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April 8, 2022
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Did God Turn His Back on Jesus?

For the video teaching on this, please link to our 721 Ministries Videos on Vimeo

It is Friday morning, and Jesus is hanging on that horrible cross. He has been beaten and whipped to a bloody pulp. Death is near. It is plain to see his plan has failed, his mission is over. He simply cannot be the Messiah because Messiah’s do not die on a cross.

The Jewish authorities have won. The Romans have exerted their will, and their power over yet another wannabe Messiah. It is over. The disciples know it, his family knows it, all his followers know it.

But not Jesus. Not Jesus. Jesus knows this is all part of his Father’s plan. Jesus knows he could easily call down a legion of angels and escape this brutal torture at any time. Jesus knows this cross did not happen to him; he happened to the cross. Jesus knows he is not a victim; Satan and death are the victims.

But how to convey this to his followers? He is suffocating to death. He can barely breathe. He has to push his body up from his feet, which are nailed into the cross, just to catch a desperate breath, and then collapse again under his own weight.

So he reminds them of God the Father’s assuring promises in Psalm 22, but in an abbreviated way, because he does not have the energy to recite the entire psalm.

Every Jewish man and woman standing there would have known by heart David’s 22nd Psalm. Listen to the words, and compare them to what they were watching happen to Jesus:

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.”

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, 16 … a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.

This Messianic Psalm describes exactly what is happening to Jesus. In exact detail. Jesus uses this to assure his followers that what is happening to him has been prophesied and predicted all the way back to King David.

He was assuring them the cross did not happen to him. He was not a victim. He happened to the cross. Listen as the Psalm continues,

22I will declare your name to my people.
24 “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help. (Bold added)

“…he has not hidden his face from him …”!

Jesus is making it clear, as he gasps between breaths, that despite all visible evidence to the contrary, his Father is in perfect and total control. His Father was right there with him, never forsaking him, never turning his back on him, loving him, and nurturing him to the very end.

Jesus meant this assurance, this promise, for his followers—and for you.

So why do most people assume Jesus was forsaken by God, and God turned his back on him? Because we live in America, and we have no clue as to the context and culture of this setting.

Jesus was using a common teaching method of his time, “Remez,” used by every rabbi, and understood by all Jews. Remez means “hint.” The rabbis would say just one line of a well-known scripture passage, and every Jew would immediately understand the context. Every Jew. Always.

Jesus does something remarkable on the cross: He uses Psalm 22 as a Remez to declare God Almighty’s perfect power, his perfect love, and his perfect and total control, even in the midst of what looks like a complete disaster.

His cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line of Psalm 22. It is simply a Remez, alerting his followers to all the promises we see in the Psalm.

And to put an exclamation mark on Jesus’ Remez, the final line of Psalm 22 is:

They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!  (“It is finished”… John 19:30)

In the throes of death, Jesus remarkably bookends this iconic Psalm with its first and then last line, to make it plain to everyone witnessing his death:

“My God has not forsaken me, and, death has not finished me. I have finished it!”

And Jesus is “declaring to a people yet unborn,” to you and to me:

“Your Heavenly Father will never forsake you, he will never abandon you. No matter the circumstances, no matter all the evidence to the contrary, your Heavenly Father is with you, he is for you, he loves you perfectly, and he is in total control.”

Amen!

If you are a Bible nerd and you want a lot more:

For much more informative details on Remez and this Lazarus story see the most excellent article from my friend Doug Greenwold, of Preserving Bible Times, below:

The Last Words of Jesus
What Did He Actually Say and Mean?

When reading the Scriptures, we see what we know
but do not always know what we see
– Unknown

What if?
What if we could somehow transport a typical Western evangelical Christian in a time-machine back to the First Century to stand at the foot of the Cross on “Good Friday”?  Wouldn’t it be fascinating to ask how he or she would have understood the last words of Jesus?

My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me? Matthew 27:46 and Psalm 22:1
It is finished. John 19:30 and Psalm 22:31b

Most likely we would have heard an explanation something like this: “There is Jesus on the Cross carrying all the sins that were, are, and ever will be.  It is such a hideous sight to a holy God that the Father turns His back on His only Son and abandons Him (for a day or two?).”  Most likely he or she would have arrived at such interpretive reasoning in a manner akin to this:  “It must be that God abandoned His Son.  After all, isn’t that what the text says?”  Let’s overlook for a moment some of the theological implications of this perspective; e.g., does God have a Trinitarian back?  How can an omnipresent God ever be away from His Son?  Is it true that God cannot look upon sin or is He looking at sin all the time?  Perhaps pondering those inconsistencies for a while might prompt us to ask, “Is there another way to approach understanding the last words of Jesus?”

A Different Perspective
In the First Century, many observant Jews would have understood those last words of Jesus as a remez back to Psalm 22, rather than a statement that God had somehow “abandoned” His Son. 

Remez is a Semitic word meaning “hint” or a harkening back to something that everyone knows and understands and for which no further explanation is needed because the hearers all know its obvious context. Since most first-century, observant Jewish young men memorized the Hebrew Scriptures in preparation for their Bar Mitzvahs, rabbis often spoke and taught in this remez (shorthand) manner because everyone knew the complete (longhand) context of the portion of (OT) Scripture being referenced.

A Common Communication Technique
Remez
is a common literary technique used by Jesus and the Gospel writers. In fact, remez words and phrases occur over 300 times in the Gospels.  Luke’s first chapter has more than two-dozen remez in it (deliberate references back to OT passages), including Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus, which are best understood as two cascades of remez.

Jesus used remez to signify who He is; e.g., Son of Man (in Luke) is a messianic harkening back to the much fuller meaning of that title in Daniel 7.  Daily bread in “The Lord’s Prayer” is a remez back to daily manna in the wilderness of Zin. Dr. Randall Smith defines remez as “any portion of a portion is the same as the whole portion.”  Thus with remez, by saying a little, you can quickly say/invoke a lot!

Rabbi Jesus
Jesus, a rabbi, teaches and speaks in a Semitic literary context even to his dying breath.  As previously noted, many observant Jews standing around the cross would have understood Jesus’ last utterance in Matthew, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, as an intentional remez back to Psalm 22:1.  Likewise, It is finished (completed, ended, accomplished) in John 19:30 is a reference back to the very last phrase in Psalm 22.  Fascinatingly, Jesus bookends Psalm 22 with two remez references to the first and last phrases of that Psalm.  To the best of our knowledge, this occurs nowhere else in Scripture.  Might that strongly suggest that He may well have intended a remez understanding of His last words by referencing Psalm 22 twice!

Can’t Have One Without the Others
In the first-century Jewish minds, Psalms 22, 23 and 24 were understood as “the shepherd psalms” of David and thus viewed as a united whole. An observant Jew who clearly heard those last words (note that some did not clearly hear what Jesus said and mistook eloi as Elijahboth are phonetically very similar in Semitic pronunciation) would therefore have understood Jesus as invoking the totality of those three Psalms as His final prayer/statement/benediction.  In doing so, Jesus identified Himself one more time as the Messiah in how He would die (Ps. 22), stated His hope and trust in His ever-present Father (Ps. 23), and envisioned His triumphant return to heaven (Ps. 24) in this progression of the Good Shepherd (Ps.22), the Great Shepherd (Ps. 23) and the Chief Shepherd (Ps. 24).

Reading these three Psalms from Jesus’ perspective can take your breath away.  For example, Psalm 23:4, Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.  From the perspective of Psalm 22:24, Jesus is affirming His confidence that …nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.  This should not surprise us since Jesus reassures His disciples in John 19:13 that Behold an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. (underscore added)

Why does this matter?
Passion Week often gives rise to “traditional” sermons and homilies of the genre previously mentioned; i.e., there is Jesus on the Cross bearing all the sins that ever were, are, and ever will be.  It is such a horrible sight that a Holy God turns His back on His Son thus breaking fellowship with Jesus, and that “abandonment” of Jesus by God is the real agony of Calvary.

We need to remember that to a Holy God, it’s not the amount of sin that God looks upon that is the issue!  In Job, God goes eye-ball to eye-ball with Satan.  Looking upon sin and evil is not contradictory to God’s Holy nature.  What God cannot do is look favorably upon sin.  That was part of Jesus’ agony – His Father no longer looked upon Him as the beloved, but with infinite wrath. That’s not the same thing as a rupturing of the Eternal Oneness of the Godhead.  If you view the last words of Jesus absent the first-century literary context of remez, your only choice is to conclude that it must be that the Father somehow “abandoned” His Son, even though that conclusion would stand in conflict with all the rest of Scripture.

“Forsaken” Does Not Mean Abandoned
If these previous perspectives are not persuasive enough, consider the contextual understanding of forsaken.  All throughout the Psalms (e.g. 9:9-10, 37:28-29, 71:10-11) when forsaken is used, it is never in a context where God is somehow removing His presence.  Rather, forsake has to do with the Psalmist feeling that God seems to be letting one of His own fall into the hands of His enemies (for God’s own purposes until He deems it time for rescue).  That is a far different issue from God removing His Presence from the Psalmist.  That Jesus fell into the hands of His enemies for a time is certainly true.  In the humanity part of His nature, He may well have even felt like He had been abandoned.  But that did not mean that He actually was abandoned.  Furthermore, in His Divinity Jesus could not have been separated from the divinity of the Godhead.  Only divinity could pay the perfect price God’s ransom required and being separated from the Trinity at that moment would have negated Jesus’ divinity.

Why is this important?
Some Muslims use the traditional evangelical teaching of “abandonment” on the Cross as proof that Jesus really was separated from God, and therefore cannot be considered to be one with God. In their reasoning, if God really did “abandon” His Son, then the Eternal Oneness of the Trinity wouldn’t be Eternal, or One, would it?  It would no longer be an “indivisible essence.” Using that “abandonment” reasoning, the inseparability of the Godhead would have had to be broken at some moment during Passion Week!

Punishment in His Father’s Presence
As you might gather, in understanding the last words of Jesus from the perspective of a first-century remez, it is difficult to conclude that the Father somehow “abandoned” Jesus because of His hideously sinful condition as He hung upon the Cross.  It is certainly true that Jesus endured unspeakable anguish and agony as He absorbed God’s judgmental wrath (while in God’s presence) toward sin.

Think about it for a moment.  Relationally speaking, the hardest thing to do is to absorb the justifiable wrath of another while in his or her presence.  It is at those kinds of moments that we all want to be as far away from the person venting that wrath as possible!  Could it be that as payment for what we deserve, Jesus drained every last ounce of God’s infinite wrath toward sin while in God’s presence so that we would never have to absorb the wrath we deserve?  Therein lays the ultimate agony of Calvary for Jesus.

Limits to Our Comprehension
In approaching our comprehension of what happened on the Cross, as well as what happened after Jesus uttered the first and last phases of Psalm 22, we need to realize that we approach Holy ground.  We need to realize that we reach the limits of our abilities to comprehend it all and run out of words to even try to describe it.

As Westerners we seem to have this innate proclivity to always want to use our most eloquent words and best examples to try and describe the indescribable while the Hebrew mind is simply content just to stand in awe and mystery.  We need to allow room for the mystery that will always be intrinsic to the Godhead and its Trinitarian interrelationships and realize we can only approximate fathoming the Holy anger of God and the cosmic pain of Jesus as He bears our sins.

Assurance
The last words of Jesus actually stand as an assurance that God will never abandon His own.  His care is constant and His presence is always with us even when we walk through our own “valley of the shadow of death,” when we may feel forsaken in the midst of our own “valley” experiences.  The efficacy of Calvary in atoning for our sins has always been rooted in His shed blood, not in any God-turning-away-from-Jesus sense of “abandonment,” even if that were somehow possible.

Context Always Matters
Scriptural misunderstandings can arise when we approach the text like Hellenistic Greeks, reading words without understanding their integrated context – the language they were first spoken in, the literary form being used, and the genre of the communication technique being employed!  As Kenneth Bailey succinctly captures it, restoring the context of the Scriptures allows us “to rescue biblical truth from the familiar.”

Reflections

  • What did you learn about God in Jesus’ last words?  What comfort do you find in this passage?
  • Did it surprise you how understanding the biblical literary context for remez can serve such a useful purpose in illuminating Gospel passages?
  • When was the last time you allowed yourself to be overwhelmed with His love for you as His beloved?

Ponder: Take some time to read and ponder Psalms 22, 23 and 24.  Consider them to be an inseparable threesome (just like the Trinity) being invoked by Jesus as his final prayer/benediction.  Doing so will not only take your breath away, but will further deepen your praise and gratitude for what He eternally did for you that momentous day.

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there.  If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139:7-8)

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