Matthew 27:46 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?’
Mark 15:34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’ 1
There has been much confusion and debate as to the meaning of Christ’s so-called “cry of dereliction” from the cross. The two most popular interpretations are:
- He was experiencing and therefore expressing rejection from His Father.
- He was merely quoting an Old Testament messianic psalm.
This blog post will attempt to wrestle through the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various position and craft some helpful boundaries in attempting to answer the question, “Did the Father reject the Son?”
Rejection of the Son
This position is often stated as the Father “turning His face away” or “turning His back to the Son” which both convey the same image of rejection. Though this imagery is not explicitly used in the Scriptures, theological reflection upon the transaction that actually took place upon the cross has led many to this conclusion.
A foundational truth that has been held consistently throughout the church age is that of the Trinity. The God of the Old and New Testaments has always existed as triune, but has now in these last days fully revealed Himself to be such. This is a precious doctrine that has been a litmus test for distinctly Christian thought for nearly 2000 years. According to the orthodox understanding of the nature of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have eternally existed in absolute harmony and joy, united in nature and yet distinct in person and role.
According to some thinking on Matthew and Mark’s texts, this eternal delight and harmony between Father and Son was temporarily yet truly broken in light of Christ’s offering as a propitiatory sacrifice.2This interpretation understands His words to be a reflection of the deep and previously unknown discord experienced by the Son as He hung upon the cross. Also used in support of this view are passages such as:
- Habakkuk 1:13 [God’s] eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor…
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
- Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written – ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’
Since Christ became a curse and sin on our behalf, this view holds that the Father could no longer look upon Him. It rightly feels the theological tension of a holy and perfect God encountering that that is, by definition, contrary to His very nature. However, isn’t Christ just as holy and perfect as the Father? To say that the Father could not look upon sin and thus had to turn His face away merely deflects the tension from the Father to the Son that is hardly helpful. In addition, how does this view interpret the obvious parallel which exists between the Lord’s cry from the cross and David’s recorded anguish in Psalm 22?
Allusion to a Psalm
Psalm 22 is one of the most descriptive passages found within the Old Testament depicting the shadow of the eventual crucifixion of the messiah.3 Its specific messianic tone and rightful application to Jesus is clearly expounded in Hebrews 2:13 leaving no doubt that as to a relationship between the prophecy within this particular psalm and the events which transpired upon Calvary. The psalm clearly and biblically points to the Christ Who eventually suffered and died in fulfillment of the text.
The passage in Psalm 22 begins “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Was Jesus doing nothing more than pointing to the psalm to once again manifest Himself as prophesied messiah to the crowds that were gathered around Him?4 Was He, by quoting the first line of the psalm,5 pointing to the triumphant expectation of the proceeding context?6 Was He merely quoting the psalm, as He quoted Deuteronomy at His desert temptation, in order to steady Himself upon the Scripture?7 Was He simply identifying with the struggle of David in feeling deserted from His Father?
While noticing the obvious parallel between Matthew and Mark’s accounts and the Psalm, this view does not attempt to clarify the actual experience of sin-bearing upon the cross. Was the Son merely quoting the Psalm or was He actually experiencing and thus fulfilling that to which the Psalm pointed?
Reflections upon the Text
Given the obvious and exact correspondence to the language of the psalmist, I find it hard to discount that Jesus had in mind an allusion to the Scripture. In addition, as He proved countless times, it is not to be forgotten that He would have known that the lament that begins in agony ends in triumphant glory. No doubt He knew even as He cried, “why have You forsaken Me?” that this same God “has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard.”8
I certainly do not wish to underestimate the intense physical and emotional agony of the cross or the depth of mystery in the death of the divine. Jesus Christ truly did become a curse and sin on our behalf and it would be sloppy interpretation in not pointing out the logical difficulty which exists when God, even the God-man Jesus, bears sin contrary to His very nature and absorbs the wrath of His loving Father. Then again, any language which speaks of the Father rejecting the Son risks going too far in describing a separation within the eternal godhead, and I’m not comfortable doing so without more explicit evidence.
In my estimation, Scripture is not sufficiently clear9 for us to make absolutely precise statements as to the exact nature and intention of Christ’s cries from Calvary. We do know that His language was unique in that it represents the only record of personal address in which the Son calls His Father “God” and not “Father,” but this hardly prefers one position over the other.10 In addition, we should assert that in some way Jesus was alluding back to the messianic overtones of the 22nd psalm. We should also be careful to not distance ourselves from the peculiar and distinct suffering and anguish which was experienced by the Son as He bore in His body the weight of wrath poured out against sin. In so recognizing, we are left to confess the ultimate and profound mystery of how it is that any sin could be tolerated, looked upon or borne in even the slightest degree by any member of the godhead. The ultimate depths are surely a secret restricted to the divine; a mystery which should not terminate in confusion so much as awe and wonder that God has worked such a glorious salvation for sinful man.
Regardless of the degree to which we incorporate aspects of the two extreme positions, we must confidently assert that Christ’s final words contained not the slightest hint of separation or alienation between the Son and His Father. As both Matthew and Mark attest, after crying out the words corresponding to Psalm 22, he again uttered at least one other loud cry before yielding up His spirit.11 While neither of the first two gospels give us an indication of the content of this final cry, both Luke and John make mention. John’s report ends on the triumphant note of victory as Jesus proclaims that His work has been accomplished12 while Luke shows once again the familiarity of the eternal harmony of the godhead as Christ cries out “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”13 While most precisely reflecting the language of Psalm 31:5, it is certainly interesting to note the similarity to Psalm 22:8 “Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.”
Surely the Father delights in the Son and rescued and delivered the One Who committed Himself fully to Him. Whether Jesus experienced a sense or the reality of alienation or not, we must boldly confess that Father and Son are now and forevermore experiencing the fullness of delight in each other and the infinite perfections of the godhead.
1 The distinction between “Eli” and “Eloi” as recorded in the two gospels is owing to Matthew’s use of the Hebrew “Eli” and Mark’s use of the Aramaic “Eloi”. Though the wording is different, the same concept of a personal address to God is indicated.
3 Note that the servant was mocked (vss. 7-8), stretched (14), thirsty (15), pierced on hands and feet (16), without broken bones (17), looked upon (17), had his garments divided (18), etc. See also Isaiah 53 for a passage similarly loaded with such prophetic richness.
4 Note the frequency of Jesus’ use of Old Testament scripture to evidence His messianic ministry in such passages as Matthew 11:4-5, 13:14-15, 21:42, 22:42-45; Mark 14:49; Luke 4:17-21, 24:25-27; John 5:39, 7:38, 13:18, 17:12, et al.
6 While the psalm begins with a lament of anguish, the context becomes increasingly positive eventually resulting in praise from the psalmist (pointing to the messiah) in verses 22 and 25 and, ultimately in God’s praise throughout the world in verses 27-31.
9 This is neither a denial of the doctrines of sufficiency nor perspicuity, as neither affirms that Scripture is utterly and exhaustively clear in all areas, but rather that it is sufficiently clear in leading us to salvation and godly living.
10 R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Grand Rapids, 1985, pg. 398. J. MacArthur,Matthew: 24-28, The MacArthur NT Commentary, Chicago, 1989, pg. 270. This fact in and of itself does not prove anything. While the second interpretation would point out that this anomaly tends to favor that Jesus was merely quoting Scripture by not using His personal term of familiarity, the former position would state that such an exception indicates the very real alienation which forms their understanding.