Introduction: The website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association offers the following answer answer to the question, Did God really forsake Jesus when He was dying on the cross?:
Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) has puzzled many. Jesus is actually quoting the opening line of Psalm 22 and using it to express His deep agony on the cross. He is suffering the penalty for our sin, in our place.
The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death includes two dimensions—physical and spiritual. Physical death is the separation of the spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the spirit from God. Since Jesus was dying for our sin as our substitute, He was experiencing the agony of separation from His Father. It was the agony of hell.
There is an unfathomable mystery here. Jesus was both God and man united in one divine Person. He could not suffer and die with respect to His deity, but He could suffer the agony of separation from the Father and actually die physically with respect to His humanity. And He did, that we might, through repentance from sin and faith in Him as our Savior and Lord, be forgiven of our sin and reconciled with God.
Frankly, I am not at all satisfied with this answer, because I think it is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, I think it creates a Christological problem in that it supposes that Jesus could be completely separated from God the Father in His humanity and even suffer spiritual death, while at the same time being united with Him in His deity. But this seems to deny the important point that Jesus was both fully God and fully man in one person. To be sure, there are certain things we must say about Jesus with respect only to His divine nature – such as when we describe Him as omniscient or omnipresent. And there are certain things we must say about Jesus with respect only to His human nature – such as when we describe Him as tired or hungry or tempted by sin. But there are also certain things we must say about Jesus as a person – such as when we describe Him as loving or righteous. This is because, if we said that He was sinful in His humanity, we would also be saying He was a sinful person, since He was only one person – albeit with two natures – and we could thus not avoid impugning His character as God. So, I am concerned that we are treading on dangerous ground if we say that He could be separated from God even if only in terms of His humanity, because this would imply separation not only from God the Father but also from Himself as God, since God the Father and God the Son are forever one and are inseparable (e.g. John 1:1-3).
I am glad that the staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association correctly assert that “there is an unfathomable mystery” in our understanding of how “Jesus was both God and man united in one divine Person,” but they clearly don’t think it is a mystery that He is such a Person. So why adopt an interpretation that seems to clearly undermine this assertion?
Second, although they correctly assert that Jesus was citing “the opening line of Psalm 22 and using it to express His deep agony on the cross,” they fail to appreciate fully the significance of this citation. For had they fully appreciated why Jesus cited the opening line of Psalm 22, then they would not have asserted that He was separated from God the Father.
At any rate, I hope to show you today what I think is a better interpretation of this text. So, in order to better understand this cry of Jesus from the cross, we will examine first the context of the cry, and then the meaning of the cry.
I. The Context of the Cry
We find the immediate context of the cry in verse 33.
NKJ Mark 15:33 Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
Mark specifies that there was a darkness over the whole land beginning at “the sixth hour,” which was noon, when the sun was directly overhead and the day was typically at its brightest. He then says that this darkness was over the whole land until “the ninth hour,” which was 3:00 in the afternoon. Clearly, then, he wants us to see that this was a miraculous event and thus a sign from God.
But if this darkness constitutes some kind of sign from God, then what does it mean? I think a look at a couple of Old Testament passages will help to shed some light on the meaning of this darkness. Consider, for example, the words of judgment spoken through the prophet Amos:
NKJ Amos 8:9-10 “And it shall come to pass in that day [the Day of the Lord, recall 5:8],” says the Lord GOD, “That I will make the sun go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in broad daylight; 10 I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist, and baldness on every head; I will make it like mourning for an only son, and its end like a bitter day.”
Clearly a miraculous darkness in the middle of the day would be a sign of God’s judgment, wouldn’t it? In this case it would signify the judgment of the Day of the LORD.
However, there is an even earlier and, perhaps, an even more significant Scripture to take into account here. Consider the account of the ninth plague that God brought upon Egypt, when a deep darkness enveloped the entire land just prior to the tenth plague and the institution of the first Passover:
NKJ Exodus 10:21-23 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, darkness which may even be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. 23 They did not see one another; nor did anyone rise from his place for three days. But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
This plague was then followed by the tenth plague, when all the firstborn in the land of Egypt were killed, but God instituted the first Passover in order to protect His people who trusted in Him for their salvation. Even so, when Jesus “our Passover” – as Paul later calls Him (1 Cor. 5:7) – was killed at the time of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, the miraculous darkness during the brightest part of the day seems to indicate the wrath of God upon the people who were killing Jesus and upon Jesus Himself as He bore the wrath of God for His people.
So we see that darkness over the land is a sign of God’s judgment. But, as we also know, instead of God’s wrath being poured out on those who deserved it, it was poured out on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who “Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2; 4:10). And this leads us to our next point.
II. The Meaning of the Cry
We will examine the meaning of the cry as we consider verse 34.
NKJ Mark 15:34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
There are at least a couple of things we can say about the meaning of this cry.
First, it is a cry of anguish.
In order to understand more clearly what was going on when Jesus uttered this cry, it is important to remember the anguish with which Jesus looked forward to the cross when He prayed in Gethsemane the night before:
NKJ Mark 14:32-36 Then they came to a place which was named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And He took Peter, James, and John with Him, and He began to be troubled and deeply distressed. 34 Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch.” 35 He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. 36 And He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”
When Jesus asked for the “cup” to be removed from Him – a cup which made Him “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” – He was recalling the Old Testament imagery of the cup of God’s wrath. For example:
NKJ Isaiah 51:17 Awake, awake! Stand up, O Jerusalem, You who have drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of His fury; you have drunk the dregs of the cup of trembling, and drained it out.
This is the kind of thing Jesus meant to say when He referred to the cup He was about to have poured out upon Him on the cross. And thus, when He cried out with a loud voice and said “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was describing the experience of the wrath of God being poured out upon Him, the one about whom the Father had previously said, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (1:11).
But, lest we wrongly think that the Father is now somehow displeased with His beloved Son, we must remember that He was pleased with the Son even as His wrath was poured out upon Him for us, for even in this the Son was willingly obeying the Father’s plan. Remember what the LORD said in the famous Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53:
NKJ Isaiah 53:10-12 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
So, although what actually happened on the cross is in many ways a mystery to us, surely we can say that Jesus’ anguished cry that He was forsaken by the Father means at least that He now experienced the wrath of God that was due to us for our sins. This acceptance by Jesus of the wrath of God for our sins is what the Apostle Paul later referred to as propitiation:
NKJ Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation [a sacrifice that assuages the wrath of God] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
This is why Paul later says in the same Epistle to the Romans:
NKJ Romans 5:8-10 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
It is also why Paul could say to the Thessalonian believers:
NKJ 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.
So, Jesus cried out in anguish as He bore the Father’s wrath for our sins, and this too was pleasing to the Father, who was not separated from Him but looked upon Him and was satisfied with His offering. For Jesus willingly did this as a part of His Father’s gracious plan to save us, which leads us to our next point.
Second, it is a cry of faith.
Observe that – even while crying out, “Why have you forsaken me?” – Jesus still refers to God with the twofold, “My God, My God.” He is not separated from Him but rather prays to Him and trusts in Him even as He bears His wrath for our sins. Even on the cross, as He was experiencing the cup of God’s wrath being poured out upon Him in our place, an event that we could never really understand or describe, Jesus still had a relationship with the Father, and trusted in the Father, whose plan He was carrying out. This may further be seen when we remember that Jesus was actually quoting Scripture with these words! For, as I have already pointed out, Jesus was citing the opening line of Psalm 22, an important Messianic psalm:
NKJ Psalm 22:1 “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning?”
Thus, Jesus was indicating the anguish of being without His Father’s help while on the cross, but this does not mean that He was separated from the Father, as we may see if we read the rest of the psalm, which is what Jesus was inviting the hearers to do when He cited the first line. In a day when there were no chapter and verse divisions in the Scriptures, it was a way of bringing to mind a particular passage. So let’s briefly look at some of the passage Jesus so desperately wanted us to think about. For example:
NKJ Psalm 22:14-21 I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; it has melted within Me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death. 16 For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; 17 I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. 18 They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots. 19 But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! 20 Deliver Me from the sword, My precious life from the power of the dog. 21 Save Me from the lion’s mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me.
Jesus’ allusion to this Psalm demonstrated that He was acutely aware that He was fulfilling the Father’s plan, and that He trusted in that plan. Indeed, it expressed His assurance that the Father heard Him even while He was hanging on the cross and suffering for our sins. As a matter of fact, Luke tells us that the last thing Jesus said before He died was a prayer to His Father:
NKJ Luke 23:44-46 Now it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. 45 Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two. 46 And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” Having said this, He breathed His last.
But, turning back to Psalm 22 for a moment, we will see that Jesus was filled with a desire that His Father be glorified through his death on the cross:
NKJ Psalm 22:22-24 I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You. 23 You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, and fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when He cried to Him, He heard.
You see, Jesus knew that, even while He was experiencing an agony beyond description on the cross, His Father would be glorified through it, for He had not hidden His face from Him but was satisfied with what He did and was pleased with Him as He did it, just as Isaiah prophesied that He would be.
Conclusion: I hope, then, that you can see that Jesus was not separated from the Father as He died in our place on the cross. Instead He was working together with the Father, fulfilling the Father’s plan, to bear our sins and provide salvation for us fully and freely. This is why those of us who have trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior need not fear God’s wrath, for Jesus is our Shepherd and Guardian. As the apostle Peter said, “[He] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness – by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24-25).