The startling truth behind Jesus’ words on the cross

  • Ruth Baker
  • 2 March 2020

There are some things you know so well that you go on autopilot. The crucifixion is one of those things. Yup. Heard it. Know it. Very special. What’s for morning tea?

Except there is a moment when the chilling reality hits you full in the face like a bucket of cold water. You see the cross again, though as for the first time.

Jesus famously cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Why did he say this? I mean, yes, he had been tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and now he was nailed to a cross, the Roman instrument of brutal execution. But Jesus is fully God. We intellectually get that crucifixion was horrific, but he’s God, so he knew it was going to be alright... right? Why did he say those particular words?

He is quoting the first line of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

This suggests that there is something in the psalm that we need to see.

All who see me mock me;
   they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
   let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (vv. 7-8, written about 600 years before Jesus’ death)

That sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. (Mark 15:29-32, written about 30 years after Jesus’ death).

This was foretold. It had long been foretold. This humiliation, this death, it was no accident.

But also in Psalm 22, the psalmist gives voice to the loneliness of suffering, something we can all relate to. Where are you God? I’m so alone. This suffering is unbearable. “I am a worm and not a man” (v. 6). “Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help” (v. 11). The depth of his emotional suffering is palpable.

Jesus’ physical pain is described in this psalm too, and this helps us to understand more of what Jesus was going through:

I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death. (vv. 14-15)

Poetry is so expressive. I read these lines and see Jesus on the cross—his limbs twisted and mangled, his flesh ripped—in all the physical anguish that is possible for a human to bear.

Sit with that for a moment. Because when we say “Jesus died on the cross”, it can be a distant concept: an idea that’s too far, too alien for us to see clearly. But Psalm 22 is where we see it. The agony. The loneliness. The heart-breaking, torturous physical pain.

Jesus is in a situation where he needs to communicate in as few words as possible. He shares his feelings by quoting just one line of a psalm. We see this way of communicating throughout the Old and New Testaments (for example, John 1:51 drives the reader back to Genesis 28:12-17, and Matthew 8:14-17, Luke 22:37 and John 12:37-38 all send the reader to Isaiah 53).

His pain isn’t all that Jesus want us to see through this psalm:

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
   my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
   those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
   May your hearts live forever! (vv. 25-26)
Posterity shall serve him;
   it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
   that he has done it. (vv. 30-31)

The focus is now on the Father. Even in the suffering, the spotlight shines on God the Father. If these were Jesus’ last implied words, they are profound. The praise. The promise. The hope. The certainty. He has done it.

This Easter, on Good Friday, remember. Reconnect with the memory of the cross. Sit for a moment in the startling realness of what Jesus went through. It makes what he has done all the more astonishing and wonderful.