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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross

By James Stalker

      [1]The fourth word from the cross we looked upon both as the climax of the struggle which had gone on in the mind of the divine Sufferer during the three hours of silence and darkness which preceded its utterance and as the liberation of His mind from that struggle. This view seems to be confirmed by the terms in which St. John introduces the Fifth Word--"After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished,[2] that the Scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst."

      The phrase, "that the Scripture might be fulfilled," is usually connected with the words, "I thirst," as if the meaning were that He had said this fifth word in fulfilment of some prediction that He would do so; and the Old Testament is ransacked, without much result, for the prophetic words which may be supposed to be alluded to. It is better, however, to connect the phrase with what goes before--"Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished." It was only when His work, appointed by God and prescribed in Scripture, was completed, that He became sufficiently conscious of His bodily condition to say, "I thirst." Intense mental preoccupation has a tendency to cause the oblivion of bodily wants. Even the excitement of reading a fascinating book may keep at a distance for hours the sense of requiring sleep or food; and it is only when the reader comes out of the trance of absorption that he realises how spent he is. During the temptation in the wilderness Jesus was too absorbed to be aware of His bodily necessities; but, when the spiritual strain was removed, He "was afterward an hungered."

      In the present instance, when He came out of His spiritual trance, it was thirst He became conscious of. I remember once talking with a German student who had served in the Franco-Prussian War. He was wounded in an engagement near Paris, and lay on the field unable to stir. He did not know exactly what was the nature of his wound, and he thought that he might be dying. The pain was intense; the wounded and dying were groaning round about him; the battle was still raging; and shots were falling and tearing up the ground in all directions. But after a time one agony, he told me, began to swallow up all the rest, and soon made him forget his wound, his danger and his neighbours. It was the agony of thirst. He would have given the world for a draught of water. This was the supreme distress of crucifixion. The agonies of the horrible punishment were of the most excruciating and complicated order; but, after a time, they all gathered into one central current, in which they were lost and swallowed up--that of devouring thirst; and it was this that drew from our Lord the fifth word.[3]


      This was the only cry of physical pain uttered by our Lord on the cross. As was remarked in a previous chapter, it was not uncommon for the victims of crucifixion, when the ghastly operation of nailing them to the tree began, to writhe and resist, and to indulge either in abject entreaties to be saved from the inevitable or in wild defiance of their fate. But at this stage Jesus uttered never a word of complaint. Afterwards also, in spite of the ever-increasing pain, He preserved absolute self-control. He was absorbed either in caring for others or in prayer to God.

      It is a sublime example of patience. It rebukes our softness and intolerance of pain. How easily we are made to cry out; how peevish and ill-tempered we become under slight annoyances! A headache, a toothache, a cold, or some other slight affair, is supposed to be a sufficient justification for losing all self-control and making a whole household uncomfortable. Suffering does not always sanctify. It sours some tempers and makes them selfish and exacting. This is the besetting sin of invalids--to become absorbed in their own miseries and to make all about them the slaves of their caprices. But many triumph nobly over their temptation; and in this they are following the example of the suffering Saviour. There are sick-rooms which it is a privilege to visit. You may know that the place is a scene of excruciating pain; but on the pillow there lies a sweet, patient face; the voice is cheerful and thankful; and, instead of being self-absorbed, the mind is full of unselfish thoughts for others. I recall the description given by a friend of one such invalid's chamber, which used to be filled with the most beautiful cheerfulness and activity. At a certain time of year you might see in it quite an exhibition of stockings, pinafores, dresses and other pretty things, prepared for the children of a mission-school in India. By thinking of the needs of those children far away the invalid not only kept her own sufferings at bay, but created for herself delightful connections with God's work and God's people. Yet she was one who might easily have asserted the right to do nothing, and have taxed the patience and the services of those by whom she was surrounded.

      But there is another lesson besides patience in this word of Christ. He only uttered one word of physical pain; but He did utter one. His self-control was not proud or sullen. There is a silence in suffering that is mere doggedness, when we screw our courage to the sticking-place and resolve that nobody shall hear any complaint from us. We succeed in being silent, but it is with a bad grace: there is no love or patience in our hearts, but only selfish determination. This is especially a temptation when anyone has injured us and we do not wish to let him see how much we have suffered, lest he should be gratified. Jesus was surrounded by those who had wantonly wronged Him; not only had they inflicted pain, but they had laughed and mocked at His sufferings. He might have resolved not on any account to show His feelings or at least to ask any kindness. It is sometimes more difficult to ask a favour than to grant one; it requires more of the spirit of forgiveness.[4] But not only did Jesus ask a favour: He expected to receive it. Shamefully as He had been treated by those to whom He had to appeal, He believed that there might still be some remains of goodness at the bottom of their hearts. All His life He had been wont to discover more good in the worst than others believed to exist, and to the last He remained true to His own faith. The maxim of the world is to take all men for rogues till the reverse has been proved. Especially when people have enemies, they believe the own very worst of them and paint their characters without a single streak of any colour but black. To those from whom we differ in opinion we attribute the basest motives and refuse to hear any good of them. But this is not the way of Christ: He believed there were some drops of the milk of human kindness even in the hard-hearted Roman soldiers; and He was not disappointed.[5]


      It is impossible to hear this pathetic cry, so expressive of helplessness and dependence, without recalling other words of our Lord to which it stands in marked contrast. Can this be He who, standing in Jerusalem not long before, surrounded with a great multitude, lifted up His voice and cried, "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink"? Can it be He who, standing at the well of Jacob with the Samaritan woman and pointing to the springing fountain at their feet, said, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life"? Can He who in words like these offered to quench the thirst of the world be the same who now whispers in mortal exhaustion, "I thirst"?

      It is the same; and this is a contrast which runs through His whole life, the contrast between inward wealth and outward poverty. He was able to enrich the whole world, yet He had to be supported by the contributions of the women who followed Him; He could say, "I am the bread of life," yet He sometimes hungered for a meal; He could promise thrones and many mansions to those who believed on Him, yet He said Himself, "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, yet the Son of man hath not where to lay His head."

      In a materialistic age, when in so many circles money is the measure of the man, and when people are so excessively concerned about what they shall eat and what they shall drink and wherewithal they shall be clothed, it is worth while to bear this contrast in mind. Seldom have the noblest specimens of humanity been those who have been able to wallow in luxury; and the men who have enriched the world with the treasures of the mind have not infrequently been hardly able to procure daily bread. Our older boys may have seen on some of their school-books the name of Heyne. His is an immortal name in classical scholarship; but when he was a student, and even when he was enriching the literature of his country with splendid editions of the ancient writers, he was literally starving, and had sometimes to subsist on skins of apples and other offal picked up from the streets. Our own Samuel Johnson, to whose wisdom the whole globe is now a debtor, when engaged on some of his greatest works, had not shoes in which to go out, and did not know where his dinner was to come from. It would be easy from history to multiply instances of those who, though poor, yet have made many rich.

      The inference is not, that one must be poor externally if one desires to be inwardly rich. The materially poor are not all spiritually rich by any means; multitudes of them, alas, are as poverty-stricken in mind and character as in physical condition. Perhaps one might even go so far as to say that as a rule the inwardly rich enjoy at least a competent portion of the good things of this life; for intelligence and character have even a market value, Money, too, can be made subservient to the highest aims of the soul. But what it is essential to remember is, that the inward is the true wealth, and that we must seek and obtain it, even, if necessary, at the sacrifice of the outward. If life is not to be impoverished and materialised, some in every age must make the choice between the inward and the outward wealth; and no one is worthy to be the servant of scholarship, art or religion who is not prepared for the choice should it fall to him. It is by the possession of intelligence, generosity and spiritual power that we enter into the higher ranks of manhood; and the most Christlike trait of all is to have the will and the ability to overflow in influences and activities which sweeten and elevate the lives of others.


      It would appear that some of those round the cross were opposed to granting the request of Jesus. Misunderstanding the fourth word,[6] they supposed He was calling for Elijah; and they proposed not to help Him even with a drink of water, in order to see whether or not Elijah would come to the rescue. But in one man the impulse of humanity was too strong, and he gave Jesus what He desired. We almost love the man for it, and we envy his office.

      But the Saviour is still saying, "I thirst." How and where? Listen! "I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink." "Lord, when saw we Thee athirst and gave Thee drink?" "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me." Wherever the brothers and sisters of Jesus are suffering, sitting in lonely rooms and wishing that somebody would come and visit them, or lying on beds of pain and needing somebody to come and ease the pillow or to reach the cup to the dry lips, there Christ is saying, "I thirst."

      Perhaps He is saying it in vain. There are multitudes of professing Christians who never from end to end of the year visit any poor person. They never thread the obscure streets or ascend the grimy stairs in search of God's hidden ones. They have never acquired the art of cheering a dark home with a flower, or a hymn, or a diet, or the touch of a sympathetic hand and the smile of a healthy face. It would completely alter the Christianity of many if they could begin to do these lowly services; it would put reality into it, and it would bring into the heart a joy and exhilaration hitherto unknown. For Christ sees to it that none who thus serve Him lose their reward. An American friend told me that once, when travelling on the continent of Europe, he fell in with a fellow-countryman on board a Rhine steamer. They talked about America and soon confided to each other from which parts of the country they came, with other fragments of personal detail. They continued to travel for some days together, and my informant was so overwhelmed with kindness by his companion that at last he ventured to ask the reason. "Well," rejoined the other, "when the War was going on, I was serving in your native state; and one day our march lay through the town in which you have told me you were born. The march had been very prolonged; it was a day of intense heat; I was utterly fatigued and felt on the point of dying for thirst, when a kind woman came out of one of the houses and gave me a glass of cold water. And I have been trying to repay through you, her fellow-townsman, the kindness she showed to me." Does it not remind us of the great word of the Son of God, "Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward"?

      But is this not enough? Does anyone wish to get still nearer to Christ and hold the cup not only to Him in the person of His members but to His own very lips? Well, this is possible too. Jesus still says, "I thirst." He thirsts for love. He thirsts for prayer. He thirsts for service. He thirsts for holiness. Whenever the heart of a human being turns to Him with a genuine impulse of penitence, affection or consecration, the Saviour sees of the travail of His soul and is satisfied.

      [1] "I thirst."

      [2] tetelestai--the very word of Jesus Himself--"It is finished--" which may possibly have been fourth.

      [3] He had by this time been on the cross for four hours or more. The arrest took place about midnight; the ecclesiastical trial terminated about sunrise; the proceedings before Pilate occupied perhaps from six to nine, or rather more; the crucifixion took place towards noon; from noon till three o'clock darkness prevailed; and between this and sunset the death and burial took place. See Matt. xxvii. 1; Mark xv. 25, 33, 34, 42. St. John's statement of time, xix. 14, is a difficulty. He appears to reckon from a different starting-point. See Andrews' Life of Our Lord (new edition), pp. 545 ff. In the same passage St. John says, "It was the preparation of the passover"; does this mean the day before the feast commenced, or the day before the Sabbath of Passover Week? There are held to be other indications that St. John represents the crucifixion as having taken place the day before the Passover began, whereas the Synoptists place it the day after (especially John xviii. 28, where the question is whether "the passover" means the Paschal Lamb or the Chagigah, a portion of the feast belonging to the second day). On this question there is an extensive literature. See Andrews, 452-81, and Keim, vol. vi., pp. 195-219.

      [4] "To be in too great a hurry to discharge an obligation is itself a kind of ingratitude."--LA ROCHEFOUCAULD.

      [5] Hoffmann says that Jesus refused the intoxicating draught, before the crucifixion began, that His senses might be kept clear; and that now He accepted the refreshing draught for the same purpose.

      [6] "Eli, Eli," etc.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   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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