For Sake of the Joy

            We all know—each of us in our own way—what it is to feel alone, left behind, even abandoned or forsaken. These are emotions common to us.

            Jesus also knew real human joys and sorrows. He celebrated at weddings. He wept at funerals. He grew deeply weary during his temptation in the wilderness.

He chided his disciples for falling asleep as he was despairing in the Garden of Gethsemane. So when Jesus cried out from the cross, his depth of emotion was fully human.

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the only one of Christ’s seven last words recorded by more than one Gospel. Both Matthew and Mark record this anguished cry of dereliction. And of all his seven words, this is the only one they mention.

Of his prayers recorded in Scripture, only in this one does Jesus not address God as “Father.” Over and over again, he taught disciples and crowds alike that, with God— the Creator of all things, the Holy One of Israel—a tender, intimate, and trusting relationship is available. Jesus taught that it is God’s preferred relationship with us: one full of awe but free from fear, not austere and aloof, not held at arms length, but one characterized by an embrace of kindness and mercy, grace and love.

            So it is striking, in this most anguished and painful moment, Jesus does not call to God as “Abba” or “Father,” but as “Eloi.”

            “Eloi” is the everyday Aramaic form of the generic Hebrew root for “God.” It is the least intimate, least relational of biblical names for God. Neither does Jesus cry out to God as “Adonai”—LORD—the name that reminded Israel of God’s faithfulness and covenantal loyalty.

            In this supreme moment of stress and test, we might expect Jesus to call to God in his familiar fashion—as “Father”—yet he does not.

            His chosen words actually quote the beginning lines of Psalm 22. By the time of his life and ministry, this psalm was embraced as a Messianic psalm, one that in cryptic but specific ways pointed to Israel’s coming Messiah. Some argue, then, that Jesus’ cry is best understood as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

            Yet even formal fulfillment of prophecy does not lessen the personal force of Jesus’ exclamation. Even as he fulfills prophecy of that ancient oracle, he is trusting, depending, literally hanging on the truth of God’s Word.

Yet still he cries out:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

            The layers of meaning here are rich and deep. As it was originally on the psalmist’s lips, so also with Jesus it is the cry of a righteous person suffering. Yet even in the face of the psalmist’s or the Savior’s suffering it affirms by faith that God will surely, somehow rescue and vindicate. Underneath his anguish and his sense of abandonment and aloneness, there is Jesus’ faith in God’s power, God’s character, and God’s promise.

            Here, on the fulcrum of history, and at the very heart of it all is the theological crux of the matter, as cosmic forces of good and evil, sin and sacrifice, curse and blessing are being brought to terms once and for all at Calvary.

            At Calvary the love of God meets the high bar of God’s holiness. At Calvary the mercy of God pierces the darkness of all human sin. At Calvary the grace of God supplies all that we lack. At Calvary the sovereign love of God the Father, the sacrificing love of God the Son, and the sustaining love of God the Holy Spirit are at work together on our behalf.

            We don’t pretend to understand all that occurred in that moment on Calvary, yet we affirm the blessing of Christ’s saving work there for us, and its promise of eternal life.

St. Peter writes, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed… Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you back to God.”

            Donald Grey Barnhouse, an eminent Presbyterian preacher of the last century illustrated Christ’s saving work—how Christ rescued us from the destructive and damning effects of sin—by telling the story of a farmer, who one day looked across his fields to see them ablaze, with flames racing toward his barns and house. He rushed to set a backfire in hopes of salvaging what he could. After the crisis had passed, as he walked through the smoldering rubble, he looked down and saw the charred body of a mother hen, wings outstretched. He sadly turned over her remains with the toe of his boot, only to see her chicks run out from underneath, unharmed.

            The saving work of God through him came as no surprise to Jesus. Had he not told his disciples, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

            Yet the prospect of such work, of such a role, was daunting and grievous, even to the Son of God. Had he not prayed that his Father, if possible, might let the cup pass from him? Was it not the sheer weight of his work—both the prospects of it during his dark and torturous hours before Golgotha, and the actual passing of it in the crucifixion—was it not the sheer unprecedented, unequalled weight of his unique work that propelled him to cry

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

            His cry recognizes actual judicial separation from God the Father, as God the Son becomes the atoning sacrifice for human sin. But it also affirms, in the face of dire distress, a genuine, continuing, eternal relationship. The NT book of Hebrews says that Jesus, “…for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…”

            It would be difficult not to imagine, even as he cried out prophetic and personal words of anguish from the Psalms, that even deeper within Jesus re-echoed the Father’s words at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

            Commenting on the drama unfolding at Calvary, the 19th century Scottish writer George MacDonald says,

            Jesus could not see, could not feel God near, and yet it is “My God”that he cries. Thus the will of Jesus, in the very moment when his faith seems about to yield is finally triumphant. It has no feeling now to support it, no vision to absorb it. It stands naked in his soul and tortured…Pure and simple—and surrounded by fire—it declares for God.

May we find even the smallest portion of such faith—according to Jesus, all we really need—as during Holy Week and beyond we meditate on Christ’s cross, and in turn as we accept his invitation to take up our own and follow him.

Michael Denham

Author: expositionalvision

Michael Denham has served many years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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