Christ's Words of Dereliction
January 13, 2015
Only one person has truly understood the words that Christ said on the cross: "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). That person was Christ himself. The rest of us are left to try our best in comprehending this heaven-rending, heart-melting loud cry. But we fall so very short in understanding this burden that was placed on Christ - a burden heavier than ten thousand crosses - that caused him to break out in a loud cry of dereliction that would have stunned heaven into silence.
These words are the words of someone who has experienced divine desertion. This type of desertion includes the withdrawing of God's favor, grace, and love. The removal of these blessings is the practical removal of God. Though God removed his favor from his Son, Christ remained obedient. As Thomas Goodwin once quipped, "God was never more happy with his Son than when he was most angry with him."
Here we must tread very carefully. God did not withdraw his love from Christ. How could the Father not delight in such obedience? (Jn. 10:17). Rather, the withdrawing of his presence was, for Christ, a new thing. No person has ever known the love of the Father like the Son, which is why no person has felt such pain under the hiddenness of God like the Son.
When Christ cried out these words - a direct quote from Psalm 22:1 - they were like the shrieks of those who are cast away forever. They were shrieks he had not ever known. As the delight of the Father, Christ had only ever enjoyed his smile, his love, and his grace. But now he "descends into hell."
In hell there is, to use a Reformed scholastic distinction, a pain of sense and a pain of loss. As John Flavel notes, "So upon Christ answerably, there was not only an impression of wrath, but also a subtraction or withdrawing of all sensible favor and love" (Works, 1:410). If ever Christ needed comfort from his Father, it was when his Father withdrew all comfort from his Son. Thus, all Christ had to support him was his faith: "He had nothing else now but his Father's covenant and promise to hang upon" (Flavel, Works, 1:410).
If Christ's obedience to the fifth commandment on the cross was necessary, how much more him crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" If he had not said these words, "we must have howled out this hideous complaint in the lowest hell for ever" (Flavel, Works, 1:411). But he did say those words. And for believers, while they are words that arose out of the greatest discomfort possible for the Son of God, they are words that give us the greatest comfort imaginable.
"My God, My God, why have you blessed me?" is a phrase only possible for us because of Christ's words, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
Incidentally, this perhaps explains how Christ could be "made perfect" as a high priest (Heb. 5:9). Until this point, he had not known the hiddenness of God. But now he experiences Psalm 88, and is thus now able to minister to those who themselves experience the terrors of that Psalm. To be a merciful high priest to those who feel utterly forsaken by God, Christ himself had to undergo the cross. Only then was he equipped to be able to sympathize with us in every way. In other words, Christ could not have been a merciful high priest if he had not gone to heaven through the cross.
Pastor Mark Jones is so thankful for the cry of dereliction. No hope without it.