All the Way to Calvary: The Fourth Cry From the Cross

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mat 27:46).[1]

This is generally considered the Savior’s fourth cry from the cross and it is the only one Matthew and Mark (15:34) record. Luke adds three and John adds another three for a total of seven. It is appropriately the middle cry for it leads us into the very center of the mystery of Christ’s sufferings upon the cross.[2]

The Mystery of His Cry

We all know what it’s like to be forsaken. So did Jesus. He watched with sadness as many of His followers turned away from Him (Joh 6:66). He felt rejection by the members of His own family (7:5). On the night of His arrest, 12 went with Him into the upper room. When He departed, only 11 remained. After enduring Judas’ treachery, He suffered Peter’s denials. Eventually, all the rest forsook Him and fled. And now He was on a cross because He had been rejected by those of His own nation. It’s one thing to be forsaken by humanity, but another thing altogether to be forsaken by God. Hanging between heaven and earth, Christ was forsaken by both. For the first and only time, Christ was utterly alone.

How didst Thou humble Thyself to be taken,
Led by Thy creatures, and nailed to the cross?
Hated of men, and of God, too, forsaken,
Shunning not darkness, the curse, and the loss.[3]

We can do no better here than to quote Martin Luther, who apparently was preparing a sermon on this very text. Hours of study passed, but the paper in front of him was still blank. Mystified by these words from Jesus’ lips, it is said that Luther exclaimed, “God forsaken by God – who can understand it?” I’m sure we all agree. The Savior’s fourth saying from His cross is just as mysterious to ponder as the hours of darkness which preceded it.

As always, we need to be careful not to go beyond what Scripture says. We must not believe from Christ’s words here that the Father and the Son became separated in their being or essence. Jesus’ declaration, “I and my Father are one” (Joh 10:30), will be true forever. We would also be wise to avoid referring to “the Father forsaking the Son,” since Jesus does not address the Father here but “My God.”[4]

Although so much mystery does surround this cry, is it possible we may be able to at least discern something of its meaning?

The Meaning of His Cry

Since these words were spoken immediately after the darkness lifted, we may justifiably connect them with what happened during those three hours. We argued previously that the darkness at Calvary implied God’s presence to administer judgment for sin, judgment that fell upon Christ. It was then that He was made to be sin for us, who knew no sin (2Co 5:21).

We rightly preach in the gospel that sin separates. Separation from God is the consequence of our sin. And if Christ is to pay sin’s full price, if He is to be the sin-bearer, He must be forsaken of God. As the iniquities of us all were laid upon Him (Isa 53:6), a Holy God had to turn away. And for us to be accepted, Christ must be forsaken.

Yet note Jesus’ tender address: “My God, my God.” Even in His forsakenness, He addressed God as His own. “This was a cry of distress but not of distrust.”[5]

The Mocking of His Cry

Matthew and Mark report that “Jesus cried with a loud voice,” prompting action by those nearby who heard. Apparently, the darkness lifted sufficiently, for someone was able to see to run, dip a sponge in sour wine, attach it to a stick and lift it to Jesus’ mouth (Mat 27:48; Mar 15:36). But the mocking began: “This man is calling for Elijah …. Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to save him” (Mat 27:47,49 NET). Those involved in the mockery were likely Jews, for the Roman soldiers would not have understood the Elijah reference, nor were they likely to understand the meaning of “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”[6] But the Jews knew the difference between Eli and Elijah. They decided to have fun with it.

The Jewish people had come to believe that Elijah would return in connection with the Messiah (based partly on Malachi 4:5). “Later Jewish piety developed the idea of his [Elijah’s] appearance from heaven to help in time of need.”[7] So those standing near at the cross intentionally misunderstood Jesus’ address to God and pretended He was calling for Elijah. Maybe Elijah would return, rescue Jesus and enable Him to fulfill His messianic claims. Sadly, the mockery of Jesus, which began before He even arrived at the cross, persisted until He breathed His last.

O hear His all-important cry,
Eli, lama sabachthani?
Draw near and see the Saviour die
On the cross![8]

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Two of Jesus’ cries (this one and the last) are quotations from the Psalms, indicating that the Word of God was on His lips, even in times of great distress (see also His Scripture citations in the wilderness temptation).

[3] Henry d’Arcy Champney (1854-1942)

[4] We should avoid, however, being overly critical here since many biblical works by sound writers will refer to the Son being forsaken by the Father.

[5] Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot, 1954), 75.

[6] Mark has the Aramaic form (Eloi), which is probably what Jesus spoke. Matthew records it in Hebrew (Eli), perhaps to establish a stronger Elijah connection.

[7] R.T. France, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 399.

[8] Joseph Hoskins (1745-1788)