“Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

It was as if Christ literally descended into hell, but he did not. He actually suffered hell, God’s burning wrath, for his sinful people, as he suffered “inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies” on the cross.

Scripture Readings: Psalm 22:1-18; Matthew 27:46 (text); Galatians 3:10-14

March 25, 2012 Download PDF sermon
"My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?" by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

"My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?" by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

Our friend Rolly De Guzman was a good man—husband, father, son, and friend. I knew him for many years after he became a member of the Unida Evangelical Church in Moriones Street, Tondo, Manila. The youth at the church enjoyed many years of hearing his wit and humor during our fellowship times. He was the life of our church gatherings. Even last year when Beth’s husband Nato died, the fellowship times at the funeral home were full of laughter whenever he came and joined our conversations.

So we come today with this question for Rolly (and every time we lose a beloved family member or friend): “Why did you leave me? Why did you forsake me?”

As we near the Holy Week commemoration, one of the best-remembered “Seven Last Words” of Jesus before he died on the cross is his cry to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What does this mean? Why did Jesus cry out this plea to his Father?

Sinners Condemned, Not Forsaken
To answer this question, we must go all the way back to creation, to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God in perfect holiness, righteousness, and knowledge of and fellowship with God. At creation, God made everything good, in fact, “very good.”

But God put them on probation with a command, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” If they passed this test, the utmost reward, eternal life with God, awaits them. If they failed the test, “in the day that you eatof it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17).But in their own will, they listened to the deception of Satan, and disobeyed God’s command.

Did they really die on that same day? No, Adam lived for a long time, 950 years. Did God break his own word? No, because two things happened that day: (1) Adam started physically dying (just like us who start dying the moment of our birth). (2) Adam actually died spiritually. His perfect holiness and righteousness were stained with sin, and his perfect communion with God was broken.

Paul says this one sin plunged the whole world and all mankind into sin and death (Rom 6:23). Because he represented all mankind, all his descendants, including you and me, are born with Adam’s sinful nature. So we sin because we’re naturally sinful. We don’t become sinners because we sin; we sin because it is our nature inherited from Adam. Not even one human being, not one of us, is exempted from this sinful nature, “None is righteous, no, not one… For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10, 23).

The Bible says that even if you obey God perfectly, but if you ever committed one “slightest” sin—in thought, word, or deed—you are already condemned to eternal hell by God (Jas 2:10). Is there any way then that that sin can be erased? Most people think that they can, by trying to please God through good works. By being a good person. Giving to the poor. Going to church. Getting baptized or partaking of the Holy Communion.

But all of these good works are to no avail. Good works are not able to blot out sin from anyone. The apostle Paul says that no one can be saved by obeying God’s law through good works, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph 2:8-9). Therefore, Paul says,

“no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal 3:11).

God pronounced curses on Adam and Eve, Satan, and even on his creation. The whole creation is now under the curse of sin, especially mankind after Adam’s sin,

“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal 3:10).

Man has to toil with blood, sweat and tears to make a living. Nature will cause disasters, famine, and pestilence. Wars, suffering, and death will be in the world as long as sin is present. And in the end, God will pour out his wrath on rebellious mankind on Judgment Day.

Therefore, after Adam and Eve disobeyed that one command, they were driven out of God’s house, the Garden of Eden. But still, Adam and Eve were not forsaken alone in their condemnation. God still provided for all their needs and protected them. He still communicated with them.

Most of all, God promised a Seed of the woman who would come and crush the head of Satan, that ancient serpent who deceived the woman (Gen 3:15). How would this Seed defeat Satan?

The God-Man Forsaken by God…
The Seed of the woman will be no other than the Son of God himself. From eternity, he was with the Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven. He had majesty, glory and royalty in heaven.

But the Father commissioned him to rescue rebellious mankind from his righteous wrath. How? From eternity, God already had a plan for the redemption of mankind that he set into action right after our first parents disobeyed him.

In the fullness of time, the Son of God willingly obeyed his Father and came down to earth to become the man Christ Jesus. Why? Because, as the Substitute for all who would believe, he would be the One to obey all of God’s law; Adam failed in this role as the representative of all mankind. He would be the One to suffer the death penalty instead of Adam’s descendants. He would be the Substitute on whom God will pour out his eternal wrath which mankind deserves. He would be the only One who would be able to bear God’s eternal wrath, because he is also eternal God.

This is why the eternal Son of God had to become a human being. A human being sinned, and therefore, a human being had to be punished. But a human being cannot bear the eternal wrath of God; man would be destroyed if God poured out his wrath on him.

Also, in God’s design, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). You know how God clothed Adam and Eve after they sinned? God slaughtered an animal, removed its skin, and covered them with animal skin. All Old Testament sacrifices for sin involved the shedding of blood of spotless, unblemished animals (Exod 12:5; Lev 1:10; 3:1).

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices. He is the once for all, sinless sacrifice (Heb 9:14; 1 Pet 1:19). No one can repeat or add anything to his sacrifice. No self-flagellation or crucifixion on Good Fridays will do. No sacrifice during the Mass will do. No nailing of our sins on the cross to “encounter” God will do. When he died on the cross, God’s eternal redemption plan was completed. This is why the hymnwriter-theologian Augustus Toplady wrote,

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

This is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This is also why Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, have a slight difference. Matthew uses, “Eli, Eli,” while Mark uses, “Eloi, Eloi.” In both accounts, the onlookers thought he was calling out for the prophet Elijah. Eli or Eloi may be Aramaic or Hebrew for “my God” and “lema sabachtani” is Aramaic, the everyday language spoken in Palestine.

In the cross, God poured out his eternal righteous wrath on all the sins of those who would believe in Christ. God abandoned and forsook him on the cross.

When Israel was condemned and judged by the Lord God because of her sins, Isaiah said, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa 59:2). Like sinful Israel, God separated and hid himself from Jesus, and he did not even hear his Son’s anguished cry on the cross, because of the sins that God laid on him.

Not only was he forsaken by God on the cross. He also bore God’s curse of sin and death on all people who would believe in him. This is why he had to be hanged on a tree as the penalty for our sin, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal 3:13).

This is an incomprehensible and inexplicable mystery. How could the second Person of the Trinity be deserted by God? But on the cross, God cut off his perfect communion with his Son. His presence and comfort was not with Christ. It was as if Christ literally descended into hell, but he did not. He actually suffered hell, God’s burning wrath, for his sinful people, as he suffered “inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies” on the cross (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 44).

Matthew and Mark says that from the sixth to the ninth hour, there was darkness in the land. Jews counted the hours from 6 a.m., so the darkness was from 12 noon to 3 p.m. We know from Jewish writers that Passover sacrifices were offered at 3 p.m., thus, the symbolism is striking: Jesus the once-for-all Passover Lamb was sacrificed at the same time that the Jewish Passover lamb was slaughtered in the temple!

The darkness was not a solar eclipse, since Passover was always celebrated during a full moon, and a solar eclipse cannot occur during a full moon. Like the star over Bethlehem, the darkness then was a supernatural act of God, symbolizing hell as a place of darkness (Matt 22:13). God was thus displaying his wrathful judgment upon mankind who crucified his own Son. Because hell is a place “shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:9), the darkness of hell was what Jesus experienced when he was forsaken by God while he hung on the cross.

No physical anguish, terror and agony can equal the suffering that our Lord went through during those dark hours. The ultimate torment that a human being could suffer would be being abandoned and forsaken by God, forever! Jesus suffered this hellish forsakenness on the cross during those three hours of darkness.

Also, God did not die on the cross. I remember my childhood days in Tondo, when every Sabado de Gloria (Black Saturday), we were told by the elders in our neighborhood not to play, laugh, or make noise because “God is dead.” They thought that since Christ is God, and he died on the cross, then God died. And most Filipinos believe that every Good Friday and every time Mass is offered, Christ repeats his sacrifice. This is such an unbiblical belief.

To be sure, Christ had two natures—divine and human—in his one Person. But his human nature died on the cross to make atonement for our sins, never his divine nature. God is not capable of experiencing death. We should understand the death of Christ as the God-Man dying on the cross because his two natures are inseparable. And we should be horrified by the thought that God died on the cross. Why? Because if God died on the cross, the whole universe would die with him and be destroyed, because it is he who created, sustains and upholds it (Acts 17:28). Without God, the universe would cease to exist.

So That Sinners Will Not Be Forsaken
When he abandoned his Son on the cross, did God stop loving his Son? No, because he poured out his wrath on our sin, not his, since he had no sin (Heb 4:15). The love between the Father, Son and Spirit is eternal and unbroken. Even in his agonizing cry, he called his Father, “My God!”

Some of the people were just “passersby” who were in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Matthew says that they “derided him, wagging their heads.” They were blaspheming him, slandering, reviling, defaming, and speaking disrespectfully of him who is the Son of God. They wagged their heads to and fro as a sign of scorn and derision because they remembered him saying that he could rebuild the temple in three days.

He had performed signs and wonders that even Pharisees acknowledged can only be done by someone who came from God. Before the high priest, he already claimed that he is the Son of God. What more can he show them? The chief priests, scribes and elders of Israel even admitted that he saved others. Why don’t they ask him for mercy to save them as well? This is because God has blinded them in their unbelief, as he blinded the Israelites in the wilderness even after he showed them all kinds of mighty works to save them and provide for them. The onlookers fulfilled the prophecies of Psalm 22:6-8. God uses even wicked people to do his will.

Those of you who have faith in Christ must also never think that God has forsaken and abandoned you when you are afflicted, suffering, and in despair. He uses even these things to fulfill his work in you. During times like these, we cry out to God like King David, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever… and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” (Psa 13:1-2)

But from the very beginning, God has promised his people, even when they forsake his commands, that he would never forsake them or leave them (Gen 24:27; Jos 1:5; Psa 94:14; Isa 62:4). He still loves his believing people even when they rebel against him. When God sends them afflictions and trials, it is for testing and strengthening them, but sometimes also for disciplining them.

It is because of what Jesus endured in his God-forsakenness on the cross that God is able to not forsake his people when they sin. This is why Jesus was able to promise his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

How is this possible when he is now in heaven? When his disciples heard Jesus tell them of his coming departure, they were very troubled, but Jesus promised them, “I will not leave you as orphans” because he will send the Holy Spirit who will indwell them (John 14:16-18).

In this way, Jesus has never left or forsaken his people! The Spirit enables them to live righteous lives. He gives them strength to resist temptations and endure sufferings. He gives them comfort and peace in times of grief, such as today when we sorrow over the departure of a beloved one. This is the only comfort of God’s people in life and in death:

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil… and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready from now on to live unto Him (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1).

But for those of you who have no faith in Christ, God calls you to forsake your sins to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness (Prov 28:13; Isa 55:7). If you don’t, being forsaken by God is a certainty, “Rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (Isa 1:28).

Instead of Christ being forsaken by God for your sins, God will surely forsake you and leave you. Much more than this, he will leave you in the pain, anguish, and torment of hell! No amount of words will ever be able to describe the horrors of hell you would endure for eternity.

So Jesus invites you, unbelieving sinners: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29).

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