Summary: In Part 2, we take up the remaining four sayings of Jesus on the cross. We shall study how the gospel writer used the OT background in the death of Christ. It will give us a good grasp of the significance of Jesus’ last words on the cross.
A Word of Abandonment
“‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’” (Matt. 27:46)?
I have heard many eloquent sermons on the “seven sayings.” However, the speakers rarely look into the OT texts that Jesus used in His last seven sayings. Yet how the gospel writer used the OT texts is a key to understanding Jesus’ last words.
The sixth hour is 12 Noon; and the ninth hour, 3 PM. This means that Jesus was crucified at nine in the morning. From 12 Noon to 3 PM, there was darkness over the land. The darkness is a supernatural event so timed by God to occur before Jesus’ fourth saying on the cross. At about 3 PM, Jesus said, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matt. 27:46)?” Matthew is not saying that a disillusioned Jesus uttered these words out of frustration over His failed plans for humankind. He is not stating that Jesus said these words because of the excruciating pain of the cross. He is not saying that Jesus has lost faith in God, for Jesus cried, “My God, my God!” His cry was a cry of despair, “but not of distrust.”8 Rather, Matthew points out how Jesus, as the messiah, applies an OT prophecy to Himself.
Ps. 22:1 says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Ps. 22 is a psalm of lament. David asks God to be near him, for trouble is near (v. 11). His enemies, like a ravening lion, are going to eat him. Like hungry dogs, they encircle and threaten his life (v. 16). Thus, he calls on the God of Israel, whom his fathers trusted, and who always rescued Israel from trouble (vv. 4-5).
Yet David felt that his God has forsaken him. God seems so far away from saving him (v. 1). He cries to God day and night, but there is no answer (v. 2). While his enemies are present, God is absent. God has abandoned him.
Now Jesus identified with the sense of abandonment of the psalmist. At the cross, the Father abandoned the Son. Jesus Himself acknowledged this abandonment. It is no use denying or allegorizing it. God deserted Christ on the cross.
Matthew builds upon his theme of abandonment in his gospel. Jesus’ own country abandons Him (Matt. 13:53-58). His disciples abandon Him (26:56, 69-75), and then, the people (27:15-26). Finally, God abandons Him. Divine desertion is hence the climax of the Matthean theme of abandonment.2
This is not to say that their eternal union was severed. At no time in eternity was the Son separated from the Father. Nevertheless, at the cross, the Son was separated from the Father, not in their eternal union, but in their communion. There was a breach indeed, not in eternal relationship, but in fellowship.
The man, Jesus, felt an agony of soul. It was an agony over divine desertion. Jesus’ approach towards such abandonment seems paradoxical. This dreadful thing is the cup that Jesus prayed to pass from Him. Yet He was still willing to take this cup, to do the Father’s will (26:39). He felt a sense of loneliness, though He was never lonely, having the Father with Him.10 He asked why God has forsaken Him while bearing our sins on the cross. To be sure, He sensed a lack of close communion with the Father.11 This foreordained abandonment fulfilled messianic Scripture. It is a mystery that is impenetrable by our finite minds.
Matthew also interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion in light of Ps. 22:7-8.12 (In that the gospel writers also draw heavily from Ps. 22 in their passion narratives, scholars have called Ps. 22 as the “fifth gospel.”13 ) Ps. 22:7-8, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” Compare it with Matt. 27:39, 43, “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads . . . He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.” Clearly, Matthew uses the same word pictures concerning David’s enemies and applied it to Jesus’ enemies.
Thus, David felt God’s absence in the presence of his enemies. On the cross, Jesus also felt God’s abandonment in the presence of His enemies.
Why then did God abandon Jesus on the cross? The theological reason is that Jesus carried our sins on the cross (Isa. 53:6; 1 Pet. 2:24). At the cross, Jesus, who knew no sin, was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He was made a sin offering for our sins. At the cross, God judged sin. At the cross, Jesus received the judgment of God, enduring His wrath. However, the holy God cannot look at sin (Hab. 1:13). At the cross, therefore, God abandoned Jesus.