One of the worst aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak in Bergamo, Italy, is that thousands of its victims died alone, without the comfort of loved ones at their bedside. Regardless of culture or religion, the world has been forced to discard ancient rituals to say goodbye to the dying, to honour the dead and comfort the bereaved, for fear of spreading the virus further. But on this Easter Friday, Christians can know that we will never experience the horrific separation that Christ suffered as he gasped for breath on the cross. As our substitute, Jesus was weighed down, not only by his own broken body, but by the burden of sin he never committed. Christ became a curse for us (Gal 3:13) and emptied the cup of God’s wrath. Enveloped by darkness from noon until 3pm on the Friday of Passover, Jesus owned King David’s cry in Psalm 22:
“Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest (Ps 22:1-2).
Jesus’s cry of true abandonment gave voice to an immense spiritual grief. It eclipsed all other griefs, as the perfect Son bore the wrath of His beloved Father against every loathsome sin committed in the world. For the first time in all eternity, the righteous Judge of all the earth turned his face away from his beloved Son. He shut the door in Jesus’s face, to open the door to forgiven sinners.
Let’s go back to the Psalm that Jesus meditated on as he hung on the cross. Read Psalm 22 through on your own, then keep the text in front of you as we massage its truth into our hearts:
Despised by the people
“But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him…”
The Psalmist clearly had his own enemies and personal torment. But David was also a prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit to describe an infinitely more profound anguish to be suffered by one of his descendants (1 Peter 1:10-11).
Jesus knew more than any man what it is to be abandoned and despised. Judas betrayed him and his friends deserted him. Even Peter denied him. Then there were the three nighttime trials and the brutal flogging. The Chief Priests didn’t care that Judas had betrayed innocent blood (Matt 27:4). Nor did Pilate and Herod care that Jesus was guiltless (Matt 27:18; 24; 26; Luke 23:4; 14; 15). Everyone knew Christ was innocent and that the trials were a complete mockery of justice. Yet, they continued to bay for blood while Pilate washed his hands.
How accurate and ironic is the taunt of Ps 22:8: “He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him”. It was an echo of the insults hurled at Jesus by the soldiers who crucified him (Matt 27:27-31; 39-40); the Jewish leaders who rejected Him as Messiah (Matt 27:41-42) and the robbers who were crucified with him (Matt 27:44).
The irony was lost on those too blinded by the Enemy to see that their insults were prophetic declarations that Jesus was indeed the promised Saviour-King he claimed to be.
Surrounded by enemies
“Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me
David’s lament and prayer for deliverance from his enemies hinted at a far more sinister and supernatural predator that has stalked God’s image-bearers since Eden. Until Eve’s seed would finally crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15).
As Eve’s promised descendant, Jesus was at the centre of this cosmic war. Enemies hunted him like savage animals, even when he was a baby (Matt 2:16). Even while he prayed and fasted in the desert (Matt 4:1). Even after he healed the sick, cast out demons and announced a message of hope (Matt 12:14; 24; Luke 4:29). Behind human agents, Satan plotted to destroy Jesus throughout his short life (John 8:44). Even in his dying hours, Satan continued to tempt Jesus to leave the cross and save himself (Luke 23:35-37). Yet, Christ loved us enough to stay— to save sinners instead of himself. He even prayed for his executioners (Luke 23:34).
Poured out like water
“I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment” (Ps 22:14-18).
Here’s why I trust the Bible is truly God’s word. There is nothing in David’s life that could align with this peculiar omnibus of torture. Psalm 22 is not an expression of psychological suffering or physical sickness, but a detailed account of execution by crucifixion. Yet, crucifixion was only invented by the Persians in 300BC and used by the Romans a thousand years after David.
Think of Christ’s nail-pierced hands and feet. Intense dehydration from his all-night ordeal, the labored march to Calvary and six hours of hanging in the sun. Gloating onlookers staring and spitting as he hung naked, at eye level. Bones jerked out of joint as he became too weak to support himself and as the cross fell to the ground. His clothes divided by gambling soldiers. It’s all in Psalm 22:14-18.
David’s lonely lament describes in vivid detail the darkness and despair of that first Easter Friday, as Christ pleads for God’s presence and rescue (Ps 22:19-20; Heb 5:7). There is nothing stoic or detached about our Saviour as he carried out his mission to become sin for us. Being “poured out like water” runs much deeper than physical agony. It points to the spiritual desolation Christ experienced when God withdrew his familiar presence. His Father turned his face away, because He could not look upon sin. And his Son was riddled with sin on the cross. Our sin.
Stand in awe of him!
But suddenly, without warning, the song of desolation turns to joy halfway through verse 21. Good Friday is not just a cry of separation and agony. It is ultimately a song of rescue and praise!
“You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!”
David describes the party a Jewish person would throw when God answered his prayer of deliverance (Ps 22:19-21). It’s the kind of bash we hope to have for our son who turned 21 yesterday while in lockdown!
The guests at this lavish celebration sing songs of praise to God, whose face is no longer hidden from the forsaken one (Ps 22:24). It’s like a royal gala, with guests from many nations and families who join together to worship the King and serve him in posterity. It’s a sumptuous banquet, bursting with life, food and satisfaction (Ps 22:22; 25-26). Best of all, this never-ending feast is the hope of a ‘people yet unborn,’ who proclaim Christ’s righteousness! That’s us, the Church of Christ— and our children and future generations who come to love Christ as their own!
He has done it!
But why do we get to be guests at this party of all parties? The reason is that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was not the final word. After three hours of darkness, Jesus drew his final breath and cried his last words of victory,
“It is finished!”
God did not need three days to fully atone for sin. The price for sin was paid and the fellowship with God was restored. Everything needed for the salvation of sinners and of this sin-cursed creation, was completed on the cross. That’s why the Psalmist’s final cry is,
“He has done it!” (Ps 22:31)
It’s a victory song that comes into even sharper focus when Christ rises from the tomb on Sunday morning, ascends into heaven 40 days later, and reigns as King forever (Acts 2:31).
Let’s not be slow to believe!
I told you at the start what distresses me most about this COVID-19 pandemic. But the best story I’ve heard was that of a 93- year old man who recovered from the virus in an Italian hospital. When asked to pay for the ventilator, the old man started crying. He told the doctors, “I cry because I’ve been breathing God’s air for 93 years but I never paid for it. Do you know how much I owe God? I didn’t thank him for that before.”
God has indeed given us life and lungs, and Coronavirus has made us all too aware of this free and fragile gift (Acts 17:28). But God has also given us the free gift of His Son, who gave up his own breath, so that those who believe in him will live forever (John 19:30; John 3:16-18). If you are a Christian, you have the promise of God’s presence forever.
“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” (1 Thess 5:9-10).
No matter how alone you may sometimes feel, actively press yourself against Jesus, who is not afraid to call you his brother or sister (Heb 2:12). Good Friday confirms that there is nothing in life or death that can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38; 39; 34; 39). But it is also a sober reminder that the worst separation is not the kind the world has seen in recent weeks. Far worse is the ultimate separation, when Christ gathers the nations before his throne and finally closes the door of his grace (Matt 25:10-13; 31; 32; 34; 41; Acts 17:31). It is this ultimate separation that only Christ can bridge. Let us not be slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken and the gospels have confirmed! “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26; Luke 24:44).
As you remember the meaning of Good Friday, listen to this Song by Andrew Peterson. He reminds us that on the Sabbath after Jesus died, God rested from his salvation work. That’s why sinners can rest from ours too. “It is finished! He has done it!”