THE TRIUMPH OF THE END
From twelve o’clock midday darkness came over the earth until three o’clock in the afternoon. About three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Some of those who were standing there heard this, and said, “This man is calling for Elias.” And immediately one of them ran and took a sponge and filled it with vinegar and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. The rest said, “Let be! Let us see if Elias will come to save him.” When Jesus had again shouted with a great voice, he gave up his spirit.
As we have been reading the story of the Crucifixion, everything seems to have been happening very quickly; but in reality the hours were slipping past. It is Mark who is most precise in his note of time. He tells us that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, that is at nine o’clock in the morning (Mk.15:25), and that he died at the ninth hour, that is at three o’clock in the afternoon (Mk.15:34). That is to say, Jesus hung on the Cross for six hours. For him the agony was mercifully brief, for it often happened that criminals hung upon their crosses for days before death came to them.
In Matt. 27:46 we have what must be the most staggering sentence in the gospel record, the cry of Jesus: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” That is a saying before which we must bow in reverence, and yet at the same time we must try to understand. There have been many attempts to penetrate behind its mystery; we can look only at three.
(i) It is strange how Ps.22 runs through the whole Crucifixion narrative; and this saying is actually the first verse of that Psalm. Later on it says, “All who seek me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;` He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!'” (Ps.22:7-8). Still further on we read: “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots” (Ps.22:18). Ps.22 is interwoven with the whole Crucifixion story.
It has been suggested that Jesus was, in fact, repeating that Psalm to himself; and, though it begins in complete dejection, it ends in soaring triumph–“From thee comes my praise in the great congregation…. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Ps.22:25-31). So it is suggested that Jesus was repeating Ps.22 on the Cross, as a picture of his own situation, and as a song of his trust and confidence, well knowing that it began in the depths, but that it finished on the heights.
It is an attractive suggestion; but on a cross a man does not repeat poetry to himself, even the poetry of a psalm; and besides that, the whole atmosphere is one of unrelieved tragedy.
(ii) It is suggested that in that moment the weight of the world’s sin fell upon the heart and the being of Jesus; that that was the moment when he who knew no sin was made sin for us (2Cor.5:21); and that the penalty which he bore for us was the inevitable separation from God which sin brings. No man may say that that is not true; but, if it is, it is a mystery which we can only state and at which we can only wonder.
(iii) It may be that there is something–if we may put it so–more human here. It seems to me that Jesus would not be Jesus unless he had plumbed the uttermost depths of human experience. In human experience, as life goes on and as bitter tragedy enters into it, there come times when we feel that God has forgotten us; when we are immersed in a situation beyond our understanding and feel bereft even of God. It seems to me that that is what happened to Jesus here. We have seen in the garden that Jesus knew only that he had to go on, because to go on was God’s will, and he must accept what even he could not fully understand. Here we see Jesus plumbing the uttermost depths of the human situation, so that there might be no place that we might go where he has not been before.
Those who listened did not understand. Some thought he was calling on Elijah; they must have been Jews. One of the great gods of the pagans was the sun–Hellos. A cry to the sun god would have begun “Helie!” and it has been suggested that the soldiers may have thought that Jesus was crying to the greatest of the pagan gods. In any event, his cry was to the watchers a mystery.
But here is the point. It would have been a terrible thing if Jesus had died with a cry like that upon his lips–but he did not. The narrative goes on to tell us that, when he shouted with a great shout, he gave up his spirit. That great shout left its mark upon men’s minds. It is in every one of the gospels (Matt. 27:50; Mk.15:37; Lk.23:46). But there is one gospel which goes further. John tells us that Jesus died with a shout: “It is finished” (Jn.19:30). It is finished is in English three words; but in Greek it is one–Tetelestai (GSN5055)–as it would also be in Aramaic. And tetelestai (GSN5055) is the victor’s shout; it is the cry of the man who has completed his task; it is the cry of the man who has won through the struggle; it is the cry of the man who has come out of the dark into the glory of the light, and who has grasped the crown. So, then, Jesus died a victor with a shout of triumph on his lips.
Here is the precious thing. Jesus passed through the uttermost abyss, and then the light broke. If we too cling to God, even when there seems to be no God, desperately and invincibly clutching the remnants of our faith, quite certainly the dawn will break and we will win through. The victor is the man who refuses to believe that God has forgotten him, even when every fibre of his being feels that he is forsaken. The victor is the man who will never let go his faith, even when he feels that its last grounds are gone. The victor is the man who has been beaten to the depths and still holds on to God, for that is what Jesus did.
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary