WEEK 10: “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?”

Christ crucified

Matthew 27:46 “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

And Psalm 22

Devotional song: Michael Card, Love Crucified Arose — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiuli4SWzoM

I am fully aware of the madness of this modest attempt at surveying and writing a devotional on the most noteworthy event in all of history — the hour in which Christ was torn away from the Father, in order that we may have the veil torn from our faces!

Perhaps it’s rather ambitious for our last devotional in the series, but nevertheless it would plague me if I refused to look openly upon the crucified Jesus as the complete, heavenly climax, trace my fingers over His bruised face and be deeply acquainted with His heart. I don’t think we will ever fully understand what happened on that day or in that hour; how much was given up and to what extent. As Hagner puts it:

“Perhaps it is best simply to let the words stand as they are — stark in their impenetrability to us mortals.”

Firstly, we look at the different variations of this profound utterance “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?” When looking at the text, it is noticeable that the Greek used, is in fact only a transcription (a form in which a speech sound or a foreign character is represented phonetically) of the original Aramaic/Hebrew. In the Gospel of Matthew, we see a change compared to Mark’s Aramaic transcription in Greek of the term ‘God, God,’ ελωι ελωι, elōi elōi into Hebrew ηλι ηλι, ēli ēli. This was probably done to create a closer phonetic similarity with Ἠλίαν, “Elijah” and a more logical narrative (vs 47 “When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah’”. The remaining words of the question in Matthew, however, is written in Hebrew. According to Hagner, what seems to be rather peculiar, is that “both Luke and John do not preserve Jesus’ call: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ and that they replace it with different words. Obviously, this sentence was already difficult for people in earliest Christianity.”

The form of the words is one thing, however, the meaning of the words in the mouth of Jesus, is something about which one can only wonder. Both Mark and Matthew avoid interpretive comment on Christ’s utterance. Even other writers of the New Testament — whose task involved interpretation and clarification — never refer to Christ’s heart-rending cry. Hagner reiterates this astronomic significance:

“Jesus as the sin-bearing sacrifice must endure the temporary abandonment of his Father, i.e., separation from God. Horrible as this would be for any creature of God, when it concerns One who is uniquely the Son of God […] it is impossible to assess what this may have meant to Jesus. This is one of the most impenetrable mysteries of the entire Gospel narrative.”

Verse 46 is one of the verses in which “the entire history of European piety is mirrored” (cf. Luz 2005) with a common division in its reception into two main parts. The first thousand years of Christian history tried to understand how the heavenly Son of God Himself could cry out such a thing. In the second Christian millennium, Jesus was increasingly rediscovered as a human being, and His cry became simply the cry of human suffering.

Martin Luther broke away from the common-held belief of his day and emphasised that Christ not only had to suffer bodily but also had to endure the entire depth of spiritual suffering to the point of being abandoned by God. The magnitude of His passio reveals the depth of the damnation from which we are saved by Christ. Such a weight of sin on Christ’s shoulders, lies in such sharp contrast to the Father’s holiness, that perhaps a natural segregation was only to be expected! I personally, do not think the question should be asked whether the Father abandoned Christ, but rather why the Father would abandon His Son. Perhaps the Father turned His face away from all that Christ represented in that hour and because of the impossibility for light and darkness to co-exist. At that moment, Jesus was hanging there utterly drenched in sin and in stark opposition to all that the Father was and is! Can we ever understand the severity of this? Christ embodied the concept of a Jewish scapegoat!

“God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21; NIV, Emphasis added)

Interestingly, another perspective — and one that became especially important in the Middle Ages — is that Jesus spoke the words of the Psalm because He was seeing the sins of the people for whom He died. Christ represents the sinful human being for whom He dies. It is from that perspective that Jesus prays vicariously. Since Augustine, the idea surfaced that Christ prayed here as the head of His body, the Church. Paschasius Radbertus described this prayer of Jesus not as a cry of despair but as a sacrament:

“He weeps for the misery of those whose nature He takes on.”

Considering all of the above, I have no final answer to give — clearly, opinion and perspectives have not been lacking over the centuries; that much we can deduce. As none of the New Testament authors comment on the actual meaning of vs 46, perhaps the silence speaks for itself. What I do wish to leave with us, is that even if Christ was separated from the Father for a moment, it was in order to restore to us an eternal Emmanuel-blessing. The veil separating the Holiest of Holies was torn in two so we can have access to the Father, every minute, every second. That is what Jesus desires for us to hold onto – God eternal, an ever-present help in times of trouble, with all else fading into the background.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7-10; NIV)

“…and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:20; NIV)

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11-14; NIV)

Lord, there are no words to thank You for what You have gone through for me. You are the reincarnation of the year of Jubilee — Your precious blood setting my captive soul free! My life I choose to lay down before You. I come to You as a bondservant, ready to do Your will. Thank You for all Your Spirit’s richness and the important questions You’ve communicated to us as Your creation. I believe in You and that my flesh must die with You in order to live in You eternal. I bless You with a life of gratitude. In Jesus’ mighty name, Amen.



Biblestudytools.com. Eloi; Eloi; Lama; Sabachtha; Eli; Eli; Lama Sabachthani. [Online]. Available at: https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/eloi-eloi-lama-sabachtha-eli-eli-lama-sabachthani/  [2020/02/06].

Hagner, D.A. 1995. Matthew 14–28. Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Luz, U. 2005. Matthew 21–28: a commentary. H. Koester, ed., Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.

Patheos. 2015. What does Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani mean? [Online]. Available at: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2015/09/15/what-does-eli-eli-lama-sabachthani-mean/ [2020/02/06].