"my god, my god, why has thou forsaken me?"
These words form the start of the closing dialogue of our Lord Jesus Christ at the climax of his suffering, when he laid down his life for his friends. But the question frequently arises to many a sincere Bible Student; “Why, at the climax of his perfect obedience to his Father’s will, did our Lord utter such words?” Was it that in the depths of suffering – in the intensity of his final moments of agony, the Lord experienced a moment of doubt, and felt that his Father, his God had actually deserted him? That he had been left alone because of some element of imperfection within his life of holiness? In our last issue, we saw how that Duncan Heaster, in Beyond Bible Basics claimed our Lord’s utterance of these words to be indicative of an “intellectual failure” in his understanding – to the point that he actually “doubted himself to be the Messiah”. But this simply cannot so. Not least, because the words used were not merely the cries of desperation – the sorrow of a man feeling alone and rejected in his sufferings – they were a deliberate citation from a Psalm of David. Rather than to presumptuously attribute “failure” to the Son of the Most High God therefore, our wisdom rather lies in seeking to learn why our Lord chose to cite these words and to perceive the lessons which might be learnt for ourselves.
That the Lord Jesus had a constant awareness of His Father’s abiding presence throughout his life – and particularly at the climax of his sufferings – is clear from his own words to his enemies: “when ye shall have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him” (Jno 8:29). These words are most significant in the light of our present considerations – when the enemy had lifted the Son upon the stake – then they would know that God was “with” him – that his Father had “not left” him “alone.” The sufferings to come at Calvary were therefore not seen by our Lord as a time when God would depart from Him, but rather those events themselves would be a testimony that he had done no miracles under his own strength, but that of the Father – Who had not left his Son alone in his hour of greatest need.
And indeed, this was the case. As a mark of the Father’s Displeasure against those who so despised his Son, who sought to extinguish the true Light of the world, “from the sixth hour there was darkness” imposed upon all the land (Mat 27:45), until 3 hours later when our Lord gave his last breath. And that time – the very instant when our Lord gave up the Spirit, again the displeasure of Heaven against the enemy was given vent, in an earthquake, tearing apart the rocks – and more significantly ripping asunder the temple vail (Mat 27:51). These events spoke strongly of judgement – and witnessed to the coming destruction of the Lord’s murderers, the utter desolation which would take place when the stones of the Temple would be torn apart (Mat 24:2), and the temple worship would end. And at the same time, they signalled the Lord’s victory over sin, making the way into the Holiest of all open to any who would approach the Creator through his crucified Son.
Truly it was that in all the events which took place at our Lord’s offering up of himself, God was with him, displaying His Power in a most dramatic way. Even a Roman Centurion and his companions bore witness to the Lord’s Divine Paternity in beholding these wonders, for it is testified, “when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things which were done, they feared greatly, saying, truly this was the son of God” (Mat 27:54). They knew that Christ was not alone, but that God was his Father, whose presence was testified by these events.
THE LORD’S CONFIDENCE IN HIS FATHER’S PRESENCE
Our Lord had full cognisance that all men – even the disciples would forsake him at the last moment. Yet he also had the confident assurance, being the antitypical Joshua, that the Father would not leave him, nor forsake him. So he told the twelve: “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (Jno 16:32). There can be no doubt therefore, for those who receive the Lord’s sayings with child-like simplicity. At the time when all men forsook him – the time of his greatest need, he was not alone, because his Father was “with” him. As the Spirit of Christ through Isaiah spake of our Lords afflictions: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord Yahweh will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed. He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? … Behold, the Lord Yahweh will help me …” (Is 50:6-9). Here is the prophetic spirit of our Lord upon the Cross – one of the utmost confidence in the Father’s “help”, knowing that “He is near”, not having left His Son alone.
And again, the words of David speaking of the Christ could be no more emphatic in this regard: “David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover my flesh shall rest in hope: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption …” (Acts 2:25-27). This is the Spirit of Christ facing his death upon the cross: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face …”. God was always at his right hand. God never left him, nor deserted him in his time of need – and he was ever mindful of that fact. Indeed, as we show elsewhere in this issue, it was this vision of having the Father always before his face that enabled him to endure the suffering of the cross; albeit despising the shame thereof.
IN WHAT SENSE DID GOD “FORSAKE” CHRIST?
But how then, do we reconcile this with our Lord’s citation of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” How can it be that Christ perceived himself to be “forsaken” – yet also maintain the utmost confidence in His Father’s abiding presence? The answer is to be found in the recognition that throughout the life of the Lord Jesus, God was with him in more than one sense. Not only was He with him in the sense of providentially watching over him, providing angelic ministers as needed, and giving Paternal care – but also in that His Holy Spirit was placed within him. God was with him in that His Holy Spirit dwelt within him, enabling him to perform many miracles. This was the testimony of Nicodemas: “Rabbi, I know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man doest these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” (Jno 3:2). Again, the possession of the Holy Spirit is linked by Peter with the fact that God was with him, speaking of “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
So then, the real question is, In what sense did God “forsake” Christ? In His continual watching as a Father caring for His Son? Or in the removal of His Divine Power from the Lord’s weak, and battered frame? Clearly the latter, for note our Lords words carefully – he did not say, “my father, my father, why hast thou forsaken me” (Luke 23:46 although he did use this term at the last, saying “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”) His form of address was significantly different; he said “My God (El), my God (El), Why hast thou forsaken me?” – where the Hebrew “El” signifies Strength, or Power, speaking of the source of all power, even the Almighty Himself. The Power, the Divine Strength which had dwelt in the body of Christ, as a temple (Jno 2:21), was evacuated, that the victory would be seen to be that of Christ himself, and that the Eternal El would not become defiled by dwelling within a body of death. At the last, that Spirit which had enabled the Lord to perform so many miracles, bestowed upon him like a dove at the time of his Baptism, as he ascended from the watery grave, was sent forth as at the time of Noah, to return when signs of new life were found, when it would once again be bestowed upon the Son – but this time for evermore.
This perception of things is confirmed by the Psalm itself, for whilst it begins with speaking of El departing (the Hebrew & Greek in the NT merely signifies to leave, and is not always used with the connotations of “forsake”) from the Anointed of the Lord, it nevertheless speaks of the Messiah’s continual trust in his Father’s continual care and presence: “Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help”, his own disciples having forsaken him (Ps 22:11). Again, “be not thou far from me, O Yahweh: O my strength, haste thee to help me … deliver my soul … save me … I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (Ps 22:20-22). These tender pleas to the Eternal Spirit who always remained with his Son, although now no longer in him, are expressive of the mind of our Lord upon the Cross – at the time of his deepest agony – which he experienced for our forgiveness. They give us a privileged insight to the Lord’s innermost thoughts, and firm confidence that God would deliver him, that he would be raised, that he would be permitted to appear before his brethren once more. And even so it was. “He was heard in that he feared” (Heb 5:7), his prayer was answered, and his desire was fulfilled.
THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST
When we behold The Lord’s steadfast confidence in the Father at such a time of extreme circumstances – how can any man, save the unenlightened fail to reflect upon his own personal faithlessness in feeling deserted and forsaken, in far less extreme circumstances? How can we fail to be ashamed at our own lack of courage, and conviction in the Lord’s promises when we meet times of far less hardships? Yet we can take comfort in this, that the Lord’s desire was fulfilled – he did declare His Fathers’ Name amongst his brethren, and the Apostle gives us great cheer and encouragement in his commentary upon the matter: “it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons into glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the ecclesia will I sing praise unto thee. And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me” (Heb 2:10-13).
We are Christ’s brethren. We are amongst those for whom the Lord suffered these things. We are unashamedly confessed by him to be part of his family, if we seek to follow after him. Let us therefore, not be charged with the folly of accusing the Father’s Son with “intellectual Failure” at the time of his supreme display of faithfulness and trust in His Father’s presence, but let us rather behold the perfect example of our Lord – and seek to follow it, that we might also follow him into glory.