Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?

In Ukraine this year, we celebrated Easter much later than in the West.  It turns out that this year’s Easter celebration landed on Mexico’s Independence Day.  We have been especially busy this April and May, so I only preached one Easter message.  However, it is one that has been forming for years and I want to share part of it here.

In Matthew 27:46 Jesus yells out, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?"  As a young believer this statement bothered me.  Over the years, I have been offered various answers.  At first I was told that Jesus expected the Father to save Him.  I rejected this view right away.  A quick read of any one of the Gospels makes it clear that Jesus expected to suffer and die.  Later, I was told that in His agony, He lost perspective for a moment and in called out to God for help.  I accepted this explanation for some time but it never completely satisfied me.  It troubled me that, even in anguish, Jesus lost perspective.  He knew what was coming.  He Himself said that He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many people (Matthew 20:28).  He tells the disciples repeatedly that he is going to suffer, die and rise again on the third day (cf. Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19).  We see Jesus’ struggle in the garden of Gethsemane.  Matthew tells us that Jesus said he was deeply grieved and troubled.  He prayed that if it is possible to let this cup pass from Him.  Then He says to the Father, “Not my will but Your will be done” (Matthew 26:38-39).  It is clear that Jesus knows that he will suffer and die.  The crucifixion was no surprise to Him. 

Sometime later I was told a different explanation.  I was told that at the moment Jesus cried out, God the Father laid all the sins of mankind on Jesus and then turned His back on His only Son.  This was based largely on II Corinthians 5:21.  This experience of separation from the Father was so painful to Jesus that, even though He knew it was going to happen, He expressed His anguish in the phrase, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  If the Father did turn His back on Jesus, then Jesus’ statement did make more sense.  But I was still bothered by the fact that if Jesus knew this was going to happen, why cry out when it does.  He sounds surprised to me.  I was told another variation on this view.  I was told that Jesus did expect to suffer and die, but He didn’t realize that the Father would turn His back.  When this happened it was a surprise to Him and He cried out.  OK, that made some sense, but then I tried to wrestle with the idea of a division in the Trinity.  If the Father turned His back on the Son, then Jesus must have experienced some separation from the Father.  If the three are one, how can this be?  Was the nature of God the Trinity changed for a short time?  In that case God is no longer immutable.  This really bothered me. 

Then (I should have figured this out myself) I heard a sermon that introduced me to a new fact.  Jesus was quoting the Old Testament.  He was quoting Psalm 22.  I read the Psalm and realized that David was describing something very close to what Jesus experienced on the cross.  I thought that Perhaps Jesus was using Scripture to express His pain.  This also satisfied me for a while.  Then I decided to do some more reading and carefully read the passage in Matthew.  From this I realized five things:

1.      By the first century Psalm 22 was considered a Messianic/Prophetic Psalm.

2.      The Pharisees and Priests also quoted from Psalm 22.  They quoted from Psalm 22:8.

3.      If a Rabbi wanted to make a quick reference to an entire Psalm and the theology connected with that Psalm, he often just quoted the first verse.

4.      In my general study, I was realizing more and more that Jesus often spoke to the Jewish a kind of loaded educated language.  In other words, he knew the theology of the day and how to speak in ways that communicate more than the words he was using. 

5.      Finally, after Jesus’ cry, Matthew records that the people reacted (probably more according to their superstition) but the Jewish leaders were silent.  If we assume that the leaders were still there, this is very strange and their silence is very loud.

What did the Pharisees and priests do when they heard this?  What did they think?  Why were they silent?  Not long before this they were mocking Jesus.  This was a perfect chance for them to mock Him some more.  “Where is Elijah?  Help me Elijah?  Elijah only saves the innocent!  He won’t help you!”  But they are silent.  Why?   The leaders are silent because they are probably in shock.  They have been mocking Jesus.  They have been feeling prideful.  They won.  They struggled with Jesus and won…He is being crucified!  They mock Jesus with Psalm 22:8, "Commit yourself to the LORD; perhaps the LORD will deliver him, perhaps he will cause him to escape, since he delights in him."  see Matthew 27:43.  (In the Psalm, the enemies that surround David say this.)  But they don’t mock Jesus.  Jesus yells and they are silent.

The Pharisees are also theologians.  Imagine what could have happened in their minds.  They see Jesus suffering on the cross and think, “Good, let Him suffer.  He called Himself God!  He called Himself Messiah!  He is a blasphemer and they do not deserve mercy!”  They mock him with a quote from a Messianic Psalm.  Then, Jesus cries out the first verse of that same Psalm.  When they hear the words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” they can’t help but hear the entire Psalm in their head.

·         Psalm about the Messiah
·         The Messiah suffers but trusts in God.
·         The Messiah is mocked.  (We are mocking Jesus).
·         His hands are pierced (they see Jesus’ hands).
·         They cast lots for His clothing.  (They see the soldiers.)
·         He trusts in God (they see Jesus’ face).
·         The Messiah will be delivered and praise God.
·         The Messiah will proclaim God’s righteousness to the generations.

These and many more things probably came to their mind all at once.  Then, I think at least some of them understood.  The Messiah is supposed to conquer and deliver Israel but He is also supposed to suffer.  Could Jesus really be the Messiah?  Could this be the meaning of the Psalm?  Could we be the ones in the Psalm who mock the Messiah?  Are we the enemies who surround Him?  Then feelings of panic appear.  Are we looking at the fulfillment of the Psalm?  What have we done?!  When I remembered that many of the Pharisees and Priests became believers, I wandered if (at least for some of them) this could have been the moment that shocked them into belief.

By shouting out, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus has, in a sense, shouted Psalm 22.  At least that is what would have gone through the minds of the Rabbis.  By this one statement Jesus has said, “I am suffering terrible, yet I will trust the Lord my God.”  It was not a cry of confusion but a cry of confidence.  He is proclaiming again that He is the Messiah.  He is doing it in a way that leaders will understand and they are speechless.  He cries out, “I am the Messiah, I am suffering yet I will trust in God.  I will praise Him.  The ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord.  This is what was prophesied through the Psalm.  You are looking at the fulfillment of the Psalm!

It makes much more sense to me intellectually that Jesus would communicate from the cross in a way that uses few words but communicates much – especially to the Jewish leaders.  It also brings megreat comfort that Jesus did not lose perspective in His suffering.  In fact, if this understanding is correct, He remained profoundly clearheaded to the end.  After hearing the leaders quote from Psalm 22, He was able to respond to them.  In His response He communicated his pain, His reliance on the Father, that He is fulfilling his role as the Messiah and that they are looking at the fulfillment of the Psalm.  He did this all in one short statement.  Jesus remained absolutely resolute in His mission to the end.  As Paul says in Hebrews, “…in view of the joy set before him, (He – Jesus) endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”