Mission declaration from the cross?

Howard Culbertson
Thursday, March 15, 2012

 

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 
 
This question -- 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. An acquaintance of mine contends these words prove the Jehovah’s Witness belief that Jesus was not God.
 
Three things distinguish this “saying” from the other six “sayings from the cross.”  This is the only one reported by more than one Gospel.  It is the only one of the seven “sayings” framed as a question, and it is the only one that is an Old Testament quotation.
 
That final point may be crucial to understanding why Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Were these words an agonized cry reflecting personal suffering? Or, was Jesus trying to communicate something else?  
 
Bible scholars plead with us to 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 of Psalm 22. Following that opening question, Psalm 22 builds toward a climax which had the ancient 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
to a people yet unborn.” (Psalm 22:27, 30b-31)
 
Is concern about the impact of this “saying from the cross” on our belief that God is Triune (one God in three persons) making us overlook the reason Jesus quoted Psalm 22? Death was staring Him in the face. At that point, He could not have sung or quoted an entire Psalm. Is it possible Jesus managed to cry out the first line of Psalm 22 hoping that, in their minds, spectators would go all the way through the Psalm (as, indeed, we often do when we hear a phrase from a well-known song)? 
 
Was it Jesus’ wish on the day of His crucifixion to emphasize Psalm 22's predictions about the ends of the earth remembering and turning to the Lord? Is this “saying from the cross” a declaration that God’s righteousness was going to be proclaimed to people yet unborn? Parenthetically, the JESUS Film showings now being done in villages worldwide come to mind. 
 
ImageA good case can be made that in those moments before His death, Jesus was pointing 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 just before His ascension. 
 
-- Howard Culbertson is professor of missions and world evangelism at Southern Nazarene University, in Bethany, Oklahoma, U.S. Culbertson, who formerly served as a missionary in Italy and Haiti, has published numerous articles, books, and chapters in books on missions. To access his many resources on mission, visit http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/.