What are the words that got God’s Son killed on a Roman cross more than 2,000 years ago?
Just days after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is asked a pointed and deeply consequential question by the high priest. In Matthew 26, the Savior is commanded by Caiaphas…
“I adjure You by the living God, tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Jesus knew exactly what He was saying and He knew how explosive it would be to those he was speaking.
Caiaphas knew exactly what Jesus was saying too, and he tore his clothes because of the blasphemy. The Scriptures tell us the crowds that adored Jesus just last week are now saying “He deserves death.”
Saying He was God’s Son got Him killed. It is the primary, defining truth of who He is.
His first recorded words were to His parents after missing for three days. The twelve-year-old Jesus told them “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus was killed on Good Friday in a savage way for stating His divine Sonship. Satan was hell bent on attacking this fundamental essence of the divine nature. Thus, Christ was condemned to die on a Roman cross, the most ignominious of state-directed deaths.
Make no mistake. The Cross was a crisis of Fatherhood.
How do you wound a father more than killing his only, dearly beloved son?
But just as Jesus’ first recorded words and those which got Him condemned to death were about His Father, we should also note what Christ’s last words were before He died.
Matthew and Mark report that the Savior’s last words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Luke tells us that just before Jesus breathed his last, He “called out in a loud voice … “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
John records “It is finished” as the last words uttered.
With His last breathe, Jesus spoke of His Father. But in the first two accounts, He did so in a terribly dramatic way. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is speaking to His Father, but for the first time ever, He doesn’t use the intimate term “Father.” He used the more impersonal term, “My God.”
At noon on this terrible day, Mathew, Mark and Luke explain the sky went dark and remained that way for three hours. God the Father had turned His face from God the Son because of the sin that He bore for our behalf on that rugged cross.
The Son, utterly forsaken by even His Father, declares it is finished and the world turns dark. A profound, mysterious crisis of Fatherhood. For the first time—and the last—in all eternity, the perfect intimacy between the Father and Son was severed in some profound way.
Richard John Neuhaus, in his remarkable book Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross, sets the picture well. He explains, “Here is the cry of dereliction, the cry of abandonment, from the derelict, the abandoned one.”
Neuhaus adds, “The Greek word used suggests that [Jesus] screamed with a loud cry, ‘My God, my God, for what reason have you forsaken me?” He notes, “It was not supposed to be this way.” Indeed. A crisis.
Of course, Jesus was quoting the opening line of Psalm 22. But the Savior was not simply reading a script in a biblical play. Psalm 22 was foretelling this divine drama of abandonment that is Good Friday.
Neuhaus properly uses the word dereliction to describe this temporary separation, this crisis of Fatherhood, because this word “catches the desperateness of the scene.” There is real relational pathos going on here on the cross, between the eternal Father and Son. Neuhaus continues,
Like a derelict boat cast upon the shore, like a dog carcass lying by the roadside, here is something no longer of any account; it is forsaken, abandoned, thrown aside. Roadkill.
So yes, the cross of Christianity is many things, including a crisis of Fatherhood. When God abandons you, can’t get any more abandoned. But what if you are God’s eternal Son? Words cannot describe the significance of this division.
A key event the prior evening illuminates the significance of this.
Luke reports that when Jesus stole away to spend time with His Father the evening before his death, something curious happened. Luke 22:44 explains…
And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
What Luke, a trained physician, refers to is a documented physiological phenomenon in which blood is excreted along with sweat from the pores of the human body. Called hematidrosis, it happens under conditions of extreme anxiety and has been observed and described in early medical texts by Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci.
What was our Savior’s source of such deep anxiety? Didn’t He take comfort in the fact that He was His Father’s Son?
Many would say the anxiety was the excruciating physical pain He would experience at His torture and death the following day. Or was it that He would carry the full weight of world’s sins in Himself in a matter of hours?
But at its heart, Christ’s profound agony and anxiety were likely rooted in a more intense pain: His impending separation from the Father.
How could it not be?
This would be His most drastic torment to be sure. Jonathan Edward’s 1739 sermon, “Christ’s Agony” tends to this, observing,
Many of the martyrs have endured extreme tortures, but from what has been said, there is all reason to think those all were a mere nothing to the last sufferings of Christ on the cross. And what has been said affords a convincing argument that the sufferings which Christ endured in his body on the cross, though they were very dreadful, were yet the least part of his last sufferings; … he endured sufferings in his soul which were vastly greater.
The sufferings which He endured in his physical body, though great, would not likely have such an effect on Christ. Many martyrs were crucified as Christ was. Others faced equally brutal deaths. Bartholomew was flayed alive, stripped of his skin. Ignatius of Antioch famously wrote he could not wait to meet the lions in Rome to be devoured. He explained, “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” He told the faithful in Rome that he “will entice [them] to devour me speedily” if they hesitate. Their souls had not been so overwhelmed. They were not braver than the Savior.
The martyrs’ dreadful deaths were taking them to the Father. Christ’s death would bring an extreme alienation of the Son who as Edwards explains, lived “from all eternity in the enjoyment of the Father’s love.”
But this would change on the cross. And the Savior surely considered this that evening in the Garden.
And Satan surely cackled with arrogant delight, fully believing he achieved the ultimate victory, dividing the eternally loving Father and Son. The Evil One attacked fatherhood at its core. And Jesus felt it viscerally. It is contained in the Savior’s desperate last words.
But we know the rest of the story. It did not remain that way. A glorious union happened in the Resurrection and the Ascension. Satan was not ultimately victorious.
We should remember this: Fatherhood is of deep spiritual consequence and Satan hates it. No wonder it is under such attack, not just in the Cross on Good Friday, but in our culture and families today as well.
There is certainly something big going on in the attack on fatherhood, both divine and human.