“Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)
We have all probably heard the common expressions used today concerning hell: “Man, he’s really going through hell.” “There will be hell to pay.” During times of war it is common to hear people say, “It’s hell on earth” or “That is truly hell.” Some have even said that the closest experience to hell on earth is to be abandoned or rejected by someone you love. But all of this infinitely pales in comparison with what Jesus Christ suffered. The Lord Jesus is the only One who has ever experienced hell on earth. The Apostles’ Creed declares: “He descended into hell” and we read in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A #44: “Why is it added: “He descended into hell”? That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
Notice that the catechism says Christ suffered hell in His soul on the cross and before. He suffered hell before He died, not after He died, otherwise how could He say “It is finished” from the cross if He still had to suffer torments in some physical location? Christ didn’t descend into the pit of hell after He died as some suggest; rather He suffered hell on the cross and before. The Scripture says that Christ commended His spirit into the hands of His Father when he died. He also said to the thief on the cross, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
It was from the depths of hell on the cross and before, that our Lord Jesus Christ cried out to God. We see this in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus struggled with the agony of being abandoned by His Father. And then we see this clearly on the cross when the forsaken Son of God cried out to the Father from the depths of hell for the salvation of his people.
THE DARKNESS OF hell
Imagine the sun not shining tomorrow from noon till three PM and in its place is pitch darkness like that of the interior of a cave where you would not be able to see your hand in front of your face. There were three hours of fearful blackness of darkness when the sun should be shining in its full strength. Pitch blackness is what happened the afternoon that our Lord was crucified. Friday morning the Lord Jesus had appeared before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and the Sanhedrin (Jewish rulers) manipulated Pilate into condemning the Lord Jesus to death. Pilate sought to release Jesus, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.” (John 19:12) Therefore Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged with whips (Matt. 27:26).
Scourging was possibly the worst kind of flogging administered by ancient courts. The Jews administered whippings in the synagogues for certain offenses, but these were mild in comparison to scourging. Scourging was used not only to cause great pain, but to humiliate as well. To scourge a man was to beat him worse than one would beat a dumb animal. It was belittling, debasing, and demeaning. It was considered such a degrading form of punishment that under Roman law Roman citizens were exempt from it. The instrument used to deliver this form of punishment was called a flagellum, which is similar to the old British cat o’ nine tails. It was a whip with several (at least three) thongs or strands, each as much as three feet long, and the strands were weighted with lead balls or pieces of bone. This instrument was designed to lacerate. The weighed thongs struck the skin so violently that it broke open. The church historian Eusebius recounts with horrible detail a scene of scourging. He says, “For they say that the bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw them lacerated with scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view” (Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, chap. 15).
The victim of a scourging was bound to a post, stripped of his clothing, and beaten with the flagellum from the shoulders to the loins. The beating left the victim bloody and weak, in unimaginable pain, and near the point of death. It is no doubt that weakness from His scourging was the reason Jesus was unable to carry His cross all the way to Golgotha (Matthew 27:32). Like everything else about his death, Jesus knew that he would be scourged. He mentioned it when He predicted his sufferings for the third time (Matthew 20:19). He knew that before He died of the torture of the cross He would have to endure a savage, brutal beating at the hands of the Romans who were more than ready to vent their hatred against the Jews. Jesus accepted those blows, and His body was ripped open for us. He was taking the punishment of the sins of His people so that we might not have to suffer the consequences of our transgressions. “By His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) After this scourging the soldiers mocked Jesus, spit upon Him, and then the cross beam, which weighed about 125 lbs, was laid upon His shoulders and He was led out of Jerusalem to the place of execution called Golgotha. It was there that they stripped Jesus of His clothing ¼ He was completely naked in order to bear our shame, and then they crucified Him. The spikes, which were heavy nails, were driven through His wrists, and the cross beam was lifted and fastened to the upright post. And then another spike was hammered through His heel bones, and all this before 9:00 AM on Friday morning.
Our Lord then endured three hours of mocking and blasphemy as those who passed by wagged their heads and yelled out insults at Him. “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him.” (Mark 15:31-32) And then at 12 noon the sun stopped shining and there was thick darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. For three hours the land was engulfed by darkness. Many liberal scholars ridicule this by saying it must have been an eclipse of the sun. They say it was a natural phenomenon and that’s why the Gospel writers mentioned it. But that is not possible because the Passover was during the time of the full moon, and when there is a full moon a solar eclipse is impossible. Also an eclipse lasts for a few minutes ¼ Matthew says the darkness lasted for three hours. This was none other than a direct intervention by Almighty God causing it to be dark in the middle of the day in order to fulfill what was written by the prophet Amos: “In that day … I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight … I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.” (Amos 8:9-10)
Beloved in Christ, have you ever wondered why God blocked the light of the sun and darkened the earth for three hours during the crucifixion of Christ? Scripture reveals that He did this in His judgment. Light is a symbol of the glory and favor of God. We see this from the Aaronic benediction in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” The shining face of God is a symbol of God’s favor. However, darkness is a symbol of God’s judgment. Several of the Psalms say that the reward of the wicked is to sit in darkness (Psalm 82:5; 91:6; 105:28; 107:10, 14; 143:3). Notice that God’s judgment upon Egypt was three days of darkness while God’s favor is demonstrated by light shining upon the Israelites in Goshen. Exodus 10:22-23: “And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” The Lord Jesus also said that at the last day those who hate God will be cast into outer darkness ¼ a darkness which is unknown upon the earth (Matthew 25:30). 2 Peter 2:7 and Jude vs.13 both declare “¼that the blackness of darkness forever is reserved for false teachers.”
To be cast into the terrifying darkness of eternal hell is what it means to be forsaken by God, and this is the horrible darkness that descended upon the Lord Jesus Christ for three hours while He was on the cross. He was abandoned by God when the darkness of hell engulfed him. It was at this time that He was made a curse for us as Galatians 3:13 reads: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”). It was also during this time that Christ was completely forsaken by all ¼ His Father, friends, clothes, honor and dignity. The darkness of hell had completely descended upon Him because, in Christ, God was judging the sins of the sheep of Christ’s pasture (John 10:15). God the Father was pouring out His infinite wrath against our sins upon our Savior Jesus. Christ took our place in the darkness to atone for our sins. On the cross, Jesus descended into our hell. He received the malediction that we might receive the benediction ¼ He took our wrath so that we might receive His blessing ¼ He endured being forsaken of God that we might never be forsaken of God ¼ He endured the darkness of God’s displeasure, wrath, and curse in order that we might walk in the light of God’s countenance, blessing, and favor. It is because Christ endured our punishment that the Apostle Paul could write, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8)
Christian, have you ever contemplated the depths of suffering that Christ endured to save us from the penalty which our sins deserve? Have you ever experienced being abandoned and forsaken by one whom you loved, and then had no one to turn to but were left out in the cold and darkness? That is nothing compared to what Christ suffered for our sins! Shall we then continue in our sins after realizing what Christ suffered to reconcile us to the Father? Shall we continue to dabble in our favorite sins? You know the occasional pornography? Cheating on your taxes? Lying to one another? Holding grudges? The next time you decide to entertain your favorite sin remember what Christ suffered to save you from eternal hell because of that sin. Remember Q&A 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Why is it added: “He descended into hell?” That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
THE SON’S CRY
After three hours of total darkness, at 3:00 PM, the Lord Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Christ was so overwhelmed by being forsaken and abandoned by His Father that He could no longer contain His agony and He cried out to God. The Son’s cry is the heart of the Gospel and it reveals the depth of His person and work. Jesus suffered by being forsaken for three hours on the cross, yet at the same time He suffered by being forsaken in God’s plan from all eternity. Christ suffered the eternal, infinite wrath of God upon the cross in those three hours and so He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was consciously fulfilling was what spoken of Him by David in Psalm 22. Never forget that Christ came to fulfill the will of God in all that He did. Jesus said, “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) And again, “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the volume of the book it is written of Me; To do Your will, O God.’” (Heb. 10:7) Therefore, by crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ was demonstrating that all the cries of sadness and despair of the Old Testament had prefigured the suffering Savior. Notice Psalm 22:16-21: “For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots. But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! Deliver Me from the sword, My precious life from the power of the dog. Save Me from the lion’s mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen!”
The Lord Jesus was in the depths of His suffering because he knew that God had forsaken Him to these dogs and wild oxen. And so we see the extent of the suffering of our Savior and it wasn’t simply physical. To be sure, the physical suffering was extreme as explained earlier. The pain of being whipped, beaten, and having spikes driven through your wrists and feet must have been excruciating. But the suffering of Jesus was even more intense because it was also spiritual torment. Jesus suffered in His soul, and this is something a Hollywood movie about Christ’s crucifixion could never portray. And notice that when Jesus cried out to God during these three hours, God was silent. As Psalm 22:2 reads, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” All His life Jesus had sweet fellowship and communion with God the Father, and whenever Jesus prayed God listened. Martha even said to Jesus, “But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” (John 11:22) Jesus was even heard of the Father when He prayed before the hour of darkness, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). But during the three hours of darkness the Father no longer had fellowship with Jesus. The communication was gone. Jesus was excommunicated ¼ He was suffering spiritual death on behalf of all who were given to Him. Jesus was cast out so that we would never be cast out! As the hymn writer exclaims, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood.” (Philip Bliss)
Ever since the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had pretty much been without the support of His disciples, since they had forsaken him and fled when he was arrested. Even Peter had denied Him three times with cursing and swearing, but Jesus always had sweet communion with His Father. Now He no longer has the favorable countenance of His heavenly Father and this is what causes Him to cry out. This is the deepest darkness of all, when God’s favorable presence departs. Jesus’ life line is cut off as he is excommunicated from the presence of God the Father for the sins of His people. Can you imagine the loneliness and distress He underwent being forsaken by God? And, dear reader, Jesus didn’t just feel forsaken ¼ He was actually forsaken so that the sheep of His hand would never be forsaken. On the cross, Jesus became the most grotesque being on the face of the earth when all the sins of all the elect were imputed to Him. On the cross, Christ was treated as the great covenant breaker ¼ the One who had perfectly obeyed all the righteous requirements of the law ¼ the perfectly righteous One, the spotless Lamb of God ¼ the only one who never sinned or had any blemishes, was now being treated as if He had broken every Law of God, and was punished in eternal hell, but He is the only One who never deserved to be there. Is it any wonder that He should cry out: “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?” And He did so for His sheep. As it is written, “He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
Christian, do you see what Christ suffered on our behalf? Do you see how He was utterly forsaken by God because of our sins? Not because of His ¼ He had none! Christ endured the wrath of eternal hell on the cross because of our sins! Shall we then continue in sin? Shall we continue to walk in disobedience to our Savior and despise His suffering in our place? Shall we continue to walk in unforgiveness and bitterness towards one another? God forbid!
But also notice that all the while Christ was forsaken by God He continued to speak, even though God was silent. He was not so overcome that He no longer spoke to God. Neither did He rebel. He cried out, “My God, My God.” That demonstrates trust in God. Here the Lord Jesus teaches us how true faith responds to grievous trials. True faith continues to believe God regardless of whether we sense His presence. How often do we give up praying to God when we go through a long period of suffering, and our suffering is only temporal? Although our Lord knew deep distress, He did not despair. He kept on speaking to God His Father. Even from the depths of hell Jesus kept knocking on the gates of Heaven. “Ask, and you shall receive. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” must have been His constant prayer. And it is at this point that our redemption begins. The very One who was plunged into the depths of eternal hell continued to beseech the gates of heaven. He opened the doors, and took us in with Him. As the Catechism states, “¼we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge, that He as the Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself.” (Q&A 48)
THE SINNER’S SALVATION
Beloved in Christ, it was necessary for the Great Shepherd to be forsaken so that His sheep could be accepted. Our Lord Jesus was forsaken by God in the utter darkness of eternal hell in our place. It was necessary in order that we might be adopted as the children of God ¼ that we might have the privilege and blessing of calling God, “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 4:6) It was necessary for Christ to suffer in our place as the Heidelberg Catechism reads: “Since, then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how may we escape this punishment and be again received into favor? God wills that His justice be satisfied; therefore, we must make full satisfaction to that justice, either by ourselves or by another.” (Q&A 12) “Can we ourselves make this satisfaction? Certainly not; on the contrary, we daily increase our guilt.” (Q&A 13) “But who now is that Mediator, who in one person is true God and also a true and righteous man? Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is freely given unto us for complete redemption and righteousness.” (Q&A 18)
Christ was cast out as the scapegoat (Lev. 16:8-10) for His people and suffered the pangs of being abandoned to the desolate wilderness in order that His sheep might be protected and taken into Christ’s Kingdom. On the cross, Christ was disinherited so that believers might become coheirs of God and of His Kingdom. Beloved, that’s our salvation! Because Christ passed through eternal hell on the cross, suffered the wrath of God against sin, emerged from the darkness, was raised from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and now sits at the throne of power, we sinners can be saved from our sins and God’s eternal wrath by trusting in the person and work of Jesus. He bore the eternal wrath of God against our sins, and survived. “By the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath, and so obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life.” (Q&A 17) Christ entered completely into the wages of our sins and suffered what each of us deserved. He suffered the second death which is eternal damnation, yet He ever lives to make intercession for the saints. He suffered all of this so that we would never be made to suffer it. What Christ suffered in body and soul on the cross did not turn Him into a rebel. Rather, He remained steadfast in His trust towards God, and because of His perfect obedience, even while on the cross suffering eternal hell, we are saved. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:9-10)
Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that we would never have to utter those words, ever! Jesus willingly was forsaken by God so that we would never be forsaken by God. He allowed the darkness of hell to enclose Him because He refused to allow that darkness to enclose those who were given to Him by His Father (John 6:37), “the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand” (Psalm 95:7), the very ones He came to live and die for (John 10:15). What manner of love is this, beloved, that Christ would drink the cup of God’s eternal wrath in our place in order that we might be called the children of the living God! (I John 3:1) No price was too high for Him to pay in order to save us from eternal damnation. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, His sheep. He said in the Garden of Gethsemane, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)
Do you see, therefore, what utter blasphemy it is to say that God has abandoned any who are trusting in Christ? Sometimes believers “feel” that God has forsaken them, but this is not true, and the Scripture everywhere bears this out. God never forsakes those who are his children in Christ. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Many forsake God and so lose the sense of His fellowship, but God never forsakes His children because Christ was forsaken in their place. This ought to give us a renewed assurance of God’s fatherly love for His children.
Dear Christian, why has God accepted sinners such as you and me? Scripture gives only one reason ¼ God has accepted us as His dear children because one Friday afternoon, over 2000 years ago, He forsook His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in our place. I close with one of my favorite hymns:
Man of sorrows what a name, for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim: Hallelujah, what a Savior!
Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood: Hallelujah, what a Savior!
Guilty, helpless, lost were we; blameless Lamb of God was he, sacrificed to set us free: Hallelujah, what a Savior!
He was lifted up to die; “It is finished” was his cry; now in heaven exalted high: Hallelujah, what a Savior!
When he comes, our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring, then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah, what a Savior!
(Philip P. Bliss)
Pastor Scott Henry
Heritage RCUS, Omaha, NE