Was Jesus Forsaken at the Cross?

Probably the best sermon or message I’ve ever heard was an Easter chapel message when I was at Wheaton…and since then I’ve also shared the basic premise of that message myself. This is an expanded version of my earlier post on faithfulness. Here it is:

Here is a question that has always bothered me: why would God forsake Jesus at the cross?  I would like to examine this passage and see if we can understand what this text means to us today.

Matt 27:41-50

41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42  “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43  He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” 44  And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.  45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.   46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. ESV

When we read Jesus’ words at the cross, it sounds very sad and miserable.  I have always believed when I read about Jesus being crucified that he was forsaken by God, and I had a difficult time accepting this.  Why would Jesus be forsaken in the hour of his greatest need?  Didn’t the Father and the Son agree before the beginning of time to save us in this way?  Jesus begged the Father that if possible he could avoid this punishment, but God did not prevent this but allowed Him to be killed.  Jesus was being obedient.  Why would He be forsaken?

However, I think we need to remember that the Jewish culture of this time was an oral culture.  Most of the people did not have their own copies of the scriptures, but they would hear the scriptures being read aloud at the synagogue each week.  The Psalms were very important to the Jews.  They would be very familiar with the Psalms, and they would recognize that Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22. The entire Psalm is very helpful for understanding the life, ministry and death of Jesus, but we’ll focus on a few verses toward the end:

Ps 22:22-26  22 I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. 26  The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! ESV

Jesus knew that any faithful Jew would know Psalm 22.  A few people completely misunderstood what he meant and thought he was calling for Elijah.  And many people today don’t understand and think that he was completely abandoned.  But this is not in the character of God:

Ps 27:10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. NIV

Ps 37:27-28 27 Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. 28 For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. NIV

Ps 94:14 For the Lord will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance. NIV

Heb 13:5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” NIV

 

God’s promises are true, and they never fail.  When we are going through trouble and hardship, He will always be there for us, just like He was there for Jesus.  We believe in the Trinity, that there is one God in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  They are one, so they cannot be opposed to each other: the Father would never forsake the Son.  They always work together, and they worked together to pay for our sins, the Son died in our place so we would be declared justified.  Some believe that since Jesus took our sin on Himself, that the Father had to separate Himself from Jesus.  I don’t understand all the nuance and complexity of the logistics of that process, but I don’t think that concept is fully accurate, and I think it misses the point.  Even considering the Apostle’ Creed, declaring that Jesus descended into hell (which I think has very spotty biblical support, agree with Wayne Grudem that the creed probably got it wrong there), I believe God would have been there with Him the entire time.  In Ps 139:7-8 it says:

7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell [or Sheol, in other versions], behold, thou art there. KJV

In Acts 2:31-33, Peter is preaching about the death and resurrection of Christ.  He says:

29 “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. NIV

So why did Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He knew the prophesies about His death, and He knew God would raise Him again and would never forsake Him.  The reason Jesus said this is because He was completely human.  He went through feelings of pain and rejection so He would truly understand us.  Hebrews says He suffered just as we do.  And I know when I go through hard times, every time it seems that God has forsaken me.  When I come to a problem or issue, I have this assumption, and it doesn’t really make any sense.  I think over the history of God, and I think to myself, ok, well God, you have a pretty good record.  You have been successful 100% of the time, from the beginning of time up until now.  This can be seen in human history and in my own life, God has been faithful to me 100% of the time, always.  He has never failed.  So what I do is I think this over, and then I consider the problem facing me, and I’m like, oh no, now this time I’m done for!  You’re done well so far, but this one is too much, its not going to work out.  This will be the first time ever that you have failed, and its going to be with me.

How foolish is this?  Why don’t I remember what God has done for me and simply trust in Him?  But to feel that God has forsaken you is human, and when you read the Psalms so many of them are about this.  Why don’t you save me God?  Why don’t you answer my prayers?  Why don’t you punish evil people who are doing injustice and evil?  Ultimately, God will enforce justice but not always here in this world when we want him to.

Over time I’ve seen that God is still good, and even this was in his plan, just like everything.  He has never forsaken me, and He will never forsake me, and I pray that my faith would be strong enough to trust Him the next time I go through a hard time.

For you, when you feel God has abandoned you, and your ministry isn’t growing, you don’t have money, you don’t know how you’re going to get food for your family, believe that God WILL NEVER forsake you or abandon you.  He knows the number of hairs on your head, and He takes care of the sparrows, and you are more valuable than any bird.  Believe and trust in Him.  Remember Jesus on the cross, and how much good came out of that terrible and evil act of crucifying the only Son of God, the only one who ever lived without any sin.  God did not forsake Jesus, and He will not forsake you.  Even if it feels like that, over time you will see how God was working in your heart and preparing you for even greater things.  He was growing your faith, and making sure you truly trust Him.  Through Jesus’ death we are all saved.  I’m so glad Jesus did that for us!  I’m so glad the Father did not forsake Him but fulfilled His plan and will continue to work in our lives and complete the work of salvation in our hearts.

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4 thoughts on “Was Jesus Forsaken at the Cross?

  1. This is a great post, but I think you’re missing something essential. You’re right to quite the Scriptures that say God will never forsake His people, but remember: before the Cross, we weren’t His people. We deserved to be forsaken by God.

    Jesus wasn’t just quoting a verse on the Cross. I think it far more likely that He was legitimately being forsaken by God in our place, precisely so that God would never forsake us. What Peter says in Acts is true; Jesus wasn’t abandoned to the grave nor saw decay. But for one terrible moment on the Cross, He suffered hell for us – being forsaken by God for the sins that we committed, but for which He took the blame.

    Your point is precisely right: God never will forsake us. That gives us tremendous confidence.

    But Jesus would not have doubted that, even though He is fully human. To feel that God the Father had forsaken Him would require Jesus to believe lies about the Father. Jesus can never believe lies about the Father! He knew and trusted the Father fully. Just because Jesus is human does not mean that He adopted our sinful doubt and distrust of God the Father.

    Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, but He was also being forsaken in our place. How else could He suffer the just punishment for our sins — which is eternal death and separation from God, or in other words, being forsaken?

    • Thank you so much brother David for sharing this wonderful Easter sermon with us. If you had kept it to yourself, it would benefit only you. But now that you have shared it with us it is blessing us too as it has been blessing you. Truly, God is with us at all times and in all circumstances. This sermon has refreshed my awareness of God’s presence with me and my family as we go through the toughest economic difficulty ever. We see him supplying our most necessary provisions daily . We know that he will continue doing it until the last moment of our lives on this side of heaven! Praise be to him forever and ever. Again, God bless you for sharing this sermon with us right on time.

    • So I realized I should have put my reply here instead of below: Hey Kyle, thanks so much for your comment. I’ve been thinking about what you said, and that is the more ‘traditional’ interpretation I grew up hearing. I agree that Jesus did take on the wrath of the Father in our place, so then the question becomes, does that wrath necessarily include being forsaken? I question the traditional paradigm of seeing eternal punishment as being forsaken of God, and I’ve heard arguments that if you live your entire life believing and arguing that there is no God, would it be that bad to spend eternity away from the presence of this God? Wouldn’t it be much worse to be spending eternity in the presence of God pouring out His wrath upon you? Where exactly do we get the idea that hell is eternal separation from God? While I would be cautious in applying everything said in the Psalms, Psalms 139:8 seems to indicate that God is in sheol or hell. It is also possible that even if that is how the punishment would be administered to humanity, that as Jesus took our place the form of that punishment was administered slightly differently.
      Now about Jesus not suffering from sinful doubt, if you accept my contention that He was indeed referencing the whole of Psalm 22, which is debatable, then he wasn’t really in doubt, but was only going through the emotions of pain and loss. He did pray fervently in the garden that He could be delivered from that punishment, even though He knew it was necessary, so I would defend such perceived ‘lack of faith’ in God’s comfort and presence as seen in his declaration of why have you forsaken me as being of the same vein. If I’m wrong and Jesus was indeed being forsaken as part of the punishment for sin, then it also seems an odd question to asking God why that was happening. I believe its very possible that Jesus fully trusted in God and knew He would be delivered but still voiced that emotion of being abandoned and forsaken. Although I agree that does verge close to sinful doubt…
      But I think ultimately it is true that we would agree that God will not forsake us as His people, and that’s the most important point. The element I struggle the most with concerning your position is the apparent separation between the different persons of the Triune God, that God the Father would forsake God the Son. There probably are ways to answer that objection, but it seems to be that the interpretation I’ve sketched above is a more satisfying answer that even in the Father meting out wrath and punishment for sins Jesus did not commit they were aligned and not Jesus was not forsaken.

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