Jesus' suffering on the Cross gives our suffering meaning.
Why do we suffer? That’s the age old question and one of the thorniest problems all humans have to come to terms with. This is such a beautiful world, with so many incredible blessings, and so many echoes of hope and fulfillment and happiness. But still we suffer. And our span on this earth is short and quick and seems to speed up the older we get. The Bible describes human life as a “vapor,” a “flower of the field,” a “breath.” And the Bible is not unconcerned about suffering: much Scripture deals directly with the issue of human suffering, and how to make sense of it all, and how to orient our thinking about life on this planet. In fact, three books in the OT are written predominantly to address these concerns. Ecclesiastes explores the seeming meaninglessness of this life that we live, with all of the inconsistencies and confusing realities. Lamentations grieves a life that hasn’t worked out the way it was anticipated, and the worst thing imaginable has happened. Job is a long book asking the question, “why do the innocent suffer?” (How do I make sense of bad things happening to good people?”)
Your suffering is unique to you, and your experience of this life is probably mixed with a lot of really beautiful times and with a lot of hard times. Sometimes you can’t make sense of the bad times, and sometimes you’ve even felt alone in those times. Maybe you’ve cried out to God for help and deliverance and wondered if he even heard, and why he doesn’t immediately rescue you. Well, the good news is, you’re not alone in your experience and we have the sort of God who actually cares about our suffering. He cares so much, that he joined us in our suffering and took part in it with us.
We examined last week Isaiah 53, where we are told that the Messiah, who we know to be Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth to suffer, to become “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3 ESV). He joined us in our suffering, took part in our world, shared our experience. That’s why he came.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; (Is. 53:4a ESV).
Today we’ll look a little closer at the pinnacle of his suffering, the climactic event when he gave his life up for sinners. Isaiah 53:12 refers to it as “[pouring] out his soul to death.” We’ll see Jesus at the height of his suffering, when as a man like us he feels abandoned by God, and look back at the words he cries out, quoting words from the psalms, and see what that tells us about his suffering and also tells us something key about our suffering as his followers. In other words, it gives us valuable insight into the nature of suffering and hope in the middle of it. It will help us get a little closer to making sense of suffering in this world.
In Matthew 27 Jesus has been tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion. The soldiers mocked Jesus, put a crown of thorns on his head and led him away to crucify him. Having been beaten, he was too weak to carry his own cross, so a bystander was forced to carry it as he was led out of the city. They pierced his hands and feet and lifted him up to slowly suffocate between two robbers. As he was suffering, people walked by and mocked him and taunted him, even the religious leaders. They made fun of his trust in God and said, if God cares about him, let him save him! Even the two thieves beside him, who were also suffering, made fun of him! Darkness descended from noon until 3:00 as the Son of God was pouring his life out to death, and then Jesus “cried out with a loud voice” (27:46 ESV) in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani!” My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?
Now often it has been said that this cry reflected God the Father turning his back on Jesus, God the Son, since God being holy cannot look on sin. This is reflective of 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV). And I understand the sentiment and the logic there, and it is certainly true that Christ’s death pays the penalty for our sins, and that the cross was Jesus embracing and absorbing our sins so that we don’t have to bear them. But if we take Jesus’ words as a cry indicating real separation from his Father, we come across a few different challenges:
This divides the Trinity, whereas the triune God is always portrayed in the Scripture as working in concert (together).
If God can’t look on sin, did Jesus cease being God while he suffered?
We lose the deeper meaning of this quotation, with all the rich background alluded to by Jesus quoting this psalm. We lose the hope for us in our suffering, as Jesus leaves us an example of how to suffer (1 Peter 2:21-23).
So let’s look at the deeper meaning of the quotation and see a little more fully what Jesus was saying when he said, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Let’s look at Psalm 22. We’ll see even more clearly another aspect of what the cross means for us. Apparently, the NT writers and early church saw the profound connection between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ words on the cross, and the profound meaning for believers after his resurrection. The psalm is quoted or alluded to in as many as 24 places in the NT, and possibly as many as 10 separate NT books. So it’s important for us to understand the significance as well.
When we ask the question, “Why did the Christ have to suffer,” we’ll see today it was to give us profound hope in the middle of our suffering in this broken world.
*Even though suffering in this life looks to be absolutely senseless, it isn’t meaningless when attached to a faith in Jesus that looks beyond this current world to the new world that God is bringing about in Jesus. A new creation is coming; Jesus suffered and rose again ahead of you to assure you of this reality.
Just like your suffering is real, Jesus’ suffering was a very real experience. Psalm 22 goes back and forth between describing intense suffering and a sense of abandonment, to expressions of trust in God. It ends on a triumphant note and a settled confidence in God’s faithfulness to bring to pass what he has promised and to set things right in this world.
Jesus felt a sense of real abandonment. “You have forsaken me.” “Why are you so far away.” Why don’t you listen to me? I cry out to you all day long and all night and you are just silent. Where are you and why don’t you help me?
The silence of God has been and is a very real experience for Christians throughout time. From our perspective, in the middle of difficulty, it’s possible that God seems far away and unconcerned. We have a family situation that needs to change, and we pray, and pray, and pray, and nothing changes. We have a health crisis and pain and suffering, and God lets us suffer and we are tempted to wonder if he cares.
Jesus was dehumanized, his humanity was treated with contempt and disregarded. He felt like a worm and not a man, someone insignificant and belittled by others. The cross was humiliating and shameful (that was part of the point). Can you imagine people walking by, as you’re suffering intensely, and making fun of you? Mocking what you said previously? Ridiculing your faith in a good God?
People are mean (unfortunately we can be mean); it would be entirely surprising and abnormal for any of us to make it through this life without being bullied, mistreated, disregarded, treated with contempt, or unfortunately much much worse. It would be the exception, not the norm, to not face meanness from other people. Human beings often dehumanize one another; they don’t honor fellow image-bearers of God. And it leaves us feeling low, unloved, unvalued, unappreciated. This is the way of the world. No wonder that the early church was made up largely of two the most mistreated groups of people in the ancient world: slaves and women. Christianity offers the revolutionary truth that all human beings are made in God’s image and have inherent value and worth and are loved by God.
Jesus felt the pain and rejection of personal attack and violence from enemies. The psalmist describes bulls, and lions, and dogs. These are bulls of Bashan, well fed and huge and dangerous. These are lions hunting a gazelle, latching on to it’s neck, ripping it apart and consuming it. These are wild dogs, encircling their prey in a pack and viciously attacking. Jesus’ experience mirrored the psalmist’s description: a body falling apart, no more courage or energy or strength, no breath left in the lungs, the driest mouth imaginable, and all that is offered to drink is vinegar. Hands and feet pierced, flesh tearing, bones protruding as the body wastes away. And all the while his enemies gambling over his clothing, treating him as if he’s already dead.
I hope you haven’t felt this level of physical violence, but people do all over the world every day. Christians are often treated with contempt and violence because of their faith in Jesus. People in different circumstances of life face mistreatment and abuse at the hands, sometimes, of people who should take the best care of them. This world is not how it should be, and Jesus experienced the worst of it. He understands the horrors and tragedies and pain of being human, and living on this planet. His cry of abandonment and a sense of aloneness is uttered for you and for me, to let us know that he gets it.
If this were all that was in the psalm, we’d be pretty hopeless. But actually this psalm is full of hope for sufferers and full of hope for a world gone wrong. The psalmist describes the sense of abandonment and acute suffering, but he also reflects a trust in God even in the middle of the horror.
Jesus also knew of the presence of God, even in the middle of his intense suffering. In fact his last cry uttered, after he said, “It is finished,” was a cry of trust in his Father: “Into your hands I commit my spirit ” (Luke 23:46). When he quoted that psalm, the same tension reflected in Psalm 22 was reflected in his cry, which includes the suffering of abandonment, yes, but also the very real faith in God.
God seemed absent as Jesus suffered, but he was there. Why didn’t he rescue his Son from the cross? Well, now we know it was so that we could be saved from our sins; it was actually out of love. The Father didn’t stop loving his Son, but the Father, with his Son, loved us, even to the point of death. It pains a parent to hear a child cry out in the middle of the night, and often a parent will go in to comfort a child, or bring the child back to his bed. But sometimes you have to let a child cry, even if it pains you. In the case of a parent it may be that you know the child really needs rest, and if you go in, it really isn’t the best thing for them. In that case we can see how what seems best from the child’s perspective isn’t best, and actually the absence of the parent is what is loving to them! And we see this same idea with Jesus on the cross: though he felt abandoned by his Father, the Father was there the whole time, doing what was most loving, setting in motion through that intense suffering the undoing of all the evil in the world. You may not sense the presence of God in your suffering, or see any meaning behind it, and you don’t have to, but the promise of Psalm 22 and the reassurance of Jesus’ example is that God is there, he is still trustworthy, and you can trust him too. And he will set all things right some day in Jesus.
God has a long history of proven trustworthiness and faithfulness (22:3-5). Think about the long-anticipated, and seemingly forgotten, promise of God to Abraham of a son, or the Exodus and God’s deliverance of his people from slavery. While they suffered, the children of Israel likely didn’t feel the care of God at times. But these words are so reassuring of the reality : And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (Exodus 2:24-25 ESV).
God’s had a long history of faithfulness for us as well. We know the Scriptures, but also we know our life experiences. We’ve seen the goodness of God in our lives, we’ve felt his presence, we’ve known he was there. I remember a time when I was a young teenager and sitting in my dad’s car and I just felt so keenly the nearness of God to me, and his faithfulness. And I told the Lord that I would trust him even during those times when I didn’t feel his presence so greatly. And there have been times when I don’t feel that he’s near and I wonder where he is. But I call to mind his long history of faithfulness. This is also why it is so important to stay connected to other believers. They help remind us of the faithfulness of God and his trustworthiness.
God is intimately acquainted with his children (22:9-11). People may mock that God doesn’t care about someone, but the reality is that God knew him or her before they were born. The psalmist describes the LORD as the one who delivered him from his mother and helped him as a newborn to breastfeed for the first time. He says that God had always been there from the very beginning. So even though he doesn’t feel that same tenderness now, he knows who the Lord is!
God knows you and is acquainted with you. He knows how many hairs are on your head. He feeds the birds and makes the flowers of the field beautiful, and he loves you even more than birds or flowers. A sense of abandonment is not the same as abandonment.
God is the sort of God who has compassion on the afflicted. He is a God of pity (22:22-24). This is his heart, and if there is anyone who cares for those who are hurting it is God. All through Scripture we see this described and emphasized, and we see it embodied in Jesus, whether it was a leper, a blind man, a sinful woman, a despised ethnicity, people oppressed by demons, a crowd of hungry people, or the ignorant masses of lost people that seemed like lost sheep.
God cares for you in your suffering. We don’t always get to know why we suffer, but we are assured that God cares about us in our suffering, and that he is present with us, even when we can’t see him. It’s the eyes of faith that can see God even when he doesn’t seem to be there. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew that God could deliver them, but weren’t sure he would. It was through eyes of faith that they still held strong. I wonder if the apostle Paul felt God’s presence very keenly as he’s being stoned in Lystra. It’s hard to feel very spiritual when you’re being pounded by rocks. The point is: he’s still there, even when I can’t see him! And we can trust his compassionate heart and bank on his love for us.
Psalm 22 actually ends on a very triumphant note, with confidence looking for God to fulfill every promise he’s made of setting things right in the world. It ends with the world finally being made according to God’s intentions, with the end of suffering and restoration and new life.
The hope of resurrection gives our suffering meaning, just likes it demonstrates the meaning of Jesus’ suffering. The last expression of the reason to trust in a God who sometimes doesn’t seem to be near is in recognizing the heart of God as a heart of compassion, and a desire for justice for the afflicted. Verse 22 is quoted in Hebrews 2 to emphasize the shared humanity that Jesus has with us now, and how he leads us through suffering to a better hope. He leads the way to something better, to resurrection! He actually hasn’t hidden his face from us; actually he was there the whole time and heard our crying! David describes God as keeping his tears in bottles in Psalm 56:8. God cares about our suffering, even when we can’t see that he does. And Jesus leads the way to assure us of that, and through the resurrection he gives us a glimpse of the glory that awaits, even though we may suffer for a time.
Verses 25-26 begin a refrain of hope for the afflicted and declares that they will “eat and be satisfied” (ESV). Though Jesus poured out his life to death and suffered even the sense of abandonment of God, he could also know and demonstrate the truth of Psalm 16:9-11, Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (ESV), and lead us to embrace the same confidence. If Jesus had only died and suffered with no resurrection, we would also have no basis for a hope beyond our suffering. Our hope is not in escaping suffering; our hope is in a God who raises the dead. He who raised Jesus will also raise us from the dead and will set all things right. So there’s this promise of restoration flowing from this psalm.
We also see an emphasis that God’s plans will not be thwarted (22:27-28). God is taking this world somewhere; we hear Jesus’ words in Revelation 21: I make all things new. This plan will not be destroyed. The cross seemed like a defeat, like the end of hope, but actually it was only the beginning. Our suffering may seem hopeless as well, but we may find God in our suffering in new ways. If we’re in Christ, we have the same basis for hope in resurrection that Jesus had when he felt abandoned by God.
Finally God will defeat death (22:29-31). We see the picture in Revelation 21:1-5 of a new heavens and a new earth, with no more of the signs of sin and death present. 1 Corinthians 15 assures us that Christ will finally defeat death in the end and that we will conquer death with him. Here in this psalm we see that even those who “could not keep [themselves] alive” (ESV) will bow down in worship before the Lord who will be revealed as the faithful Father who has always been there, whose heart was grieved as we suffered, who wept with us as we wept, but who through Jesus has brought us to new life and restored us to what he created us to be.
That is the hope of Psalm 22, the scope of what the psalm communicates, and that is what Jesus was communicating even as he felt the abandonment of God and the silence of God and the horrors of human sin upon himself. And this is the hope that he leads us to in our suffering and the answer that he gives to us when we wonder why this world is so broken and why we have to suffer.
These sufferings now are the birth pangs before the joy that is coming. Romans 8:18-25.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (ESV)
And the proof of our hope is that Jesus went before us. He led the way, calling us his brothers and sisters, sharing in our suffering, so that he could finally defeat it through his death and give us victory in his resurrection.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)