A World Missions Declaration from the Cross?

What did Jesus mean when he repeated the words of Psalm 22 about God forsaking someone?

Missions: The Heart of God

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" -- Matthew 27:46

A haunting question from the lips of Jesus recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 is one of the classic "Seven Sayings from the Cross."* Believers have puzzled over this particular "saying" more than all the others combined

"How could God forsake God?" they ask. A Jehovah's Witness acquaintance of mine even argues that these words prove his group's belief that Jesus could not have been God incarnate.

Three things distinguish this "saying" from the other six "Sayings from the Cross":

  1. It is the only one of the "sayings" reported by more than one Gospel.
  2. It is the only "saying" framed as a question.
  3. it is the only "saying" that is an Old Testament quotation.

That third distinguishing point may hold the key to understanding why Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Were these words an agonized cry reflecting intense physical suffering compounded by a sense of abandonment? Or, was Jesus trying to communicate something else?

Bible scholars tell us we should read Bible verses in their larger context. Let's do that with this "Saying From the Cross." Those words come from the Hebrew songbook where they are the opening lines of Psalm 22. Following that opening question, Psalm 22 builds toward a climax which had the Israelites singing:

"All the ends of the earth
   will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
   will bow down before Him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
   and he rules over the nations . . .

   future generations will be told about the Lord,
They will proclaim his righteousness,
   declaring to a people yet unborn:
   He has done it!"
-- Psalm 22:27, 30b-31

Do we get too caught up in trying to reconcile this "Saying from the Cross" with our belief in God as Triune? Do God-forsaking-God questions cause us to overlook the reason Jesus quoted Psalm 22?

Look at that verse in the context Jesus used. Death was staring Him in the face. Nailing someone to a cross to execute them made it very difficult for that person to breathe. So, when Jesus was hanging on a cross, He likely could not have physically sung or recited aloud an entire Psalm. Is it possible Jesus managed to cry out the first line of Psalm 22 hoping that, in the spectators' minds, they would go all the way through the entire Psalm (as, indeed, we often do when we hear a phrase from a well-known song)?

Was it Jesus' wish in his dying moments on the Cross to emphasize Psalm 22's declaration about the ends of the earth remembering and turning to the Lord? Is this "saying from the cross" actually a declaration that God's righteousness was going to be proclaimed to people yet unborn? If so, the global harvest going on now with things like JESUS Film showings in villages worldwide are certainly fulfilling those prophetic words.

A good case can be made that in those moments before His death, Jesus pointed to the prophecies at the end of Psalm 22. For the spectators that day on Calvary, as well as for all those who would read the Gospels in future years, this "Saying From the Cross" could be considered a preview of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) which Jesus would give to His followers after His resurrection and not long before His ascension to Heaven.

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways could an understanding of the entire twenty-second Psalm shed light on why Jesus quoted one verse from it as He hung on the cross?
  2. In what ways does the global spread of Christianity through missions work reflect the prophetic words of Psalm 22, and how does this relate to the message of the Great Commission?
  3. Could this "Saying From the Cross" be seen as a precursor or foreshadowing of the Great Commission given by Jesus after His resurrection, as the article suggests? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think is the significance of the fact that this is the only "Saying From the Cross" that is a quotation from the Old Testament? How might this help us understand its meaning?

More on this saying from the cross

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series that was published in Engage, a monthly online magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

*Jesus' "seven sayings (or 'words') from the cross"

Afterword

. Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm that describes the suffering and anguish of the righteous sufferer. Much of the psalm foreshadows Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus' quotation of the opening line of Psalm 22 highlights His identification with the suffering described in the psalm and affirms His role as the Messiah. By quoting the opening of Psalm 22, Jesus may well have intended to draw attention to the entirety of the psalm, which ends with a note of victory and praise.

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