Jesus’ cry of dereliction, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? (Mark 15:34), has been the subject of much discussion. Some believe that these words are to be understood literally—that God separated Himself from Jesus as part of Him bearing our sins. I’m not aware of anything regarding Christ’s atoning work that necessitates God forsaking His Son and there is much from the biblical witness to suggest that He didn’t.
Jesus told His disciples “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave Me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for My Father is with Me” (John 16:32). Paul was convinced that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NASB). Furthermore, the Hebrew writer spoke of Christ “who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God” (9:14). It seems clear then that however we understand this cry, Jesus was not abandoned by God or the Spirit. The Godhead was in complete harmony at Calvary.
I think we are to understand Jesus’ words as reflecting the extreme anguish He feels at that cross—it is so great that He feels as if God has forsaken Him. It is deity crying from from the depth of humanity. But if He hasn’t really been forsaken does this lessen the meaning of His words or make somehow less real?
Only if we choose to see them that way.
The Hebrew writer makes it clear that Jesus is qualified to be our high priest because He was “fully human in every way” (2:17). This means He was subject to limitations as we are. He knew what it was like to be hungry, thirsty, tired, sick, etc. There were times when His knowledge (like ours) was limited. In regard to the destruction of Jerusalem He said that He didn’t know the day or the hour when it would occur (Mark 13:32). More to our point, in the garden Jesus prayed that if it was possible, He could be delivered from going to the cross (14:35-36). But as subsequent events showed—it wasn’t possible. Did Jesus know this? If so, then why did He ask to be delivered? I think the answer is that He didn’t–He was limited in His knowledge in this regard. Does that somehow make His prayer less real? Of course not.
What it makes Him is like us. Jesus knew the uncertainty, doubt and anxiety that come from not knowing all that you’d like to know. He fully understands what it’s like to live without all of the answers. But He also showed us how to overcome our fears by trusting God.
I think His cry at the cross is to be understood in the same manner as His prayer in the garden. His suffering is so extreme that He feels that God has abandoned Him. That He hasn’t been doesn’t change the reality of what He’s experiencing.
Yet there’s another layer to Jesus’ words for they are a quote of Psalm 22:1. The psalm is attributed to David, who is seeking deliverance from a life-threatening situation (“Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of dogs” – v. 20). It seems probable that this refers to either the time when he was fleeing from Saul or later when his son Absalom was in pursuit of him. Either way, we have the anointed king suffering at the hands of others.
This is what we see in Mark’s presentation of the crucifixion as he shows us the One who will sit on David’s throne suffering as David did (and beyond). By His quote of Psalm 22:1, Jesus is appropriating then David’s suffering kingship to Himself.
And though He had chosen to be helpless, He is not hopeless. Still in Psalm 22, David has this to say in v. 24: “He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; He had not hidden His face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” The man who felt forsaken in v. 1 was able to understand by faith that God had not left him. This was Jesus’ experience as well as evidenced by His final words, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.”
May we remember these words and understand that even when it doesn’t feel like it, God is with us.