The fifth ‘word’ of Jesus from the cross is found in John’s Gospel, chapter 19, and verse 28. It is, on the face of it, a simple word: ‘I thirst’. It is just one word in the Greek (dipsô). The context of this saying is all important.
It is uttered at the climax of the three hours of darkness, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It is, besides, spoken in connection with the completion of his work, for it is stated that ‘Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst”‘.
We take it that the climax of his sufferings on the cross was indicated by his cry of dereliction – when he expressed his sense of forsakenness by his Heavenly Father (Matthew 27:46).
That involved the experience of the wrath of God against him, in connection with the penalty he was bearing for sin. But though that may have been the climax, there were still sufferings to endure, including death itself (John 19:30).
At this point – when he utters this fifth cry – the work of the cross is essentially accomplished. But how is this a fulfilment of Scripture?
The book of Psalms prophesies this ‘saying’ – ‘they also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ (69:21).
‘Gall’ was a pain-deadening poison, and earlier in his experience on the cross Jesus had refused to accept it (Matthew 27:34). He had to experience consciously the full weight of pain and agony involved in his sufferings.
But now, after experiencing the climax of his sufferings, he thirsts and receives the sour wine (John 19:29).
There is in this fifth word from the cross a clear indication of the humanity of the Lord. In his humanity he thirsts.
Of course, as one who possessed a perfect humanity and a divine nature, he was all the more vulnerable to the intensity of suffering. His humanity was all along upheld by his divinity.
As Horatius Bonar put it: ‘It is only perfection such as this that 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 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’.
We must always remember that Christ never relinquished his divinity. He was always Emmanuel, or ‘God with us’. He did not lay aside divinity when he took humanity at the incarnation.
His humanity all along was sustained by his divinity, so that, for example, he endured all the more temptation and agony – especially spiritual, psychological or mental agonies – in his human nature.
It was in his humanity that he thirsted. God does not thirst. The believer in glory hereafter will not thirst either (Revelation 7:16). The angels do not thirst.
It is here on earth that human beings thirst. And Jesus thirsted. It was an evidence of his humanity, even in his sufferings on the cross.
This cry was, however, certainly a cry of physical distress. We know something of that experience after a period of physical labour. And such thirst can itself be distressing.
Christ’s pain is now focussed on an all-devouring thirst. How is this significant? To a wounded, dying person this is, we are told, the most powerfully felt need. This is therefore now Christ’s most acute suffering, physically.
Consider how he has now been on the cross six hours. And before that there was his arrest of the previous night, his trial, scourging and exposure. More – the Father’s face has been turned away during three hours of darkness.
But this was no ordinary thirst. For the Lord also experienced spiritual and mental anguish, and that would have a profound impact on his physical state.
We have a picture of this in the Psalms, expressing perfectly what Christ was experiencing at this moment:
‘When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groanings all the day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer’ (Psalm 34:3-4).
His thirst was real, but it was not just physical. It was part of his spiritual sufferings. We can believe that not just his body, but also his soul was ‘parched’.
There was, surely, also a thirsting inwardly for fellowship with his Father following his sense of ‘forsakenness’. Body and soul thirsted together in the experience of the Lord.
There are, then, different types of thirsting. This is perhaps highlighted in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at Jacob’s Well in John 4. He asks for water to drink. He is thirsty physically.
But then he goes on to speak to the woman of another type of thirst – a more important thirsting than the merely physical. There must be a thirsting for God. No man can be satisfied inwardly without having such a thirst quenched.
That inward spiritual satisfaction is found in the filling of the Holy Spirit. The woman at the well should be looking for ‘living water’ to satisfy her deepest ‘thirst’. That points to a need for gospel grace, pardon, the new birth and sanctification.
Applying this to Christ’s fifth saying on the cross, let us remember that he was there, after all, as a substitute for sinners. As such, he was going through an experience vicariously of a sinner alienated from God.
The person alienated from God has, in effect, a deep thirst in his or her soul for that greatest need – renewal, regeneration, and peace with God. As his people’s substitute, no doubt this experience on the cross was also substitutionary – a thirsting on behalf of the sinner.
This saying is simple, yet profound. It is, as we have seen, evidence for Christ’s humanity. But it does not have reference simply to dryness in the mouth!
It follows Christ’s sense of forsakenness. It is at the culmination of his work. In the Scriptures thirsting is often used on the one hand to depict the longing for salvation and also, on the other, the experience of divine punishment.
These aspects cannot be excluded from the experience of the Lord here, as he was accomplishing his people’s salvation and enduring the punishment for their sins.