Updated: Apr 29, 2020
“They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!’ In the same way, the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.’ Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Matthew 27:38-44; Mark 15:27-34
THE CONTEXT - "My God My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" In the first-century world of Jesus, crucifixion was a common tool used by the Roman Empire to inspire fear and knowledge of control in the hearts and lives of its enemies. Although the land of Israel was considered to be part of the Roman Empire, the large majority of its inhabitants were by no means friends of the empire. Instead, what we see in the few years preceding, during, and after the life of Jesus, is a continued insurrection against the Roman Empire, resulting in increasing bloodshed and animosity. Rome’s continual response to this increase of aggression was to subject non-citizens to this exemplary form of execution to make a public statement.
The act of crucifixion was by no definition of the word, human. For the greatest effect, the victim was placed naked upon a fixed beam at a place right outside the city gates — the place of highest foot traffic in the city. The victim’s body would be stretched and distorted to fit the cross and then would be affixed to it by nails through the heels and between the ulna and the radius bones in the arms. The victim was left at eye level for those passing by to see the anguish in the condemned man or woman’s eyes. Life slowly left the body through any mix of asphyxiation, cardiac rupture, acidosis heart failure, or hypovolemic shock.
When Jesus is brought to Pilate by the chief priests, they have one goal in mind — to be rid of the man who played the most substantial threat to their ability to make money. They knew how to accomplish their goal while making it look as if they were completely innocent of His death in the eyes of the people (Acts 5:28). The chief priests knew that if they brought Rome a man whom they could accuse of sedition against Rome, the Roman’s would put him to death in a painful and public way.
From the very beginning of biblical times it was foretold to man that the one who was to break the curse of death would suffer (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 53), but to those who knew the Torah and the writings of the prophets, the death of Jesus in the manner of crucifixion far exceeded what they could have imagined.
By the time Jesus is taking the beam of His cross from the Palace of Herod to the place of execution, He had already been beaten by the guards of the priests (Luke 22:63), was beaten by the soldiers of Pilate (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17), and was flogged under Pilate's order (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15). As displayed by the identical texts of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ body was so severely abused by this point that He was unable to even make His way down the via Dolorosa unassisted. As Jesus is placed upon the Cross, one was staring at a relatively strange event — the man condemned to die on the Cross would die in only a few short hours instead of a long, drawn out death as was customary — a death that shows the cruelty of those who sought His death.
At the ninth hour, Jesus says one of the most remarkable and misunderstood statements made by any man, he states, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Throughout time, many have seen this as a statement of God rejecting Jesus because he bore the sins of mankind (Hebrews 9:28). This eventually gives way to the belief that Jesus would spend the next three days apart from the Father, a belief that is disproven by Jesus words on the Cross to the man dying next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
God never abandoned Jesus! In reality, Jesus is using a technique common in Judaism. He recalls Psalm 22 as a whole by stating the opening line (My God, My God . . .) to His audience. As Judaism was an oral culture and memorization of Scripture was expected, the audience would have immediately jumped in their memory to the entirety of David’s words in Psalm 22. With this technique, what is not said is the main point. The remainder of the passage is what holds the value for the speaker and the hearer. Though Psalm 22 begins with David’s cries of anguish to the Lord, it concludes with the Lord’s great victory in the situation!
"I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him — may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him — those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!" (Psalm 22:22-31).
THE APPLICATION - THE GREAT VICTORY
Rather than forsake, Jesus, on the Cross is proclaiming the glory of God and salvation for humanity. The reality of Jesus’ final hours before His death upon the Cross is the antithesis of every dark situation humankind endures. We, as the servants of God, even at the moment when we are faced with destruction and even our deaths, have the utmost assurance that there will be victory in the situation. For us, the great victory in Jesus’ situation is that we have found freedom from the effects of sin and death. As the final verse of Psalm 22 emphasizes, He has done it!
Written by Jeremy Stein, Content Development Coordinator for the Center for Holy Lands Studies
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