Stephen D. Doe
When water and other drinks are so readily available in the United States, it is not easy to be gripped by the words of Jesus, "I thirst" (John 19:28). Christ was made like his brothers in every respect (Heb. 2:17), and his thirst while hanging on the cross was certainly real.
In delivering his people from the pains of hell, Christ's thirst on the cross mirrored the agony of those eternally under the wrath of God (cf. Luke 16:24). More was involved, however, than the physical experience of the wrath of God.
Some have said that Jesus cried out, "I thirst," because he needed his mouth moistened so that he could declare that his work was finished (John 19:30). But there was an intimate connection between his previous cry of personal spiritual dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46), and this cry, "I thirst."
The Bible tells us that Jesus was nailed to the cross about 9:00 a.m. The iron spikes were driven through his hands and feet, bringing blood loss and shock. Jesus hung on the cross until around 3:00 p.m., when he poured out a stream of words—his final words before his death.
Jesus, like others who were crucified, was offered a narcotic, wine mixed with gall or myrrh (Matt. 27:34; Mark 15:23). But Jesus refused to drink that mixture. He chose to face the agony of paying for sin with a mind that could depend on nothing but the grace of God to sustain him. Then, almost at the moment of his death, Jesus said, "I thirst." The soldiers gave him some of the tart or common wine that they kept to quench their own thirst. A sponge was soaked in the wine, tied to a branch of hyssop, and lifted to Jesus' lips to break the thirst that parched his lips, thickened his tongue, and left his throat so cracked and dry that he could hardly speak.
John connected the words "I thirst" with the fulfillment of Scripture. How was that?
There is a "theology" of water in the Bible. There was no thirst in the Garden of Eden, because God had set his garden in the midst of four rivers. There was no lack of water in the Flood, but that water was a curse, a judgment. When the Israelites were delivered from slavery, they needed water (Ex. 17:3), and God brought water from the rock. Moses warned that part of God's curse on covenant breakers would be thirst (Deut. 28:48; cf. 2 Chron. 32:11). Again and again in the Bible, either lack of water or too much water is tied to sin, while water when you need it is a sign of blessing.
The book of Psalms gives us some specifics about Jesus' suffering on the cross. Psalm 22:15 says, "My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death." Psalm 69:21 adds: "They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink." God the Son, a true man, suffered physical thirst, proving yet again that the Incarnation was real.
Other psalms, however, enlarge our understanding. In Psalm 42:2, the psalmist feels his distance from God and cries out, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?" When David was in the wilderness, running from Saul, it wasn't just physical thirst that troubled him as he prayed, "O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Ps. 63:1). That is echoed in Psalm 84:2, "My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord," and in Psalm 143:6, "I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land."
On the cross, as terrible as Christ's physical suffering was, the height of his suffering was that God had forsaken him (Matt. 27:46). The Son who had lived in intimate communion with his heavenly Father, whose food was to do the will of his Father (John 4:34), was thirsting to be restored to fellowship with him. This world was a desert of sin to the Son of God, but he endured it for the sake of the elect. On the cross, Christ was experiencing the promised curse that would come upon those who rebelled against God. The perfectly obedient Son, judged as though he were a rebel for our sakes, was thirsting for fellowship with his Father. He was willingly cut off as he carried our sins and received our punishment. He suffered not only physical torment, but also agony of soul.
We, as fallen creatures, do not naturally thirst for the presence of a holy God. Rather, like Adam and Eve, we hide from God's presence. Yet only God can satisfy our thirst. When we are brokenhearted over our sin, like David, we start to long for God's presence. Jesus Christ, having known the uninterrupted fellowship of the Trinity until those awful moments on the cross, suffered the thirst of broken communion with the Holy One, serving as a substitute so that our thirsty souls might receive the life-giving Spirit.
Jesus finally declared, "It is finished" (John 19:30). What was finished was his atoning work. Sin was paid for; holy wrath was exhausted on the person of the Son. Christ had done everything necessary to save his people from their sins. Having fulfilled all righteousness in his life, he died under judgment to give us a full and complete acceptance with God.
Nothing more ever needs to be done, except receiving this Savior by repentance for sin and faith in him. Then the fruit of Christ's work are ours, one of which is the satisfying of our thirst. As we see in Isaiah 44:3, God promises an end to thirst when he sends the Spirit. Jesus applied this idea to himself when he spoke in the temple about the giving of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37–39). The Spirit of God is a life-giving person who lives in the believer, and he was purchased for us by the thirsting, suffering Son of God. Yet even beyond our life in the desert of this world, where we need the Spirit of God to refresh us and keep us from dying of spiritual thirst, Christ will bring us to springs of water (Isa. 49:10; cf. Rev. 7:16).
If we refuse the gospel call, God promises that hell will be an experience of everlasting thirst, physical and spiritual, without relief. Jesus' thirst on the cross is a gospel call to repent and believe, abandoning the cracked and broken cisterns of our idols that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13). Jesus Christ gives us the living water that is God himself, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to quench our thirst. The woman at the well wanted only to stop coming to draw water every day, but Jesus promised an end to her coming by offering himself as the source of living water (John 4:13–14, cf. 6:35). Christians need never thirst again spiritually, for we are invited to have our thirst satisfied fully by Jesus Christ, who experienced the curse of God in our place on the cross. Think of how the book of Revelation ends: "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let the one who hears say, 'Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price" (Rev. 22:17; cf. Isa. 55:1–3). This promise is ours because of the thirst of the Son of God.
The author is pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Va. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2008.