The Surety's Thirst
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"I thirst." John 19:28
Three things need our notice here—the thirst, the cry, the answer. They are not trifles, nor accidents, either in themselves or in connection with the great event of which they form a part. They have much to tell us of the Sufferer, and the nature of his sufferings; and they help us to get at the meaning of the mysterious transaction of that hour—an hour of the deepest darkness which ever rested over earth, yet an hour which proved the forerunner of the brightest and most blessed day-spring that ever shone from heaven!
I. The thirst.It was a true thirst, and as deep and sore as it was true. It was a thirst corresponding with the character of him who felt it. He was human, and He was divine. It was, of course, humanity which thirsted; but it was humanity in union with divinity, and therefore made more susceptible of suffering, more capable of enduring what alone it would not have been capable of undergoing. Christ's humanity was perfect; but that only made it more sensitive, more acutely alive to suffering, so that his hunger, his thirst, his weariness, instead of being mitigated or made unreal—became more real and intense, more unmodified and harder to bear, than they are or can be in our imperfect humanity. The perfection of humanity implies the perfection of suffering, whenever that perfect humanity comes into contact with suffering at all. Pre-eminence in sorrow, and pre-eminence in joy, must be the portion and prerogative of such exalted perfection. It is only perfection such as this, which can sound the depths of creature-sadness, or reach the heights of human joy. Had there been one taint of imperfection, about either the body or the soul of Jesus, he could not have tasted the whole bitterness of our anguish; he could not have drained our cup; he could not have paid our penalty; he could not have felt that extremity of thirst, regarding which he uttered the bitter outcry in the hour of his conflict with death, and with the powers of darkness, upon the cross.
Christ was filled with the Spirit, "without measure," in a way and to an extent such as no other man ever was or could be; yet this did not exempt him from pain, or make his thirst unreal, or alleviate one pang which fell to his lot as the Sin-bearer. With that Spirit He was filled; by that Spirit he was sustained and strengthened; by that "eternal Spirit" he "offered himself without spot to God;" but in no way and at no time did this Spirit come between him and suffering, either to blunt the edge of the weapon or ward off the stroke. The indwelling of the Spirit in him added to his perfection, and every addition to his perfection was an increase of his susceptibility to suffering; so that he felt pain more than we can do; he felt weariness, hunger, thirst, more than we can do. The Spirit who dwelt within him could not, indeed, feel the pain or the thirst; but the human nature thus inhabited by the Spirit was made capable of containing or receiving more pain, and thirst, and sorrow than it could have done otherwise, even as perfect humanity.
Christ was God-man; very God as truly as very man. But this did neither prevent nor nullify his sufferings. No abatement could be made from his sorrows, either in respect of number or intensity, because of his Godhead. That Godhead seemed only to present him as a broader mark for the arrows of his enemies; to make him a more capacious vessel for containing the fullness of the divine wrath due to him as the sinner's substitute. The Godhead could not, indeed, suffer, nor hunger, nor thirst, nor weep; but, by its union with the manhood, it could make all these endurances more true and more intense to that humanity with which it was united; not only attaching to these sufferings a value which they could not otherwise have had—but imparting to them a profound reality, which, in other circumstances, could not have belonged to them. We need to be cautious in using language respecting Christ not expressly employed in Scripture; but, seeing the love of Christ is called the love of God, and the blood of Christ is called the blood of God, may we not term the thirst of the Son of God upon the cross, "the thirst of God?"
How true was the humanity of Christ! That thirst proclaims him truly a man; in body and in soul a man; in sorrow and in joy a man. His Godhead did not neutralize his manhood, nor make any of its actings less truly human. That which was divine in his person, made that which was human more thoroughly human than it could have been in any other circumstances. As his humanity showed forth his Godhead more illustriously, so his Godhead brought out his humanity into fuller, wider, truer, and more perfect action—exhibiting it in an extremity of weakness and suffering, to which it could not otherwise have been reduced without wholly giving way. No mere man could have passed through Gethsemane and Golgotha, could have endured the agony of the one, and the thirst of the other, without being annihilated.
And what does this thirst mean? Is it a mere vain exhibition of what humanity can bear; of what the Creator can enable the creature to endure? No. He thirsts as the sinner's substitute; and his strength is dried up like a potsherd, because the heat of divine wrath was withering up his moisture. That thirst is expiatory; for he suffers the Just for the unjust. He thirsts, that we might not thirst. He is parched, that we might not be parched. He is consumed with wrath, that we might not be consumed. That thirst is the bearing of your sin and your hell, O believer. That thirst is the unsealing of the eternal fountain, that its waters might flow forth to the parched and weary sons of earth. How much we owe to that dreadful thirst! How much we owe to the love of Him who thirsted upon that cross for us!
II. The cry."I thirst!" or, "I am thirsty!" These are common words among us; and the cry, in itself, does not strike us as remarkable. "I am thirsty," says the child to its mother. "I am thirsty," says the traveler on the highway. "I am thirsty," says the sick man on his hot bed of fever. We are familiar with the cry; it is that of a fellow-mortal; and we know that it will be met with a quick response, for it is a cry for something which can be easily and cheaply supplied.
But when such words come from the lips of the Son of God, the case is wholly different. It is no remarkable thing to hear a beggar asking alms on the highway or at our door; but when the great Roman general, the conqueror of kings, is reduced to poverty, and begs his bread, we are amazed; an interest is immediately excited, and we ask, How is this? So, when the cry comes from him who is God over all, the Creator of heaven and earth, the framer of all earth's fountains and streams, the fashioner of man's soul and body, we are startled. How can this be? Whence does it arise? What can it mean? Is the cry a real and natural one? Is it the true expression of deep-felt pain in the divine utterer? or is it the mere indication by him of what, in such circumstances, a crucified malefactor would feel—but which he himself, in virtue of his exalted nature, could not possibly have been supposed to suffer?
One thing strikes us much here. His is the only cry heard at this time. There are two men on crosses beside him; but they utter no cry. One spends his breath in reviling, the other in praying; but they do not say, "I thirst." This is a peculiarity which we cannot fail to notice. Of the three sufferers, the Son of God alone utters the cry of thirst. How great must that thirst have been! how bitter the cry thus wrung from his expiring lips!
Specially does this appear when we call to mind the meek and uncomplaining character of the holy sufferer. Only once or twice, in a life of unutterable sorrow, did he allow any expression of his grief to escape him, as when he said, "Now is my soul troubled;" and when in Gethsemane he said, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death;" and now on the cross, when he exclaimed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and again, in the words of our text, "I thirst." Intense and overpowering must have been his thirst before it could have extorted from him such an utterance at such a time.
The present is the only reference which the Lord makes to pain of body; the others are to the griefs of his troubled soul. No doubt, in the Psalms he alludes once or twice to his bodily sufferings, as when he speaks of his bones being out of joint, his heart melted like wax, his strength dried up like a potsherd. But these intimations of physical pain are few; it is of the sorrows of his soul, in connection with the wrath of God, that he speaks so fully. In the Gospels, this cry of thirst is the only expression of bodily anguish that is recorded; and from the way in which it is introduced we are plainly given to understand that even this cry would not have been uttered had it not been for the fulfilling of Scripture. However terrible the thirst, the cry would have been repressed, had it not been for what was written in the Psalms concerning this—"In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (Psalm 69:21). For thus the Evangelist writes—"After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, says, I thirst."
Not that the cry was unreal, and merely uttered, as one might say, to serve a purpose. The cry was the embodiment of the most real anguish ever felt on earth. But this anguish was as we see in the Psalms, only poured out into the Father's ears; for these Psalms which I refer to, are the secret and confidential utterances of Christ in his communion with the Father. The outpourings of his human griefs, the outcries of his anguished spirit, were not for man's ears; only on the present occasion he allows himself to be overheard by man, in order that thereby he might put honor upon the Father's word, and show himself in all things the obedient Son, the doer of the Father's work, the fulfiller of the Father's will.
Terrible was that cry, "I thirst;" for it was the cry of God. It is a fearful thing, they say, to see strong men weep, or hear strong men cry; but here was One stronger than the strongest, higher than the highest, the Son of God himself, constrained to give vent to his suffering in this piercing cry, "I thirst!" To what an extremity of weakness is he here reduced, and under what a burden of agony is he weighed down, when he utters it! He would rather not utter it; he has repressed it long; he has put forth his strength in repressing and in bearing up under the pain, uncomplaining. But now he can refrain no longer; he must cry out, that he may give vent to the long pent-up agony.
Terrible was that cry; for it was the cry of One sinking into death under the condemnation of man's sin, under the weight of infinite guilt. It was the cry of One subjected to the wrath of him who is a consuming fire; of One who felt himself about to be overcome of his great enemy, in deadly conflict; of One who knew that no help was near; that he was to be left unsuccoured by God and man.
Such was the cry of the Substitute—a piercing, bitter, agonizing cry! No parched and weary Ishmaelite, throwing himself down in despair beside a dried-up well, ever uttered such a cry as this. But it is the very bitterness of the cry that tells us its efficacy. It is a cry wholly relating to the sufferer himself, not to us; it is the cry, not of intercession—but of agony; yet, it is not on that account the less sufficient and satisfying for us. It tells of atonement fully made, of redemption gloriously accomplished, of the debt paid to the last farthing. It tells us, too, of love; love immeasurable and unutterable; love triumphing over shame and anguish, over hunger and thirst; love which many waters could not quench, nor the floods drown; love to the Father, love to the sinner; the love of the Shepherd to his flock; the love of the Head to the members; the love of the elder Brother to his brethren; the love of the Redeemer to his Church; the love of the Bridegroom to his bride-elect; the love which passes knowledge, and whose breadth and length, whose height and depth, are beyond all measure and comprehension; the love of the Just to the unjust; the holy to the unholy; the love of the heavenly to the earthly; the love of the Creator to the creature; the love of Jesus--infinite and divine!
That dreadful cry, as it was the expression of the bodily anguish which was filling him, as the Substitute, so was it the indication of that bodily torment from which his people have been delivered by his endurance of it in their stead. He drank it that they might never taste it; for "they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat;" "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
That dreadful cry, as it was the expression of the bodily endurance through which the Surety passed, so is it the announcement of the bodily torment of the lost forever. Oh, what must hell be! What must be the unquenchable fire! What must be the everlasting thirst! What must be the weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth! "Have mercy upon me," cries the rich man in hell, "and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame" (Luke 16:24). Such is the eternal thirst, and such its dreadful utterance.
A day's thirst, under a scorching sun, is terrible. What must be an eternity of thirst in the heat of the devouring fire! O lost soul, you must thirst forever! Because you have, while here, forsaken the fountain of living water, and hewn out for yourself cisterns, broken cisterns, which can hold no water. Therefore, instead of the living water, clear as crystal--they "must drink the wine of God's wrath. It is poured out undiluted into God's cup of wrath. And they will be tormented with fire and burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb!" Revelation 14:10
III. The Answer.From above there came no answer. God was silent. From around there came derision. Man answered with laughter and with vinegar. "The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine." Luke 23:36
It is not God's custom to be silent in such a case. He feeds the young ravens when they cry. He regards the prayer of the needy. His ear is ever open to the cry of the destitute and the sorrowful. But here he answers not a word. No wonder that Christ should say, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" He thirsts—but the Father seems not to regard his thirst; he cries—but the Father gives no heed to his cries. When Hagar cried out for thirst in the desert of Beersheba, God sent his angel and led her to the unseen well. When Israel cried at Marah, God sweetened the bitter waters for them; and when they cried in Horeb, he smote the rock, and the waters gushed forth. When Samson cried out for thirst at Ramath-Lehi, God opened a spring for him in the very jaw-bone which he had used as a weapon.
But now God answers not. It is not Hagar, nor Israel, nor Samson, who cries—but One far greater and more beloved than these. Yet God answers not. This is the crisis of the abandonment; God must have forsaken him, when a cup of cold water is denied. An angel came to the Sufferer in Gethsemane to strengthen him; but no angel comes with a cup of water to quench his thirst. All heaven seems to stand aloof.
Ah! this is the hour and the power of darkness. He has taken the sinner's place, and he must bear the sinner's anguish, both in soul and body. He must suffer the sinner's thirst, as well as die the sinner's death. Every drop of the cup given him he must drink; and neither he himself nor his Father will interfere to put aside the draught, or to abstract a single drop. The Father's love to the Son is still the same; but righteousness stays his hand, and restrains the putting forth of his delivering power. His readiness to hear the prayers of the beloved Son remains unaltered; but love to sinners, love to the Church, constrain him to shut his ear against this last cry of anguish. Ah! that "no answer" from heaven, that silence of the Father, is the proof that the great surety-work for us is going on successfully, and approaching its consummation. In the infliction of judicial wrath, and the withholding of fatherly deliverance in the hour of need, we see the inflexible carrying out of those principles of law and justice on which alone substitution can proceed, forgiveness be founded, and salvation secured. It is not of diluted wine, nor of a half-filled cup, that the sin-bearing Son of God must drink. The wine must be unmixed, and the cup full; otherwise the sin is not wholly borne, nor the great work perfected, of the just for the unjust. Love would have said, Oh, hear that cry, and quench that thirst; but law said, Not so, else the sacrifice is blemished, and the suretyship rendered invalid.
Thus the Father kept silence; he, who alone could have relieved that anguish, stood aloof. Justice took its course, and law was satisfied. The sacrifice was completed and the penalty exhausted; for, immediately after this, Jesus said, "It is finished," and, bowing the head, he gave up his spirit.
Well for us that thus the work was so completely done! What glad tidings of great joy to us come forth, not only from that thirst and that cry of the Son of God—but from the silence of the Father! It is finished, said the Son on earth. It is finished, said the Father from heaven. And it is when we learn the meaning of that thirst and that cry; when we so learn their meaning as to add our Amen to the "It is finished" of the Father and the Son, that the great reconciliation begins between us and God. And in proportion to our increasing perception of the completeness of the wondrous sacrifice, our peace deepens, our joy overflows, our hope kindles into new brightness; the shadows of the cross bringing out, in full relief, the vision of the approaching glory.
But it is not only from heaven that there is no response; from earth there comes no answer, or, at least, no sympathy. Man does not understand the thirst, and heeds not the cry of the Sufferer. If ever there was an appeal of anguish which could reach man's heart, and call forth any latent spark of love or pity—it was this cry from the cross. This seemed to be God's last appeal to man—his last test, applied, to see if there was any goodness, any right feeling remaining in him, any sympathy with the Son of God. For when was the cry for water refused—or the thirst of the dying mocked? But man heeds not the anguish of the Crucified. God's last appeal to him is in vain. He meets the cry of the Son of God with mockery!
It would seem that Jesus was offered vinegar more than once, and possibly among some of those who presented it, there might be a feeling of pity; for the simple fact of its being vinegar is no proof of its being meant as insult, seeing that vinegar was the only thing at hand; being the usual drink of the Roman soldiers. If this were the case, it only shows how utterly unable man was, even if willing, to relieve the anguish of the Sufferer. Help from man was vain. All that he could offer was but like the feather wetting the lips of the dying. But it is clear, both from the passage itself and from the Psalms, that the offering of the vinegar was meant as mockery. The Jew said, in taunt, and with pretended misunderstanding of his words, "This man calls for Elijah;" and the Gentile presented his vinegar; thus between them completing the mockery. This is the last venting of man's enmity against God; the last drop of the old serpent's venom poured upon the holy Jesus!
It was not, indeed, in man's power fully to relieve this dreadful thirst; yet he could have done something; and even had he failed, he could have shown his pity. But pity is not in his bosom—where God is concerned. "This is the heir; come, let us kill him!" is his feeling. Man has got God into his power; he has got the Son of God hanging helplessly on a tree; and his enmity to God now gives full vent! He can mock God safely now. Samson has lost his strength, and his enemies may work their fill of malignity against him. Thus man's hatred of God comes out in all its bitterness; and it does so, just at the very point where God's love was coming out in its fullness. Never did love and hatred, kindness and enmity, so meet together. Never was love so requited, and kindness so mocked, as here.
God has come down to man—he dwelt on man's earth; he lived a life of service for man; he emptied himself; he reduced himself to the extremity of weakness and suffering; he put himself into man's power, and appealed, not to his highest and noblest feelings—but to the commonest sympathies of mere humanity. But all in vain. In such circumstances even the worst malefactor would be pitied and relieved. The fact, however, of the sufferer being a holy man shuts out their sympathy; and the fact of his being the Son of God rouses their hatred. That very thing, which ought to have softened them, and drawn out their profoundest sympathies, is that which calls forth insult, which extinguishes pity, which steels them against the Sufferer's cry, which rouses all hell in their bosoms! Towards men they would have acted and felt as men; towards God they are as devils!
Now is their time for taunt, and insult, and cruelty. So long as he is going about, doing miracles, they are afraid to touch him. They know not how he may avenge himself. But now, when he is dying on a cross, they may hate and mock him as they please. Now, when the lion of the tribe of Judah is in chains, and expiring of his wounds, they may trample on him at will. O man, such is your heart! Such is the extent of your enmity to the God in whom you live, and move, and have your being!
But though, at the time, there was no response from heaven, and nothing but mockery on earth, this state of things was only for an hour. The silence cannot last; the cry of the only-begotten Son must be heard, though at another time and in another way. Him the Father hears always; and this appeal of the Son of God for something to quench his thirst is not unheeded. The answer is denied at the moment—but only that it may be given in all its largeness thereafter. The denial of the request finished the mighty work, through means of which, a glorious answer was to be given, in which he was not merely to have his thirst quenched—but to see of the travail of his soul, and to be satisfied. His death, which immediately followed this silence, was the smiting of the rock, from which the waters were to gush forth which were to quench the thirst both of soul and body; and not his own thirst alone—but that of millions—the whole vast multitude of the redeemed from among men.
Yes; God's answer to the cry of his Son, is his raising him from the dead, crowning him with glory and honor, exalting him to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance and forgiveness; depositing in him those gifts for the rebellious, which he was to bestow on men; making him King and Head over all things, and investing him with a kingdom which shall have no end. He humbled himself to the death of the cross, and therefore God has highly exalted him. Thus, in the end, the Father's love to the Son is manifested, and his righteousness vindicated. He has done all things well.
And then, how has God avenged himself on man for his refusal to heed the cry of his Son? Here, too, evil has been overcome with good; and where sin abounded, there grace has much more abounded. Man mocks the thirst of God—but God pities and relieves the thirst of man. He makes man's wrath to praise him, and to be, besides, the means of blessing to himself. This crucified Christ, whom man only insults, is the appointed Savior; and man, though he knew it not, has been carrying out God's redeeming work. Man, though he meant it not, has been slaying the sacrifice by which reconciliation is accomplished. He has been helping to smite the rock, from which the living water was to gush forth to satisfy the thirst of sinners.
Herein is love; not man loving God—but God loving man; so loving man as to persist in his great work of grace, notwithstanding man's utmost hatred and rejection. Here is the fountain which love has opened, and which flows in the waste places of earth like a river. Here is God's provision, not only for man's pardon—but for his fullest joy. The Surety thirsted that we might not thirst; he drank of the vinegar that we might not drink it; he drained the cup of wrath that we might never taste it; he was wounded that we might be healed. And, standing by that very cross, where the Son of God was mocked in his thirst, and refused a cup of cold water to moisten his parched lips, the messenger of God's free-love lifts up his voice, and says, "Let him that is athirst come! And whoever will—let him take of the water of life freely!"