The words came quickly and were spoken in the midst of an agonizing death, yet they still cause us to stop and give them consideration over two thousand years later. There are a lot of scenes and words from scripture that give us comfort and peace. There are many phrases and accounts that give us reason to celebrate and rejoice. But as we look toward the cross we are overcome with sadness and despair, even though in the last words of Jesus we are given hope and strength. When we hear him say “I thirst” we know he’s aware of what it’s like to thirst in your soul, and when he says to the thief hanging next to him “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise” we rejoice to know that he is able to save the lowest of men regardless where they find themselves. The words “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” along with “It is Finished” take our breath away as we picture him surrendering to the hands of death only to totally defeat death in three days!
But then we have to go back and remember the words he uttered a short time earlier from the cross. Words that are a bit puzzling to say the least. Matthew records them for us in … “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, E-li, E-li, la-ma sabach-tha-ni? That is to say, My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” Now why did he have to say that? Isn’t he God? Just about the time you think you’ve got God all figured out something like this happens. God’s not supposed to ask why. We like exclamation points not question marks. We like things like “Lazarus come forth! Or “Peace be Still!”
As we try to gain a better understanding of Jesus words we need to notice that Matthew recorded them for us in Jesus spoken tongue, Aramic. The word “La-ma” for instance means “to what purpose?” Have you ever said that or felt that way? Wondering why things were happening the way they have? Jesus knows just what that feels like. Then the word “sabach-tha ni” which means to be forsaken. Jesus already knew what that felt like. His disciples forsook him and he didn’t utter a word. His friends and followers turned on him and he said nothing. But when his Father turned his head Jesus screamed. Why?
I believe that if we are to really understand the cross we need to understand these words. First of all, they are words of separation. Simply put, where sin is, God can’t be. In Leviticus 16 there is given to us the picture of the scapegoat that would symbolically carry the sins of the people away from them. This picture tells us that God doesn’t want sin and his people in the same place. It also tells us that an innocent party has to carry the sin away, and it tells us that this plan was in the best interest of the people. Jesus was separated from his Father because of the sin he bore in his body for you and me. Secondly notice with me that these were Words of demonstration. When you wonder how God feels about you just take a good look at the cross and Jesus’ words. Romans 5:8 says, “But God commendeth his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The word “commendeth” means to put on display. In other words, God displayed for us his love for us on the cross! Lastly I want us to see that these were words of Substitution. Jesus was taking our place as he carried our sin to the cross. I love to tell the story of Fiorello La Guardia. As mayor of New York, La Guardia liked to keep in touch with all the various departments under him. One time he chose to preside over Night Court. It was a cold winter night and a trembling woman was brought before him charged with stealing a loaf of bread. Her family, she said, was starving. “I have to punish you,” declared La Guardia. “There can be no exceptions to the law. I fine you ten dollars.” As he said this, however, he was reaching into his own pocket for the money. He tossed the bill into his hat. “Here’s the ten dollars to pay your fine which I now remit,” he said. “Furthermore,” he declared, “I’m going to fine everybody in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a woman has to steal bread in order to eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant!” The hat was passed and the incredulous woman, with a smile on her face, left the courtroom with a stake of $47.50! Friend that’s what Jesus did for us, he paid our fine and filled our pockets with blessings! Jesus experienced separation from God so you would never have to!
Tim Throckmorton is the former Executive Pastor of the Plymouth Heights Church of the Nazarene in Franklin Furnace Ohio and the Portsmouth First Church of the Nazarene in Franklin Furnace, Ohio. He is currently the Senior Pastor at Crossroads Church in Circleville, Ohio.ReachReach