The crucified Christ — forsaken and loved

Sunday Leftovers

Several years ago, after participating in and observing a great many miscommunications, I began saying, “Communication is a beautiful thing — when it happens.” Too often, for all our desperate attempts to be clear and concise, we misspeak, or speak incoherently enough that our intended meaning is misunderstood. And people are puzzled by our speech, or even worse, take offense and what we’ve said.

And that can happen when preaching and teaching as well. And given that I’ve had three questions about the same point in my sermon from last Sunday, I think it wise to clarify something that I said near the end of the sermon.

The comments were based on Jesus’ words at the end of v. 32 — “I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” What I said was this (what follows is an exact transcript of what I said on Sunday):

That is a profound statement, my friends. Jesus uses the present tense — “now the Father is with Him.” And in the coming hours, as the disciples leave, the Father is with Him. Listen carefully: even on the cross, as the Father is pouring out His wrath against sin, against the Sin-bearer, the Father is with Him. There is a sense in which the Sin-bearer, Christ, absorbed that wrath and experienced the forsakenness of God, but the Son can never be forsaken by the Father. Listen to what Jesus Himself says in John chapter eight, verse 29. Start in verse 28 — “‘When you lift up the Son of Man [What’s that? The cross], then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” [my emphasis].

Here’s a conundrum: Christ on the cross, bearing our sin, absorbing the wrath of God against the displeasing sin that has been sinned against God, and yet, Christ the Son is pleasing to the Father because He is doing what the Father sent Him to do. The Father has not left Him alone. The Father is with Him — in that moment in the Upper Room, and on the cross, and in the grave, and now in Glory.

So the question is, did I say that God didn’t forsake Christ? No, I did say that God forsook Christ as the Sin-bearer, but distinguished that from the Father forsaking the Son. Even while He was the Sin-bearer, He still remained the Son, still remained acceptable to the Father (how else could the Father be satisfied with His sacrifice?), and still remained a member of the Triune Godhead. The disciples may have left Christ (Jn. 16:32a), but as the Son of God, the Father still maintains His relationship with the Son and in that sense, Christ is not alone (even on the cross).

Let me try to explain this with a parallel truth. There are some doctrines that are impossible to completely comprehend and rationalize with our finite minds. For instance, we speak of the truth of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. From the moment of the incarnation, Christ has always been and will always be both fully God and fully man. He is 100% God and 100% man. And yet, in His incarnation there were some things that were explained only by His humanity and some things that were explained only by His deity.

For instance, in His humanity, Jesus grew tired and had to sleep, was hungry and had to eat, had limitations on His knowledge and had to learn (Lk. 2:40, 52; Heb. 5:8). Because of the union of the God-Man, those things are attributed to Jesus humanity, yet we would not say that in those moments Christ was not God. It is simply that in the unique nature of that hypostatic union (the theological term for the union of God and man in the person of Christ), the omniscient and eternal took on the limitations of manhood while not ceasing to be eternal God.

Similarly, in His deity, Christ did things that only the divine and no man could do — like feeding 5000 men (plus families) from five loaves and two fish, and walked on water, and knew the hearts of men and what men were thinking, and healed the leprous and blind and lame and demon-possessed. Those are all things that are beyond man’s ability, yet we do not say that Christ ceased at those moments from being human. It is simply that in the unique nature of the hypostatic union, the limitations of man had added to them the power and authority of the Godhead without ceasing to be man.

That is similar to what happened on the cross.

When Christ was crucified, He was treated as a sinner, though He Himself was not a sinner. We say that He was the Sin-bearer (see 2 Cor. 5:21). And it is as the Sin-bearer that God pours out His wrath on Christ. All of His vengeance against all the sin of all those who would believe in Christ is poured out against Christ. And in that moment, Christ cries out “My God, My God why have you forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46). As the bearer of sin Christ cries out in the agony of One who is enduring the full wrath of God. The One whom John says “was in the beginning…[and] was with God, and…was God” — the One (the only One) who was in perfect, joyful, intimate fellowship alongside the Father and Spirit for all eternity (John 1:1–2) was now feeling the perfect, angry, infinite wrath and judgment of God.

And yet, as the Son, He is still pleasing to the Father. John 8:29 makes that clear — Jesus always does the things that are pleasing to Him. Isaiah also makes that clear: “the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief…” (53:10; my emphasis). That is, in the cross, the Father found pleasure in the Son who was able to absorb His wrath against the sin that the Son was bearing (see also Col. 1:19-20). The Son has never disappointed the Father and the Son can never be excluded from the Trinity. Jesus is still God. The Father is still God. They still have the Trinitarian relationship. The Father always loves the Son.  For the sin-bearer to be forsaken by God does not mean that the Father does not love the Son.

So what was happening on the cross? Let us understand that Christ was on the cross in two positions — as the Sin-bearer and as the Son of God. Like the hypostatic union of the eternal God and finite man in the person of Christ, the Sin-bearer was on the cross, forsaken by God who was pouring out all of His infinite wrath against Him, yet at the same time, the Son is on the cross and is pleasing to the Father in their Trinitarian relationship.

This, along with a great many other truths, are not readily reconcilable in our finite minds. We dare not minimize the wrath of God against sin and the horror experienced by Christ as He absorbed that wrath for us; yet we also dare not minimize the uniqueness and eternal nature of the love experienced within the triune Godhead. If God did not forsake Christ, then Christ has not absorbed all the wrath for our sin and their remains wrath for us to endure. And we cannot endure God’s wrath, so that would mean we are consigned to Hell. And similarly, if the Father left the Son alone and ceased to love Him, and we have been given the same kind of love that the Father and the Son have then we also face times alone from God, and we cannot endure that either. So let us hold tenaciously to both truths — Christ absorbed God’s wrath being forsaken for us, and the Son is always loved by the Father.

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