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The Dereliction

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 6, 2000

Matthew 27:45-49

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 27. We have been working towards the crucifixion for some time now in our study of the gospel of Matthew. And all along during our studies in this particular chapter, Matthew, chapter 27, we have said that Matthew is recounting the death of Christ with a view to showing us the nature and the significance of Christ’s death. He’s wanting to show us what Christ endured for us, and then he’s wanting to show us what that means, what is the significance of that? What was the purpose of it in God’s plan? And all along from the time that we looked at Judas’ remorse and suicide, we’ve been moving closer and closer to the abyss of Jesus’ experience of the penalty for our sin.

And today we come to that abyss itself. The last time we were in Matthew, in Matthew 27, verses 33 through 44 we noticed that Matthew focused our attention on the meaning of the death of Christ. Not by recounting to us in great detail the specific physical torture which he underwent; but actually pointing us to several incidents around the crucifixion of Christ. Showing us the attitudes towards Christ and the reactions to Christ of those who were around Him in those final hours of His death. And by that he focuses us on Christ Himself. It’s almost as if Matthew cannot gaze directly upon the site of the crucified one. And so today we come to a mysterious passage which records Jesus’ cry of agony, his cry of distress in the face of judicial abandonment. So, let us hear reverently and attentively God’s inspired word here in Matthew 27, beginning in verse 45:

“Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthan?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?’ And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ And immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, ‘Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.’”



Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, there is nothing more important than the word of the cross, and yet the word of the cross is a dead letter to us, unless the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see, as Isaiah as already taught us today. We pray then that by the Spirit if we come this day skeptical, cynical of the work of Christ and of His claims, we pray that by the Spirit You would awaken us from our slumber so that Jesus would indeed become our song in the night. We ask, O Lord, this day that if we come in great need of comfort and of strengthening that You would strengthen our faith as we view the crucified one, for it was the apostle Paul who said, “I preach Christ crucified, and that He determined to know nothing except Christ and Him crucified.” And so we sense that we are only holy ground, for although all of Your word is Your holy word and it is the very breath of Your own spirit, yet in a special sense this is a central piece of Your gospel, absolutely necessary for our eternal fellowship with You and for growth in grace. So we pray, O God, help us to understand it, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now as we said in verses 33 through 44, Matthew has been pointing us to everyone around Christ. He showed us the soldiers, he showed us Pilate, he showed us the mobs, he showed us the reactions to those who were around Christ in the midst of this horrendous crucifixion. And he focused our attention on their treatment of Christ and their reaction to Him. And he did this in order to reveal the nature of His suffering to us, in order to show us the evil of their hearts, but also to show us the greatness of His mercy.

Now, in these two verses, verses 45 and 46, it’s as if every other character is removed from the stage, and for a few brief moments, Jesus Christ Himself is the sole actor, the only focus. And all that we are attending to is this lonely sufferer and the transaction that is going on between Him and His Father. And in this solemn passage, Matthew shows us the measure of Christ’s love by showing us the greatest torment that He endured willingly on our behalf. But that’s not all. He also shows us the measure of the Father’s love by showing us what the Father does in the handing over of His Son, in the bruising of His Son, in the isolation of His Son, and finally in that great silent nonanswer to His Son’s cry of distress. But that’s not all as well. For in the final verses of this passage, Matthew shows us the incomprehension of the people who were standing right around this greatest event of God’s redeeming work in human history. So let’s look at this passage together.

First, in verses 45 and 46 you see Jesus and this great cry of distress, this cry of abandonment, this cry of dereliction, whatever you want to call it. You see this emphasized in verses 45 and 46. And then focusing again on verse 46 we see the role of God the Father in this punishment. And finally in verses 47 through 49 we see the response of those who were present or rather their inappropriate response to what Jesus was undergoing.

I. The suffering of Christ as a measure of His love.

First, let’s look at verses 45 and 46. In these verses Matthew is bidding us to look at what Christ endured, and to consider the measure of His love. We’ve said all along that though crucifixion would have struck terror in the hearts of everyone in the ancient world when they heard it mentioned that Matthew’s focus has been on more than simply the physical suffering that Jesus was going through. And indeed in these two verses Matthew is going to highlight something wholly apart from and greater than the physical suffering that Jesus was enduring. It’s high noon, and yet Matthew tells us that here in the sixth hour, high noon, that the sky was darkened and that the whole land was in a deep, dramatic, intense and unforgettable darkness which continued to the ninth hour, until 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon. And Matthew reminds us of course that Jesus’ cry goes up and certainly His cry yielding up His spirit will go up around 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, which was about the time of the evening sacrifice.

And so what is Matthew doing again? He is anchoring your understanding of the death of Christ in the Old Testament sacrificial system, and he’s saying Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all the things that that Old Testament sacrificial system pointed to.

But this is not all, because these events occurring between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon are not spoken of in the other gospels. Matthew is the only one to speak to this event, and he records us only this cry of the Lord Jesus Christ as he quotes Psalm 22, verse 1. It’s almost as if God Himself has shrouded this great transaction in mystery and has shaded it from our eyes. What is the meaning of this darkness? Matthew is drawing attention to this darkness, reminding us of two things.

First of all, he’s reminding us that in the Old Testament darkness in the words of the prophets was one of the things that accompanied the final judgment of God. We can show you this pattern in every prophet that we looked at in the Old Testament. But I can think of no better passage which combines the idea of darkness with God’s final judgment and the death of Christ than Amos, chapter 8, verse 9. If you have your Bibles, look with me there. In Amos, chapter 8, in verse 9 the prophet Amos says this: “It will come about in that day.” Speaking of the day of the Lord, the final day of the Lord. “It will come about in that day declares the Lord God that I will make the sun go down at noon and make the earth dark in broad daylight.” Darkness in the words of the prophet was to emphasize the terror that it would be for wicked men to face the just judgment and wrath of God. And so darkness is an image that all the prophets will use.

But Matthew reminds us of this darkness for another reason because he knows that every good Jewish reader of his gospel will remember that the plague immediately prior to the sacrifice of the Passover land, the plague immediately prior to the killing of the first born of Egypt was the plague of darkness. In Exodus, chapter 10, verses 21 through 23 we have that recorded. “Then the Lord said to Moses, stretch out your hand toward the sky that there may be a darkness over the land of Egypt, even a darkness which may be felt. And so Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days, and they did not see one another nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the sons of Israel had light in their dwellings.” And Matthew is correlating that plague of Egypt with this visitation of the wrath of God on His Son.

But you say there’s one problem here. In the prophets, the darkness of the terror of God was to be visited upon the unrighteous. And in Exodus the darkness of the terror of God’s judgment was visited upon Egypt which it rejected the one true God and had rejected and persecuted His people. But here on the cross the terror accompanies the punishment and the judgment that God visits on His own Son, and you say this doesn’t make sense, and I say that’s precisely the point. God is saying that here on the cross, His own Son, His perfect Son, the Son of His love is the one who is alone going to face this terror. Ask all of God’s people have they ever faced the terror of God. And their answer is “No, we’ve never faced the full force of the wrath of God.” But here His Son alone in our place faces the darkness of the terror of the judgment of God.

William Hendricksen puts it this way: “The darkness meant judgment. The judgment of God upon our sins. His wrath, as it were, burning itself out into the very heart of Jesus so that He as our substitute suffered most intense agony, indescribable woe, terrible isolation or forsakenness. And in the midst of this darkness Jesus lifts up this heart-rending cry, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?’” And we have to stop and pause and ask what is Jesus doing here. What does that cry mean? Yes, He’s quoting Psalm 22, and you ought to cast a glance at Psalm 22 right now. He’s quoting from the very first verse of Psalm 22, and it’s very important that you understand that.

It’s important that you understand that in crying this cry out, Jesus is not being faithless, Jesus is not saying Lord, I’ve gotten here, I’ve served you all my days, and now this doesn’t make sense, and I’m not sure I can trust in You. Oh, no, if you read Psalm 22, you know how Psalm 22 ends. How does Psalm 22 end? With God vindicating His Servant. And His Servant reigning over His enemies. And Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me,” is not a cry of faithlessness. In fact it is the greatest cry of faith in His entire experience. He trusts despite all the evidence to the contrary that God will vindicate Him.

Nor is this cry a cry of surprise. Jesus doesn’t get to the cross and say oh, no, Lord, something’s gone wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This took Me by surprise. I didn’t know this was coming. That is not what he’s saying when He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” What is He doing? Matthew makes it clear that in the cry, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me,” Jesus is drawing our attention to two things. To the isolation, to His sense of isolation from the favor and the love of His heavenly Father which He is willingly enduring on our behalf. Jesus is saying, in quoting the words of those great Psalmist, 'My dear friends in Christ, My brothers and sisters whom I am redeeming, I want you to understand that I experienced what the Psalmist thought that he experienced. I experienced the loss of the Father’s face and favor. I was there, and I was under His hand, and I was His Son, and suddenly I lost all sense of His love, of His comforting favor, of His presence, of the assurance of victory, of joy, of hope, of peace. It was all withdrawn because I was a curse. I was sin, I was being made the penalty for sin. It pleased the Lord to bruise Me. I was bruised for your transgressions. I was put to grief.' This terrible sense of isolation really ought to touch our hearts deeply.

You remember John tells us something that none of the other gospel writers tell us in John 16, verse 32. Jesus had already told His disciples that they were going to desert Him. And He says to them, as a word of encouragement in chapter 16, verse 32 of the gospel of John, 'Even though you desert Me, yet I am not alone because the Father is with Me.'

And it’s very poignant to me, my friends, that the Lord Jesus told His disciples that and yet He knew in a few hours there was going to be a moment when He looked up and the Father’s loving face was not there because He was facing instead the epicenter of the earthquake of the judgment of God. He was looking right into the funnel of that white hot volcano of the just judgment of God, and He was doing it alone. It’s as if He’s pulled us all around behind Him, and He said, I’m going to stand in the face of the full fury of what you deserve, and you are not going to feel a bit of it because I’m not simply going to take it as it were with you, I’m going to absorb it in your place. And so as He cries out that cry, He’s pointing us to that sense of isolation which He experiences.

But He’s not only doing that, He’s pointing us to God’s refusal to answer. If you look at the first verses of Psalm 22, what is anguishing the cries of the Psalmist? The Psalmist is crying out in anguish because he doesn’t feel that God is answering him in his need, in his distress. And here the Lord Jesus Christ is emphasizing that that on Calvary there is no voice. When Abraham went up Mt. Moriah, and he got to the top there was a voice from heaven which said touch not the lad. When the death angel gets close to Jerusalem in the days when David wickedly took the census, there is a voice which says, 'stop.' But here on Calvary there’s no voice, there’s no answer to Jesus’ cry. And Jesus is drawing our attention to that because He wants us to understand this. Though God had so often come to the rescue of his people before, and though God will certainly come to your rescue in time of need, Jesus is emphasizing that it is the heart of the plan of God not to rescue Him in order that He might rescue you. Jesus is emphasizing that the Father does not answer His cry because He cries, 'Lord, Lord,' so that you will never hear the words, 'depart from Me, I never knew you.' He stands in our place and so this cry points back to Jesus’ profound sense of abandonment by His Father.

And what can we say of this? It is to deep for us to understand. J.C. Ryle says, “There is a deep mystery in these words which no mortal man can fathom. They were meant to express the real pressure on His soul of the enormous burden of a world’s sins. They were meant to show how truly and literally He was our substitute. He was made sin, He was made a curse for us, He endured God’s righteous anger against a world’s sin in His own person.” Hendrickson says it better than I’ve ever heard it put. He says, “Hell came to Calvary that day.” “Hell came to Calvary that day and the Savior descended into it and bore its horrors in our place.” And Matthew shows you this.

And why does he show it to you? Because he wants you to understand what Jesus was doing. This wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a mistake, it didn’t catch Him by surprise. He chose this in your place. It’s a measure of His great love.

Well, my friends, isn’t it also a measure of the sinfulness of sin? If this is what it took to forgive sin, how wicked must sin be? Can we ever look flippantly on our sin again? Can we ever act as if it’s no big deal to sin against God. God will look over that. God will sweep it under the carpet. God will give us a pass. We can’t look at sin that way. This costs our Savior the volcano of the wrath of God. We’re seeing here a picture of what sin deserves and how ugly sin is intrinsically to God. That’s why in that wonderful hymn in the Trinity Hymnal number 257, “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted.” In that line it says, 'He who would know its nature rightly. He who its guilt would estimate. Mark the sacrifice appointed. See who bears the awful load. Tis the word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.' If you want to see how wicked sin is, the hymn writer is saying, look at who died for it. If you want to know how horrible sin is in the sight of God, look who He sends as the substitute for the penalty of sin. Matthew wants us to be reminded of the greatness and the sinfulness of sin.

But above that he wants us to see the greatness of Christ’s love. Matthew bids us to look at what Christ willingly endured, and then to consider the measure of His love. But Matthew is not done. If you look at verse 46, as he reminds us of that cry which Jesus lifts up which comes from Psalm 22, he’s reminding us of the Father’s involvement in the Lord Jesus Christ’s endurance of sin on Calvary. And we ask the question, how can God be forsaken of God? And I can ask twenty questions for which there’s no answer. And let me say that that’s a good thing for us to be brought to the very limits of our understanding where we simply have to bow the knee and say, 'Lord, I don’t understand it, but I accept it. It’s in Your word.' That’s a good thing for Christians to have to run into every once in a while.

But Matthew doesn’t just tell us this to baffle us. Matthew wants us to learn something positive about this. It’s so important as we see Jesus facing the wrath of the Father on the cross that we do not think that what Jesus is trying to do is to get the Father involved in His people’s salvation on the cross. That’s not the point. It all began with the love of God the Father. Notice how often the New Testament emphasizes the work of God the Father in the cross of Christ. John 3:16, the passage you memorized from childhood, does it emphasize the work of the Son? No, it emphasizes the work of the Father: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Where’s the emphasis? It’s on God the Father. In Romans 8:32, “He who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all. How shall He, not with Him, freely give us all things.” Where’s the emphasis? It’s on the work of God the Father on the cross. You see it all began with the Father’s love, and when we look at Calvary we are moved. We’re moved at what Jesus is doing in our behalf.

But we make an enormous mistake. We fail to see how the Father was moved in what was happening on Calvary. And not only what was happening on Calvary, but what He was causing to happen on Calvary. And Jesus is pointing us to that. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Jesus is forcing us to take into consideration what the Father is enduring on our behalf. The Father longs to answer that question why. When the mob, the soldiers, the opponents of Jesus, when they looked at Jesus on the cross all they saw was a lunatic, a condemned criminal, a heretic, a rabble-rouser, a revolutionary. But that’s not what the Father saw when He looked at the cross. When He looked at the cross He saw his own Son, the last person in the universe that He wanted to see on the cross. He saw the Son of His love and not only the Son of His love, but He saw the Lord Jesus Christ doing something beyond anything that He had ever done before. He’d always been a glorious Son. He’d always been an obedient Son. But now here’s His Son on the cross, and He is enduring the wrath which He did not deserve in our place. And there’s never been a time in all the history of eternity when the Father more wanted to say this is My Son, my beloved Son, and He wanted to glorify Him and exalt Him. And yet at that time when His Son says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” He says nothing. Why? Because of His love for you. He will not answer His Son, because His Son has taken your place. He has born your penalty. He’s been put under the ban, off limits, under the curse, made sin, pushed to the edge of the cosmos and out into isolation into the outer darkness where you should have been. And so there’s no answer for the Son because that is the stratagem of the Father’s love to redeem you from sin.

My friends, you’ll never understand the cross until you know how intense the love of God is for the Son at the cross, and how the cross shows, not Jesus getting the Father to love you, but how the cross shows the intensity of God’s purpose in redeeming you to Himself. I want to say this reverently, friends, but this passage makes this so clear. That God does not love you less than He loves His own Son. If that weren’t biblical, I’d say it was heresy. If God didn’t make that clear, I’d say it was heresy. But it’s true. God does not love you less than He loves His own Son. And He will give His son in your place that you might reign with Him forever. And that’s why what Glen Knecht shared with us last week is so true. Do you remember when he said, 'my grace is sufficient for you is the greatest understatement in the Bible.' The only way that I would alter that statement is this way: My grace is sufficient for you is the greatest understatement ever uttered in the history of the universe. To say that the grace of God manifested here on the cross is sufficient, it will do, it will suffice, is the greatest, most ridiculous understatement in the history of the universe. Sufficient? It’s all sufficient, it’s everything you need. It’s the love of God coming to bear on your heart. It provides everything. It’s more than sufficient. How humble God is to put it that way. My grace is sufficient for you. His love is sufficient. His purpose is sufficient. His grace is sufficient. His justifying work is sufficient for you.

II. The ingratitude of those who were witness to God's work of redemption.

And then Matthew turns us right to verses 47 and 48 and to our utter astonishment shows us the incomprehension and the ingratitude of those who were standing inches from the central act in God’s work of redemption. These people have the work of Christ in their face, and yet Matthew shows us three responses. In verse 47 there is misunderstanding. They hear Him quoting from Psalm 22 and what do they think? Oh, He’s crying for Elijah. Now you say why would they think that he’s crying for Elijah? Well, because Jews in their day had a superstition. They believed that since Elijah was taken up to heaven before dying that anytime a righteous persecuted man was facing death or oppression or persecution that he might cry out to Elijah, and that often times Elijah would come and rescue that man from persecution. So in their superstition they perhaps think that Jesus is crying out for Elijah to come and rescue him. They misunderstand Him. You know, it’s a supreme irony, isn’t it? That to the very end Jesus’ opponents misunderstood who He was claiming to be.

And then in verse 48 we see an example of pity. The soldier goes and he soaks a sponge with sour wine and puts it on a reed and gives Jesus a drink. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the pagan is the only one here that shows a kind response to Jesus.

But you know pity is so far short of what is demanded by the sacrifice of Christ. Lloyd-Jones said it right so many years ago in that wonderful little booklet of his on “The Cross.” He says, “When we look at the cross, God is not asking us to pity Jesus, because Jesus isn’t the one who needs the pity. Sinners who continue under the just judgment of God, they are the ones who need pity.”

And then there is in verse 49 the response of ridicule. There are some of those members of the mob who are saying well, let’s just wait around and see if Elijah shows up. They are still mocking our Lord and Savior. And isn’t it just like the passage that Brad read from Isaiah? That seeing they will not see, and hearing they will not see. And I’ll blind their hearts so that they will not understand. They’re right there before the cross, and they don’t understand. Oh, my friends, it takes a work of God’s grace to understand the word of the cross. It takes the spirit working in your heart to understand the word of the cross.

And so today if for the first time you are coming close to understanding what God did in Jesus on the cross, that is a sign that the spirit Himself is working in you, to open your eyes that you may see and believe and embrace Him. And I want to say friend, that if you have not embraced Him, and you go into eternity without having embraced Him, you will face the white hot volcano of God’s wrath by yourself, and you will face the outer darkness. But if you will but trust in Him and rest in Him, put all your hope and confidence in Him, see your righteousness as rubbish, and His righteousness as golden and white and clean garments. And take them on, being justified in Him by faith, you will fellowship with Him and with His Father forever. Oh, my friends, respond to Matthew’s call to embrace the crucified one who will come and reign. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we cannot do justice to Your word, and yet Your word speaks to our hearts. We ask that by the Holy Spirit we would embrace it as truth, and embrace Him as the truth to the saving of our souls and to His eternal glory. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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