The seven sayings: Suffering

A recent CNN news clip showed reporter Gary Tuchman outside an Ohio megachurch, where vehicles were streaming out of the parking lot. One woman stopped her car and rolled down her window to speak to him.

“Can I ask you about your decision to go to church, to be inside that building?” he asked.

Shaking her head, she replied, “Wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

“Aren’t you concerned you could infect other people if you get sick inside—people who don’t go to this church?” he asked.

“No,” replied the woman, “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”

Tuchman persisted, pressing his concern that she might infect other people, for example, at the grocery store. She firmly declared that she was not concerned in the least about getting sick because she is “covered in Jesus’ blood.” For her, Jesus’ blood is a magical talisman that will protect her against the highly infectious coronavirus and the disease that it causes.

As we have journeyed through the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross, we have learned lessons about forgiveness, salvation, love, and atonement. The fifth word from the cross—“I thirst!” (John 19:28)—teaches us lessons about suffering. These words directly contradict the superstition that Jesus’ blood guarantees us protection against all suffering.

Jesus’ words here highlight his humanity. The Scriptures consistently teach his full deity and humanity. He was not merely a god in the form of a man or a man who had attained godhood; he was the very creator God who became a man, without losing any of his divinity in the process. “The incarnation does not mean that God manifested himself as a man,” writes Arthur Pink. “The Word became flesh; he became what he was not before, though he never ceased to be all he was previously.”

God does not get thirsty, but Jesus, in his humanity, thirsted. Revelation 7:16 promises a time when God will lift the curse of sin and his people will never again hunger or thirst. But right now, living in a sin-cursed world, we are subject to these base human experiences. Jesus, fully man, was similarly subject to hunger and thirst.

These words draw attention to the intensity of Christ’s suffering. His words were not uttered as an appeal for pity. He was not primarily asking for his thirst to be alleviated. Primarily, he was drawing attention to the intensity of the suffering he experienced.

But what lay behind his suffering? There were at least three things that contributed to his suffering and its attendant thirst.

First, there can be no doubt that the physical ordeal of crucifixion contributed to his thirst. The Scriptures do not give much attention to the physical suffering involved in the act of crucifixion but, make no mistake, what Jesus went through physically was agonising and greatly contributed to his thirst.

Second, there was a spiritual reality to his thirst. The Scriptures frequently highlight the connection between spiritual and physical thirst. “A crushed spirit dries up the bones,” wrote Solomon (Proverbs 17:22). As David laboured to cover his sin, the weight of conviction manifested physically: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3–4). Though Jesus had no sin to conceal, he bore the weight of a world’s sin on his shoulders. His thirst, no doubt, was intensified by the spiritual experience of becoming sin for those he came to save.

Third, thirst in Scripture is a metaphor for desired divine fellowship. David captured this in Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1–2). Moments before expressing thirst, Jesus had cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Keenly aware of a sense of divine abandonment, Jesus longed—thirsted—for restored fellowship.

But here is the astonishing lesson: This intense anguish—physical, spiritual, and relational—took place precisely because Jesus was committed to pursuing God’s will. Why did he cry, “I thirst”? According to John, he did so “to fulfil the Scripture” (John 19:28). It was his devotion to the Scriptures—to God’s revealed will—that led to this intense suffering. Psalm 69:21 needed to be fulfilled, as so many other Scriptures were fulfilled at the cross. His devotion to Scripture led to the most intense suffering imaginable.

Let us not forget that, though he was human, Jesus was also God. The same God who had brought forth water from a rock to satisfy the thirst of his people could easily have quenched his own thirst. The power that had turned water to wine could easily had provided water to meet his own need. But it did not. Why? Because he was committed to his Father’s will. In death, as in life, the Father’s will remained central. He delighted in the divine will even when it involved suffering.

Are we so committed? Do we expect the blood of Jesus to deliver us from all suffering or are we willing to experience suffering if that is what it takes to submit to the Father’s will? Why should we imagine that God’s will for us, sinners as we are, should involve any less suffering than it did for his perfect, sinless Son? Do we not deserve to thirst infinitely more than Jesus did?

Finally, let this word from the cross be a challenge to us: Do we thirst for fellowship with God as Jesus thirsted for fellowship with his Father? Indeed, do we thirst for fellowship with Jesus as he thirsts for fellowship with us? One of the saddest verses in all Scripture is Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Jesus longed for fellowship with the Laodicean saints, yet their response to his longing was far from certain. So lukewarm had the Laodicean believers grown that their response was relegated to a mere “if.”

Jesus still desires fellowship with his people. Do you thirst for fellowship with him as he thirsts for fellowship with you? Will you respond to his knocking? Will you grasp the hand of fellowship that he extends to you?

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