A Cry Of AnguishErwin W. Lutzer | March 18, 2001
Selected highlights from this sermon
In Gethsemane, Jesus is in agony but is strengthened by the Father; at the cross He is forsaken by God. Why? Because while He was on the cross, Jesus was legally guilty of every sin ever committed in the history (past, present and future) of humanity—even though He Himself was without sin.
And because of that sin, the Father cut off fellowship with the Son then poured out His wrath upon Jesus. All of the punishment that we should have suffered in hell was put upon the one Person who never even had a single sinful thought.
If the Father loved the Son so much and hid His face from Jesus while He endured three agonizing and torturous hours on the cross, what will God do for those who don’t believe in the Son and the power of His blood?
God cares about us. But how do we know? The only place where we see the love of God without ambiguity is the cross. It was at the cross that Jesus Christ died, and God took His farthest reach. It’s at the cross that we have proof that God crossed over to our side of the chasm to redeem us. It is at the cross where we have the inflexible holiness of God, colliding with the love of God, and the attributes resolving themselves in mutual satisfaction.
Today we come to the fourth cry of the cross, the middle cry. The middle cry is, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” This cry of the cross introduces us, first of all, to the greatest mystery. We are going to be traveling and traversing in ideas and feelings and thoughts that are beyond us, but we shall try to probe the cross. It not only represents the greatest mystery, but the greatest consolation, the greatest comfort. I’m going to be saying a word to those of you who feel forsaken by God, those of you who have prayed and you’ve given up praying because somehow God hasn’t answered your prayers, and you feel as if you’ve been despised and maybe forsaken by people. Relationships have been ruptured and you also feel abandoned by God. There’s a word for you today, not just the greatest mystery and the greatest comfort, but also we are embarking on the greatest rebuke, the greatest rebuke.
How trivially (if there’s a word like that) we look at sin. “It’s no big deal,” we say to ourselves. Everybody does it. If you begin to think that sin is trivial, you look today at Calvary and you stay with us as we probe this mystery.
Now as we begin this message I need to say that there are two cautions that we need to remind ourselves of. The first caution is that we not misrepresent the role of God the Father in redemption. Because of the fact that the Scriptures say that it pleased the Father to smite the Son, and because in a few minutes you are going to hear me say that Jesus Christ endured the wrath of God for sin, it’s easy to misinterpret that and think to yourself that a benevolent Son convinced a reluctant Father to have redemption for mankind, and that the Father begrudgingly agreed. It’s easy to think that the Father is the angry one and the Son is the benevolent one.
It’s wrong theology, the theology of the little girl who said, “I love Jesus, but I’m scared of God.” Don’t make that mistake. The Scripture says that it was because of the loving kindness of the Lord that redemption took place. The most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” So let us remember, and John Stott counsels us, lest we begin to think of the members of the Trinity at odds with one another or independently in such a sense that they are not in harmony. They are in harmony. The will of the Father and the will of the Son coincide at the cross.
Let’s have another caution as well. The other caution is that we might misrepresent the Trinity. We might actually think that there was somehow a break in the ontological relationship among the persons of the Trinity, but the essence of the Trinity remained during the time of the cross. The unity, the fundamental substantial unity, was there. What there was, was a break in fellowship. There was a break in the presence of God, so let’s keep that in mind. It’s not as if somehow now God was split in two during this dramatic event.
I love the cross and I hope that you do too. It is here that everything comes together. Imagine that we can contemplate it. Here man did a work. He showed his sin by having Jesus Christ crucified. Satan did a work because he nipped the heel of the seed of the woman, and that’s the best that he could do. He did a work too. Jesus did a work. He died, the just for the unjust that He might bring us to God. And God did a work because His holiness was appeased. His justice was made manifest, and His love now was able to break forth toward sinners without in any way compromising His justice and His holiness. What a place to be—at the foot of the cross.
And now I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to Matthew, chapter 27. And I’m reading the text from verse 45: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, ‘This man is calling Elijah.’ 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. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’”
Before we look at the words of Jesus directly, let’s take a moment and contemplate the darkness. Now in order for you to understand the time frame, remember that the Jews calculated time from six o’clock in the morning, not midnight like we do. Consequently, when the text says that from the sixth to the ninth hour there was darkness, it means from 12 o’clock noon, high noon till 3 o’clock in the afternoon—three hours of darkness. Jesus was crucified at 9 o’clock in the morning and six hours later He was dead. The first three hours in light! The second three hours in darkness! You’ll notice it says, “Darkness came over all the land.” It was a supernatural darkness. This is not an eclipse because it was a full moon. This was God veiling the sun.
In the Old Testament in the book of Exodus we read that darkness came over all the land as the ninth plague. Think about that. The darkness came, the darkness that could be felt, and what happened at the tenth plague was that the lamb was slain. Immediately after the darkness leaves at 3 o’clock, Jesus is going to utter three more statements that we’re going to be looking at in this series, but the last is going to be “Father, into Thy hands I commit my Spirit.” The Lamb of God is going to die.
Well, why the darkness? The darkness symbolizes judgment. It symbolizes judgment. God was judging the crimes of those who had put Christ on the cross, most assuredly. But Jesus now is going to be represented as a great sinner, not only for the sins of those that lived then who believed, but also for us. Jesus is going to be represented as a sinner, and therefore, because judgment is going to be meted out at Calvary, because of that you have darkness over the land and the mystery of the divine suffering is shrouded behind that cloud.
And well might Isaac Watts write:
What a light the sun in darkness hide,
And shut its glories in,
When Christ, the great Redeemer died,
For man, the creature’s sin.
Now we come to the cry itself. And I’d like to suggest that there are three wonders here as we contemplate the cross. You know, the first sayings of Jesus are not a surprise to us, are they? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” You remember we preached a message on those words. The thief said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus replied, “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise.” That’s not a surprise because He has the ability to forgive sin and to give life. We’re not surprised that He takes care of His mother, and says, “Behold Thy mother,” to John.
This statement is a surprise, so I want to discuss briefly the wonder of this cry. Contrast it with the other sayings of Jesus regarding His Father. In Gethsemane Jesus Christ is in agony, but He is strengthened by God the Father. On the cross He is in agony, but He is forsaken by the Father. In Gethsemane the Son is tempted to forsake the Father. On the cross the Father forsakes the Son.
As Jesus went around doing good and teaching He said, “The Father has not let me alone because I do always the things that please Him,” but He dies on the cross and He is alone. It’s the only time in the Scriptures where Jesus addresses His Father as God. Elsewhere always “Father, Thou knowest all things.” It’s the only time He does not say Father and He is crying out to Him and He says, “My God,” symbolizing that separation of fellowship, remembering the fact that it is our sin that caused the Father to hide His face. It is the blessed communion that the Son had with the Father, that blessed communion now interrupted because of the transaction that was taking place. And so He does not say Father because He does not feel the Father. It seems as if God is not acting toward Him as a Father, and so He says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But I want you to know it is also still a statement of hope and trust. Notice the words, “My God, my God.” This is not a word of distress, or I should say it is a word of distress, and not of distrust. God is still there. God still belongs to Jesus. He is My God, but where is the fellowship? Where is the divine presence? It has left. It has gone.
So we look at this text and we are amazed at the wonder of the cry. But we’re also amazed at the wonder of the reply. We’re amazed at the wonder of the reply because in the text itself there is no reply. Do you remember Abraham? He was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah, and he goes through the agony of being willing to do it, and he is there on the mountain and the child is laid upon the altar. And the knife is raised to stab his own boy and there is a voice from heaven. And the voice says, “Abraham, Abraham,” and he says, “Yes, here I am.” And He says, “Do not lay your hand upon the son, because now I know that you fear God.”
Jesus cries out and says, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and there is no voice from heaven. There’s no voice that says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Silence! Silence! “Why hast thou forsaken me?”
But you know as we begin to piece together passages of Scripture and we look at this, we know why Jesus was forsaken, and He knew it too. Why was Jesus Christ forsaken on the cross? Why this cry taken from Psalm 22 as we shall see in just a moment? Well, first of all, it makes sense because on the cross Jesus was regarded as the worst sinner and criminal that had ever walked the face of this earth. Of all men He was regarded as the worst, not personally because He was without sin, but legally. When Jesus was there He became legally guilty of adultery. He became legally guilty of murder, of child abuse. He became legally guilty of greed and lasciviousness. He became legally guilty of lying and cheating and violence, because all of that was credited to Him. God was in Christ. Indeed, the Apostle Paul says that we are made the righteousness of God in Him because He was made sin for us.
And you, my friend, your sin was there that day on Calvary. I’m talking to some of you who are adulterers, and some of you who engage in all kinds of sinful activity. Your sin was there on Calvary remember. No wonder the sun hid. Jesus was regarded as the greatest of criminals, and what happens to the greatest of criminals? They endure the wrath of God, and in the end they are forsaken.
Let’s think about this theologically for just a moment. Okay? If Jesus was just a perfect man (just a man), He could maybe die for the sin of one other man and make a sacrifice and say, “I give My life in the stead of one other person. I take the wrath of God against Me for him.” One other person! He couldn’t die for millions of people. He could only die for one. But because Jesus was the God-man, because He was both God and man and had divine nature, and was dying now for millions of people, you see, all of the punishment of hell, not just for one but for many, had to be compressed into a three-hour period, as he endured the wrath of God that would justly fall upon those who would not be redeemed. That is to say that Jesus was going to endure the wrath of God that we would have received if He had not redeemed us. And now we kind of reach the limits (Don’t we?) because what we really have is an infinite being, perhaps with infinite suffering that we cannot possibly comprehend. How could the pure, holy, spotless Son of God come into direct contact with sin and not be grieved, and not be forsaken if we can almost visualize Jesus dying with a blanket of all of our sins in which He is wrapped? And holiness has to come in contact now with sin. Who can fathom it?
I think that one of the best illustrations of what happened on Calvary is that story that’s been told many different times, I am sure in different ways (Stories have a life of their own.), about the person who was speeding, and then was unable to pay the fine. And so he stood before the judge (the defendant did) and the man did not have any money. And the story is that the judge left his bench, took off his robe, went down the stairs, stood with the defendant, took a hundred dollars out of his own pocket, laid it on the table, went back, put on his robe, walked up the stairs, was on the bench, reached over and took the $100 bill and said, “You are free.”
Now, there’s a part of that illustration that is right. There is also a part that is wrong. The part that is right is that’s exactly what was happening here. God was dying for God. That’s why Luther went into a room to contemplate the text and came out and said, “I cannot fathom it. I have given up. How can God die on behalf of God?” But that’s exactly what happened. That’s why we sing:
“that Thou, my God, should die for me.”
So the illustration is right, but the God who demands the payment is the God who gives the payment that He demands. That’s the Gospel.
The thing that’s wrong with that illustration is we’re not talking about a hundred dollars. We’re not talking about silver and gold. We’re talking about the precious blood of Jesus Christ as the lamb without spot. We’re talking about infinite suffering of a beloved Son. We’re talking about the Father breaking fellowship with the one whom He loved. That’s what we’re speaking of, with hell compressed into three hours. The God who demanded a payment if He was to love sinners and to receive them is the God who gave the very payment that He demanded. That, my friend, is the Gospel.
Now, there’s a question to be asked, and the question is, “Did Jesus suffer just as man, or also as God?” There are some people who think His human nature suffered, but God can’t suffer. Now, you know, I disagree with that. I think that the Father suffered as well. No father could watch his son go through this without feeling the pain, and I believe that Jesus, as the God-man suffered. And I agree with those who say that a God who cannot suffer is a God who cannot love. And I think Bonhoeffer was right when he wrote in prison that only a suffering God can help us. It means that when the Bible says that Jesus is touched with the feelings of our infirmities, it is not just Jesus, the man. It is Jesus, the God-man. It is Jesus with the divine nature, and God now—God—is entering into our predicament, as we see here at the cross. God is the one who himself suffered and feels your pain and your hurt.
There’s a third wonder. We talked about the wonder of the cry itself, the wonder of the answer. But there’s really a third, and that is the wonder of the human heart. Now, I want you to visualize it. You are at the cross. You are not listening to this message now. You are there. I want you to see the cross. I want you to see the mobs milling around, and I want you to hear Jesus with a loud voice. The Bible says He cried. And we know that it was loud because the text tells us that many people heard. And He cries, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” There have been three hours of darkness with no explanation, no eclipse. The Bible says in the book of Matthew also that the rocks trembled, and there was an earthquake, and rocks split. Would you not think that people would be repentant? Would you not think that they would say, “This has been predicted in Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” because Psalm 22 is the best example of crucifixion that one could ever have, and we know that David wrote this under the divine Spirit, because the Jews did not crucify people. They stoned them, but this is crucifixion.
It says in verse 2, “Oh my God, my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Do you see that you have both night and day there in Psalm 22, after the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Verse 6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him.”
“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax.” That’s crucifixion.
“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Surely, somebody in the crowd must have said, “This is surely the Son of God because He is fulfilling Psalm 22. He began by saying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (which is verse 1),’” and if they had known the rest of the verse they’d have said, “This is the Son of God.”
But there’s nobody saying that. You know what they say! They say, “You know, He’s calling for Elijah.” They pretended. This is just part of the mockery. They knew right well he hadn’t said Elijah, but because Eli is the beginning of Elijah, they mock Him, and they say, “Oh well, maybe Elijah will come and deliver Him. Now leave Him alone. He couldn’t deliver Himself. We taunted Him, but let’s see whether or not Elijah comes.” And you say to yourself, “What’s going on with these people? What will it take?" I want you to know that their heart is no different than the heart of people today—not one wit different.
There are some of you who have heard the Gospel Sunday after Sunday after Sunday by radio. You’ve read the Bible. You’ve done this like this, and you still haven’t responded, and we say, “What will it take?” I ask you today. What will it take? The heart is no different. Jesus dies and people go on doing their financial transactions, shopping, living their own life, pursuing their own ends as if it doesn’t matter. The heart is the same.
Three unforgettable lessons standing here at the cross! What are they? First of all, the cross was not just for us. It was for God. The cross was not just for us. It was for God. (chuckles) You know, in the Old Testament times when it said that “I will pass over you,” (You remember the Passover where the blood was put on the lintel of the door) that blood was for the angel, for Jehovah as He went through the land. And in some of those houses in Israelite territory there were people with emotional problems. There were people with doubts. There were people who had committed great sins. And even though all of those things are important, at the end of the day they were spared the judgment, because God says, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you.” And when Jesus died, God saw the blood, as it were, of those who would believe, and redeemed them. It’s not just for us. Yes, Jesus died for us, but Jesus died for God. It please the Lord to bruise Him.
And do you know what it says regarding the death of Christ? It says that His death was a sweet-smelling savor to God. God delighted in it. Now, if you ask the question, “Well, how can God delight in it and at the same time God is grieved to see His Son suffer?” then you have not given enough thought to what John Piper calls the infinitely complex emotional life of God. But the simple fact is that God was pleased with what Jesus did on the cross.
And then God had a public relations problem that He had to take care of. There were people who were accusing Him of compromising His holiness because He forgave people in the Old Testament like David and Elijah and a whole host of other people like the patriarchs. And no permanent sacrifice had been made for them, so it says in the book of Romans that God had to display Christ as a propitiation because of the sins that were past, and He had to have Christ die so that His justice would be appeased, so no one could say that He is unjust in forgiving great sinners. It was not just for us that He died, but for God.
The second great lesson! He bore our rejection. He bore our rejection so that we might be accepted. We can put that differently. We could say that because Jesus was forsaken by the Father, you and I need never be forsaken by the Father. And now I’m talking about believers, those of you who have trusted Christ as Savior. I’ll have a word for you other folks in just a moment.
I’m talking about those of you who have prayed to God, those of you who have agonized, those of you who have asked God questions, and you have said, “God, you have forsaken me. Look at my health. Look at what I am going through. Look at the grief of those who have gone on. Look at my background. Look at the way in which I was adopted. Look at what I am enduring at school. Where are You, God?”
Well, I want you to know today that the answer is this. God says to you believers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” You’ll never experience what Jesus experienced because He experienced what He did in your behalf.
You say, “Well, where is God then?” Always remember that feelings are not facts. It’s possible for you feel as if God has forsaken you when in point of fact He’s not done that at all. In fact, He’s got a promise out there that He needs to keep. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Jesus went through darkness that you and I might walk in light. Jesus was cursed so that you and I can be blessed. Jesus was condemned so that you and I might be able to say, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” And Jesus suffered hell so that you and I could be with Him and enjoy heaven. “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. Nothing shall separate you from the love of God.”
There’s a third lesson. This is now for those of you who haven’t accepted Christ as Savior, those of you who aren’t sure. And the good reason that you aren’t sure is because you haven’t. I’m talking to you. All sin is very, very expensive. It’s really costly. And it’s always got to be paid for.
I was thinking about this this past week, and something dawned on me. If God, the Father, who loved the Son so much, his beloved Son, was willing to hide His face for three hours, and the Son endure all of this agony and be forsaken by the Father, what will God do to those sinners who do not accept His Son? I’ll tell you what He’s going to do. He’s going to forsake them. It says in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that when Jesus comes it’s going to be an everlasting fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power. That is being forsaken by God.
What is hell? Hell is darkness. Hell is loneliness. And hell is being forsaken by God and man. That is hell. And an eternity in hell will not buy you forgiveness. Sir Francis Newport said before he died, “Oh that I was to lie a thousand years upon the fire that is never quenched, to purchase the favor of God and be united to Him again. But it is a fruitless wish. Millions and millions of years will bring me no nearer to the end of my torments than one poor hour. Oh eternity, eternity, eternity, forever, forever, oh the insufferable pain of hell.” And with that he went into eternity.
There was a man who was about to die and his daughter said she was there in the room. And he said, “Would you blow out the candle that is on the table?” And she said, “Oh Daddy, I don’t want you to die in the dark.” And he said, “I want to die as I have lived.”
You live in darkness, you die in darkness and you go into outer darkness. Your only hope, my friend, is to respond to Jesus and to say, “Be my sin bearer. I receive You as my own. I accept the hit that You took on my behalf (because sin is incredibly serious; just look at the cross). And I therefore believe in Him and I trust Him. With all that I am I believe.”
And if you are listening to this and you’re still turning away, I do have to ask you this question. What would it take?
Our Father, we marvel today at the wonder of Jesus. We marvel at His grace, at His suffering. We’ve tried so inadequately to think about what happened on the cross during those three hours. Father, those of us who know You as Savior rejoice in the fact that we will not come under condemnation. But, oh Father, what about those who do not know Christ? Would You today break their hearts? Would You overcome their resistance, their blindness, their stubbornness, their unwillingness to respond?
And now I want you to talk to God. Whatever it is that you have to say to Him, you tell Him. If you know Him as Savior, pray for those around you. Pray for people that you know who have never come under the protection of His love and grace. Whatever it is that God says to you, you do it. You talk to Him now. And if you’ve never received Him as Savior, even now reach out to Him and say, “Jesus, save me. I receive You. I accept You as my sin bearer.”
Father, we pray for those in whose hearts You are working, those whom You are calling at this moment. Bring them, oh Father, to full assurance of faith we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.