October 23, 2017

“Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?”

By David McKee

I submit this article in hopes that it will encourage discussion as well as stir some thoughts concerning this statement made by our Lord moments before his death on the cross. Perhaps we have all heard men stand before a group and, taking the statement at face-value, declare that the Son was indeed forsaken by the Father. In explaining why such was the case, these men end up drawing conclu- sions that are heavily Calvinistic in their implications. Perhaps the answer to our Lord’s question lies in the senti- ments expressed beyond the first verse of Psalm 22, from which the statement is taken.

The concern over the explanation of this statement was heightened when I listened to a tape of a sermon presented by a gospel preacher detailing what Jesus suffered while on the cross. In reading Tom Roberts’ book, Neo-Calvinism in the Church of Christ, the names mentioned and statements quoted were of men who are foreign to my acquaintance. But as I listened to this man’s sermon, a man I am ac- quainted with, I was alarmed by the familiar ring his words had with those brother Roberts’ had quoted. What seemed like useful information of some distant threat had already made its way in among those that I know. My fear was, did they know it? Do brethren detect the Calvinistic language when it is presented in its subtle forms? The brother who expressed these thoughts was very courteous in our discus- sion of them, and he is far from being the only one among those we respect to hold such a view. However, I do feel that brethren need to be familiar with the language that is being used, and consider its implications. Those using such language also need to be aware of its implications.

The general thought among some brethren seems to be that what Christ suffered while on the cross was a spiritual separation from the Father. The death that Jesus “tasted for everyone” (Heb. 2:9), was spiritual death. The language, at times, even has Christ agonizing in the Garden over the realization that he is about to come into contact with the ugliness of sin; for the first time deity is about to be sepa- rated from deity, and that which is light is about to take on darkness. It has been reasoned from Isaiah’s statement, “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12; Luke 22:37), that in that the word, transgressor, as found in Luke 22:37, is the same word that is translated in other places, imputed, that our transgressions were imputed to Christ. (The Calvinist then redefines impute to mean transfer and thus transfers our sins to Christ.)

Brethren, the words may indeed be the same, but to view Jesus as a transgressor in that he was treated as such is a far cry from viewing Jesus as a transgressor because he was guilty of such; namely, our transgressions. Do others realize that this is what they are saying when they conclude that there was a spiritual separation between the Son and the Father due to his taking on our sins? Can these not see the difference between Jesus bearing the guilt of the world’s sin and his bearing the punishment of the world’s sin? Or is this is a trivial distinction that matters little? Is it Calvin-phobia, or a shift in thinking that needs to be addressed?

Why did Jesus ask, “Why have You forsaken Me?” Was something now happening that he was unaware of? If the predetermined plan was for the Son to take on himself the guilt of the world’s sin, thus separating himself from the Father (Isa. 59:1-2), would not Christ have known this? Why at the moment of its occurrence would Jesus ask, “Why is this happening?” Would not the One who was with the Father when the plan of redemption was being formed know that this separation from the Father was a necessary consequence of his taking on the guilt of the world’s sin? Our Lord was not delusional, nor was he suddenly in the dark as to what was happening as he paid the price for our sins. Nor was there any spiritual separation that took place that involved the Father turning his back on his Son. Following this statement by our Lord, as he quoted from Psalm 22, he says with complete confidence, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”

If our Lord was not forsaken, and was not delusional, why the statement from Psalm 22:1? Consider the Psalm itself, the sentiment of which is far from expressing feelings of desertion by God. The first verse is similar to lines found elsewhere in the Psalms, some of which acknowledge the thought that, “I may look forsaken” (Ps. 3:1-4), but the Psalmist knows that is far from the case. Psalm 13 begins in similar fashion, but like Psalm 22, it proceeds to express absolute trust and confidence in God’s deliverance. Indeed, our Lord did look forsaken as he hung on the cross, but if Psalm 22 expresses his feelings, then we have one declaring that same trust and confidence in God’s deliverance. And beyond the intimacy felt that would have our Lord saying, “You have answered Me” (Ps. 22:21), the psalm builds to a beautiful crescendo as it declares the praise and glory that will be given to God as a result of this monumental event. “It will be recounted to the Lord to the next generation. They will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has done this” (Ps. 22:30b-31).

Another thought to consider is one that I heard expressed by brother Dale Smelser, who pondered the impact that might be had on the religious leaders who stood there mocking our Lord, as they heard that line from Psalm 22. These would have been familiar with the remaining words of the psalm, so what might they have thought as they stood there and called to mind almost word for word from the psalm some of the things that were being said to our Lord (v. 8, and Matt. 27:43)? What might they have thought as they recalled, “They pierced My hands and feet . . . They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (vv.16b, 18)? Might these have stopped to consider, “This is it; it is happening right before our eyes”? That some of these standing by did recognize the psalm as a call for deliverance, not of despair, can be seen in their response to our Lord’s words: “Let us see if Elijah will come to save Him” (Matt 27:49). Deliverance did come, but not as they expected.

Sure, it would have made things easier if our Lord had quoted a different line from Psalm 22, but let us give serious thought to the explanations that we give to this passage. To conclude that Jesus was forsaken, one must also consider the consequences of such reasoning and the Calvinistic implications. To take the Psalm as a whole, however, is to read the words of one who knew and trusted in his Father, one into whose hands he could commit his spirit. Psalm 22 is a psalm of deliverance and salvation, not of despera- tion. In speaking that first line, our Lord expressed the full body of that psalm with all of its words of hope and future blessings to come, because, “He has done this.”

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