Forsaken: What Did Jesus Mean?

Matthew 27:46
by Derek Gentle

What did Jesus mean when He cried out on the cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1) Was He really and truly forsaken by the Father, or was it a figure of speech? Was He doubting God? Why did He ask? Did he not know the answer?

To understand the answer to these questions one must understand the nature of the person of Christ, the nature of His sufferings, and the nature of His question.

The Nature of His Humanity: Real and Complete Humanity

There are several reasons for the incarnation of Christ. One is that God is immortal and cannot die; Jesus took on humanity in order to be able to die.

God is immortal. The psalmist prays, the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment. . . But You are the same, And Your years will have no end." (Psalm 102:25-27). Paul blesses God as the, "the King eternal, immortal, invisible" (1st Timothy 1:17). Since God is immortal, how is He to die on the cross. God cannot die. "Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: '... a body You have prepared for Me'" (Hebrews 10:4-5). Jesus took on humanity and a body in order to be able to die.

Another reason for the incarnation is that God Cannot be Tempted. "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone" (James 1:13). And He would have to be tempted in order to become a sinless sacrifice (not merely innocent, but tested and proven without sin). He would have to be tempted in order to, as man, undo the mess man got us into. Jesus took on humanity in order to be really and truly tempted. "Hebrews affirms that Jesus was "in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15-16). It was not His deity, but His humanity which made that possible.

Jesus was not merely God encased in a body. His humanity was real inside and out. He possessed a human spirit and was psychologically human.

"This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul [meaning human soul] and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted." -- Definition of Chalcedon, 451
Jesus Experienced Real Human Emotions. Several examples are:

Love: The disciple "whom Jesus loved" John 13:23

Compassion: "But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd." (Matthew 9:36) (Literally, "moved in one's internal or visceral organs")

Distress: "He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, 'My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.'" (Matthew 26:37)

Joy: "In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. . ." (Luke 10:21)

Anger: "And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts" (Mark 3:5)

Indignance: "When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Mark 10:14, NIV)

Jesus Functioned as a True Human Functions

Jesus played by the rules we have to play by. "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4).

Though fully and truly God, Jesus did not exercise His prerogatives as God. He never ceased to be who He was. He simply chose not to exercise His powers as God. Instead He functioned as the prototype of the Spirit filled man.

"Although from the beginning He had the nature of God He did not reckon His equality with God a treasure to be tightly grasped. Nay, He stripped Himself of His glory, and took on Him the nature of a bondservant by becoming a man like other men. And being recognized as truly human, He humbled Himself and even stooped to die; yes, to die on a cross." (Philippians 2:6-8, Weymouth)

He Accepted, for a while, Limitations to which Humans are Subject. For example, He refused to exercise His omniscience as God. He chose to know only what the Father would reveal to Him. He did not know when the second coming would take place. "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). While there were times when the Father revealed the thoughts and secrets of those with whom He came in contact, but when speaking to the father of one boy tormented by a demon, He did not know the answer and asked for information: "So He asked his father, 'How long has this been happening to him?' And he said, 'From childhood'" (Mark 9:21). Jesus, in His incarnation, chose to be limited to one place at a time, refusing to exercise for a time, omni-presence. He could have chosen to call in twelve legions of angels to rescue Himself from the cross (Matthew 26:53), but He chose to accept the limitations of humanity and of suffering.

Jesus lived in complete dependance upon the Father, as mankind was designed to do.

He played by the rules by which we have to play. He replied on the Father to lead Him in what to say, "For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak" (John 12:49 Cp: John 7:17, 8:26, 12:50, 14:10, 24).

He relied on the Father's power to perform His signs and miracles. As God, He could have done so in His own power, but as Man, He relied on the Father. "Then Jesus answered and said to them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner'" (John 5:19). He answered His critics stating that "If I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20, see also John 4:34, 5:36). The assumption, again, is that He relied on the Father for the power.

When Jesus selected His disciples, He relied on the Father for direction. "Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles" (Luke 6:12-13).

Jesus lived in continuous fellowship with the Father, in continuous obedience to the Father, in continuous dependance upon the Father, and thus experienced continuous empowerment from the Father. On earth, He was the proto-type of the Spirit-filled man.

The Nature of His Sufferings: Real Wrath and Alienation

God's Attitude Toward Sin is One of Wrath and Fury.
Look at what the Bible says about God's wrath. It is strong and frightening. Some wish to make God one-dimensional: "God is love" -- as if love were His only quality. That is not the picture we find in Scripture.

Psalm 7:11 says that, "God is a just judge, And God is angry with the wicked every day"

Nahum 1:2 says, "God is jealous, and the LORD avenges; The LORD avenges and is furious. The LORD will take vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies."

It is in the New Testament as well as the Old, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18).

The reason for this horrifying wrath is the horrid, offensive nature of sin. God hates sin. It deserves to be punished. It should be punished. God is just; it will be punished. Nahum 1:3 affirms, "The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, And will not at all acquit the wicked." God cannot simply overlook sin. He is too holy to just pretend it didn't happen. He is not a Santa Claus figure, who for all the threatening about being nice, still comes any way.

Christ's Substitutionary Work on the Cross Made Him the Object of God's Wrath

On the cross Christ was experiencing sin for us. "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2nd Corinthians 5:21).

Notice the stunning words the Scriptures use to describe the experience of Christ (emphasis added)...

"Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')" (Galatians 3:13)

"Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows. . . He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. . . the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. . . it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin" (Isaiah 53:6-8, 10)

One key word to explain what happened at the cross is propitiation -- "And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins" (1st John 2:2). The word means to turn away wrath by sacrifice, and thus make God favorable toward us. In pagan religions, its like the tribe throwing the virgin into the volcano. Is this a Christian concept? The difference between that and pagan tribesmen chucking the girl down the volcano is that, first, the volcano deity is a fictional character and second, true Deity has come Himself to be the sacrifice. Jesus turned the wrath from us by absorbing it within Himself.

3. The Context and Nature of Jesus' Question

Was Jesus Actually Forsaken?
In that He, in fact, experienced the wrath of God on the cross Jesus was in some way, forsaken.

Jesus, as Man, had Lived in continuous fellowship with the Father - "And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him." (John 8:29). Yet, now, at the cross His fellowship with the Father is broken. There is a thick darkness covering the day (verse 45). It is not merely the absence of light, it is spiritual and it is thick. Jesus is experiencing the wrath of God, the wrath which we deserved, as our substitute. The word He uses for this, He takes from Psalm 22:1, forsaken. "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

"I remember, also, that our blessed Lord had lived in unbroken fellowship with God, and to be forsaken was a new grief to him. He had never known what the dark was till then: his life had been lived in the light of God... His fellowship with the Father was of the highest, deepest, fullest order; and what must the loss of it have been? We lose but drops when we lose our joyful experience of heavenly fellowship; and yet the loss is killing: but to our Lord Jesus Christ the sea was dried up I mean his sea of fellowship with the infinite God." -- Charles Spurgeon

Notice that Jesus speaks as Man to God, not as Son to Father. His prayer addresses, "My God, My God," not "My Father." Jesus is functioning as a man functions and dies on the cross functioning as a man.

As it addresses God, it is not a cry of total despair. It is a cry of submission and dependance. In Psalm 22, the context is of one who is trusting in the Lord.

"The question has been asked, 'How can God forsake God?' The answer must be that God the Father deserted the Son's human nature. . ." (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary on Matthew, page 971). Jesus is God incarnate, with all the qualities which make man man including a human spirit and emotions.

Wayne Grudem maintains that "It is better to understand the question. . . as meaning, 'Why have you left me for so long. This is the sense it has in Psalm 22." That would make sense in terms of Jesus adopting limited knowledge in His incarnation. Grudem goes on to observe, "Jesus in his human nature knew he would have to bear our sins, to suffer and die. But, in his human consciousness, he probably did not know how long this suffering would take." (Systematic Theology, page 576)

On the cross Jesus never ceased to be who He is -- God. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2nd Corinthians 5:19). Jesus functioned as a man, really and fully man -- and He died as a man, experiencing suffering and death and the unknown as a man. He was forsaken not only as our sin bearer, but as a man. He was forsaken as our substitute... He was forsaken that God might never leave nor forsake us. (Hebrews 13:5; Romans 8:31-39)

Spurgeon on Matthew 27:46:
Lama Sabachthani?
Our Lord's Solemn Enquiry