is or isn’t willing to accept as payment for our sin.  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  (Acts 4:12)

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