On Good Friday, Jesus had been up all night, being shuffled from interrogation to interrogation. He had been flogged, mocked, and publicly humiliated. Finally, in the daylight hours as the crowd gathered, He was condemned to die, forced to carry His cross to the place of execution, and then nailed to it. In the most brutal form of capital punishment in existence at the time, Jesus’ first three hours on the cross were marked by further scorning, taunting, and mocking. Jesus, in excruciating pain, labored to breath, pushing up on the spikes that held His feet to the cross to allow His chest to expand enough to gather a breath, release, and then push up again for the next breath. Then at noon, something startling occurred: “darkness fell upon all the land” (Matt. 27:45). In a miraculous, symbolic act, God caused the middle of the day to become as dark as midnight for the next three hours. In this context, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
It is these words that troubled me. How could God forsake His Son? Why didn’t Jesus know? It is unsettling to think that God could forsake His Son because what’s to prevent me from being forsaken, too? After all, Jesus was perfect and obeyed His father’s will, even to His death, but I am so far from perfect. Surely I will eventually cross a line and God will eventually turn away from me, right? Secondly, I struggled with why Jesus didn’t know why God forsook Him. Shouldn’t Jesus know everything? Did this actually take him by surprise? If so, then maybe there were other aspects of His death that weren’t as sovereignly planned as I had once thought.
Let’s look at Jesus’ question again and consider what really happened that day to answer these questions. First, how could God forsake His Son? It is important to note that there was genuine abandonment that day—that Jesus didn’t just “feel” forsaken, but in some sense, God the Father actually turned His back on His Son. The midday darkening is a supernatural evidence of this truth. As Jesus was hanging on the cross, He was bearing the wrath of God for all our sin, and that wrath involved separation, abandonment, and forsakenness. Our sin was placed on Him, and God turned away. We are not able to comprehend fully what this involved, especially in light of the perfect fellowship the Son had enjoyed with the Father from eternity past. However, it was agony for Jesus to be separated from the Father, and that agony was expressed with this cry of sorrow.
However, my worries of being abandoned by God because He abandoned Jesus at this moment are unfounded. Instead of me fearing being abandoned because Jesus was, the opposite is true; because He was, I no longer will have to be! Jesus was forsaken while paying the penalty and satisfying God’s just wrath for my sin. He suffered, was abandoned, and died for me, that is, in my place, in my stead. Therefore, what once separated me from God has been removed. I no longer need to fear forsakenness, for it is precisely because God forsook Jesus that day that I can be assured I will not be forsaken on any day, knowing “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). What a glorious and comforting truth!
Second, why did Jesus not know? It seems as though He, in His agony, asks the question to the Father with the expectation of an answer. However, when one realizes that Jesus’ question is a direct quote from the beginning of Psalm 22, things make more sense. In fact, there are several parts of Psalm 22 which are quoted in the crucifixion story, including the crowd’s mocking as they were “wagging their heads” (Ps. 22:7, Matt. 27:29), the piercing of Jesus’ feet and hands (Ps. 22:16), and casting lots for His clothing (Ps. 22:18, Matt. 27:35). All of these point to the fact that Jesus did know His death fulfilled this psalm. In fact, instead of Jesus not knowing why he was abandoned, it seems He deliberately chose this phrase to communicate that He did know exactly what was occurring and why. He still experienced the torment of estrangement from the Father but with a sense of understanding and purpose. Thus, His cry does not call into question His sovereignty over His own arrest, trial, and death but rather confirms it!
For believers today, we can continue to be confident in the faithfulness of our God to “never leave us or forsake us” (Heb. 13:5). Jesus was forsaken so we wouldn’t have to be. Psalm 22:1 was true in Jesus’ moments of death so that Psalm 23:4 would continue to be true for us: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” Moreover, we can receive empathy from our Savior in our own broken relationships. We do have a High Priest who can be touched with the feelings of our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). As we glory in the cross and empty tomb this Easter season, let us take comfort, even from this tragic moment in our Savior’s life and death and the cry it produced, knowing that
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
Isaiah 53:4–6 (NASB)