The Sayings from the Cross, 3
Tony Renshaw, Heald Green, Cheshire
We now have two further sayings for our meditation, the first being the cry of dereliction "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" recorded by both Matthew and Mark, and the second, the prayer of self-commitment, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" recorded by Luke.
Matthew and Mark both record the fact that the supernatural darkness which descended at the sixth hour remained until the ninth hour, and that the anguished cry of abandonment escaped the Saviour's lips at the ninth hour. Both writers describe how bystanders mistook His cry as a call to Elijah for help, and how one filled a sponge with vinegar, put it on a reed and gave Him to drink. They both omit what John records prior to the sponge being put to His lips, which is that the Lord had said "I thirst". Matthew and Mark both state that after receiving the vinegar the Lord cried with a loud voice, and it seems safe to conclude that this was the final utterance which John records, "It-is-finished". But only Luke records the beautiful prayer of commitment with which the Lord entered into death: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit".
From the ninth hour, then, the Lord spoke four times before entering into death. First came the cry of abandonment, then the expression of thirst, then the cry of triumph, and lastly the prayer of commitment. We are now concerned with the first and last of these utterances. There are great contrasts between them. In both the Lord is praying, addressing Himself first to His God, and then to His Father. But whilst the first utterance rings with distress and anguish, the second expresses calm and contentment. The first (and it is meant reverently) is a question of God's dealings with Him. The second is a declaration of unreserved confidence in His Father.
How awesome is the cry of abandonment! Simply to read it should humble us into the dust.
In His spotless soul's distress, We perceive our guiltiness. O how vile our lost estate! Since our ransom was so great.
The anguished repetition of the name of God prepares us for the dreadful question which follows. For anyone to repeat the name of the one whom he addresses usually indicates urgency and earnestness. This is one of five occasions when the Lord did this. Luke 10. 41 records His words to a fretful woman, "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things"; Luke 13. 34 recounts His cry to a faithless city, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee"; Luke 22. 31-32 contain His warning to a falling disciple, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you (all), that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not". The remaining example occurs in Acts 9. 4, when the ascended and glorified Saviour calls to a furious opponent, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?". Each of these sayings contains a note of urgency, but none more so than that from the cross, addressed to a forsaking God. "My God! My God!" He cries, as though desperately anxious to be heard, He who by the tomb of Lazarus had said in prayer, "I knew that thou hearest me always", John 11. 42.
Then comes the very last word we could ever have expected to hear from His lips — that most human of words, "Why?". In our little lives and at our humble level, we sometimes say (or feel like saying) "Why should this happen to me? What have I done to deserve this?". Not that the most severe form of human suffering imaginable could be compared at all with what the Saviour endured at Calvary. But this cry discloses the utter reality of His humanity. It is a cry from a forsaken Man.
Translators seem uncertain how to render accurately the tense of the Lord's words. The A.V. and R.V. have "Why hast thou forsaken me", whilst the R.V. margin and the New-berry margin have "Why didst thou forsake me?". Following the A.V. the words suggest that the Lord's cry came whilst He was still forsaken. Following the alternative, they imply that He had just emerged from having been forsaken but was still overwhelmed by the grief of it. Surely the plaintive "Why" discloses the impenetrable mystery of Calvary. For it is clear that throughout the Lord's public ministry He knew perfectly why He was going to suffer on the cross. He had said, "the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many", Matt. 20. 28. He had said, "the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep", John 10. 11. More explicitly, in the upper room as He instituted the memorial supper and gave thanks for the cup, He had said "this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins", Matt. 26. 28. The Saviour was never in any doubt as to the reasons for the sorrows which awaited Him at Calvary. But when at last He was crucified, and the darkness descended at the sixth hour, the awful desolation which He experienced was so intense as to engulf Him, and as those hours finally ran their course we are permitted to hear His harrowing cry "Why?".
Let us reverently learn two lessons from this. First, the cry bears indirect but powerful witness to the personal perfection and sinlessness of the Lord Jesus. No guilty sinner who finally bears the judgment of God will ever be able to say "Why? What have I done?". Only a perfect Man can legitimately ask this question. The Lord Jesus (and this is to state the obvious) did not deserve what He suffered. And He knew it! But the second lesson which this cry teaches us is this, that the Saviour's sacrifice was utterly real. It was no mere gesture. It was not a token sacrifice, designed simply to impress men with the depths of His love and compassion. It was not a type or shadow, pointing on to some future event; it was anti-type and substance, fulfilling all earlier anticipations. He was literally and finally taking the place of the guilty and bearing what they — what we — deserved. He became thoroughly identified with those whom He was redeeming. And it was dreadful beyond all telling.
Let us remember what had well-nigh broken His tender heart. His God had forsaken Him, abandoned Him. The Lord's sufferings at Calvary are compared in the Scriptures to several dreadful experiences; to being smitten by a sword, to being engulfed in a tempest, to sinking in mire, to drowning in deep waters, to being bruised and wounded. All these expressions bring home to us something of the severity of divine judgment as it fell at Calvary upon the sinless Saviour. But the cry of dereliction makes it clear that the judgment itself consisted of one dominant penalty, and that was being forsaken of God, being left alone and abandoned by God, being made aware of the absence of God. This was what the Saviour found unbearable. He had always known that His nation would forsake Him, that the Roman occupying power would forsake Him, and that even His disciples would forsake Him. And He had always known that His God would forsake Him. But the actual experience proved agonizing.
We who come of fallen stock, who are used to sin and to the absence of God, and for whom the presence of God seems rarely experienced for long even in our best and highest seasons, cannot hope to understand what the forsaking by God meant to the holy One on the cross, whose communion with God had been sweet and unbroken throughout His earthly pathway.
We should be deeply thankful for the Lord's promise, "he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee", Heb. 13. 5. He was forsaken that we might never be forsaken.
It is remarkable that after His resurrection and ascension, the Saviour uttered a further cry of pain, this time from heaven, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?". Again, the name is repeated. Again, a question is asked. Again, the question is based on the three words "Why . . . thou . . . me" These two cries repay consideration. The first was a cry from earth to heaven, the second was a cry from heaven to earth. The first was the appeal of a Man calling upon God. The second was the appeal of the Son of God calling to a man. The first reveals Christ suffering for sinners; the second reveals Christ suffering with His servants.
The cry of dereliction was a citation from Psalm 22. 1, reminding us that the holy mind of the Lord was stored with Scripture. Further evidence of this is found in the final utterance from the cross, in which the Lord used and adapted a phrase occurring in Psalm 31. 5, "Into thine hand I commit my spirit". Luke records the Lord's words thus: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit", Luke 23. 46. At last the tension and the distress were gone. In the relief of communion the Lord spoke this confiding word. He had earlier taught His disciples to trust the almighty hands of the Father (see John 10. 29, "no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand"). He does the same now with absolute calm and assurance.
It has been pointed out that the Saviour's total involvement in His work at Calvary involved His body, soul and spirit. In the upper room He had said to the disciples as He gave them the bread, "This is my body which is given for you", Luke 22. 29. Centuries earlier Isaiah had written prophetically, "he hath poured out his soul unto death", 53. 12. His closing words complete the thought, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit", — and we must not miss the significant words which Luke then adds — "and having said thus, he gave up the ghost". In this way the Lord fulfilled His own prediction, "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father", John 10. 17-18.
Oh solemn hour! that hour alone In solitary night,
When God the Father's only Son,
As man for sinners to atone, Expires — amazing sight!
The Lord of glory crucified!
The Prince of life has bled and died!
O mystery of mysteries!
Of life and death upon the tree;
Centre of two eternities,
Which look, with rapt, adoring eyes,
Onward and back to Thee.
O cross of Christ, where all His pain
And death is our eternal gain.
J. G. Deck