“Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?” (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Psalm 22; Mark 15:1-47)
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” This is one of the seven words from the cross, that is, one of the seven times Jesus spoke during his crucifixion. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” This saying of Jesus is recorded for us in two of the four gospels, in Matthew and Mark, where it is the only word from the cross that is recorded. For the other words from the cross, we have to go to Luke and John.
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” I think what is so striking about this word from the cross is that it is spoken, and recorded for us, in another language. That language is Aramaic, which is sort of a cousin to Hebrew. Aramaic was the everyday language that Jewish people like Jesus spoke at that time. And we find several times that Jesus’ words in Aramaic are recorded for us in the Bible. In Mark’s gospel, for instance, we hear Jesus raising a girl from the dead, saying, in Aramaic, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, arise.” Jesus heals a deaf man, touching his ears and saying, again in Aramaic, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” When Jesus prays in the garden, he starts his prayer by saying, “Abba,” which is Aramaic for “Father.” And now here today, this word from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
Fortunately for us, who do not speak Aramaic, Mark always provides a translation every time he quotes Jesus in that language. And so it is here, where Mark gives the meaning, and it is in the form of a question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But that in turn raises the question of the meaning beyond a mere translation. Why is Jesus saying this? Why has God forsaken him? And what does that mean for us? Those are the questions we will explore now, as we ponder the meaning of “Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why indeed? It makes no sense. If ever there was anyone whom God should not have forsaken, it was Jesus. Jesus was always doing the will of his Father. Never, not once, did he ever stray from that path. Rather, Jesus faithfully did what he was supposed to do, every time. There are not many people you could say that about. In fact, Jesus is the only one, the only one who has ever lived, who has perfectly kept God’s commands.
Of us, this could not be said. You and I have not done God’s will and kept his commandments, not anywhere near like Jesus did. God would be justified in forsaking us, if we were to be judged strictly on our record of obedience and love toward God.
But Jesus? That’s a different story. After all, this was God’s beloved Son, with whom he was well pleased. The Father even had said so, both in the voice at Jesus’ baptism and at Jesus’ transfiguration. So why forsake him now? Why abandon him? Why let Jesus, of all people, suffer such degradation and humiliation, such pain and utter abandonment? Why?
To answer that question, we have to go back to where those words come from, those words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You see, when Jesus speaks these words from the cross, he is quoting Scripture. These words are the first verse of Psalm 22, written a thousand years earlier. Psalm 22 is the prayer of a righteous sufferer, the psalmist experiencing a situation in which he felt like he was being abandoned by God. The psalmist was experiencing unjust suffering at the hands of evil men.
Now Jesus is the righteous sufferer, par excellence. And there are so many parts of this psalm that remind us so vividly of Christ’s crucifixion. The scorning and mocking: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” The physical agony of death by crucifixion: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” Even down to the details of what happened to Jesus: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet–I can count all my bones–they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” In the greatest depth and detail, Jesus fulfills this Psalm 22 prophecy.
But for God to let his Son–his beloved Son, his faithful Son–to go through all of that. . . . Why? We dig deeper. Another prophecy from the Old Testament, likewise of a righteous sufferer, a faithful servant of the Lord, similarly forsaken by God. This time it’s in Isaiah 53, the song of the Suffering Servant. Here we get the answer to the “Why?” question: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Here we find the reason for the “Why?” of Christ’s abandonment. God let his Son experience this forsakenness, in order that he might bear our guilt and our iniquities. We could not atone for our own sins, so Jesus Christ, God’s holy Son, took them for us. He was wounded, that we might be healed. He was forsaken, that we might be forgiven. He was abandoned, that we might be adopted. Christ was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and now we are redeemed, restored, and acquitted.
Yes, here is the outcome of Jesus’ death on the cross. Isaiah tells us: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”
So this is the “What” in answer to the “Why?” It is the righteousness that you now have before God, which you would not have otherwise. It is the life that is yours in Christ. It is the resurrection that awaits you. It is the comfort and the strength and the hope you have now, even in the midst of your own moments when you feel like God has forsaken you. You know that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And now we know the reason why. It means that now, because of Christ, you have God’s own promise: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”