In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words are often misunderstood. This last Good Friday, I preached on these words and offered the following explanation.
What does it mean that Jesus was forsaken by God as he hung on the cross? To understand that, we have to go back to Psalm 22 and the word used there in verse 1. The word for “forsaken” was often used in the Old Testament to refer to a break in covenant communion. The word has covenantal overtones; it’s used in the context of relationships. When someone forsakes someone else in the Old Testament, it often means that the relationship has changed for the worse.
There are examples of people forsaking God. For example, there’s Jeremiah 2:13, where God says his people have forsaken him, “the fountain of living waters and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” That “forsaking” there refers to a broken covenant relationship. The relationship is still there, but its character has changed. Where once there was fellowship, now there’s hostility.
There are also examples of God forsaking his people. If we stick with Jeremiah, there’s Jeremiah 12:7. God says, “I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.” Again, there’s a broken covenant relationship, a changed covenant relationship. For God to forsake his covenant people means that there is no longer fellowship and communion. Instead, there is enmity. God does not just walk away and absent himself from these people. Rather, he turns against them in his wrath.
It’s important that we keep this in mind as we look at the words Jesus shouts in Matthew 27:46. Too often people read these words and conclude that Jesus was completely alone on the cross. In other words, God was no longer present with him. He has been entirely abandoned. Related to that is a view of hell. The pain of hell is sometimes said to be the fact that God is absent there. Well, if God is absent in hell, whose wrath is being poured out there? Whose justice does hell represent? No, we can’t say that God is absent in hell. That’s not biblical. After all, isn’t Scripture clear that God is omnipresent – by nature he is present everywhere. He fills the universe says Jeremiah 23:24. So God must somehow be present in hell. Similarly, if Jesus experienced hellish agony on the cross, we can’t say that God was absent there. His words here mean something different, something at the same time far more terrifying and yet far more comforting.
His forsakenness should be viewed in negative terms, in terms of God taking things away from him, “omission” you could say. Jesus has had everything removed from him. As we saw already, the lights were turned out. Before that, his friends had turned against him, denied him, left him. One of his disciples had even betrayed him. Even the angels were gone – there was no one to support him or encourage him. His dignity and honour had been removed. He hung on the cross naked. Yes, he wore a crown, but a crown of thorns. He was publicly mocked and humiliated. Every comfort that God offers his creatures in this life was gone. It had all been taken away and he was left with nothing. Certainly that is part of what it means that he was forsaken by God. God turned against him by withdrawing everything good.
But his forsakenness must also be viewed in positive terms, in terms of God doing things to him, “commission” you could say. Here you need to remember that everything about Jesus at this moment screams “cursed.” He is hanging on a cross – a crucified one was cursed by God. He is the reason the lights went out, why darkness fell – because he was cursed. He wears the crown of thorns – thorns were part of God’s curse on creation after Adam’s fall. The one cursed by God is not merely ignored by God, abandoned in the sense that God walks away and becomes absent. No, God actively turns against the accursed. He bears down on him with his wrath. God is very present on Golgotha, but in the most terrifying way he can be present. He’s not present to love and bless, to live in fellowship and communion, but to punish sin with his wrath. That punishment God brings down to bear on the crucified Jesus. God is there in his wrath, the expression of his justice against sin. Being forsaken by God means that Jesus experiences the full wrath of God against sin. Let that sink in.
Now also let it sink in that Jesus did not experience this God-forsakenness against sin in the abstract. What I mean is that he didn’t suffer this horrific torment just for a nameless mass of humanity. This is where the comfort starts. The comfort starts with the fact that as Jesus cried out in his anguish, he had the names of every elect person on his heart. You and I should be the ones receiving the forsakenness I’ve been describing. We deserve to have every good comfort removed from our lives for eternity. We deserve to have God’s wrath bear down on us forever in hell. Yet, look and wonder: as you believe in him, Jesus took all this in your place. He did it conscientiously with you in mind, you personally brother, you personally sister. He knew your name on Golgotha. He had your name in mind, he had love for you on his heart as he shouted these words in Matthew 27:46. It’s as if he’s saying, “You should have been forsaken. But I loved you so much that I chose to be forsaken for you.” Loved ones, trust his good Word to you. Believe this gospel message that your Saviour was forsaken in your place. He had everything withdrawn, so that you could be filled with God’s blessings. God turned against him in his wrath, so that you could be received in mercy. What gospel encouragement we have here! What rich comfort!