Though this post originally appeared last year, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit it since we’re in the passion week leading up to Easter.
What is the meaning of Jesus’ statement spoken on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34)? Many suggest that Jesus’ words are desperate cries out of the depths of the deepest depression imaginable, as a result from being separated from the Father. However, I tend to think that something is being missed here. There are four reasons why I would take a different interpretation.
First, in the oral Hebrew culture, when a person wanted his listener to call to mind an entire Psalm, it was the standard practice to merely quote the first few words of that Psalm. To one who had entire Psalms memorized (those who heard Jesus’ words on the cross), this would clearly bring to mind the full context of the passage. The primary thing that should be remembered is that Jesus’ words are not being blurted out in a moment of hysteria or disillusionment. Rather, they are a careful quotation from a Messianic Hebrew text. There’s no doubt that by Jesus’ quotation, he wanted his audience to think of the entire Psalm recorded in chapter 22. Why? The importance of Jesus’ words makes sense in light of the well-known belief that anyone who hung on a tree was cursed and abandoned by God (Deut 21:23). The Jewish on-lookers of the crucifixion would have been compelled to understand the cross as a clear indication that Jesus was not the Messiah. Being careful not to take Jesus’ words out of the context of their Psalm, one realizes the conclusion of Psalm 22 informs the reader that in fact, “[God] has not despised or distained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from [Jesus] but has listened to his cry for help” (vs. 24). Therefore, Jesus’ words on the cross were not claiming that he was actually separated from the Father, but just the opposite. He claimed that when all friends, family, and supporters had forsaken him and he had no one else, he still had perfect intimacy with God his Father.
Second, some may say, “But surely God can’t have fellowship with sin.” And this is true insofar that we understand this to mean that He Himself does not deal in sin. For God to say that He has no fellowship with sin certainly does not mean that He is not able to interact with anything or anyone tainted by sin. For, if it did, how could He look upon, interact with, reach out to, or love any human either before or after salvation? But we know that He does (Rom 5:8). I think that the problem with this question comes with the premise that Jesus actually was sinful while bearing our sin punishment on the cross. This seems to be a misinterpretation of 2 Cor 5:21. This passage is best translated, “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” While the Bible uses the legal terms to describe Jesus taking our sin punishment upon his account, he himself was never actually permeated by our sin. He only stood in our place of punishment in a legal sense.
Further, if 2 Cor 5:21 is to be interpreted to say that Jesus actually became sinful, then we must also take the second half of the verse to say that we have actually become righteous in and of ourselves. H owever, we know that it is not our own righteousness that is acceptable to God, but a foreign or alien righteousness, not of our own–Jesus’ righteousness. The point being that the punishment for sin which Jesus endured is no more his sin, than the reward for righteousness we’ll experience in Heaven is the result of our own righteousness. I n fact, it is only because Jesus was without any sin (Heb 4:15; Jn 1:29) that he was able to give his life as a ransom for us. Jesus’ sacrifice is spoken of as a “penal substitution,” one which is legal in nature, rather than practical. The transfer of our guilt to Jesus’ account is a legal transfer, preserving his sinlessness . . . even on the cross.
Third, it seems that if one does assume a real break in relationship between the Father and the Son (and therefore, the Spirit and the Son), one must believe that for a moment in time the Triune God did not exist. However, this clearly does serious damage to the nature of the triune Godhead. Within this position, one must be willing to say that the Triune God did not exist for a moment in time, which makes His essential nature something other than necessary and eternal.
Fourth, and finally, if Jesus were separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit on the cross, this means that while Jesus was acting in obedience to the Father it was not by the power of the Spirit. Rather, he was acting in perfect obedience in his own strength and power. Because, if even for one moment Jesus was relying on his own strength to overcome temptation, difficulty, etc. then he was doing “only what the Father [told him]” through his own strength and power, and not through the power of the Spirit. And this moment in question—his intense suffering on the cross—was certainly the most trying of all moments. However, the Bible asserts that Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father was only due to his complete dependence on the moment-by-moment empowerment of the Holy Sprit (Lk 4:1). So, Jesus would have needed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit here more than ever.
So, it is primarily for these above four reasons that I do not believe that the Father distanced himself from or “turned his back” on His Son, while he suffered on the cross. Rather, I think the Gospels tell us the exact opposite.