And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?Matthew 27:46
Ay, ay, d’ye know what it was – dying on the cross, forsaken by His Father – d’ye know what it was? ... It was damnation – and damnation taken lovingly.John Rabbi Duncan (1796-1870)
It is noon, and Jesus has been on the cross for three pain-filled hours. Three times He has spoken from the cursed tree, focusing on the wellbeing of others: He has lovingly prayed for His enemies, promised salvation to a thief, and made arrangements for His mother’s care.
Suddenly darkness falls on Calvary, and “over all the land” (v. 45). This darkness is no natural phenomenon; it is more than a thunderstorm and more than an eclipse. By a miraculous act of Almighty God, midday becomes midnight.
This supernatural darkness is a symbol of God’s judgment on sin. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all, Scripture tells us. The Bible often associates sin with darkness and holiness with light. So the physical darkness that covers Calvary signals a deeper and more fearsome darkness that Christ Himself has described as “outer darkness,” or the darkness of hell, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The profundity of Christ’s sufferings
The great High Priest enters Golgotha’s Holy of Holies without friends or enemies. The Son of God is alone on the cross for three final hours, enduring what defies our imagination. Experiencing the full brunt of His Father’s wrath, Jesus cannot stay silent. He cries out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
This phrase represents the nadir, the lowest point, of Jesus’ sufferings. Here Jesus descends into the essence of hell, the most extreme suffering ever experienced. It is a time so compacted, so infinite, so horrendous as to be incomprehensible and seemingly unsustainable.
Jesus’ cry does not in any way diminish His deity. Jesus does not cease being God before, during, or after this. Jesus’ cry does not divide His human nature from His divine person or destroy the Trinity. Nor does it detach Him from the Holy Spirit. The Son lacks the comforts of the Spirit, but He does not lose the holiness of the Spirit. Nor does it cause Him to disavow His mission. Both the Father and Son knew from all eternity that Jesus would become the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (Acts 15:18). It is unthinkable that the Son of God might question what is happening or be perplexed when His sense of His Father’s loving presence departs.
Jesus is expressing the agony of unanswered supplication (Ps. 22:1-2). Unanswered, Jesus feels forgotten of God. He is also expressing the agony of unbearable stress. It is the kind of “roaring” mentioned in Psalm 22: the roar of desperate agony without rebellion. It is the hellish cry uttered when the undiluted wrath of God overwhelms the soul. It is heart-piercing, heaven-piercing, and hell-piercing.
Further, Jesus is expressing the agony of unmitigated sin. All the sins of the elect, and the hell that they deserve for eternity, are laid upon Him. Without the support of His Deity, Jesus could never have sustained the burden. Because His Deity and humanity are combined in one infinite Person, His sufferings carry infinite value in the presence of an infinitely holy God. That is how Christ can bear our justly deserved eternal hell in such a short time.
I once saw a picture of a man standing in front of the multistoried Sears Tower in Chicago. He held two large boulders in his hands. The caption beneath the picture said that some stars are so dense in weight compared to their size that the two boulders the man held could weigh as much as the Sears Tower. That is a faint suggestion of how God compresses on His Son all the agonies of sin in a short period of time.
Then, too, Jesus is expressing the agony of unassisted solitariness. In His hour of greatest need comes a pain unlike anything the Son has ever experienced: the sense of His Father’s abandonment. When Jesus most needs encouragement, no voice cries from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” No angel is sent to strengthen Him; no “well done, thou good and faithful servant” resounds in His ears. The women who supported Him are silent. The disciples, cowardly and terrified, have fled. Feeling disowned by all, Jesus endures the way of suffering alone, deserted, and forsaken in utter darkness. Every detail of this abandonment shouts to you and me, “This is what God thinks of your and my sin!” Every detail declares the irrationality, the heinousness, the dread character of sin.
The purpose behind Christ’s sufferings
But why would it please God to bruise His own Son (Isa. 53:10)? The Father is not capricious, malicious, or being merely didactic. The real purpose is penal; it is the just punishment for the sin of Christ’s people.
For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
2 Cor. 5:21
Christ was made sin for us, dear believers. Among all the mysteries of salvation, this little word “for” exceeds all. This small word illuminates our darkness and unites Jesus Christ with sinners. Christ was acting on behalf of His people as their representative and for their benefit.
With Jesus as our substitute, God’s wrath is satisfied and God can justify those who believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). Christ’s penal suffering, therefore, is vicarious – He suffered on our behalf. He did not simply share our forsakenness, but He saved us from it. He endured it for us, not with us. Dear believer, you are immune to condemnation (Rom. 8:1) and to God’s anathema (Gal. 3:13) because Christ bore it for you in that outer darkness. Golgotha secured our immunity, not mere sympathy.
This explains the hours of darkness and the roar of dereliction. God’s people experience just a taste of this when they are brought by the Holy Spirit before the Judge of heaven and earth, only to experience that they are not consumed for Christ’s sake. They come out of darkness, confessing, “Because Immanuel has descended into the lowest hell for us, God is with us in the darkness, under the darkness, through the darkness – and we are not consumed!”
The love pervading Christ’s sufferings
How stupendous is the love of Christ! His love is so vividly displayed in His cry. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” was the cry of the incarnate God whose soul was sinking ever deeper into the bottomless pit of divine wrath.
How stupendous is the love of the Father! The Father gives His only-begotten Son (John 3:16), His bosom Friend from eternity; He took the best He had and offers Him for the worst He could find – sinners like you and me. He held nothing in reserve but extravagantly loved sinners who were at enmity with Him.
How stupendous is the love of the Spirit! He works patiently yet irresistibly in the hearts of sinners, applying to us the cross’s wonderful truth. He convinces us that all our sufferings, including feeling forsaken, are merely the fruit of walking in His shadow. Our hearts so overflow with love that we respond, “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
- What did John Rabbi Duncan mean when he said that Christ’s dying on the cross was “damnation taken lovingly”?
- How does Christ’s experience of forsakenness on the cross lend support to the teaching that He descended into the essence of hell before He died rather than afterward?
- If Jesus’ descent into hell took place before He died, why is it placed after His death and burial in the Apostles’ Creed?
- Hell is a place where its subjects are (1) with the enemies of God, (2) under the wrath of God, and (3) separated from the favor of God. Explain how Christ experienced these three things in His hellish soul-sufferings. How does His experience serve as a great comfort to believers and a great warning to unbelievers?
- What three kinds of death do unbelievers die by nature as a result of our deep fall in Adam? Explain how the Lord Jesus Christ tasted each of these kinds of death as the Second Adam on behalf of His people.
- How is Christ’s death (1) substitutionary, (2) satisfying, (3) atoning, and (4) vicarious?
- What task was ascribed to Christ’s divine nature throughout His endurance of the steps of His humiliation?
- How can Christ’s experience of being forsaken be of great comfort to us today? What practical and experiential lessons can we glean from it?
- How does Christ’s experience of being forsaken show (1) His, (2) the Father’s, and (3) the Holy Spirit’s profound love for His people?