Previously, we contemplated the betrayal of Jesus and how he responded. He did so by faithfully implementing a meal of celebration. For those with ears to hear, this meal serves as a great encouragement that what Jesus succeeded in what he came to do. And what did he come to do? To die in our place, experiencing the wrath of God we so justly deserved, so that we might be reconciled to God.
The cross was Jesus’ destiny, which, thank God, he fulfilled. But, as we know, and as we will be reminded in this study, when he took up his cross, it meant an unimaginable burden and unparalleled brutality, culminating in what many concluded was an irreversible burial. The Lord’s Supper was followed by the Lord’s sufferings. We will explore that here.
As we will see, those who follow Jesus as his disciples are called to—are, in fact, destined for—a similar course. That is, we too are to take up our cross and follow our Saviour’s example. In other words, if you are qualified to take the Supper, you are qualified to take up suffering, for Jesus’ sake.
This psalm portrays David undergoing tremendous difficulty. He felt surrounded by his enemies, who were like savage lions snapping at him (vv. 12–13). He felt drained of all his strength, and his heart was dead within him. He felt completely dehydrated—sapped entirely of every ounce of strength (vv. 14–15).
His enemies were like wild dogs snapping at his heels, intent on doing him harm. The burden had taken such a toll on him that he was skeletal, able to see his bones through his skin. Unmoved, his enemies gloated over him and took advantage of him, even taking what was rightfully his and gambling it away (vv. 16–18).
Despite this, David was confident that the Lord was on his side. He knew that the Lord could bring him through, granting him a miraculous delivery, and so he begged the Lord to do so (vv. 17–21a).
We are not certain what circumstances drove David to pen this psalm. It has been suggested that he felt this way when his son, Absalom, instigated a coup to capture the throne, and his once-loyal subjects joined Absalom in his revolt. This suggestion seems to fit the picture well, but we know from the New Testament that this is a messianic psalm, pointing beyond David to the ultimate Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This psalm is specifically reference in the New Testament as a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Christ. While David’s experience is not unimportant, for our purposes I wish to focus on these verses as they were fulfilled in the cross of Christ.
Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was followed by Jesus carrying a deep burden. The burden was that he would soon go to the cross, where he would be separated from God because he would bear the penalty for the sinners whom he would save. He was burdened because he would be covenantally cut off from his Father. This was too much to bear alone—and so he prays.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Jesus was accompanied by Peter, James, and John as he entered what was perhaps a private garden, complete with a gate. He apparently had resorted there on other occasions, which is one reason that Judas knew where to find him.
Jesus prayed because he depended on his Father. He prayed because he was humble. He prayed because he knew the Father loved him. And as he carries the burden of what would be the most intense hours ever experienced by anyone, he needed to talk to his Father. Like Adam, he was tempted in a garden. Unlike Adam, he came out the victor. Thank God!
The temptation was intense. He was tempted to avoid the cross. So intense was his burden that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44). What made this burden so intense? Surely it included the impending betrayal by Judas and his knowledge of his friends deserting him. It was no doubt compounded by the indifference of the disciples at that very moment, who were sleeping when he had asked them to pray with him. The hatred of the religious leaders certainly played into it, as did the nation’s rejection of his love. Most distressingly, however, he knew that he would soon be separated from him Father as he took upon himself the sins of those for whom he had come to die. No wonder he cried out with David about the sense of forsakenness (Psalm 22:1–2). No wonder he was perplexed at the seeming carelessness of his Father (Psalm 22:3–11).
Having prayed, Jesus was strengthened in his devoted resolve to face his enemies and to bear the ultimate burden on the cross. He would need this strength, for things are about to become very brutal.
As he continues his narrative, Matthew highlights the mistreatment of Messiah is horrifically graphic detail. He first relates the actual process by which Jesus was seized and arrested in the garden (26:47–56) and then recounts the kangaroo court before Caiaphas and the Jewish Council (27:56–58). This resulted in Peter’s utter denial (26:69–75), before Jesus was brought to Pilate (27:1–2). At that point, Judas’s remorse led to his suicide (27:3–10), and Pilate grilled Jesus on his identity and claims to be Israel’s King (27:11–14). Finding no fault in Jesus, Pilate was determined to release him, but when he offered the multitude the option between Jesus or a notorious criminal named Barabbas, the crowd chose Barabbas (27:15–23). Reluctantly, Pilate handed Jesus over to the crowd to be crucified (27:24–26). He was cruelly mocked and mercilessly beaten (27:27–31) before being crucified, where he endured ongoing mockery and shame (27:32–44). Just a few hours later—a very brief period by ordinary standards of crucifixion—Jesus, having paid the price for sin, died:
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Jesus endured tremendous abuse and mistreatment—both emotionally and physically. But the most horrific suffering was being separated from his heavenly Father. This would have weighed most heavily on his heart and mind as he prayed in the garden.
I wonder if the thought of broken fellowship with our God ever weighs sufficiently on us? What about those presently separated from God because of their sin (Isaiah 59:2)? Does their separation from the Lord move us? Are we concerned about them being hidden from the face of God?
As we have noted, Psalm 22 was written about ten centuries before the birth of Jesus. It both reveals David’s personal experience and foretells the personal experience of the greater David, Jesus Christ, God’s Messiah. The Psalm captures briefly what Matthew and his fellow Gospel writers describe in much detail.
If vv. 1–2 record the cry of Jesus, and vv. 3–11 record the confusion of Jesus, then vv. 12–21a record the cross of Jesus. Let’s briefly observe what our Saviour went through on the cross for us, as prophesied in Psalm 22.
Jesus was surrounded by bloodthirsty, angry, ferocious, hateful enemies who were bent on his destruction (vv. 12–13). Murderous men had sought to take his life from the inception of his ministry—actually, from his birth. They now conspired to do so by trumped up charges and corrupt, self-serving officials.
Jesus hung on the cross, which meant that his bones were, literally, out of joint (vv. 14–15). He died of a broken heart (cf. John 19:31–34). Just ask John (v. 35). Jesus had no more physical strength and was dying of thirst as he hung on the cross (John 19:28). This thirst was physical, but it was also spiritual, resulting in the separation he experienced from his Father. He became thirsty so our spiritual thirst could be quenched.
Jesus was literally pierced in his hands and feet (v. 16). His enemies, including the unseen demons, encircled him. These enemies gloated over him (v. 17). He was assaulted by satanic and sarcastic comments: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” “Physician, heal yourself.” “Let’s see if Elijah will come” (cf. vv. 7–8).
Jesus was treated so inhumanely that those at the cross gambled over his garments (v. 18), cheapening his personhood and publicly confirming that his destiny was to die. What dead person needs garments?
Jesus cried out to God for deliverance and yet the response is, at least for the time being, nothing but silence in the dark (vv. 19–21a). Dark silence is painful for anyone, but especially for one who is the light of the world. We are experientially back to v. 1: “My God, ny God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of course, we know the reason, and so did Jesus. He was asking rhetorically as an expression of what was the worst of all his sufferings. The indescribable suffering of Jesus was spiritual; it was relational. It was, as someone has put it, “God forsaken by God.”
The Limit of the Passion
The movie The Passion of the Christ moved many people by its graphic scenes of brutality that Jesus experienced. But what the filmmaker could not capture was the greatest of his sufferings: being cut off from his heavenly Father.
Jesus was cut off so that we would not be. To be “cut off” from God for a Jew was to be treated as a covenant-breaker. Think about that. The Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, the Lamb of God without moral spot or blemish, was treated by the Father as one who transgressed his covenant with God.
Yet we know that Jesus kept covenant. In fact, one of the reasons why Jesus observed the Passover on the eve of his crucifixion was, as with his baptism, to fulfil all righteousness (cf. Matthew 3:15). So, how and why could the Father do this to his Son?
He could do so because he is faithful (Hebrews 13:20–21). He could do so because he is just (Romans 3:21–26). The Father could do this because Jesus became sin for those who repent and believe in him. Jesus took our place. He took the place of lawbreakers while giving to law-breakers his righteousness.
To summarise, Jesus became accursed for those who deserved the wrath of God. He became accursed so that we might go free. He suffered God’s judgement so we wouldn’t. He died so that we would live. He was cursed so we would be blessed.
The Christian’s Burden
Now, what does all of this have to do with us? I trust it has everything to do with us! Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved in the Psalter, but you must go through Psalm 22 to get to Psalm 23—chronologically and experientially.
Without Jesus experiencing the betrayal and brutality and the blunt wrath of God, we would never be able to have the Lord as our Shepherd. After all, didn’t Jesus say that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11–15)?
Without Jesus dying in our place, we would have every reason to fear the valley of the shadow of death.
Without Jesus dying for us, we would never experience the mercy and goodness of the Lord. And if we did, it would only be in this life; it would not be forever.
But there is a second truth that we must embrace. Not only must Psalm 22 precede Psalm 23 experientially; Psalm 22 must also precede Psalm 24 experientially.
Psalm 24 records the ascension of Jesus to his place of glory at the right hand of the Father. The crown came after the cross. The eternal presence of God followed the temporal pain of Golgotha. So it is with the Christian.
Those who legitimately call the Lord their Shepherd must take up their cross, if they well experience the glory of Psalm 24. We need to see that what Jesus experienced is, in some ways, to be our experience as well. Easter places this burden on every Christian. The cross is an event that meets us, that we can’t escape. We must all reckon with the cross. It cannot leave us unmoved or unchanged. To do so is to fail to understand its significance.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
When we are reminded of the challenge to take up our cross and follow Jesus, what comes to our mind? What should come to our mind?
At the very least, we should understand that it has something to do with death. The cross was a symbol of the death penalty. When Jesus spoke of his followers taking up their cross, he meant that they were to die—not necessarily physically, but at least to die to sin and to self. And in most cases, like Jesus, this will involve betrayal, brutality, and burial.
Brothers, sisters, to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ is a gift of grace. But so is its attendant suffering. Paul told the Philippians that “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ, you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (1:29). In other words, like Jesus, we are to bear our cross. We who have the privilege of the Supper, also have the privilege to suffer. In fact, we cannot have the one without the other.
There are at least two essential takeaways from this truth.
First, suffering is necessary for sanctification. Because Jesus suffered, he was crowned. The cross led to his coronation (Philippians 2:5–11). The principle applies to Christians.
We need to die to self for the life of Christ to be formed in us. Without a cross, there can be no conquest. There is a very real sense in which, in the spiritual realm, there is no gain without pain. We need to have the mindset of Paul who wrote, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).
Christian, walk through Psalm 22 and prepare yourself for what following Christ sometimes looks like. It can be painful, but consider the company you are with! It can be painful but consider its outcome.
There will be times when you feel alone because you love God and you love his people. That sounds strange, but is this not precisely why Jesus suffered?
There will be times when you are confused about what God is doing in your life, even though you are right in the middle of his will.
There will be times when you are mocked, even vilified by those who do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). More painfully, you will be opposed by those who do know what they are doing to you—and who even take delight in what they are doing to you.
There will be times when you are mocked for your trust in God. There will be times when the opposition will be as fierce as the bulls of Bashan. There will be times when your heart will melt as wax in its brokenness over the sins and sorrows and sufferings of others. There will be times when you wonder if you can take another step and yet you will take the step! There will be times when enemies will treat you as though the battle is over, and you have forever lost. There will be times when you hear the roar of the devil and you may even feel his fangs grasping you like the inescapable mouth of a lion.
But if we take seriously the command of our Lord and Saviour, then, like him, we will not let go of the cross.
Has it ever struck you that Jesus’ enemies taunted and tempted him with the very thing that he could have done? When they challenged him to come down from the cross (Matthew 27:40–42), he could have done it! Thankfully, he didn’t! You see, the nails were not holding Jesus in place. Jesus was holding himself in place. The cross did not hold Jesus; he held the cross. As one author has put it, “he chose the nails.”
Beloved, because Jesus would not and did not let go of his cross, you and I must not let go of ours. Persevere to the end, by the grace of God. Keep obeying amid slander, amid betrayal, amid brutal behaviour. We persevere, not by bravado, not by sheer self-will and stoic self-discipline, but by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Second, as we contemplate the above,we need to be careful to grasp the truth that, like Jesus, our suffering is for the benefit of others as well as for ourselves. In other words, when we take up our cross, others are blessed. Our suffering is good for the church. Our suffering helps the local church to grow.
Listen to Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). Did you ever think of your sufferings as being used of God to build up his church? Did you ever think that they might provide opportunities for the body to care for its members? Did you ever consider that they might provide avenues for the love of Christ to be manifest to a watching world?
Whatever else Paul meant, he certainly meant that Jesus Christ was not the last one who would suffer because of and for the church. Be careful. We are not co-saviours. Apart from the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, there would be no church because there would be no redeemed people of God. Yet Paul is making the point that his sufferings were used by God to help the church to grow in Christ. Paul’s sufferings were not vicariously redemptive, but his ministry, which put him in harm’s way, was worth the pain and the sorrow because others were evangelised and edified.
In other words, if Paul was not willing to be misunderstood, maligned, and otherwise abused, the church would have been the poorer for it. There was a cost to be paid to get God’s word to them. The cost was personal to Paul. The cost was him taking up his cross and following Christ for the health and the help of the church.
Are you willing to face opposition in your home because of your commitment to Christ and his church? Are you willing to lose friends in order to prioritise serving Christ by discipling others? Are you willing, like Israel Folau, to be labelled “homophobic” and “intolerant” for the sake of honouring God and offering encouragement to other Christians? Are you willing, like many of our brothers and sisters in China and elsewhere, to be imprisoned for the sake of Christ and his church? Are you willing to give up leisure time, and even sleep, to minister to others?
Taking up your cross and therefore not being conformed to the world helps the church to grow in Christlikeness. I am sure you can fill in the blanks with your own examples. The point we must see, however, is that our sufferings are good for us, and they are good for the church—so long as it is godly suffering, of course (1 Peter 4:12–19). This is the burden of Easter. This is the cross that Christ calls us to.
If his burden (suffering) is not our burden (suffering), then his glory will not be our glory. Don’t leave this study without thinking of the cross, that momentous and paradoxical event in which Christ was shown to be weak, shown to suffer for us, yet mysteriously accomplished a work that energises and fuels Christians two thousand years later.
Let us praise God for forsaking his Son for our sakes. Let us praise Jesus Christ for taking up his undeserved cross for our sakes. Let us praise the Holy Spirit for bringing this truth home to our hearts and thereby empowering us to take up our cross. Let us praise God for granting us the privilege to not only believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, but to also suffer for his sake. This is the burden of Easter. Will his burden be our burden?