Some of today’s modern critics like to point out that Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as afraid and depressed just before he died. They draw this from Jesus saying in Mark 15:34, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Such folks on the discussion boards draw upon this argument to conclude that Jesus couldn’t be God if he was afraid to die. Yet, they don’t realize how subjective their interpretation is. While Jesus did, indeed, say this why would we conclude that Jesus is depressed or afraid? Isn’t it because we merely project this idea upon those words?
Certainly the context of Jesus ministry up to this point would not lead one to suspect that he would be afraid to die when events transpired to cause him to face death face to face. Before Jesus even went up to Jerusalem for the final time, Mark shows Jesus knew he was going to his death (Mark 10:34-35), and furthermore, he had been teaching the disciples about his impending suffering and death for quite some time (Mark 9:31). So, when should we perceive that Jesus began to be in fear of death, or did it come upon him all of a sudden? Certainly he knew what a crucifixion was, for the Roman method of execution for criminals was the crucifixion. The custom was to crucify the criminal along a main route into a city for all to see. How could Jesus have lived to thirty years of age and never witness a public Roman execution? Why would Jesus be suddenly afraid of death? If he predicted his own death, didn’t he ever contemplate what that meant? Don’t you see how illogical this interpretation is—that Jesus was afraid to die?
If Jesus was not afraid, how can we understand his statement? As I have said often in this series, context is extremely important to understand what is going on. It is very foolish to try to establish a doctrine about the Bible by using one-liners as a foundation. Building a doctrine upon a one-liner is like building a pyramid upside down and expecting it to stand. A slogan carved into the bricks of a local high school where I once lived read: “The Height of the Pinnacle Is Determined by the Breadth of the Base.” I believe this is a truism. One cannot expect one’s understanding of anything to be very sound if one’s understanding of a subject is built upon a one-liner. This kind of learning is illogical.
Notice what went on while Jesus was dying on the cross. “Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!” The chief priests joined in by saying: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!” And, the text goes on to say even those who were crucified with him spoke abusively to him (Mark 15:29-32). So, thus far, who is it that believes God had forsaken Jesus? Isn’t it all those who were his enemies, the very people who had him condemned in the first place? If we take other Gospel accounts into consideration, the Roman soldiers also followed the example of the scribes and chief priests saying the same things, concluding that God really didn’t value Jesus’ life at all.
It was in this context, that Jesus spoke out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was a rabbi himself. What do you suppose he was doing when he spoke these words? One of the tools of a rabbi’s teaching was to take in one’s surroundings and teach according to it. For example “Behold the lilies of the field…” There was growing in the fields round about lilies and Jesus began to teach about the Kingdom of God from them. On another occasion, he chose a fig tree, using it to make a point with the disciples.
Considering this, what have we established concerning the context of Jesus words on the cross? Wasn’t everyone saying God had forsaken Jesus, that he didn’t want him as his servant and didn’t value Jesus’ life enough to save him from death? Isn’t this what Mark says was occurring, when Jesus spoke those words? If so, and Jesus was a rabbi—a teacher—wouldn’t his words have much more meaning if they were quoted from Scripture, like Psalm 22 which begins with: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These were the words of David and they depict a hopeless situation whereby it is thought there is absolutely no reason to believe God would save him. Everyone is against him (David). The situation is hopeless, yet David chose to call God his “Darling” or “Only One” and put his hope in the resurrection.
This is the context of the Psalm, the first line of which Jesus quoted from the cross. The context of David’s experience and that of Jesus are similar. It was the understanding of those listening to a rabbi to consider the whole Scripture when the rabbi quoted a single phrase from that Scripture. In effect, Jesus was replying to those around him who had concluded that God had forsaken him, showing them that he placed his trust in God to raise him from the dead. Jesus didn’t view his death as the end of the argument. If we can take Matthew into our understanding of Mark, for he too records Jesus quoting Psalm 22 on the cross, then we can say that the conclusion of the “sign” Jesus gave unbelievers was not his death only, but his death and resurrection (Matthew 12:38-40). Resurrection is the conclusion of Psalm 22, and resurrection is the conclusion of the “sign” Jesus gave the unbelievers who mocked him at the foot of the cross, saying God had forsaken him. Jesus determined early in his ministry that no other “sign” would be given this unbelieving generation but the “sign” of Jonah—namely death followed by resurrection three days later.