Lately I’ve been reading the gospel of Matthew during my personal prayer and quiet time. I try to read a chapter a day (I’m not always good about that) and, because I don’t always pay as much attention as I should, I jot notes in my journal as I read. Questions I have, observations I make, prayers or what have you. Sometimes, once I’ve finished reading, I’ll read from a Bible commentary. One commentator I like is William Barclay, who wrote an accompanying book for each book in the New Testament. Barclay offers background and historical information, compares the various gospels, and offers his own thoughts and translations. I often find him very helpful.
I’m almost at the end of Matthew; today I read chapter 27, which is Jesus’ crucifixion. There is a passage there that I’ve always wondered about. It’s verse 46: And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As a Christian, this is a strange thing to read. I believe that Jesus was and is God. So how can He be forsaken by God? The thing is, Jesus was also a human man. He was unique in that He is the only person to ever live without sin. And in this moment, all the sin of the world, of every person who had ever lived, was alive, or would live, came down on Him. Sin separates us from God. It’s possible that in this verse we see the first time Jesus was ever separated from God the Father. (This is all part of the mystery that is the Trinity and that really needs a whole other post. Possibly from a trained theologian.)
Barclay offers this up as a possible explanation and it’s something that I’ve heard in various forms before. But he also offers another suggestion, which led me to write this post today. I’ll try and summarize it here: Part of what makes Christianity unique is that we believe in a God who is all powerful. At the same time, we also believe in a God who gave that up for a time to live a human life. This is Jesus, who was born on earth as a baby and lived as a man. He went through puberty, he had brothers and sisters, he had a job. He experienced all the ups and downs of human life. He also lived without sinning. Sometimes I find it hard to even imagine what a human life would look like without sin, but Jesus actually lived that. The Bible tells us that Jesus was tempted (Luke 4:1-12), just as we are tempted in our lives. Basically, whatever we may experience or feel, whatever joy or despair, Jesus knows it. He felt it too.
Barclay suggests that part of the human experience is feeling separated from God. He writes: It seems to me that Jesus would not be Jesus unless He had plumbed the uttermost and ultimate depths of human experience. Barclay tells us (and I believe this to be true from my own experience) that in life, often when tragedy comes, we will feel that God has forgotten us, forsaken us. I think that the majority of Christians, if they are being honest, will admit that they have experienced this at some point in their lives. As a man, Jesus also experienced this so that, as Barclay says, there might be no place where we have to go where He has not been before.
The really cool thing though, and the thing that got me excited, was that the story doesn’t end here. Jesus doesn’t cry out about being forsaken and then die. Matthew 27:50 says: And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. (Bold letters added by me.) I never paid much attention that that but Barclay taught me something. Each gospel mentions this second cry but it’s the gospel of John that gives us more information. He said, “It is finished,” and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. (John 19:30) Barclay explains that in Greek (the language of the New Testament) and in Aramaic (the language that Jesus spoke) “It is finished” would be one word – tetelestai. Let me just quote to you what Barclay has to say about that last word.
Tetelestai is the victor’s shout; it is the cry of the man who has completed his task; it is the cry of the man who has won through the struggle; it is the cry of the man who has come out of the dark into the glory of the light, and who has grasped the crown. So, then, Jesus died a victor and a conqueror with a shout of triumph on His lips.
I can’t tell you how that makes my heart feel. I already knew, and have known for a while, that Jesus was victorious. That His death was not final but instead He conquered death and rose again. Jesus died victorious and He rose victorious.
Jesus felt far away from God, just as any one of us might feel far away from God. Somedays, the presence of God is so powerful, like something I can taste on the air or feel in a room. Somedays, nothing. That says more about my circumstances and my heart than God Himself. I know that God is always present, but some days I have a hard time believing it. Knowing that Jesus too experienced that and overcame it gives me comfort. We have a God who knows that we will doubt Him, that we will feel alone and abandoned. We have a God who knows what that feels like. Through the Bible, He’s shared with us His own experience and we can take comfort in Him.