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Amazing Love---that Thou my God should die for me!
The passages below are taken from Erwin W. Lutzer’s book “Cries from the Cross” published in 2002 by Moody Press.
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Matthew 27:46 NIV
Only at the cross can we see the love of God without ambiguity. Here is His farthest reach, His most ambitious rescue effort. God personally came to our side of the chasm, willing to suffer for us and with us. At Golgotha His love burst upon the world with unmistakable clarity and brilliance. Here at last we have reason to believe that there was a genuine meeting between God and man
At the cross, God’s inflexible holiness and boundless love collided, and with a cry of anguish, we were redeemed. Here is sin with all of its horror and grace with all of its wonder. The first three cries from the cross were uttered in daylight. But now nature shrouded the suffering of its Creator with darkness. This cry of dereliction, as it is called, was appropriately the middle of the seven sayings, the one that leads us into the mystery of our suffering God.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 NIV).
Before we meditate on these words, we must take a moment to make sure that we do not misunderstand the relationship between the Father and the Son. Because we are going to speak about God the Son offering a sacrifice to God the Father, we might give the impression that a benevolent Son persuaded a reluctant Father to do something about the plight of humanity and He grudgingly agreed.
The Scriptures do say that Christ was “stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4 NIV), and again, “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (v. 10), but the image of an angry God exacting every ounce of payment from a submissive Christ can distort our understanding of the Almighty. If we are not careful, we can think of the Son as loving and the Father as cruel and harsh.
Such a notion flounders in the face of God’s love. Indeed, the saving work of Christ originated in the heart of the Father. The best-known verse in the Bible teaches that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16 NIV). And Zechariah said that Christ came “because of the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78 NIV). Salvation came to us because our Father is a redeeming God who loves us. The Father and the Son took the initiative of redemption together.
John Stott wrote:
We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other.
The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow.1
Christ did not die to make the Father loving, for He loved us from the foundation of the world. The will of the Father and the will of the Son coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love. If the Father turned away from the Son at the cross, it was because they agreed it must be so to purchase our redemption. It was a horrid necessity.
Nor should we misrepresent the Trinity as we approach this sacred cry. When Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we should not think that the Father and the Son became separated in their “being” or “essence.” In other words, when the Father forsook the Son, the Trinity did not divide in two. This was a break in fellowship, not a breach of the fundamental unity of the Father and the Son.
Now we again approach the cross and hear this cry of Jesus. Here all of the forces of the universe converge: Man did his work by killing the Son of God and revealing the evil of his heart; Satan did his work by bruising the seed of the woman and displaying his foolish hostility; Jesus did a work, for He died, “the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18 KJV); and, finally, God did a work by exhibiting His justice and love when His wrath was poured out on His Son.2
If God is to bless us, He must turn His back upon Himself. Surely, we must approach the cross with wonder.
THE WONDER OF THE DARKNESS
According to Jewish custom, a new day began at 6:00 in the morning. So when we read that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, we understand this to be at 9:00 A.M. So for three hours He hung in the morning sunlight; but then at the sixth hour, that is, at midday, darkness spread over the land. “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45 NIV). At high noon, the world became dark There had been three hours of light, but now there would be three hours of dark ness. This was not an eclipse; the sun was obscured by a supernatural act of God.
Why night, at noon?
Darkness is always associated with the judgment of God for great sin. Here we see the judgment of God against the evil men who treated His Son with cruel contempt; and, in a profound sense, we stand condemned with them, for it was our sins that put Jesus on the cross. Should we ever love sin, we would love the very evil that caused nails to be driven through our Savior’s hands and feet. Just as we would abhor the knife that was used to murder a child, so we should abhor the sin that caused Jesus to die. Darkness came because of the collective guilt of us all.
But there is another reason for the darkness. It represents the judgment of the Father against His Son. In those hours of darkness, Jesus became legally guilty of our sin, and for that He was judged. Think of it: legally guilty of genocide child abuse, alcoholism, murder, adultery, homosexual activity, greed, and the like. How appropriate that when the Sinless One was “made sin for us,” the event was veiled from human eyes.
Recall that, in Egypt, the last plague before the Passover was a “darkness that can be felt” (Exodus 10:21). Now, just before this Passover lamb was slain, darkness covered the world like a blanket. Only when He died did light return.
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the Great Maker died
For man, the creature’s sin.3
Now we probe even further into the relationship between Father and Son.
THE WONDER OF THE QUESTION
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
What a contrast with His previous experience with the Father!
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has a God who strengthens Him; on the cross, He has a God who turns away from Him. In Gethsemane, He can call twelve legions of angels who would have been quick to deliver Him; on the cross, He cries to God, who refuses deliverance. Previously, He said the Father has not left Him alone; now, the Father has turned His face. In Gethsemane, the Son was tempted to forsake the Father; on the cross, the Father forsook the Son.4
Let us analyze the question.
Only here, in the Gospel record, does Jesus address His Father as “God.” This change of address signified the break in fellowship between Father and Son. At this moment, the Father did not seem to be acting like a Father. The suffering of the Son was intolerable enough, but to endure it without the Father’s presence magnified the horror.
This cry is so difficult for us to accept that some have suggested that the Father did not really forsake the Son, but Jesus only felt forsaken. But we must give the words their plain meaning. Calvin was right in saying that Christ’s soul had also to feel the full effects of judgment. “If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. . . . Unless his soul had shared in the punishment, he would have been the redeemer of bodies alone.” In consequence, “he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.” Make no mistake: This was a real abandonment by the Father.
Forsaken. It is a powerful word. A man forsaken by his friends. A wife forsaken by her husband. A creature forsaken by his creator. A son forsaken by his father. This Son had been the object of the Father’s love from all eternity; the Father’s presence was His only delight. The hiding of His Father’s face was the most bitter sip of the cup of sorrow He chose to drink.
But did He suffer only as man, or did He suffer as God? Was the divine nature passive while the Father was accepting the payment that was being made on that dark day in Jerusalem?
Dennis Ngien has argued that a God who cannot suffer is a God who cannot love. If God cannot feel the pain of His people, we might be tempted to say that God is indifferent to our plight. “God suffers,” wrote Dennis Ngien, “because God wills to love.”5
Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right when he wrote from prison, “Only the suffering God can help [us].”6
If only the humanity of Christ suffered at the cross, then there was no real Incarnation. Indeed, it might lead to the conclusion that only a man died on the cross, not the God-man. He could not suffer as man without His divine nature suffering too. Nor can I believe that the Father remained passive and unmoved. As parents, we know that if we watched our son die he would not be the only one suffering. Even so, our heavenly Father felt the pain of His beloved Son. God had to turn His back upon Himself, that He might pay the penalty for our sin.
Keep in mind that the Father was not forced to suffer because of circumstances beyond His control. God chose to suffer. He chose to redeem humanity through the suffering of His Son. The Father chose to be accepted by some people and rejected by others. He suffered because He willed it so. He had before Him an indefinite number of possible worlds---worlds in which there was no Fall, no sin, no need of redemption. Yet He chose this plan with its injustice and pain. We are invited to believe that, looked at from eternity, this plan was best.
If we as redeemed sinners think it terrifying to be forsaken by God, think of the grief of the Son, who was with the Father from all eternity; think of Him being forsaken! His holiness was in contact with impurity of every kind. And yet, even in this cry, there is hope and trust. He says, “My God, my God . . .” He still called God “My God”; the Father still belonged to Him. The sweet communion was gone, but the Son had the full knowledge that the Father’s presence would return. The withdrawal of the Father’s presence did not mean the withdrawal of His love. At the end of the dark tunnel was light; in a few hours He would say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
“This was a cry of distress but not of distrust,” wrote Pink. “God had withdrawn from Him, but mark how His soul still cleaves to God.”7 The anguish cannot be captured in words. No wonder when Luther contemplated this text, he agonized over the mystery and exclaimed, “God forsaking God, no man can understand that!?”
Yes, the darkness reminds us of the horror and the mystery. A mystery no man can understand.
THE WONDER OF THE SILENCE
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The cry rings out to a silent heaven.
Two thousand years before this, Abraham was asked to kill his son Isaac on an altar at the top of Moriah, but just as his knife was raised to the sky, Jehovah intervened. “Do not lay a hand on the boy. . .Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12 NIV). So Isaac’s life was spared. But the voice that called out on Moriah is now silent at Calvary.
So why was the Son forsaken by the Father?
The angels, no doubt, searched for an answer, for they have a deep interest in those matters that pertain to our salvation (1 Peter 1:12 NIV). The Pharisees standing at a distance from the cross would not have been able to give an answer. The priests would not understand; nor would the Roman soldiers. Just so today, many people do not understand why God would forsake anyone, especially the Son whom He dearly loves.
That the sum of all perfection should be forsaken by the Father; that the One in whom is all the fullness of the Godhead should not see the Father’s face---for this there must be a grand reason. And we find the reason in Psalm 22 (NKJV). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? 0 my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent. But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel” (v.1-3 emphasis added).
The Father forsook the Son because His holiness required it. The prophet Nahum asked a question that needed to be answered: “Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him” (Nahum 1:6 NIV). Only Jesus could withstand the indignation of the Father against sin; only Jesus could take the wrath we so richly deserved.
Keep in mind that Jesus was regarded by His enemies as a great sinner, but the Father regarded Him as doubly so. Or, more accurately, the Father regarded Him as the One who bore upon His shoulders the sin of many; thus He was reckoned as One guilty of heinous crimes. He was cursed in our place, that we might be set free. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). Visualize Jesus covered with that which is evil; visualize your sin laid upon His chest.
Might it not be (we can only speculate) that if Jesus died to deliver from an infinite hell all those who would believe on Him---might it not be that His suffering on the cross was, in some sense, “infinite”? Surely He endured the suffering of hell, for hell is darkness, abandonment, and being forsaken by God. If so, the horror of what He experienced is beyond us.
Let us suppose that Jesus was just a man; a perfect man but nothing more. He could only make a sacrifice for one other person. But Jesus was a sacrifice for many people, so He had to compress an eternity of hell into three hours. As best we can, we must grasp that this was infinite suffering for the infinite Son of God. There was no way to transfer sin without transferring its penalty. To put it plainly, He was receiving what was due us. The wrath of the Father burned toward the Son once the reckoning was made. Indescribable sin was in contact with infinite holiness and infinite justice.
Now we can better understand why it was midnight at midday. The physical darkness was symbolic of Christ’s separation from the Father, who is Light. Just as the wicked are thrown into “outer darkness,” so the Son bore the darkness of our hell. Stott wrote, “Our sins blotted out the sunshine of his Father’s face.”8 Look at these hours on the cross and you are looking into hell: darkness, loneliness, and abandonment by God. This explains the cup He would have preferred not to drink. Throughout His lifetime He suffered at the hands of men; at specified times He suffered at the hands of Satan. But now He suffered at the hands of God.
He was abandoned to outer darkness that we might walk in the light.
THE WONDER OF THE HUMAN HEART
Once more let us recreate the scene at Golgotha. The jeering crowd became plaintive and restless during the three hours of darkness. We might expect that they would be stricken with fear, anxiously wondering whether daylight would ever return. Perhaps this was the Son of God after all.
What was their response? “When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah’” (Matthew 27:47 NIV). One man, as an expression of sympathy, got a sponge, filled it with wine and vinegar, put it on a reed, and offered it to Him. But as for the rest, they sarcastically said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him” (v. 49). I doubt that they misunderstood His words. Matthew actually records the Aramaic version of Jesus’ words, which would have been known to the people milling about the cross. The comment about Elijah was made in derision.
The Jews present should have known that the cry, “My God,” was a quotation from Psalm 22:1. The rest of this psalm describes in detail the ordeal of crucifixion. The Jews did not use crucifixion but stoned those deemed worthy of capital punishment. Yet as further proof of the trustworthiness of Scripture, crucifixion and not stoning is predicted as the means by which the Messiah would die.
I ask, What would it have taken for these people to come to their senses and accept Jesus as the Son of God? But then I must ask, What will it take for people I know to come to their senses about Christ? Today, as then, men and women harden their hearts against what seems most obvious to those who are open to the truth. The credentials of Christ can be seen by all who care to see. The more light that is given, the harder the human heart must become to reject it.
We dare not leave this heartfelt cry from our Savior’s lips without savoring its implications for our understanding and worship.
The first purpose of the cross was not for us, but for God. Yes, Jesus shed His blood for us, but it is even more true to say that He shed His blood for the Father. When the blood was sprinkled on the door-posts of the houses in Egypt, it was put there for the benefit of the families, but it was also put there for God. Jehovah said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13 NIV). Whether the members of the family had committed great sins or lesser ones, it mattered not; when the Angel of Death saw the blood, the house was exempt from judgment.
Christ’s death was a “sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour” (Ephesians 5:2 KJV). Paul says that Christ died to demonstrate God’s justice (Romans 3:25 NIV). God had fellowship with Old Testament saints, though there had not been a final reckoning of their sin. It might appear as if He had lowered His standards, overlooking their transgressions. So Jesus had to die to demonstrate that God is just. He could not overlook the sins of even His closest friends (such as Abraham). Thus the suffering of the Son was planned by the Father. As John Piper wrote, “Never before or since has there been such suffering, because, in all its dreadful severity, it was a suffering by design. It was planned by God the Father and embraced by the Son.”9
There is a story about a man who was brought before a judge for speeding. The fine was assessed at a hundred dollars, but the man had no money to pay. In sheer sympathy the judge did what he did not have to do. He left the bench, laid aside his robe, stood by the defendant, took out a hundred-dollar bill and laid it on the table. Then he returned to put on his robe, walked back up the stairs to his desk, leaned over, took the one hundred-dollar bill he had laid down, and said to the defendant, “Thank you. You may go free.” Just so, God the Son made a payment to God the Father for those who would accept the gift of eternal life.
I’m told that in an Italian church there is a picture of the Crucifixion with a vast shadowy figure behind the portrait of Christ. The nail that pierces the hand of Jesus goes through the hand of God. The spear thrust into the side of Jesus goes through into God’s. Luther said that if it is not true that God died for us, but only a man died, then we are lost.
In one of my favorite hymns, Charles Wesley wrote words that cannot be excelled for their understanding of the cross and breadth of theology:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”10
That Thou my God shouldst die for me! Of course, God cannot die, if by death we mean some form of annihilation. But if death is defined as separation (for us the separation of the spirit and the body), then God died in the sense that the Son was separated from the Father. “God, dying for man,” wrote P. T. Forsyth, “I am not afraid of the phrase; I cannot do without it. God dying for men; and for such men---hostile, malignantly hostile men” Forsyth continued: “[God] must either inflict punishment or assume it. And he chose the latter course.”11
Let us remember that He was forsaken by God that we might be accepted by Him. Let us hold to this promise: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 NIV). Paul assured us that nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35—39 NIV).
Jesus went through darkness that we might have light. He was cursed that we might be blessed. He was condemned that we might be able to say, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 NIV). He suffered hell for us so that we can enjoy heaven with Him. “He entered the awful Darkness,” wrote Pink, “that I might walk in the Light; He drank the cup of woe that I might drink the cup of joy; He was forsaken that I might be forgiven!”22 Sin, like a loathsome serpent, clung to Him, but He bore the sting for us. We can hide behind the wall of His grace and know that we are safe from wrath.
“Without the cross,” wrote Spurgeon, “there would have been a wound for which there was no ointment, a pain for which there was no balm.”13 Sin always exacts a payment. Either Jesus bears our sin, or we do. If the Father turned His face away from His beloved Son when He was regarded as a sinner, we can be sure that the Father will turn away from every sinner who stands before the Judgment Bar on his own merits. We are either saved by His rejection or we must bear our own rejection for all of eternity. If those who are in hell should cry, “Why have You forsaken me?” heaven shall remain silent, for they receive the just recompense for their deeds.
Paul described the future horrid experience of those who do not find shelter beneath the work of Jesus on the cross: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9 NIV). Try to visualize eternal separation from Him who is the fount of all beauty and goodness, the One who is the source of life and love. Christ will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23 NIV).
A man who had no regard for God lay dying in a small cabin. As his final breaths approached, he asked his daughter to blow out the candle that was on the table. She said, “No, Daddy, you can’t die in the dark.” But he replied, “Yes, I will die in the dark.” He died as he had lived. Live in darkness; die in darkness.
For those who die in Christ, the darkness has passed. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 NIV). Live in light; die in light. No wonder we worship. No wonder we submit. No wonder we serve. I’m glad Charles Wesley did not back down from the bold assertion:
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? (87-104)
1. John Srott, The Cross of Christ (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986), 151
2. Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross (Swengel, Pa.: Bible Truth Depot, 1954), 70.
3. Isaac Watts (1674—1748), “Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed?”
4. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross, 64—84; but especially 65, 67, 69, 71, 75, regarding this paragraph.
5. Dennis Ngien, “The God Who Suffers,” Christianity Today, 3 February 1997, 40.
6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tergel Prison, 16 July 1944, in Letters and Papers from Prison, revised and enlarged ed.; Eberhard Bethge ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1953, 1967, 1971), 361.
7. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross, 75.
8. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 79.
9. John Piper, “The Glory of Christ’s Incomparable Sufferings,” The Standard, (October 1999): 24.
10. Charles Wesley (1707—88), “And Can It Be that I Should Gain?”
11. P T Forsyth, The Work of Christ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), quoted in Stott, The Cross of Christ, 153.
12. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross, 80.
13. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Christ’s Words from the Cross (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963), 67.
The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross
1. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." (Luke 23:34 NKJV)
2. "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43 NKJV)
He said to His mother,
"Woman, behold your son!"
Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" (John 19:26-27 NKJV)
4. "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46 NKJV)
5. "I thirst!" (John 19:28 NKJV)
6. "It is finished!" (John 19:30 NKJV)
7. "Father, 'into Your hands I commit My spirit.' " (Luke 23:46 NKJV)
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