Was Jesus Forsaken?
There are seven recorded sayings of Jesus on the cross. They were apparently said in this order:
• “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
• “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
• “Woman, behold, your son!... Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27)
• “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
• “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
• “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
• “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)
All of the Gospel writers include at least one saying, but none more than three. Luke records the first and last sayings, which were both addressed to the Father. The fourth saying is perhaps the most intriguing and most misunderstood of them all. Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At first glance, those words seem to suggest that Jesus was abandoned by the Father on the cross. But is that really the case? I do not believe it is.
Many teach that Jesus literally took our sins upon Himself and made them His own on the cross. Since God cannot have fellowship with sin, this required the Father to abandon Him as a loathsome thing during that time. However, this view does not harmonize with other passages of Scripture and has some serious unintended consequences. I hope you will consider the following points carefully.
(1) Jesus promised the Father’s perpetual presence. On two different occasions during His earthly ministry, Jesus promised that the Father would never forsake Him — even on the cross.
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:28-29).
“Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32).
Notice that Jesus was speaking about His crucifixion (“when you have lifted up the Son of Man” and “when you will be scattered”) and said He would not be abandoned by the Father. We should also note that the promise in both passages is present tense in Greek, which denotes an on-going, continuous action. Though others would forsake Him, God would not!
(2) Jesus was not asking a question in search of information. Jesus was not inquiring to gain knowledge, He was quoting a Scripture to teach the people. And why quote Psalm 22:1? Because that psalm depicted the very scene before them. He was calling their minds back to that passage to show them they were fulfilling prophecy.
“By drawing their attention to a Psalm that described the very scene before them, perhaps they could see that they were fulfilling prophecy at that very moment. They could look into the mirror of scriptures and see themselves there. They could understand that Jesus was indeed the Christ because Psalm 22 was a prophecy of the Christ which, in turn, declared His Godhood” (Maurice Barnett, The Person of Christ, p. 115).
There are approximately 20 prophecies relative to the crucifixion in Psalm 22, including “they have pierced my hands and feet” (v. 16) and “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v. 18). It’s no wonder Jesus would want them thinking about that text.
(3) Jesus was not affirming the perception of unbelievers. To the unbelieving Jews, Jesus was a God-forsaken man. They thought He was a blasphemer and law-breaker. It is absurd to think that His words affirmed their perception. He was not confirming their thoughts, He was correcting their thoughts by pointing them to a messianic psalm.
(4) Jesus was not a sinner. If Jesus took our sins upon Himself and made them His own, then He was a sinner. I may not ever acquire a million dollars on my own, but if someone gives me their million dollars I am still a millionaire. Though Jesus may not have ever acquired sin on His own, if our sins were given to Him on the cross He was still a sinner. Martin Luther understood the logical conclusion of this view (which he espoused) in his writings:
“All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer, that ever was or ever could be on earth. When he took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner…” (Luther, Lectures on Galatians 3:13, p. 277).
Do you believe that? Do you believe that Christ became “the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer, that ever was or ever could be on earth?” Do you believe that Christ “was no longer an innocent person… a sinner?” If you take the position that Jesus took our sins upon Himself and made them His own, you would have to accept these things to be consistent.
Here are two more quotes, which are equally disturbing:
“Because he was ‘made sin,’ impregnated with sin, and became the very essence of sin, on the cross he was banished from God’s presence as a loathsome thing” (Paul Billheimer).
“As the one great Sinner — the one who had become sin, the one who was accursed beyond all that ever lived — all the wrath of God Almighty was poured out upon Him” (J. Rodman Williams).
John the Baptist said that Jesus “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), not “takes on the sin of the world.” That is an important distinction to make. He did not make our sins His own!
(5) Can God forsake God? It seems illogical to me that God could ever forsake God. Though a man, Jesus was still fully divine on the cross. He did not divest Himself of deity. Therefore, you have a situation in which God forsakes God. In other words, if one claims that the Father actually forsook Jesus during the crucifixion, then he admits to a fracturing of the Godhood, which amounts to a denial of the very nature of God.
(6) Jesus went on talking to (and trusting in) the Father. There were three more sayings after the one in question, and they certainly suggest that Jesus was still in fellowship with the Father. In fact, His last words were, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
(7) Not even David had been forsaken by God. The words Jesus quoted on the cross were originally said by David in Psalm 22:1, which describes a time of severe trials for David. He felt hopeless and helpless, as if God had abandoned him. However, God had not abandoned His servant. He had always been with him, even in those darkest moments. David finally realized that and declared, “For he forsook not, neither despised the prayer of a poor man. Neither he turned away his face from me; and when I cried to him, he heard me” (v. 24, WYC).
Someone might ask, “But doesn’t the Bible say that Jesus bore our sins on the cross?” The answer is “yes” (1 Peter 2:24). However, that does not mean He made our sins His own. Jesus “bore” our sins in the same way He “bore” their diseases in Matthew 8:16-17. That passage says,
“That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’” (Matthew 8:16-17).
Obviously, Jesus did not make their diseases His own. He bore them in the sense of removing them or taking them away. And that’s what He did when He bore our sins on the cross. He took them out of the way. Jesus was still that perfect lamb “without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
Some argue that Jesus “became sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). However, there are many examples in the Old Testament where the original text says “sin” but means “sin offering.” For instance, Leviticus 6:25 says,
“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering. In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the LORD; it is most holy.’”
When “sin offering” appears in this text, it is just the word “sin” in the original Hebrew and Greek Septuagint. Yet it was rightly understood to mean sin offering. And the same is true in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Jesus became a “sin offering” (NIV footnote). The Jewish New Testament says, “God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf,” and the Mounce Reverse-Interlinear says, “He made him who knew no sin to be a sin-offering for us." Precisely the point!
Others argue that Jesus “became a curse” (Galatians 3:13). However, Paul goes on in that text to explain what he meant by those words. He added, “For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Hence, the emphasis is the manner in which Christ died. He suffered the death of one cursed by God by being hanged on a tree.
The quote is from Deuteronomy 21:23, which deals with the treatment of a body after execution. The one hanged on a tree was considered cursed by God since He gave the law requiring such punishment. Christ died as if He were cursed by God because He had been hanged on a tree. This passage has nothing to do with His spiritual condition during that time.
Suppose there were two lambs grazing in a field. One of those lambs was white as snow while the other was black as coal. Which one would best depict Jesus on the cross? I would say the lamb white as snow. However, if you take the position that Jesus literally took our sins upon Himself and made them His own, you’d have to say the lamb black as coal. What a scary thought!
Jesus promised the Father’s perpetual presence, even during the crucifixion (John 8:28-29; 16:32). Hence, He was not forsaken by the Father. We need to realize that He was quoting a Scripture to teach the people, not affirming the thoughts of unbelievers. He was never guilty of being a sinner!