Why did Jesus cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross?
Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He is called “lamb,” of course, because of the Old Testament where lambs were designated to be the sin-bearers for the people on the day of atonement (see especially Lev. 16 for the “day of atonement,” what Jews call today “Yom Kippur”). When John the Baptizer called Jesus the Lamb of God in John 1:29, he was prophesying and essentially saying, “There aren’t going to be any more sacrifices after this man. He’s the last lamb.”Isaiah picks up this theme of atonement for sin from Leviticus 16 in his “Suffering Servant” passage in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. He says,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away…Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief (vv. 4-8a, 10).
So Isaiah shows us that not only were lambs–and the Ultimate Lamb–sacrificed for sin, but that their sacrifice was actually punishment for the sinner (his language makes that clear). Lambs, and thus Jesus, received punishment, for what we deserved. Jesus, then, not only paid the debt for sin, but also took the punishment that sin deserved. We see this throughout the New Testament in different vocabulary:
- Christ became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13).
- Christ became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).
- Christ saves us from wrath by taking wrath for us (1 Thess. 1:10).
- Christ was condemned in the flesh so that the righteous requirement of the law would be fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:3).
- Christ was put forward as a “propitiation,” which is a theological word that means Christ was given to satisfy God’s wrath (Rom. 3:25).
We can sum up the judgment of God this way: Everyone will be judged for their sins. No one anywhere at any time gets away with anything. Every sin will be punished–either in hell or on the cross.
All of this evidence leads me to believe that when Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he was saying, “I am being forsaken for the sins of many. I am experiencing the punishment for sin that everyone who believes in me should bear.” Now this is tricky. Can God turn his back on himself? Does he not see what’s happening? Of course, the answers are no and no. He cannot turn his back on himself and he does see everything. However, in a mysterious, cosmic way, at that moment, all of the sins of the God’s people were poured onto Jesus. In order for redemption to be possible, God, indeed, had to forsake Jesus. Jesus needed to be judged. Jesus needed to face the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins. So while God did not turn his literal back so he did not see, the meaning is that Jesus really and truly experienced the absence of fellowship and union with the Father because of sin. Because Jesus was abandoned by the Father for those precious moments before he died we can be sure that he will “never leave nor forsake” us.
In saying, “My God, my God…etc,” Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1. In those days, when a rabbi quoted the first verse of psalm, the whole chapter was being alluded to. Jesus then implies that he is the true author of Psalm 22–the only truly righteous person who can faithfully sing that song. God will eventually restore Jesus: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Ps. 22:24). The Father has heard the cry of the Son. Why could the Father hear the cry of the afflicted One? Because Jesus is the only truly innocent sufferer who does not deserve to suffer. The evidence of this fact is that the Father raised the Son from the dead. The resurrection was Christ’s reward for a perfectly obedient life. God did not simply forsake Jesus in some form of divine child abuse (which some wrongly assert I am implying). He punished and chastised him, only to bring him through death after hearing his cry of affliction in order to bring in “all the families of the nations” to God (Ps. 22:27-28). The promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 was being fulfilled in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Christ took our punishment so that we will never face punishment in eternity.
Finally, was Jesus being punished until his resurrection? Did he go to hell after he died? No and no. He said on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,” (Luke 23:46); and to the thief he said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Christ’s victory was not fully realized until his resurrection, but he certainly was not overcome by death: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps. 16:10).