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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross

By James Stalker


      [1]The Seven Words from the Cross may be divided into two groups. In the first three--namely, the prayer for His crucifiers, the word to the penitent thief, and the directions about His mother--our Lord was dealing with the interests of others; in the last four, to which we now pass, He was absorbed in His own concerns. This division is natural. Many a dying man, after arranging his affairs and saying his farewells, turns his face to the wall, to encounter death and be alone with God. It was highly characteristic of Jesus, however, before turning to His own things, first to mind the things of others.

      Between these two groups of sayings there seems to have elapsed a long interval. From the sixth hour to the ninth Jesus was silent. And during this interval there was darkness over all the land. Of what precise nature this atmospheric effect may have been it is impossible at this distance to say. But the Evangelists, three of whom mention it, evidently consider it to have indicated in some sense the sympathy of nature with her Lord. It was as if the sun refused to look on such a deed of shame. It may be supposed that by this weird phenomenon the noises round the cross were in some degree hushed. At length the silence was broken by Christ Himself, who, in a loud voice, gave utterance to the Fourth Word from the cross. This was a word of astonishment and agony, yet also of victory.

      I.

      Of what nature had been the meditations of our Lord during the three hours of silence? Had He been in an ecstasy of communion with His heavenly Father? Not infrequently has this been vouchsafed to dying saints. And it has sometimes enabled them completely to overcome physical suffering. Martyrs have occasionally been so exalted at the last as to be able even to sing in the flames. It is with awe and astonishment we learn that the very opposite of this was the state of mind of Jesus. The word with which He burst out of the trance of silence may be taken as the index of what was going on in His mind during the preceding hours; and it is a cry out of the lowest depths of despair. Indeed, it is the most appalling sound that ever pierced the atmosphere of this earth. Familiar as it is to us, it cannot be heard by a sensitive ear even at this day without causing a cold shudder of terror. In the entire Bible there is no other sentence so difficult to explain. The first thought of a preacher, on coming to it, is to find some excuse for passing it by; and, after doing his utmost to expound it, he must still confess that it is quite beyond him. Yet there is a great reward in grappling with such difficult passages; for never does the truth impress us so profoundly as when we are made to feel that all the length which we are able to go is only into the shallows of the shore, while beyond our reach lies the great ocean.

      Even in Christ's own mind the uppermost thought, when He uttered this cry, was one of astonishment. In Gethsemane, we are told, "He was sore amazed." And this is obviously the tone of this utterance also. We almost detect an accentuation of the "Thou" like that in the word with which the murdered Caesar fell. All His life Jesus had been accustomed to find Himself forsaken. The members of His own household early rejected Him. So did His fellow-townsmen in Nazareth. Ultimately the nation at large followed the same course. The multitudes that at one time followed Him wherever He went and hung upon His lips eventually took offence and went away. At last, in the crisis of His fate, one of His nearest followers betrayed Him and the rest forsook Him and fled. But in these disappointments, though He felt them keenly, He had always had one resource: He was always able, when rejected of men, to turn away from them and cast Himself with confidence on the breast of God. Disappointed of human love, He drank the more deeply of the love divine. He always knew that what He was doing or suffering was in accord with the will of God; His feelings kept constant time with the Divine heart; God's thoughts were His thoughts; He could clearly discern the divine intention leading through all the contradictions of His career to a sublime result. Therefore He could calmly say, even at the Last Supper, with reference to the impending desertion of the Twelve, "Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me." Now, however, the hour had come; and was this expectation fulfilled? They were scattered, as He had predicted, and He was left alone; but was He not alone? was the Father still with Him? His own words supply the answer: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

      II.

      Although the state of mind of our Lord on this occasion was so different from what we know to have been His habitual mood, yet it does not stand absolutely isolated in His history. We know of at least two experiences somewhat resembling it, and these may in some degree help us to its explanation. The first overtook Him on the occasion of the visit of certain Greeks at the beginning of the last week of His life. They had desired to see Him; but, when they were introduced by Andrew and Philip, Jesus, instead of being exhilarated, as might have been expected, was overcome with a spasm of pain, and groaned, "Now is My soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour." The sight of these visitors from the outside world made Him feel how grand and how congenial to Himself would have been a worldwide mission to the heathen, such as He might have undertaken had His life been prolonged; but this was impossible, because in the flower of His age He was to die. The other occasion was the Agony of Gethsemane. A careful and reverent study will reveal that this incident was the effort by which the will of Christ rose into unity with the will of His Father. It belongs to the very essence of human nature that it must grow from stage to stage; and the perfection of our Lord, just because it was human, had to realise itself on every step of a ladder of development. He was always both perfect on the stage which He had reached, and at the same time rising to a higher stage of perfection. Sometimes the step might be more easy, at other times more difficult; the step which He had to take in Gethsemane was supremely difficult; hence the effort and the pain which it cost. It seemed, however, in Gethsemane as if He had finally conquered, and it might have been expected that the mood of weakness and darkness could not come back. Yet it was to be permitted to return once more; and on the cross the attack was far more violent and prolonged than on either of the preceding occasions. Keeping in mind the light which these two previous accesses of the same mood may cast on this one, let us draw near reverently and see how far we may be able to penetrate into the mystery.

      There can be little doubt that there was a physical element in it. He had now been a considerable time on the cross; and every minute the agony was increasing. The wounds in His hands and feet, exposed to the atmosphere and the sun, grew barked and hardened; the blood, impeded in its circulation, swelled in heart and brain, till these organs were like to burst; and the slightest attempt to move the body from the one intolerable posture caused pains to shoot along the quivering nerves. Bodily suffering clouds the brain and distorts the images formed on the mirror of the mind. Even the face of God, reflected there, may be turned to a shape of terror by the fumes of physical trouble.

      The horror of mortal suffering may have been greater to Jesus than to other men, because of the fineness and sensitiveness of His physical organization. His body had never been coarsened with sin, and therefore death was utterly alien to it. The stream of physical life, which is one of the precious gifts of God, had poured through His frame in abundant and sunny tides. But now it was being withdrawn, and the counterflow had set in. The unity of a perfect nature was being violently torn asunder; and He felt Himself drifting away from the living world, which to Him had been so full of God's presence and goodness, into the pale, cold regions of inanity.[2] He did not belong to death; yet He was falling into death's grasp. No angel came to rescue Him; God interposed with no miracle to arrest the issue; He was abandoned to His fate.

      There was more, however, it is easy to see, in the agony which prompted this cry than the merely physical. If in Gethsemane we have the effort of the will of Jesus, as it raised itself into unity with the will of the Father, we here see the effort of His mind as, amidst the confusion and contradictions of the cross, it finally rose into unity with the mind of God. This intellectual character of His pain is indicated by the word "Why." It is always painful when the creature has to say Why to the Creator. We believe that He is Sovereign of the world and Guide of our destiny, and that He urges forward the course of things in the reins of infinite wisdom and love. But, while this is the habitual and healthy sense of the human mind, especially when it is truly religious, there are crises, both in the great and in the little world, when faith fails. The world is out of joint; everything appears to have gone wrong; the reins seem to have slipped out of the hands of God and the chariot to be plunging forward uncontrolled; the course of things seems no more to be presided over by reason, but by a blind, if not a cruel fate. It is then that the poor human mind cries out Why. The entire book of Job is such a cry. Jeremiah cried Why to God in terms of startling boldness. In mortal pain, in bewildering disappointments, in bereavements which empty the heart and empty the world, millions have thus cried Why in every age. It seems an irreligious word. When Jeremiah says, "O Lord, Thou hast deceived me and I was deceived," or when Job demands, "Why did I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" it sounds like the voice of a blasphemer. But indeed it is into the most earnest and delicate souls that this despair is likeliest to slip. The ignorant, the frivolous and the time-serving are safe from it; for they are well enough satisfied with things as they are. Callous minds learn to be content without explanations. But the more deeply pious a mind is, the more jealous must it be for justice and the glory of God; the appearance of unwisdom in the government of the world shocks it; to be able to trace the footsteps of God's care is a necessity of its existence. Hence its pain when these evidences disappear. Now, all the contradictions and confusions of the world were focussed on Golgotha. Injustice was triumphant; innocence was scorned and crushed; everything was exactly the reverse of what it ought to have been. And all the millions of Whys which have risen from agonized souls, jealous for the honour of God but perplexed by His providence, were concentrated in the Why of Christ.

      How near to us He is! Never perhaps in His whole life did He so completely identify Himself with His poor brethren of mankind. For here He comes down to stand by our side not only when we have to encounter pain and misfortune, bereavement and death, but when we are enduring that pain which is beyond all pains, that horror in whose presence the brain reels, and faith and love, the eyes of life, are put out--the horror of a universe without God, a universe which is one hideous, tumbling, crashing mass of confusion, with no reason to guide and no love to sustain it.

      Can we advance a step farther into the mystery? The deepest question of all is whether the desertion of Jesus was subjective or objective--that is, whether He had only, on account of bodily weakness and a temporary obscuration of the inward vision, a sense of being abandoned, or whether, in any real sense, God had actually forsaken Him. Of course we are certain that God was infinitely well pleased with Him--never more so, surely, than when He was sacrificing Himself to the uttermost on behalf of others. But was there, at the same time, any outflashing against Him of the reverse side of the Divine nature--the lightning of the Divine wrath? Calvary was an awful revelation of the human heart, whose enmity was directed straight against the perfect revelation of the love of God in Christ. There the sin of man reached its climax and did its worst. What was done there against Christ, and against God in Him, was a kind of embodiment and quintessence of the sin of the whole world. And undoubtedly it was this which was pressing on Jesus; this was "the travail of His soul." He was looking close at sin's utmost hideousness; He was sickened with its contact; He was crushed with its brutality--crushed to death. Yet this human nature was His own; He was identified with it--bone of its bone, flesh of its flesh; and, as in a reprobate family an exquisitely delicate and refined sister may feel the whole weight of the debt and shame of the household to lie on herself, so He felt the unworthiness and hopelessness of the race as if they were His own; and, like the scapegoat on whose head the sins of the community were laid in the old dispensation, He went out into the land of forsakenness.

      Thus far we may proceed, feeling that we have solid ground beneath our feet. But many have ventured farther. Even Luther and Calvin allowed themselves to say that in the hours which preceded this cry our Lord endured the torments of the damned. And Rambach, whose Meditations on the Sufferings of Christ have fed the piety of Germany for a hundred years, says: "God was now dealing with Him not as a loving and merciful father with his child, but as an offended and righteous judge with an evildoer. The heavenly Father now regards His Son as the greatest sinner to be found beneath the sun, and discharges on Him the whole weight of His wrath." But, if we were to make use of such language, we should be venturing beyond our depth. Much to be preferred is the modest comment of the holy and learned Bengel on our text: "In this fourth word from the cross our Saviour not only says that He has been delivered up into the hands of men, but that He has suffered at the hands of God something unutterable." Certainly there is here something unutterable. We have ventured into the mystery as far as we are able; but we know that we are yet only in the shallows near the shore; the unplumbed ocean lies beyond.

      III.

      It may appear an affectation to speak of this as in any sense a cry of victory. Yet, if what has just been said be true, this, which was the extreme moment of suffering, was also the supreme moment of achievement. As the flower, by being crushed, yields up its fragrant essence, so He, by taking into His heart the sin of the world, brought salvation to the world.

      In point of fact, all history since has shown that it was in this very hour that Christ conquered the heart of mankind. Long before He had said, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me." And the correctness of this anticipation is matter of history. Christ on the cross has ever since then been the most fascinating object in the eyes of mankind. The mind and heart of humanity have been irresistibly attracted to Him, never weary of studying Him. And the utterance of this cry is the culminating moment to which the inquiring mind specially turns. Theology has its centre in the cross. Sometimes, indeed, it has been shy of it, and has divagated from it in wide circles; but, as soon as it becomes profound and humble again, it always returns.

      Yes, when it becomes humble! Penitent souls are drawn to the cross, and the deeper their penitence the more are they at home. They stand beside the dying Saviour and say, This is what we ought to have suffered; our life was forfeited by our guilt; thus our blood deserved to flow; we might justly have been banished forever into the desert of forsakenness. But, as they thus make confession, their forfeited life is given back to them for Christ's sake, the peace of God is shed abroad in their hearts, and the new life of love and service begins. The supreme Christian rite brings us to this very spot and to this very moment: "This is My blood of the New Testament, shed for many for the remission of sins."

      It was not, however, merely in this profound sense that this fourth word of the dying Saviour was a cry of victory. It was so, also, because it liberated Him from His depression. It has been said that when, at His encounter with the Greeks, He groaned, "Father, save Me from this hour," He immediately checked Himself with "Father, glorify Thy name"; likewise that in Gethsemane, when He prayed, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me," He hastened to add, "Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done"; but that on this occasion the cry of despair was followed by no word of resignation. This, however, is a mistake. The cry itself, though an utterance of despair, yet involved the strongest faith. See how He lays hold of the Eternal with both hands: "My God, My God!" It is a prayer: a thousand times He had turned to this resource In days of trial; and He does so in this supreme trouble. To do so cures despair. No one is forsaken who can pray, "My God." As one in deep water, feeling no bottom, makes a despairing plunge forward and lands on solid ground, so Jesus, in the very act of uttering His despair, overcame it. Feeling forsaken of God, He rushed into the arms of God; and these arms closed round Him in loving protection. Accordingly, as the darkness, which had brooded over all the land, disappeared at the ninth hour, so His mind emerged from eclipse; and, as we shall see, His last words were uttered in His usual mood of serenity.

      [1] "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

      [2] Some of the Fathers thought of the separation of the divine from the human nature as taking place now.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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