Monday, March 19, 2012

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Matthew 27:39-54)



Over these weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday, we’ve been studying the seven sayings of Christ on the Cross. Some have called these sayings, “the last words of Jesus,” but that’s not entirely accurate. We know that after His death on the cross, He rose from the dead and spent many days teaching His disciples, and in fact He continues to speak by His Spirit and through His Word. So, these are not His “last words,” but they are important words that He speaks in the hours prior to His death. He did not say a lot in terms of quantity. He only uttered seven expressions, but these expressions are profound and rich in substance. Russell Bradley Jones says, “Everything at Calvary is significant, but in a very special sense the Saviour’s seven words, spoken from the heart of His vicarious suffering, interpret Him to mankind. He spoke seven times …. Not a word too many or too few.”[1] Today we move into the fourth of these sayings. Already we have seen how He prayed for His murderers, that the Father would have mercy and forgive them. We have seen how He assured the repentant criminal that he would be in paradise. And we have seen how the Lord Jesus entrusted His mother Mary into the care of His disciple John. The fourth saying that we examine today is a cry of anguish and agony to His Heavenly Father; the Lord Jesus says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” It is said that the brilliant Martin Luther devoted himself to the study of this statement for a lengthy time, going without food and not rising from his chair while in deepest meditation on this text. At last Luther arose from his seat and exclaimed in amazement, “God forsaken of God! Who can understand that?”[2] But, with all due respect to the illustrious reformer, we must drive ourselves to understand this text and discover the riches that it offers. 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.”[3]

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? As we examine this text in its context in Matthew today, I want to address the choice that Jesus made to be forsaken by His Father; the testimony of all creation to this forsaking of the Son by the Father; and then finally, to answer the question, “Why?” So, let’s begin with the choice.

I. Jesus chose to be forsaken by His Father (vv39-44)

Some of you may remember the great controversy that erupted over the 1988 Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ. That movie and the book on which it is based shows no real understanding of the nature of Christ and the severity of the temptations that He uniquely faced. He faced every temptation that you and I face, but He also faced temptations that you and I will never comprehend. I think the real “last temptation of Christ” comes here in this passage. In verses 39-40, people passing by the cross where Jesus hung dying were saying, “Save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In verses 41-43, the religious leaders were saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God; Let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” What was the meaning of this verbal abuse? Had they not already tortured and shamed Jesus enough? Were the scourging, and the beating, and the mocking, and the nailing and the hanging that He had already experienced not sufficient to satisfy their corrupted hearts? No, they continued to heap this abuse upon Jesus, but the abuse was more than just the spouting off of the mouth by His earthly adversaries. These words were inflamed by the fires of hell itself. These were verbalized Satanic temptations to divert Jesus from His redemptive mission to save humanity from sin. Satan had sought to derail Jesus’ journey to the cross at every turn. And here is one last-ditch effort. Jesus is being tempted to save Himself.

Make no mistake about it: Jesus did say that He was the Son of God and the King of Israel. And those things were true. And make no mistake about it: at any given moment, either He or His Father could bring this whole ordeal to a halt. He could come down from the cross. God could rescue Him. He could save Himself. You recall how, when Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter wanted to put up a fight. He drew his sword and began to swing it to defend himself and Jesus. And you recall how Jesus said to him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53). And if He could do it then and there, He could do it here and now on the cross. But He didn’t. He had a choice to make under this intense temptation. He could save Himself, or He could save the world. Jesus did not give into this temptation, and He gave Himself up to death, choosing to be forsaken by His Father as He bore the sins of the world.
 
II. The universe bore witness that Christ was forsaken by His Father (vv45-46)

What happened in that moment as Christ died bearing the sins of all humanity can only be described as the outbreak of hell on earth. Hell is described as a place of darkness and isolation; a place of separation from God; a place where sin receives the full measure of wrath that it warrants. And all of those conditions exist here on earth in these very moments when Jesus is dying.

At noon last Wednesday, I was walking across the parking lot of the hospital enjoying the bright sunshine and 80 degree weather, thinking “Why did I ever give up playing golf?” At noon on the day that Jesus died, the sky turned completely black and remained that way for three hours. In what would normally be the brightest period of the day, from noon until 3:00 PM, there was utter darkness upon all the land. 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 pointing to 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. It is interesting that around the exact same time, an 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 divine Son of God was suffering in that darkness – suffering under the weight of judgment from His Father; suffering not for His own sins but for ours. The Father could not look upon Him as He bore that sin; and the sun was blotted out so that no one else could look upon Him either. 

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.

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, rather God allowed a substitute to die in Adam’s place. The Bible tells us that God made coverings for Adam and Eve, garments of skin. In order to make a garment of skin, something had to die. There had to be a substitute—a sacrifice.

By God’s mercy, Adam’s physical life was extended for many years beyond that day. But immediately, in the very moment that Adam sinned, he 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, Matthew tells us here in verse 37 that 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 against Him was blasphemy and high treason, as He made claims of His own deity and authority. 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 this scream of the damned. What does God think of sin? He wrapped His only begotten Son in it, and then condemned it, judged it, punished it, rejected it, cursed it and forsook it. So intense was the fury of His wrath that the sun was blotted out and the ground began to shake and the rocks split in two. The entire universe was bearing witness to the fact that hell on earth had been unleashed, and that Son of God was bearing man’s sin and its full measure of wrath under the holy judgment of the Father.

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is the scream of the damned. And what is the answer to this prayer? Have you ever noticed that there are times when you are in intense agony and despair, when you cry out to God, it seems that He is silent in response? In A Grief Observed, we read C. S. Lewis’s attempt to journal through the grief of his wife’s death. At one point, he says, “When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing [God], … if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.” He says that he shared these thoughts with a friend, and his friend reminded him “that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’” Lewis said, “I know. Does that make it easier to understand?” [4] Perhaps not, but then again, I want to question an assumption that Lewis is making. Did Jesus really find, when He prayed this prayer, this scream of the damned, that the door was slammed in His face, double-bolted from the inside? Was there really no answer given? I suggest that there was an immediate answer to the question, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

III. The Father’s answer to the question of the Son is our hope of glory (vv51-54)

As Jesus dies on the cross, He is fulfilling the mission for which He was born. He came to die. He came to bear the sins of the world. In a sense, He is the only begotten Son, incarnate in the flesh, for the express purpose of coming to this moment in which He would be forsaken by His Father and utter this unbearable scream of the damned. But why? Two words answer the question pretty well: “For us.” Sproul says, “This cry … is the scream of the damned – for us.”[5] In the Nicene Creed, the only creed universally accepted by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians, we read that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” Why? “For our sake,” the creed says. All that He is, and all that He did, was, in the words of the creed, “For us and for our salvation.”

Notice how the answer is given immediately to the question of Christ. As the ground begins to shake, Matthew says that the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. That veil which separated the holy place from the holy of holies measured 60 feet in height by 30 feet wide. It was said to be as thick as the palm of a man’s hand and so heavy that it took a multitude of priests to manipulate it. Only the high priest could enter in, and only once a year, and only with the sacrificial blood for the atonement of the sins of the people. This veil was a loud and clear declaration that God is holy and set apart from sinful humanity. It announced to everyone near and far, “STAY OUT OF MY PRESENCE.” It said, “When you approach God, you can come this far but no further.” If you enter beyond that veil, you better be the foremost priest of all, and you better come on the holiest day of all, and you better bring the blood with you, and you better not stay long. The whole sacrificial system of that Temple revolved around that understanding. But when Jesus died, that old system met its expiration date. No longer would any man, woman or child come to God by that way again. The veil was torn in two, indicating that a way had been made for people to come into God’s presence. The way was made by the shedding of blood: not the blood of lambs and bulls, but the blood of Christ. He had become our High Priest, and through Him we have access to the Father.

And notice that Matthew says that as the earth shook, “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Matthew is the only Gospel-writer who records this information, and he does it in a rather matter-of-fact kind of way. There are far more details that we do not know than those that we know. All we know is what is said here in these two verses. We do not know how many of the dead were raised to life. We do not know if they were well known (David, Abraham, Isaiah, and people like that), or if they were “Average Joe” kind of folks. We do not know if they were people who had recently died or if they had died long ago. We do not know if their “resurrection” was only temporary, or was this a final resurrection, after which they ascended into heaven? We don’t know who they saw in Jerusalem, or what they did, or what they said. We want to know all of those things, but alas we have to say we do not, and cannot, know. The Bible doesn’t tell us all we want to know. It does tell us all we need to know. And what this miracle tells us is that the death of Jesus has brought unconquerable life to those who believe on Him. Jesus had told His disciples, “Because I live, you will live also.” But here is Jesus dying, so what kind of hope is that? It is a great hope, because death can neither hold Christ nor those who are His in its grasp. His death and resurrection infuses those who hope in Him with life abundant and eternal. Some, for whatever reason God intended, and according to His sovereign choice, had the opportunity to experience the power of His resurrection in advance of the rest of us. And the partial resurrection which occurred on that day as Jesus died “was a foretaste and a pledge of the final resurrection of all who believe on Jesus.” God was indicating through this miracle that “this is the destiny of all who believe on Jesus Christ as their Savior.”[6] We have a hope beyond this life and beyond the grave because Jesus was forsaken on our behalf. He died our death in order that we may have His deathproof life for eternity.

And then in verse 54 we meet a man who embodies the answer to both prayers that Jesus has prayed thus far in His dying hours. For the people who were putting Him to death, Jesus had prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And then He prayed, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Then we see the centurion, the commanding officer of the death squad, beholding the Lord Jesus on the cross, dying for this man’s sins. And he says, “Truly this was the Son of God.” Why was the Son forsaken? So that this centurion, and you and I, and anyone else who comes to call upon Christ by faith as Lord and Savior would never be forsaken, but forgiven instead. He cried out with the scream of the damned so that we could sing forever the song of the redeemed. Revelation 5:9 tells us that for all eternity will sing to Jesus, “Worthy are You … for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” This is the answer to the question. When Jesus asks, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, the answer is “for us and for our salvation.” We must look to the cross and see Him dying there for our sins, that we may have access to God by His blood, that we may have life beyond death, that we may be forgiven because He was forsaken. And the cross beckons us to behold Him and say by faith, “Truly this was the Son of God!”







[1] Russell Bradley Jones, Gold from Golgotha (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 12.
[2] Quoted in Jones, 64.
[3] Quoted in C. J. Mahaney, Living the Cross Centered Life (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2006), 89.
[4] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 5-6.
[5] Mahaney, 89.
[6] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 2, The Triumph of the King, Matthew 18-28 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 626-627. 

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