(As part of the annual Good Friday service at our church, someone shares a short reflection on each of the Seven Last Words of Jesus. This year I was asked to share my thoughts on Matthew 27:46.)
“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?’” —Matthew 27:46
Forsaken. It’s hard to imagine Christ feeling forsaken or abandoned. He is the Son of God, and yet at that moment on the cross, he felt forsaken by the Father; left alone. Was he really expecting an answer from the Father? Did he, the Son of God, not know the reason he must suffer this death alone?
When Jesus spoke these words on the cross, he was quoting Scripture. They are the very words that David used in Psalm 22. The psalm begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” At his time of complete separation from God the Father, Jesus turned to Scripture.
In a way, we should not be surprised, as Jesus frequently quoted Scripture. It was the basis of his teaching. He used it in the wilderness to rebuke Satan. He even believed that Scripture was a more powerful witness than his miracles. And after his resurrection, the Gospel of Luke tells two stories where Jesus appeared to his disciples, and he used each occasion to point them back to Scripture.
On the road to Emmaus, Luke records, “… beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:7). And after Jesus departed, the disciples “… asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us’” (Luke 24:32)?
Likewise, when Jesus appeared to the Eleven and showed them his hands and feet he “… said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus used those few precious moments after his resurrection to show them how his life tied back to the Scriptures now contained in the Old Testament, and how his life is the fulfillment of all of it.
When Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, I believe he intended to point us to Scripture. In fact, portions of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion seem to mirror the very psalm Jesus was quoting. The psalm talks about the insults heaped upon David, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the LORD,’ they say, ‘let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’” (Psalm 22:7-8).
Listen to the similarities in how Matthew describes the crucifixion scene: “Those who passed by hurled insults at [Jesus], shaking their heads…. ‘He saved others’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matt. 27:39-43).
But David doesn’t end the psalm with abandonment or despair. Instead he sings God’s praises, and triumphantly declares his dominion over all nations, to the ends of the earth.
It’s easy to feel at times as if God has left us to fend for ourselves in today’s world. We can’t find a relationship that will last, or a consistent job to provide for our families. We pour our lives into raising our children, only to have them grow up and seemingly reject God. We finally gain the courage to share our beliefs about current events or politics with friends and co-workers, only to be thoroughly mocked for being out of touch. The church or denomination we’ve grown up in chooses what’s easy or acceptable to the world rather than the hard truth of Scripture. Sickness or a tragedy claims the life of a parent, a spouse, or a child. There are times we don’t feel God’s presence, and it seems we are alone, abandoned, forsaken.
It’s hard to imagine the extent to which Christ felt abandoned at that moment. It was apart from God the Father that he bore the burden of the world’s sins through an agonizing crucifixion. If we ignore Christ’s free gift of grace, if we do not admit our sin before God as well as our need for a Savior, we will spend eternity in hell, apart from God. But Christ willingly endured that separation on the cross so that we don’t have to.
When we feel abandoned, forsaken, look to the cross, follow the example of Christ, and turn to Scripture. For it’s in Scripture we find comfort that Christ “was not abandoned to the grave” (Acts 2:31). It’s in Scripture we are warned we will “experience persecution, but never abandonment” (2 Co. 4:9). It’s in Scripture that God promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
No, if we accept God’s gift of salvation, we are never forsaken or alone. Christ was forsaken at that hour, so that we will never be.