Posted by: Jeff Warren | April 11, 2011

What Really Happened on the Cross?

“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

People ask: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” R.C. Sproul noted, “That only happened once, and He volunteered.” Jesus was sinless and yet He “became sin” for us. What does this mean?  If you want to live forgiven you must fully grasp what took place on the cross.  And the key to unlocking the mystery of the cross is to consider the most perplexing, uncomfortable, and difficult words that ever came from the lips of Jesus.  In His final moments on the cross, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 He’s actually quoting Psalm 22:1, but clearly this is a cry of anguish.  Here “forsaken” means, “abandon”, “left in trouble”- someone in trouble and turning your back on them.  I’ve had many people ask me, “Did He really believe the Father had abandoned Him?”  Could it be that God the Father really did forsake Him?  To understand the difficulty of these words we must first understand the nature of the Triune God.  The Trinity (the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit) is at the core of biblical Christianity.  It’s important to note that the Trinity is a relationship of submission.  The Son says He does nothing apart from “the Father’s initiative” and that He does only what He sees the Father doing.  Jesus says that ultimately the Spirit would come and “will guide you in all truth”.  At Jesus’ baptism, the Father says, “This is my beloved Son”.  In John 17:11, Jesus prays for the Father to make His followers “one even as we are one”.  Could it be that for the first time in all of history there was violence done, not only to Jesus, but to the Trinitarian relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Understood correctly, this cry of anguish found in Matthew 27, is one of the most powerful, perplexing, and comforting words that Jesus ever spoke to us.  In fact, I pray that as we unpack them you will be overwhelmed, besieged, and undone by God’s love for you.

See Matthew 26:36-46 In an attempt to understand more fully what Jesus meant, we need to go back to the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the cross.  As I read the event of Jesus’ last week, I’m struck with the reality that He is in complete control of all that is happening.  If you look carefully and listen to His words it seems as though He Himself is writing the script.  As the story unfolds you realize that’s precisely what’s happening.  He has a secret ambition.  It’s interesting to note that just prior to His arrest, John 18:4 says that Jesus knew “all things that were to happen to Him.”

Matthew’s account of the events leading up to the moment of Judas’ betrayal is the most descriptive account of all that Jesus was going through.  After Judas agrees to betray Him, Jesus shares the Passover meal with His disciples.  During the meal Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Him three times that night.  Then they go to a spacious olive grove of the garden called Gethsemane.  Emotionally drained (in fact Luke tells us that they were “exhausted from sorrow” in chapter 22:45), the disciples reclined under the moon and stars of a now peaceful night and quickly drift off to sleep.  Jesus, however, would find no peace, no rest at all.  Matthew says He “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (26:38).  Mark adds that He was “deeply distressed”.  Often Jesus would go off alone, most of the time to be alone, but on this night He would need His best friends there with Him.  Jesus, the Man, needed human companionship.  Solitary confinement is the worst form of punishment our species has ever devised and, in this moment, Jesus didn’t want it.

When His disciples failed Him, Jesus did not try to conceal His hurt: “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” (vs. 40)  His words suggest something more threatening than loneliness.  Is it possible that for the first time ever He did not want to be alone with the Father?  A great struggle is underway in the heart of Jesus.  No formal, well recited prayers would come on this night.  No poetic, nicely phrased petitions in these prayers.  Dr. Luke tells us, “being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground” (22:44).  He describes a rare medical condition that had taken effect, known as “hematidrosis”, in which the blood vessels, under such stress, expand and burst into the sweat glands.  Imagine what happens next: He falls face down on the ground crying out to God the Father.

Why was Jesus in such agony?  I would suggest that you and I have never known this kind of anguish.  I’ve talked to many people who knew they had only days, even hours to live.  Some are terrified but most are accepting, even calm.  Jesus seems anything but calm.  Knowing what was to come, was He afraid of the beatings, the scourging, the spikes driven through His wrists and feet?  Was it the fear of death that tortured Him so?  Here we realize that sometimes it’s a blessing not to know the future.  Was it the betrayal of His closest friends?  Was it the denial of Peter?  Was it a combination of all of these things together?  No.  I believe that the pain Jesus knew in the garden and would experience on the cross was greater than any one of those things and even greater than all of those things combined.

To know what was at the heart of His agony, we must understand what He meant when He referred to the “cup” the night before in the Garden.

What was this “cup”? What was Jesus hoping to avoid?  It was not merely death.  It was not physical pain on the cross.  It was not the scourging or humiliation. It was not the torture of nails being driven through His body, not the horrible thirst, nor was it the disgrace of being spat upon or beaten.  Again, it was not even all these things combined.  I say this because those were all the things Jesus said not to fear.  In Luke 12:4, He said, “And I say to you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more they can do.”  “But,” He went on to add, “I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast you into hell; yes, I say to you, fear him!” (vs. 5)  Clearly, what Christ dreaded most about the cross was not physical death.  It was the outpouring of the wrath He would endure from His Holy Father.  The key is a clear understanding of “the “cup”.   The “cup” was a well-known Old Testament symbol of the divine wrath of God against sin. Consider just a few references:

“Awake, awake! Stand up, O Jerusalem, You have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of His fury; you have drunk the dregs of the cup of trembling, and drained it out.”  Isaiah 51:17

“Take this cup of fury from my hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it.  When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them.” Jeremiah 25: 15-16

“Drink, be drunk, and vomit!  Fall down and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you.” Jeremiah 25:27

Pretty graphic stuff.  What Jesus was experiencing on the cross was nothing less than the cup of the terrible wrath of God!  It’s worth noting here that “wrath” is not an out-of-control reaction of someone going “postal” on an angry rampage.  God is beyond that.  Wrath is God’s holy reaction to sin and in this case, it is unleashed on the Son.  The “cup” that Jesus was to drink was the vile, repulsive cup of sin bringing upon Him the full fury of the wrath of God.

Now, consider this: The One who had never tasted the tiniest drop of sin, the One who had never been separated from the Trinitarian relationship, will now bear the full brunt of the divine fury of God upon the most terrible, grotesque sins ever committed by every person who would ever live.  This, of course, includes your sins.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “He made who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  That holy transaction of our sins being poured into Him, the full wrath of God unleashed upon the Son, is what Jesus feared most.  He had never been separated from the Father, until the cross.  God the Father has never abandoned anyone except His own Son.

This is the only way to explain the perplexing prayer of Jesus on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)  Friend, as you read this, do you realize what you’ve been saved from?  God imputed (transferred, exchanged, ascribed) your sin to Christ and then punished Him for it.  Peter puts it this way:

“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.”  1 Peter 2:24 Don’t you feel a need to stop right now and thank Him?  Go ahead and do it.

In the garden we find the only place where Jesus addresses God as “My Father” (Matthew 26:39,42).  In fact, Mark records He prayed, “Abba, Father”.  “Abba” is the Aramaic equivalent of “Daddy” or “Dada”.  I believe that Jesus was experiencing a kind of “holy separation anxiety”.  What parent has not seen the terror in the eyes of a child while being left behind- as if their eyes and their cry was saying, “I can’t believe that you are leaving me!”, as if to say, “Why have you abandoned me?!”  I believe that is precisely what Jesus went through on the cross, and the garden was a prelude to the pain He knew was coming.  With this cry, He yelled, “My God…” not “My Father” (the only place He does this).  Did the Father really abandon the Son?  Was there really violence done to the Trinity while Jesus was on the cross!?  I can’t explain it theologically or understand it rationally, but how else can you justify this cry of Jesus?

As He cried out in anguish, God’s inflexible holiness and boundless love collided, and our redemption was made possible.

That’s what happened on the cross. For you to be fully forgiven, Jesus had to be fully abandoned.  In that moment, the Man Jesus was not in charge, the Father was.  What does this transaction over 2,000 years ago have to do with you today?  Everything.  It is more relevant than today’s newspaper and more powerful than any truth you’ll ever know.  “You are forgiven”, He says.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, took on the full fury of God’s wrath.  He died so that you wouldn’t have to and now, you can live forgiven.

What is the “righteousness of God”?

“But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Colossians 1:22 What is “the righteousness of God” poured into us?

The “righteousness of God” is to be as righteous as Jesus is righteous.

How can I receive it?

“Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”  John 1:12

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

How can I live in it?

“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24

So, grace is unmerited favor- Does God forgive me regardless of how I live? And once I receive His grace, can I go live any way I want to live?  I believe this question gets to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. If I truly comprehend the gift of God’s grace and the price that was required to pay so that I might be forgiven, then I will respond with a gratitude that would involve my whole life- all that I am. Otherwise I experience what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”- grace that cost Jesus everything but cost me nothing.  To receive His grace is to experience “costly grace”- I understand that the possibility of grace cost Him everything and therefore, cost me everything. It is costly because Christ’s life, death and resurrection becomes a model, the example for MY life.  Thus Bonhoeffer’s most famous quote, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”  There is no greater cost.  Of course this is in line with the call of Jesus Himself:

Then He said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

Out of gratitude for this great exchange we die to ourselves in order to live for Jesus.  As we die to ourselves it is HIS life now alive in us.  Let your life now be one big, constant, ever-growing act of gratitude back to God for all He’s done for you.





  1. well said

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