Does God Turn His Face Away?

One of the most misunderstood parts of the crucifixion story shows up at the very end of Matthew’s account:

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 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?” ).

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. — Matthew 27:45-50 NIV

I say this is one of the most misunderstood parts of the story not just because modern people misunderstand it, but also because the people who were there when it happened also misunderstood it.

Notice that Jesus says a phrase that Matthew translates correctly, but the other people around him don’t. They think Jesus is calling out for Elijah. It’s an understandable mistake because the Hebrew word, “Eli” was pronounced, “e – lee” and Elijah’s name would have been pronounced as “e – lee – yah.” If the speaker were struggling for every breath, it would have been easy to mishear one as the other.

Furthermore, even though Matthew understood the translation of what Jesus said, it’s clear that even he didn’t understand the meaning. If he did, he would have done what he did throughout his gospel. He would have mentioned the Old Testament prophecy Jesus was in the process of fulfilling. Since Matthew didn’t mention the prophecy, it’s quite likely he didn’t understand the verbal connection Jesus was making!

Before we talk about that Old Testament prophecy, I want to first address a church tradition that is based upon a misunderstanding of this passage. It’s a tradition so widely accepted today that it shows up in all denominations and makes a common appearance in sermons and songs. It’s a tradition that I used to accept as true too. It goes like this:

  • When Jesus was hanging on the cross, the sin of the world was placed upon him (verified by 2 Corinthians 5:21).
  • But God the Father is so perfect that he cannot relate to or even look on sin (verified by Isaiah 59:2).
  • Therefore, God, the Father, had to “turn his face away” from Jesus and the eternal relationship between Father and Son was temporarily broken, and Jesus, feeling separation from his Father for the first time, cries out in anguish (but no New Testament writing directly supports this).

Even without direct biblical support, the idea of the Father turning away from Jesus has taken a firm hold among Christians, because it is an emotionally powerful teaching point that leads also to others. Some teachers use it to emphasize the depth of anguish and suffering that Jesus had to endure to bring about our atonement. Some teachers use it to emphasize the seriousness of sin, that sin placed on Jesus could bring a kind of division into the Trinity itself. Even others use it as a threat: if the Father could turn his back on the Son, how much more will he turn his back on you when you sin!?

Despite the fact that I’m a bit persnickety when it comes to only trusting what the Bible actually says, this idea has always been unsettling and hard for me to accept for two reasons. First, God throughout Scripture is not ignorant of sin, in fact, he regularly meets people in their sin! Remember that after Adam and Eve sinned, God came to them, found them, and despite describing the curses they would now will face, God actually clothed them, hiding their shame! Secondly, the notion that the Father and the Son have a tenuous relationship that can be severed does damage to the whole idea of the Trinity. Are Father and Son really one God, or are they more different than we thought?

Nevertheless, so many songs and sermons shared this sentiment, that I just tended to go along with it.

Until I learned the bigger picture, that is.

Let’s go back to Matthew 27. Remember that Matthew wasn’t actually at the cross. He was among the disciples who deserted Jesus. In fact, Matthew probably got his details of this moment from Mark (or Peter who was probably watching from a distance, and who was probably Mark’s main source).

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. — Mark 15:34-37 NIV

Looks very similar to Matthew’s right?

Both of these accounts tell us that (1) Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” that (2) he was next given something to drink, that (3) he cried out something else (that neither writer knew), and that (4) he gave up his spirit / breathed his last.

John, however, was standing at the foot of the cross and he gives us two more details about what Jesus said.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. — John 19:28-30 NIV

Somehow, John knew that “I am thirsty” was a fulfillment of Scripture, so he mentioned it along with “It is finished,” but for reasons we don’t know, he doesn’t mention the earlier line “Why have you forsaken me?”

I find this utterly fascinating, but perhaps you are wondering why I’ve taken you on this detour over to John. Well, it’s to fill out these last three statements of Jesus in order. Here’s a summary of those final few moments:

  • Jesus cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” — and people misunderstand him.
  • Jesus says “I am thirsty.” — and people get him something to drink.
  • Jesus says, “It is finished.” — and he gives up his spirit.

No gospel writer gives us all three details. Maybe none of them knew what knew what Jesus was doing by saying these things.

However, it’s obvious from the rest of the Gospels that Jesus knew the Psalms, particularly the ones written by David, and it just so happens that David had written a psalm that begins with the exact words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” ends with words very similar to, “It is finished,” and in the middle makes a statement about having a dry mouth. It’s Psalm 22, and the similarities between that psalm and the crucifixion are astonishing!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence. In fact, I think Jesus when Jesus quoted the first line of that psalm he was claiming to be the fulfillment of that psalm. I think when he quoted the first line, he also had the rest of it in his heart. Perhaps he was quoting the entire psalm internally or under his breath. After all, his final three statements line up with the psalm itself. I want you to see it, and if you have never read it, it will blow your mind! As you read this psalm, pay attention to all the parallels between the words of the psalm and the experience of Jesus during the crucifixion.

Psalm 22 (NIV)
For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
 Why are you so far from saving me,
 so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
 by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
 you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
 they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
 in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
 scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
 they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
 “let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
 since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
 you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
 from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
 for trouble is near
 and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me;
 strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
 open their mouths wide against me.
	
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.
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.
	
Dogs surround me,
 a pack of villains encircles me;
 they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
 people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
 and cast lots for my garment.

But you, LORD, do not be far from me.
 You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
 my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
 save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will declare your name to my people;
 in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
 All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
 Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
 the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
 but has listened to his cry for help.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
 before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
 those who seek the LORD will praise him—
 may your hearts live forever!

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,
for dominion belongs to the LORD
 and he rules over the nations.
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.
Posterity will serve him;
 future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
 declaring to a people yet unborn:
 He has done it!

The parallels between this psalm and the experience of Jesus during the crucifixion are astonishing especially when you consider that this psalm was written nearly 1000 years before crucifixion was invented!

I’d love to work through all the parallels, but for now, I think we should just pay attention to the big picture. There are really three things going on in this psalm.

  • First, the speaker is expressing feelings of abandonment from God. Those feelings are intensified because the speaker knows that God has come to the aid of others in the past but has so far withheld any aid from him.
  • Secondly, the speaker’s sense of abandonment is counteracted by his faith in God as the “enthroned” one who does in fact deliver the faithful.
  • Thirdly, the speaker makes a vow to God. If God will “come quickly” to rescue him, he will launch a movement of praise that will last for generations.

Along the way, there is one very interesting verse for our study today. In verse 24, the speaker says that if God will rescue him, a central theme of his praise will be this affirmation:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. — Psalm 22:24 NIV

In other words, if God rescues the speaker of this psalm, the generations to come should affirm two things:

  • God responds to the suffering of his servant with help, not disdain.
  • God does not turn his face away from the suffering of his servant.

I’m fully convinced that Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22 to claim that he is the speaker of the psalm, the psalm is really about him, he is the one who is feeling abandoned but is holding onto faith, he is the one who is making a deal with the Father, and if the Father comes through to rescue the Son, the generations will praise the Father by saying, “He has not hidden his face from him.”

Did the Father come through? Does resurrection qualify as a rescue?

If it does (and of course it does), it means that the Father “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one,” and it means the Father “has not hidden his face from him,” and it means that we should affirm these truths in our praise!

Why does this matter?

First of all, this matters because biblical accuracy matters. Anytime someone teaches something (like “the Father turned his face away”) when it doesn’t actually show up in the text that teaching is the gateway to other more damaging false teachings. And anytime someone teaches something that isn’t actually taught in the text, the authority of the text itself is diminished. If the text teaches something clearly, so should we, but if it doesn’t directly teach something, neither should we.

Secondly, this matters because humans are always prone to believing God has abandoned them or that God is against them, and the idea that the Father could turn his back on the Son puts fuel on the idea that God might abandon anyone! Truthfully, we do come into this world without a relationship to God, but the problem is not on God’s side. He reaches out to us. Because of Jesus and the gift of grace for all who believe, the only distance between us and God is the distance we ourselves create. He is literally right with us at the moment we acknowledge our need of him. Your earthly sufferings are no indication that God is against you or that he despises you. God will not turn his back on you, he will not abandon you or forsake you.

Thirdly, this matters because we are part of the fulfillment of Psalm 22! The Father did rescue the Son from death and therefore, we, the future generations are supposed to affirm the words of Psalm 22:24:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. — Psalm 22:24 NIV

How sad it is when Christians affirm exactly the opposite! How sad it is when Christians sing songs of praise that state the opposite! May we join the voices of those who fulfill Psalm 22 and may we likewise say, “He has not hidden his face!”