Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Forsaking of the Son: Mark 15:33-36

Audio available here

From time to time we will hear someone refer to something as being “God-forsaken.” Often times a city may be spoken of as a “God-forsaken town.” Donia and I visited a city in Eastern Europe some years ago that was so spiritually empty, so morally dark, just so totally repulsive on so many levels, that at the end of the day, I said as we left, “Let’s get out of this God-forsaken city.” I regret saying that. I do not believe God had forsaken that city, but I believe that the unpleasant atmosphere of the city had caused many of God’s people to forsake it, offering little hope for change to ever take place there. Jonathan Kozol’s book Rachel and Her Children features profiles and interviews of various homeless families in America. One of the women Kozol interviewed had raised her children in a New York City homeless shelter surrounded by all sorts of depravity and filth. She described her spiritual condition as a result of that period as follows:

I don’t pray! Pray for what? I’ve been prayin’ all my life and I’m still here. When I came to this [shelter] I still believed in God. I said: ‘Maybe God can help us to survive.’ I lost my faith. My hopes. And everything. Aint’ notbody—no God, no Jesus, gonna help us in no way. … I do believe. God forgive me. I believe he’s there. But when he sees us like this, I am wonderin’ where is he? I am askin’, “Where … [has] he gone?”

Interestingly, Kozol noticed that her Bible was opened to the 23rd Psalm beside of her bed. I know that Psalm is a favorite to many people, but I think for her, she was one-off. Had she been reading Psalm 22, she would have read these words in the very first verse: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That was the real question she was asking. That was the question that David, the anointed King of Israel was asking in that Psalm. And that was the question that Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, was asking on the cross. Various preachers and scholars have used different phrases throughout the centuries to describe this statement made by Jesus as He died. It has been called the cry of desolation, the cry of desertion, the cry of dereliction, the cry of despair, and the cry of desperation. But perhaps no one has better captured the true nature of this expression than R. C. Sproul. He says, “This cry represents the most agonizing protest ever uttered on this planet. It bursts forth in the moment of unparalleled pain. It is the scream of the damned.”

It is said that Martin Luther agonized over this text for a long period of time before finally throwing up his hands and exclaiming, “God forsaken of God! Who can understand that?” Who can fathom that God the Son, eternally coexistent with God the Father, one and the same divine nature with God the Father, in perfect harmony and unity with God the Father in the Holy Trinity, could utter such a cry? Even those around Him on that dreadful day could not understand it. They thought He was calling out to Elijah to save him. Whether Jesus spoke in Hebrew or in Aramaic as He uttered this scream, the word for “My God,” is very similar to the word for “Elijah” in both languages. Certainly, in His state of exhaustion and agony, as He screamed theses words in a loud voice, it would be an easy mistake for the hearers to make. A popular tradition in Judaism at that time was that Elijah would come in times of great need to protect the innocent and rescue the suffering. And so they assumed that Jesus was expressing frustration that Elijah had been so slow in coming to His aid. This prompted one of the bystanders to offer Jesus a drink of sour wine. This beverage, a kind of vinegar known among the Romans as posca, was a refreshing, thirst-quenching drink that soldiers often drank while on duty as a stimulant. It may be that they wondered themselves if Elijah would come, so they offered Jesus this drink to keep Him alive and conscious while they waited to see what Elijah would do. If Jesus had been calling out to Elijah, then these words would be more understandable. But Jesus was not calling out to Elijah; He was calling out to God.

It is interesting that of all the recorded words that Jesus ever spoke to God, this is the only time He ever referred to Him as God. In every other instance, Jesus refers to God as “Father.” But here, it is “God.” One scholar tells us that it was common for those who were crucified to scream out in rage and pain with “wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair.” But Jesus was not calling out curses against God. Even in the midst of His suffering, He is still cognizant of a personal relationship with His Father, as He says twice, “My God!” His is not a cry of disbelief or denouncement. But it is, as Sproul says, the scream of the damned. God the Son has been forsaken by God the Father. And like Jesus, we too want to know, “Why?” Why has the sinless Son of God, the perfect and righteous servant who has always done the will of the Father, experienced such undeserved condemnation and wrath? There are two words that explain it. Sproul says that it is “the scream of the damned – for us.” FOR US. The answer to the question “Why?” are those two words. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” The answer: For us.

Jesus defined His own mission and ministry in Mark 10:45 saying, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” To ransom something is to pay a price of redemption. What does humanity need to be redeemed from? The Bible is clear from beginning to end that we are enslaved to sin. Ever since Adam and Eve fell to sin in the garden, each of their offspring through all these generations has been born in a state of natural rebellion against God. We are sinners by nature, but also by choice. We are prone to view ourselves as the center of our own existence and make choices based on what we want, regardless of how offensive it is to God or one another. So we are doubly enslaved to sin – by nature and by choice. And what is the penalty for sin? The Bible tells us in Romans 6:23 that it is death; “The wages of sin is death.” There is a sense in which physical death is the result of our sinful state. After all, death entered the human race because of sin. But then there is another sense in which sin produces a spiritual death, which is separation from God. When God said to Adam, “In the day that you eat of this fruit, you will surely die,” did Adam die physically that day? No, by God’s mercy, his physical life was extended for many years beyond that. But immediately, Adam was separated from God in a state of spiritual death. Each of us is born in a state of spiritual death. In Ephesians, Paul says, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Physically, they were alive, but they had been born spiritually dead, just as all of us are. That state of spiritual death is a separation from God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities [or sins] have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” And if we die physically in that state of spiritual death, our separation from God will be eternal in the place of unending torment that the Bible calls Hell.

So, if Jesus is going to give His life as a ransom for many, it means that He will have to pay the price of redemption to rescue us from our sins and their penalty. And this is exactly what the Scriptures tell us that He did. Because of our sins, we deserve to be cursed of God under His righteous wrath. But Jesus became accursed for us as He took the penalty of our sins upon Himself as our substitute. He received the wrath of God which He did not deserve, but which we do. Paul said in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written (referring to Deut 21:23), "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” He hung on the tree of Golgotha, the cross on which He died, to receive in Himself the curse of God poured out against sin.

When Jesus died on the cross, Mark tells us here in 15:26, a placard was inscribed which said, “The King of the Jews.” It was customary for a person who died by Roman execution to have their charges publicly displayed for all to see. For Jesus, the official charge in the eyes of the Romans was high treason, as He made rival claims of authority which they perceived as a threat against the Empire. However, in God’s eyes, the charges that brought about Jesus’ death were something different. Imagine if you could write every one of your sins on a tablet—all the sins you have ever committed, or will ever commit. Not just the big ones that stand out, but every single one of them, great and small. Then imagine that every person who has ever lived or will ever live does the same thing. Now imagine with me that one by one each of us takes those charges and nails them to the cross of Jesus. That is why He died. He died for every lie ever told, every murder ever committed, every act of adultery, theft, cruelty, deceit, dishonesty, and on and on we could go, ever committed by human beings. Isaiah had prophesied some 700 years before that the suffering Messiah would come, and that the Lord would lay on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6). As Jesus hung on the cross, the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Him who knew no sin TO BE SIN on our behalf. When God looks upon the cross of Christ, He no longer sees His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased, but sees one enormous and grotesque mass of sin. And He pours out upon that mass of sin all of His righteous wrath and hatred for sin. Christ as our substitute receives the punishment from God that every human being who has ever lived or ever will deserves. And because God hates sin with such a holy passion, He cannot look upon it; He cannot tolerate its presence; therefore, the Son is forsaken by the Father in this moment of physical, emotional, and spiritual agony. God doesn’t tolerate sin, He doesn’t overlook sin, wink at it, or consider it to be no big deal. If you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at Jesus as He cries out with the scream of the damned. God wrapped His only begotten Son in it, and condemned it, rejected it, cursed it and forsook it.

You realize that Jesus knew He would live again. At least three times He has made it clear to His followers that He will die and that He will rise again. Yet, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asked the Father to let this cup pass from Him. He was asking if there was any way possible that God’s plan might be accomplished without Him having to suffer this death. But please understand, it was not the physical agony of the cross that Jesus wished to avoid. He knew it would only be temporary, and that He would rise again. Rather, it was the intense spiritual agony of being FORSAKEN by His Father as He bore the sins of humanity—as He BECAME the sins of humanity. This is why Jesus did not want to die. “He knew the crucifixion would rupture the close, unbroken fellowship He had enjoyed with the Father from all eternity.” He prayed in the Garden that He might avoid this death, not death in itself but THIS VERY death, because he knew that He would be God-forsaken there.

Now Mark tells us that at this very moment a miracle occurred in the natural order. For three hours, from noon until 3 PM, when ordinarily the sun would shine its brightest light over the land, there was total darkness. Some have speculated that this was a total eclipse, however those do not last for three hours. Even if they did, the fact that this was Passover indicates that it was during a full moon cycle, and total eclipses do not happen when the moon is in that phase. It was a miracle performed by God with no natural explanation. When miracles occur, they signify something, and in this case, the darkness was significant of what Jesus was going through at that moment. God had declared through the prophet Amos that a day was coming in which He would make the sun go down at noon and make the earth dark in broad daylight (Amos 8:9). He said that it would be like a time of mourning for an only son (8:10). In fact, it was just that. It was as if all nature mourned the death of the only begotten Son of God for sin. The sun was veiled in darkness indicating the severity of judgment that was being poured out on man’s sin. the wording that Mark uses is not precise enough to indicate whether this darkness covered only Jerusalem or Israel, or the whole world. It is interesting that around the exact same time, and Egyptian philosopher named Diogenes wrote of a time of extended darkness at midday and said, “Either the deity himself suffers, or he sympathizes with one that does.” Here was a man with no insight into God’s specific revelation, but who could understand that such an unprecedented phenomena had to do with the suffering of God. He had no way of knowing just how accurate his observation was. The deity was suffering in that darkness – suffering under the weight of judgment FOR US.

Darkness is a frequent sign of judgment in the Bible. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness. During the plagues on Egypt, before the final plague of the firstborn, God brought darkness over the entire land—the Bible calls it “a darkness which can be felt.” It was that kind of darkness over the land during Jesus’ death. It was the darkness of judgment as our sins were receiving their full penalty in the person of our substitute on the cross as He received the death we deserve. He underwent that ultimate separation from the Father that all of us deserve. He cried out with the scream of the damned—FOR US. He screamed that scream so that we do not have to. Because Jesus was forsaken, you and I will never have to cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because He screamed, we can sing. We can sing songs of worship and adoration as we respond to God’s gift of love and grace in this act. Christ suffered an eternity’s worth of condemnation in those hours so that we will be able to say as Paul says in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Every single person who has ever lived or ever will is enslaved from birth to the power sin. We are born in spiritual death. Therefore, Jesus said, if you want to see the Kingdom of God, you have to be what? BORN AGAIN. He died for our sins so that we could be made alive. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Just as our sins were placed on Christ as He died, so in return we receive from God the righteousness of Jesus. Because He was condemned for us, we can be justified in Him. We are saved by Him because He did not save Himself from this hour of agonizing death. The separation from God that we are born into has been remedied by the cross and all who turn to Him in repentance and faith and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior will never be God-forsaken. Christ was forsaken for us. And therefore, though we were born in spiritual death, we can be made alive in Him if we receive Him on the basis of what He has done for us.

But what if a person never comes to faith in Christ? What will become of him or her? If he or she refuses to accept what Christ has done for them, then that person actually chooses to bear their own sins before God. It is a very simple choice – let Christ bear your sins on the cross, or bear them yourself. But know this, in so doing, one accepts the full penalty of sin. That includes not only physical death, but the spiritual death as well – that eternal separation from God in the outer darkness of hell. What we see Jesus enduring here on the cross is hell. Hell will be eternally filled with the screams of the damned who cry out in their forsaken state from the darkness. And there will be no need to ask on that day, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” The more appropriate question will be, “O man, O woman, why have you forsaken such a great salvation? Why have you turned away from Him who was forsaken for you? Why have you chosen to bear your own sins, when Christ bore them for you so you could be set free and saved?” He screamed the scream of the damned so that you don’t have to.

My pastor, Mark Corts, told me once that he was talking with a man about Jesus one day, and this man kept offering excuse after excuse of why he would not accept Christ. At one point, he said to Dr. Corts, “If Jesus is the only way to be saved, what about the heathen in Africa who has never heard about Jesus?” Dr. Corts replied, “Friend, at this moment, I am more concerned about the heathen in this room who has heard about Him.” How many have heard and walked away in unbelief? I wonder today how many people sit in churches every Sunday and call themselves Christians but have never made the personal decision to accept Christ’s death on the cross for their sins? How many make a habit of church attendance because their family or friends have placed the expectation on them, but have never genuinely been saved? Do you realize what Jesus did when He died on the cross? Do you realize that He did this for you? He was forsaken of God so that you can be accepted by God. He bore your sins and mine so that we don’t have to. O, if you have never trusted Him to save you before, I pray that you would even this very day. See your sin for what it really is, and its penalty in all its terrible horror. Hear the scream of the God-forsaken who cries out in utter darkness, and know that He did it so that you don’t have to. As the writer of Hebrews says, “If … every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation” (Heb 2:2-3).

And those of us who have received this salvation, how can we keep this news to ourselves? How can we go on knowing the fate of our friends and loved ones, even total strangers here and abroad and not speak up and take action. Can we go on knowing that they will be forsaken of God eternally if they do not trust in Him who was forsaken for them? So, we must pray. We must wear out our knees in prayer asking God to save the lost. And we must testify to them of this truth. I don’t know why God chose to do it this way, but He has only one plan for the lost world to hear and know about Christ; that is for you and I to tell them. That’s plan A; there is no plan B. So let us do just that – let us tell those whom we know and love that there is a Savior who died for their sins, who was forsaken by God, so that they don’t have to be. And let us rejoice in the wonder of this salvation that we have. That God would love us to such a degree that He would become one of us in the person of Christ – God the Son made flesh and dwelling among us, and that He would undergo such horrendous suffering, even becoming forsaken by God the Father—God forsaken of God—that we might hear Him say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Oh the miracle of God’s mercy and His grace. Because Christ was God-forsaken for you, you will never be God-forsaken. Because He screamed the scream of the damned for us, we can sing the song of the redeemed to Him.

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