I’ve been meditating lately on the final words of Jesus. It occurs to me that most of these words are gigantic, universe-exploding, theologically powerful words: Jesus pleads for His enemies, “Father, forgive them....", not as an ordinary man, but as the Divine Son of the Father. He, as the second person of the Trinity, can declare unequivocally that a man will indeed be with him in heaven. He alone, as the only truly sinless human, has the right to scream out to God’s throne, “Why have you forsaken me?” He can declare with certainty when “It is finished” and He can confidently commend His spirit into His Father’s hands. We are hearing in these words reminders of Christ’s divine power and righteousness.
But then there’s this other word: “I thirst.”
There’s something different about this word. Like the request made on behalf of his mother to his disciple John (John 19:26-27), this word has a different tone to it. This word is vulnerable, needy, dare I say it, even weak. Indeed, the words “I thirst” are the words of a man. Yes a perfect man, but a man nonetheless. They are the words of every man, of every person. At least in some small sense, to be human is to utter the words: “I thirst”.
These words make perfect sense. Scholars tell us that because of the beatings and loss of blood Jesus endured, He would have been severely dehydrated by this time. As a real flesh and blood person, Jesus is experiencing exactly what would happen to anyone else in this situation. The point is, in the words, “I thirst” we hear Jesus saying to us, “I understand, I know limitations, I can identify with you.” Thus, the author of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
I also can’t help but hear in these words the humiliation of Christ.
You remember the famous story of Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well? While there, He declares to her (and to us) that He is the Living Water. The title is given to show us that from Jesus there is an everlasting spring that will quench our spiritual thirst. Indeed, He even tells the woman he’s speaking to in the passage,
"Everyone who drinks of this water (pointing to the well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)
Do you hear it? Jesus is the continual unending fountain humanity desperately needs. And yet, here at the cross Jesus the Living Water is humiliated to the point where He cries out, “I thirst.” The church Father Augustine poetically pictures the scene for us: “Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witness, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood, that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”
In response to Jesus’ words we’re told by John that “a jar of sour wine was there. So the guards took a stalk of the hyssop plant and put it up to Jesus’ lips”. Don’t pass over that detail too quickly. Dr. David Herasaka notes, we must “remember that these events occurred at the Feast of the Passover. During this feast, (Exod 12:22) hyssop was used to apply the blood of the Passover lamb to the wooden doorposts of the Jews. It is interesting the end of this hyssop stalk pointed to the blood of the Perfect Lamb which was applied to the wooden cross for the salvation of all mankind. In addition, the wine vinegar is a product of fermentation, which is made from grape juice and yeast. The word literally means "that which is soured" and is related to the Hebrew term for "that which is leavened". Yeast or leaven is (usually) a biblical symbol of sin. When Jesus took this drink, (i.e. a drink which was "leavened") it is thus symbolic of His taking the sins of the world into His body.”
Yes, in Jesus’ words, “I thirst” we see his humiliation. But of course, in a perhaps surprising way, we also see Jesus’ victory.
It seems obvious to say this now looking back on the event some 2,000 years later. But the truth is, if we were paying attention even back then, we may have noticed that even at this point, Jesus is again quoting scripture from that cross. As John writes in 19:28, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” Yes, even there on this excruciating instrument of torture, He is fulfilling the words of Psalm 69.
“Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me. Draw near to my soul, redeem me; ransom me because of my enemies! You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” (Psalm 69:16-21)
These words, written hundreds of years before the cross of Christ are fulfilled now. And through this fulfillment, Jesus is saying to you and to me, “I’ve done it all for you. I’ve paid the entire price for your forgiveness. I’ve taken all the pain and shame and humiliation and now I am going to declare “It is finished.” But first, one last thing to fulfill the Scriptures: Let me take the drink.
The point is, there was never a moment on that cross that Jesus was not completing everything necessary for our salvation. He willfully stayed up there to pay for your sins.
So from now on when you read or hear the words “I thirst” come from Jesus’ lips, don’t just hear the gasp of a dying man. Hear the declaration of a perfect man fulfilling all righteousness for you. Don’t just hear the request of a victim of injustice, but hear the finished cry of perfect justice. Hear the victory cry of Jesus saying in these words, “I thirst FOR YOU.”