And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. (Matt 27:50, NIV)
When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, NIV), the people apparently misheard him. The Aramaic for “my God” sounds similar to “Elijah,” and no doubt, Jesus wasn’t practicing perfect diction at that point. It made sense to them that Jesus would call for divine assistance from the prophet; after all, they thought, if Jesus actually had the power to get himself down from the cross, he’d use it. Obviously.
One of the crowd (possibly one of the soldiers) ran to get Jesus a drink of the cheap wine the soldiers would have had on hand for refreshment (Roman Ripple?). To get the wine to Jesus, he soaked a sponge in it and lifted it up to him. The others, however, scolded him, preferring to wait and see what fireworks might happen next.
But at that point, Jesus cried out again—and again Matthew tells us that he did so loudly—and “gave up his spirit” (the verb can have the sense of “sent away”). In the NIV, Mark 15:37 says that Jesus “breathed his last” (though it’s worth noting that “breath” and “spirit” are the same word in Greek, hence the memorable King James translation, “gave up the ghost”). Luke 23:46 says that Jesus called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” and then, like Mark, reports that Jesus “breathed his last.” And in John 19:30, Jesus declares “It is finished” before giving up (literally, “handing over”) his spirit.
The point is that none of the gospel accounts say simply that “Jesus died,” as if the cross finally got the better of him. The consistent picture is that Jesus knew his redemptive work on the cross was done; presumably, the moment of abandonment had passed. At that point, he intentionally and willingly handed his life over to his Father.
John, in fact, makes a point of the fact that the other two criminals being crucified with him were still alive (19:31-37). That’s why the soldiers broke their legs: it made it impossible for the men, dangling from their arms, to push themselves up to catch a breath, thus hastening their death by suffocation. When the soldiers came to Jesus, however, he was already dead, because he had surrendered his life.
I know that some question the necessity of the crucifixion itself: couldn’t God have found another way? Was this kind of violence necessary? Such doubts, it seems to me, rightly represent the horror of the cross, but perhaps not the horror of our own sin. The fact is, we may never really understand what our sin looks like through the eyes of a holy God.
But at the very least, we should remember that Jesus was no passive victim. I’m reminded of another passage from John:
The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father. (John 10:17-18, NIV)
Such a sacrifice constitutes an example for us to follow:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)
Lenten meditation on the sacrifice of Jesus should begin with deep gratitude for his willing sacrifice on our behalf. But it can’t stop there, for we too are called to practical expressions of that loving generosity.
To be clear: self-sacrifice doesn’t mean doing everything others tell you to do. Not even Jesus did that. He did what his Father told him to do, and that’s not the same thing.
What is the Father telling you?