At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” After hearing him, some standing there said, “He’s calling Elijah.” (Mat 27:46-47 CEB)
I don’t know how many times I’ve read these words, but, usually I skim over the part about the crowd standing around. I am often so fixated on Jesus’ cry of isolation and despair that I forget to hear the reaction that his immediate bystanders had to him. Today, though, I was struck by the crowd and their feeble reaction to Jesus’ cry upon the cross. Not only did they miss hear the words he was saying, but in doing so, they made a major theological mistake.
On one level, we can understand the crowd mistaking the cry of “my God” (Eli) for “Elijah” (Eli, Elijah means YHWH is my God). But what is the true mistake, is it simply miss hearing Jesus, is simply they failed to know their scriptures well enough to recognize the opening of Psalm 22. No, this is a fundamental mistake, a failure to appreciate who Jesus was and is. The crowd thought Jesus was a rebel, a fool, or at most a prophet, and definitely someone in need of rescue. They believed he was crying out for God’s salvation and the great day of the LORD. Elijah the great prophet who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind was supposed to return to usher in this great day of the LORD. The people saw an average revolutionary, someone who had preached the coming day of the LORD looking for last minute vindication in his death throes. They saw a man who was about to suffer one last embarrassment as Elijah did not show up, and he died an enemy of Rome and an outcast from his people. Oh, how they failed to listen, failed to ponder what was said, failed to know their scriptures, and failed to understand God’s designs and purposes; oh, how they acted like humans (dare I say us).
What Jesus did was to quote the first line of Psalm 22 a psalm which describes the servant of God wounded, crushed, and VINDICATED. The psalm describes God’s chosen Messiah as he suffers for God’s people and then is ultimately cries out:
But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen. (Ps. 22:19-21)
Jesus is running the gamut of the Psalm, from the forsaken sufferer of verse 1 through the oppressed and mocked victim (vv 8,12-18) to the one celebrating in his Lord’s deliverance (vv25-31). This is not simply a cry that Jesus is forsaken hanging on the cross, this is a cry of victory that in this suffering Psalm 22 would find its perfection. In him, as he hung there alone on the tree, was God’s ultimate victory, a victory over evil, sin, and death. This was not a lonely man crying out in despair and gloom this was a victorious King and Messiah proclaiming:
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.(Ps. 22:9-10)
And because of this trust he has been glorified and received his Kingdom which will not end. Because Christ cried the “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” of Psalm 22:1, we can proclaim in confidence:
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it! (Ps. 22:30-31)
May we not fall into the trap of missing what Jesus said on the cross, may we not make the mistake of thinking him a despairing man crying out for salvation; He is our king triumphing over the greatest enemies to change the world!