April 7, 2020 • Life for Leaders
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Today’s devotion is the fourth in a Life for Leaders series that is focusing on the seven last words of Christ from the cross. If you missed the previous entries in this series, you can find them here: First Word; Second Word; Third Word.
Now, let’s turn to Mark 15:34, where we read, “My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?” As Jesus was dying on the cross, he echoed the beginning of Psalm 22, which reads:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest (Psalm 22:1-2).
In the words of the psalmist Jesus found a way to express the deep cry of his heart: Why had God forsaken, or, as other translations say, “abandoned” him? Why did Jesus’s Father turn his back on his Son in his moment of greatest agony?
This side of Heaven, we will never fully know what Jesus was experiencing at this moment. Was he quoting from Psalm 22 because, in the mystery of his incarnational suffering, Jesus didn’t know why God had abandoned him? Or was his cry not so much a question as an expression of profound agony? Or was it both?
What we do know is that, on the cross, Jesus entered into the Hell of separation from God. The Father abandoned him because Jesus took upon himself the penalty for our sins. In that excruciating moment, Jesus experienced something far more horrible than physical pain. The beloved Son of God knew what it was like to be rejected by the Father. As we read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
I can write these words. I can say, truly, that the Father abandoned the Son for our sake, for the salvation of the world. But can I really grasp the mystery and the majesty of this truth?
The brilliant fifth-century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, once wrote this about the fourth word of Christ: “In his most compassionate humanity and through his servant form we may now learn what is to be despised in this life and what is to be hoped for in eternity. In that very passion in which his proud enemies seemed most triumphant, he took on the speech of our infirmity, in which ‘our sinful nature was crucified with him’ that the body of sin might be destroyed, and said: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ . . . Thus the Psalm begins, which was sung so long ago, in prophecy of his passion and the revelation of the grace which he brought to raise up his faithful and set them free” (Augustine, “Letter 140 to Honoratus,” 5).
Yet, no matter how many brilliant theologians we read and how much we meditate upon the fourth word of Jesus, we will never fully grasp the truth, horror, and wonder of what Jesus experienced on the cross. As Martin Luther once said, “God forsaking God. Who can understand it?” Yet even our minuscule grasp of this reality calls us to confession, humility, awe, worship, and adoration.
The fourth word of Jesus from the cross discloses a sense of hope when we remember the whole psalm from which it comes. Psalm 22 does indeed begin with desperation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). The psalm writer struggles with what feels like God’s complete absence during his suffering. But, in time, the psalmist comes to a deeper experience of God’s gracious presence: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Psalm 22:24). Thus, the psalmist comes to praise the Lord who “rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28). Jesus chose Psalm 22, not only because of its gut-wrenching cry of anguish, but also because it bears witness to Jesus’s own conviction that, somehow, the Father will exonerate his Son. The abandonment that Jesus experienced on the cross was not permanent. Something else was coming. One who knows Psalm 22 hears in the fourth word of Jesus a subtle allusion to what will happen on Sunday morning after Good Friday has passed.
Something to Think About:
Have you ever felt forsaken by God? When? Why?
In the difficult times in which we find ourselves, do you sense God’s presence? Or does it feel more like God has abandoned you?
Something to Do:
O Lord Jesus, though I will never fully grasp the horror and wonder of your abandonment by the Father, every time I read this “word,” I am overwhelmed with gratitude. How can I ever thank you for what you suffered for me? What can I do but offer myself to you in gratitude and praise? Thank you, dear Lord, for what you suffered. Thank you for taking my place. Thank you for being forsaken by the Father so that I might never know what that’s like. How amazing you are, dear Lord!
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. Amen.
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (1707). Public domain.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.