The most under-appreciated saying of Jesus on the Cross
The seven sayings of Jesus on the Cross are a commonplace in Holy Week discourses and meditation. Of these seven sayings, perhaps, it is correct to say that the most familiar is: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” It is so easy to appreciate and understand. The others are also well-known, and easily grasped. There are two sayings that are more difficult, one is placed as the fourth: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken Me?” Its difficulty lies in the depth of its mystery – understood only in its sense of substitutionary atonement. The other saying, placed as the fifth, is difficult for its very simplicity, “I thirst!”
Of course, Jesus was thirsty. That is, after all, the point of the Cross: to die a slow and agonizing death exacerbated by dehydration under the scorching sun. Others try to spiritualize, or allegorize, to extract some significance – like Jesus is thirsting for the souls of men. This attempt is not necessary. This saying is found only in the Gospel of John. The physical suffering is thrown into bold relief, but with a deeper sense.
“After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, I thirst” (John 19:28).
This, indeed, is the saying that reveals more than any of the six, the human pain and suffering that Jesus was undergoing. But what is to be noted is that He was very much in control even in the utterance of this pain. It was only after “knowing that all things were now accomplished.” His words were not of complaint, or it would have been first utterance. It was only in the knowledge that all were accomplished that He could then, like the human that He was, be vocal of His own pain and suffering.
How in stark difference from the selfishness that often characterizes our own way of bearing suffering! For many, it is the first consideration. If a service will entail suffering, retreat becomes the better discretion. How opposite is Jesus’ attitude: “For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the Cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). Few are those with the courage like that of Paul: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
Not only did Jesus’ saying come after His assurance that all things were accomplished. The very utterance is, itself, a fulfillment of the Scripture. One may choose two Old Testament references. Psalm 22 is a Messianic Psalm of suffering but ending in glory. V. 15 must be in the mind of Jesus: “my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Ps. 22:15). It is a graphic description of the poignancy of the Messiah’s suffering. More to the point is another Messianic Psalm in Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” With the excessive thirst to represent Jesus’ suffering, there was the insult of men to bear. But, as Scripture tells us, “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him Who judges rightly.” (1 Peter 2:23).
This is the Lord Jesus in excessive human suffering. Bear in mind that He suffered for sinners that they may be saved. But their being saved means that they must serve. And true service must reckon with suffering for Christ. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).
Remembering these words of Jesus, “I thirst,” we do well to ask, how much am I willing to serve through suffering for Him?