Lenten Devotional: Holy Week Part 4

April 9, 2020

Seven Last Words of Christ – “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.  About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“The cry of dereliction,” as this exclamation has been christened, is not only poignant but painful to contemplate.  Many of us can connect with the sense of abandonment that these words seem to convey, for many people have felt all alone and forgotten at moments in their lives.  Even those who have not ever felt anything like that anguish of aloneness can, most probably, imagine the awfulness of feeling deserted, neglected, and rejected. So, when we read that our Lord shouted these words to the sky, anyone with a drop of human compassion, who really understands that Jesus – as the divine Son incarnate – was truly human, can feel heartbreak. 

Before we consider how to fathom the deepest interpretation of this exhausted utterance from the lips of our Lord, let’s ponder the reality surrounding Christ’s crucifixion.  Whether or not God His Father had indeed forsaken Him, there is no doubt that by every other measure Jesus had been abandoned, rejected, forsaken, and thrown away. The political forces of the world (in the Empire) treated Him like human refuse.  His own culture, society, and religious tradition disdained Him to the point that He was mocked mercilessly by the religious leaders and their followers. No doubt, even some of His followers got their emotions and minds ready to move on, now that He was exposed (in their minds) not to be the Messiah.  And His friends – the closest disciples, save for less than a handful –abandoned Him in quite reasonable fear. On the human level he was as abandoned and alienated from every human institution and relationship as a human could be – he was all alone.

Take the Empire’s response embodied in Pilate.  Knowing He was an innocent man, the Governor nonetheless sentenced Him to a death reserved for the vilest offenders.  Roman crucifixion was primarily reserved for traitors, deserters, despised enemies, captive armies, slaves, the most violent offenders, and those guilty of high treason.  Part of the process of execution involved the flogging and scourging which we read about in the Gospel. The condemned were stripped naked to be beaten severely. Then they were to be further humiliated by carrying the cross beam, while still naked, publicly to the place of execution.  Finally, they were nailed or tied to the cross – still naked – to expire by loss of blood and exhaustion. The crucified were considered throw-away people of whom the Empire could make an example. Jesus was as alienated from and rejected by the political powers as was possible in that day.

As for His own people – those who were His covenant brothers – the representative leaders of the religion of the Second Temple Jews, they treated Him not only with unkindness, but a contemptuous dismissal of His very existence as Jew.  According to Jewish teaching, the kind of blasphemy of which Jesus was accused was subject to capital punishment by stoning. In the Book of Acts, we have the account of Stephen being stoned to death for his speech against the Jewish rejection of Jesus.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, recounts that around 62 AD a famous stoning took place. What this means, then, is that the Jewish leaders had a method of execution readily at hand, which even Pilate seems to allude to when he tells them to deal with Jesus, but one they would not employ.  Why? The accounts tell us it was for fear of the crowds due to Jesus’ popularity. No doubt, that is true. However, for them to have stoned Jesus to death under Mosaic law would have meant that they were punishing Him as a Jew, which would have recognized His worth, at least, as one of the covenant people of God.  Instead, they give Him over to the Romans, because they not only feared the crowds but they wanted to give Him no recognition of value whatsoever.  He was rejected, handed over to the pagans, and disowned: forsaken by His culture and religious community of faith.

Then we can think of His disciples, followers, and friends.  Understandably bewildered, grief-stricken, and terrified by the horror unfolding before their eyes, they flee from Jesus.  They had no power to help Him against the Roman enforcers. No reason not to believe that the next move by the Sanhedrin could easily be to round-up those who had followed the “false Messiah” and disrupter of the peace of Jerusalem, they stayed far away.  And except for a few women and one disciple, Jesus was abandoned by His followers and friends. Those who had believed in Him, followed Him, supported Him, loved Him, and lived with Him were gone. He was all alone, forsaken because of fear, but forsaken all the same.

Indeed, Jesus descended into the deepest alienation and isolation that was possible: no political recourse, no religious tradition, no covenantal belonging, and nearly no one who cared about Him even willing to stand watch by His cross as He slowly perished.  On His cross, therefore, all He had to hold onto was the conviction and assurance He had affirmed in the Garden of Gethsemane: I am doing exactly what my Father’s will is, the One who loves me and has sent me. Does He, then, even experience being abandoned by God His Father?

One can find no shortage of examples of biblical interpretation that contends the answer to that last question is, “Yes!”  The reasoning goes as follows: On the cross, the great and Holy God could not look upon His Son bearing all the sins of the world and he turned away from Jesus, leaving Him to die alone for us.  There is even a very beautiful and popular contemporary worship song that expresses this theology, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” The moving melody makes the lyrics all the more powerful that state: 

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Yet, this cannot be so; and when you look at the context of Jesus’ life as a Jew and rabbi and master of the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets we see a different meaning to comprehend in His “cry.”  First, consider the Scriptural context of the words, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” before we reflect on why Christ’s abandonment by God is an impossibility. These words are a quotation of the opening line of Psalm 22.  This psalm of David begins with an expression of the sense of God’s absence and the terrible mistreatment that is visited upon his life by wicked people, but ends with the declaration of trust in God’s faithfulness, presence, deliverance.  It includes the declaration, “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden His face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.” In the world of first century rabbis, it was often the practice to just say the first line of a psalm in order to evoke the hearers to recall the rest of it.  Here Jesus is not speaking as a confused, abandoned plaintiff, but as a witness to His own identity. This psalm of David – the anointed King – Jesus employs to declare that regardless of the outward circumstances, God is going to deliver me, because I am His anointed One.  Jesus is bearing witness, even in the darkness that has descended upon the world and Him, to His identity – and He is defying His mockers and tormentors.

As for my first claim: the impossibility of Jesus being abandoned by God.  Even though His life had become “sin for us,” as St. Paul declares in II Corinthians 5, God did not turn away.  When we remember who Jesus is, the Eternal Son of the Father, who is One with the Father, we quickly see how God could not abandon His Son.  God is inseparable from God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Eternally the One True God. Hence, abandonment or being left derelict is a theological impossibility, when we recall that in Incarnate Man on the Cross is the God-Man.  He was the Eternal Son who took upon Himself a human nature to be fully God and fully human. The humanity of Jesus could not have been abandoned by the divinity of the Son, and the Father could not have turned away from His Son.

But what about those who say that the holiness of God is what caused the Father to have to “turn his face away.”  This does not hold up either, once we realize that it was in seeing all of the sins and Sin of the world that God “loved the world by sending His Only Begotten Son” to become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  God does not turn away from sins, no matter how “concentrated” they might be – even in His Son. The Father who sent Jesus, loves us in our sins. How much more would he have loved His Eternal Son – the Incarnate God-Man, Jesus, His only begotten?

I am convinced that the best way to understand the cry of Jesus is to see it as a refusal to doubt the goodness of His God even in the midst of the darkest moment.  By continuing to trust God as he descends into death through the shame and agony he was experiencing (all because He was drinking the cup His Father had for Him), Jesus powerfully, and for all time, breaks the power and results of Adam’s sinful failure in the Garden of Eden.  Where Adam failed to trust in God’s goodness and will regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and disobeys God and brings alienation between himself and Eve, between himself and creation, and between himself and God, Jesus reverses it all. He trusts God’s goodness when he embraces death that he does not deserve, descends into alienation and forsakenness by all of the forces of human culture and meaning, bears our sins, and experiences the darkness that covered all the earth.  He, therefore, brings victory over all that was true about human failure before God. In so doing, He creates a new way for humanity to live…he brings a New Creation.

So, in the “cry of dereliction” Jesus was allowed to experience the feeling that our sin should produce in all our lives, but which God has kept us from by His grace so that we never feel how truly awful our separation from God is.  But, despite the feeling he continues to know the reality: “God, my Father is good, faithful, and with me to deliver and glorify me.”  Perhaps it is, then, the moment in which the redemption is accomplished when the God-Man fully trusts, fully surrenders, fully obeys.  He was not just dying “in our place,” but was dying in alienation from all hope except His Father on our behalf –doing for us what we could not and undoing what we had created.

To ponder His dying and His cry is, therefore, to ponder the hope that in Him we might no longer be limited to the “way of Adam” but set free to live in the “way of Jesus.”  He has not just carried our guilt on the Cross, but has broken Sin’s power. . . . . . . LIVE IN HIM!

Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Dr. Blakemore is a co-founder of the JCW Center and the Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary.