Psalm 22: The Psalm of the Cross

Psalm 22: Dr. James Montgomery Boice (original source here)

Theme: Prophesying the Crucifixion

In this week’s lessons we look at how this psalm, written hundreds of years before Christ, describes the details of Jesus’ suffering and death by crucifixion.

Scripture: Psalm 22:1-21

The Lord Jesus Christ is described as his people’s shepherd in three ways. In John 10:11 and 14 he is “the good shepherd,” who gives his life for his sheep. In Hebrews 13:20 he is “that great shepherd,” who has risen from the dead and lives now to direct his people in every good work.

In 1 Peter 5:4 he is “the Chief shepherd,” who has ascended into heaven from whence he will one day return to reward the under shepherds of the church who have been faithful.

It has been pointed out that Psalms 22, 23 and 24 are like that.

Psalm 22 is the song of the dying shepherd, crying out to the Father.

Psalm 23 is the song of the risen shepherd, guiding his sheep through life’s dark wilderness.

Psalm 24 is the song of the ascended shepherd who will reward those who have served faithfully.

It is possible that some may find this pattern a bit forced, particularly in regard to the last two psalms. But there can be no doubt that it applies strikingly to Psalm 22. For this psalm is the “Psalm of the Cross,” the best description in all the Bible of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

Most modern writers on the psalms try to find a setting for them either in the life of David, if they believe David was their author, or in the experience of some later writer or group of persons. But it is impossible to do this with this psalm. Some psalms are written out of illness.

But Psalm 22 is not a description of an illness. It is a description of an execution, particularly a crucifixion.

Crucifixion was not practiced in the time of David or for many long centuries afterward. So this is not an account of any suffering endured by any ancient person but a prophetic picture of the suffering to be endured by Jesus when he died to pay the penalty for our sins. In other words, it is prophetic and entirely messianic.

Derek Kidner, who is usually very cautious in such matters, nevertheless writes rightly, “No incident recorded of David can begin to account for this…The language of the psalm defies a naturalistic explanation; the best account is in the terms used by Peter concerning another psalm of David: ‘Being therefore a prophet…he foresaw and spoke of…the Christ’ (Acts 2:30f.).”1

But it is not only that David, being a prophet, foresaw and spoke in this psalm of Jesus’ sufferings. This is also the psalm upon which Jesus himself meditated as he hung on the cross.

We can profit best if we have the main events in mind. Jesus had been arrested the previous night and kept under guard in the house of the High Priest in order to be tried formally by the Sanhedrin in the morning. When day dawned he was quickly tried, convicted of blasphemy and then taken to Pilate’s Jerusalem residence for sentencing, since the Jewish court was unable to carry out the death penalty while Rome ruled Palestine. There were unexpected delays with Pilate. But at last his judgment was secured and Jesus was led through the streets of the city to Golgotha bearing his cross.

Study Questions:
1. Explain why Psalm 22 cannot be attributed to David’s personal experience.
2. Compare this psalm with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Note the number of similarities, which proves that Psalm 22 is a prophetic psalm about Jesus’ death.

Reflection: As a messianic psalm that prophesies the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, what does it teach us about the Bible?
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1973), p. 105.

Theme: The Hours of Darkness

In this week’s lessons we look at how this psalm, written hundreds of years before Christ, describes the details of Jesus’ suffering and death by crucifixion.

Scripture: Psalm 22:1-21

As Jesus was being led through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of his crucifixion, what was he thinking of? He seems to have been thinking of other people. When Jesus saw the women weeping after him he said, “Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children,” and he prophesied the terrible days to come (Luke 23:28-31). When the soldiers drove the nails through his hands and feet to affix him to the rough wooden cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He had words for the dying thief: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). He entrusted his mother to John’s safe keeping, saying, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26, 27). In none of these sentences did Jesus seem to be thinking of himself at all. He was thinking entirely of others.

This changed at noon. At noon a great darkness came over the land which lasted until three o’clock. The darkness was sent by the Father to shield Jesus during the hours he was made sin for us. These were private hours. It is as if God had shut the bronze doors of heaven upon Jesus so that what transpired during those hours happened between himself and Jesus alone.

What was Jesus thinking of during these three hours? There is no reason why we should have to know this, of course. God could have kept silent about it. But there are three important clues in the New Testament accounts. First, at the beginning of this period Jesus suddenly cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)? It was a direct, explicit and completely appropriate quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22. Second, John tells us that Jesus, “knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled…said, ‘I am thirsty,’ as a result of which the soldiers offered him wine vinegar on a sponge” (John 19:28). The only Old Testament Scripture this could possibly refer to is Psalm 69:21, a psalm very similar to Psalm 22, which shows that Jesus was thinking through these Old Testament texts.

Moreover, since John says this was “so that the Scripture would be fulfilled,” Jesus seems to have been deliberately reviewing these passages in his mind to be sure that he had fulfilled them completely. Third, at the end of the period of darkness, just before he died, Jesus called out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). This is a quotation from the last verse of Psalm 22. In our text that verse reads, “he has done it,” referring to God as subject. But there is no object for the verb in Hebrew, and it can equally well be translated, “It is finished.”

Putting these clues together, we can be fairly certain that Jesus was meditating on the Old Testament during the hours of his most intense suffering and that he saw his crucifixion as a fulfillment of Psalm 22 particularly.

Psalm 22 begins with a description of Christ’s alienation from the Father, as he was made sin for us. It continues by a vivid description of the crucifixion itself. It ends with triumph, as the suffering one tells how his prayer was heard and affirms that he will declare the name of God and praise God before his brethren and in the great assembly. Since Jesus ended his earthly life by quoting the last verse of this psalm, it means that he did not die in despair, as some, like Albert Schweitzer, have supposed he did. Rather, he died in triumph, knowing that the atonement was complete and accepted by God and that countless future generations would be saved because of it.

Study Questions:
1. What clues are given in the New Testament about what Jesus was thinking when he hung on the cross prior to noon?
2. What happens at noon, and how does that influence Jesus’ thoughts?

Application: In his suffering Jesus was focused on the Word of God. How can you apply this in your own periods of suffering?

Theme: The Most Poignant Verse

In this week’s lessons we look at how this psalm, written hundreds of years before Christ, describes the details of Jesus’ suffering and death by crucifixion.

Scripture: Psalm 22:1-21

There is a turning point in this psalm at the end of verse 21. Charles Haddon Spurgeon tells of a book by a man named J. Stevenson, called Christ on the Cross. It was a study of this psalm and had a sermon for every verse, thirty-one in all. Because of the turning point at the end of verse 21, I will be content with only two studies, one on each of the psalm’s two parts.

The most important (and most noticeable) feature of verses 1-21 is the alternating pattern of thought in its six stanzas. The first, third and fifth stanzas describe the author’s suffering. The second, fourth and sixth are prayers to God. But here is the interesting thing. As the pattern progresses, the intensity of the anguish decreases (at least, it becomes only physical rather than spiritual and psychological) and the author’s confidence in God moves upward or intensifies. Notice how it works out.

1. Christ’s cry of dereliction (vv. 1, 2). The most poignant verse in the entire psalm is the first, and this is also the most disturbing section. For here the suffering one cries out to God, believing that he has been forsaken by him, asking why he has been forsaken and asserting that God is silent. He receives no answer.

The idea that Jesus could be forsaken by God has been so disturbing to so many people that various theories have been invented to explain it.

Some have supposed that Jesus was only referring to the psalm to call attention to it, as if to say that what he was suffering was what the psalm describes. Others have argued that Jesus only felt forsaken, when in fact he was not. They go on to say that in the final outcome, of course, Jesus was not forsaken, since we know that the crucifixion was followed by the resurrection. This is what the psalm as a whole shows, they argue.

However, I do not hesitate to say that, according to the teaching of the New Testament, Jesus was indeed forsaken by God while he bore the sin of his people on the cross. This is the very essence of the atonement, Jesus bearing our hell in order that we might share his heaven. To be forsaken means to have the light of God’s countenance and the sense of his presence eclipsed, which is what happened to Jesus as he bore the wrath of God against sin for us.
How could this happen? How could one member of the eternal Trinity turn his back on another member of the Trinity? I do not know. I cannot explain it. But I believe that this is what the Bible teaches, so great was the love of God for us and so great was the price Jesus willingly paid to save us from our sins.

2. Memory of the past: part 1 (vv. 3-5). There are two ways of looking at the second section. Since it calls attention to God’s deliverance of the fathers, who trusted him in past days, it could be viewed as a bitter irony, that is, “You delivered them, but you have not delivered me; I am forsaken.” However, the verses can also be seen as a desperate grasping for encouragement by a recollection of God’s true character. God is utterly holy or righteous, says the psalmist. He is “the Holy one” (v. 3). Because of this quality God has always shown himself faithful to those in the past who trusted him. “Will he not therefore also be faithful to me and deliver me, even though I am forsaken now?” the psalmist seems to be asking. In my judgment, the flow of the psalm suggests the second of these two possibilities is the right one.

Study Questions:
1. Describe the alternating pattern of the six stanzas of verses 1-21.
2. How have people tried to explain the biblical teaching that Jesus was forsaken by the Father?
3. Why was it necessary that Jesus be forsaken by God when he hung on the cross? In Jesus’ case, what does it mean to be forsaken?

Reflection: Have you ever felt forsaken by God? How did you recover the sense of the Lord’s favor and presence?

Theme: The Suffering Savior

In this week’s lessons we look at how this psalm, written hundreds of years before Christ, describes the details of Jesus’ suffering and death by crucifixion.

Scripture: Psalm 22:1-21

Yesterday we pointed out that there are six stanzas within the first part of Psalm 22, and looked at the first two stanzas. Today we consider the next three, and will then describe the last one on Friday.

3. The mockery of the crucifixion (vv. 6-8). The third of these six sections moves from the earlier sense of having been abandoned by God to the scorn of the people, who mock him on this precise basis: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him” (v. 8). These words, as well as the gestures that accompanied them, were reproduced precisely at the crucifixion: “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the son of God!’ In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matt. 27:39-43).

4. Memory of the past: part 2 (vv. 9-11). The second stanza was a memory of God’s past faithfulness to and deliverance of the fathers, just as the fourth stanza is also a memory. But here the sufferer has moved forward a notch in his thinking, since his memory now is not of God’s faithfulness to those others only but of God’s former faithfulness to himself. “From my mother’s womb you have been my God,” says the psalmist (v. 10). Will God not continue to be faithful to me now?

5. The physical suffering (vv. 12-18). In some ways the most striking section of all is this one, in which the crucifixion seems to be remarkably portrayed. It is worth quoting the note on this in the well-known Scofield Reference Bible, prepared by C. I. Scofield:

Psalm 22 is a graphic picture of death by crucifixion. The bones (of the hands, arms, shoulders, and pelvis) out of joint (v. 14); the profuse perspiration caused by intense suffering (v. 14); the action of the heart affected (v. 14); strength exhausted, and extreme thirst (v. 15); the hands and feet pierced (see v. 16…); partial nudity with the hurt to modesty (v. 17), are all associated with that mode of death. The accompanying circumstances are precisely those fulfilled in the crucifixion of Christ. The desolate cry of v. 1 (Mt. 27:46); the periods of light and darkness of v. 2 (Mt. 27:45); the contemptuous and humiliating treatment of vv. 6-8, 12-13 (Mt. 27:39–44); the casting lots of v. 18 (Mt. 27:35), were all literally fulfilled. When it is remembered that crucifixion was a Roman, not Jewish, form of execution, the proof of inspiration is irresistible.2

It is not only the physical aspects of crucifixion that are described in these verses, however. The section also depicts those abusing the sufferer as “strong bulls of Bashan,” “roaring lions” and “dogs,” and suggests (although obliquely) why people do such things to one another. Derek Kidner lists them as: “resentment at those who make high claims (v. 8); the compulsion of crowd mentality (vv. 12, 16a; cf. Exod. 23:2); greed, even for trivial gains (v. 18); and perverted tastes enjoying a harrowing spectacle (v. 17) simply because sin is murderous, and sinners have hatred in them (cf. John 8:44).”3

A special word should be said about verse 16, which declares, “they have pierced my hands and my feet.” The word “pierced” is the most striking indication of a crucifixion in the entire psalm, but it is well known that the Masoretic (or vowel pointed) text of the Middle Ages does not say “pierced.” As it stands, the word in the text should be rendered “as a lion.”

A translator must always be careful how he or she disagrees with the Masoretic text, particularly when there is no explicit textual variant on which to base an alternative translation. Yet in this case there seems to be good reason for doing so. For one thing, the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament, produced a century or two before the Christian era and therefore an unbiased witness, rendered the word “pierced.” Second, the other major versions also translate the Hebrew this way. Third, the meaning “as a lion” has little sense in the context and leaves the phrase in question without an explicit verb (it would have to be supplied from the phrase preceding). This suggests that the Masoretic text and vowel pointing is just wrong and that alternative vowels should be supplied, which can be done. In fact, it may even suggest that the Masoretic text was deliberately pointed in the way it has been by later Jewish scholars to avoid what otherwise would be a nearly inescapable prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion.4

Study Questions:
1. What change in theme occurs in the third stanza?
2. The second stanza (vv. 3-5) was one of a memory of the past, where the psalmist recollects God’s faithfulness and deliverance of others. The fourth stanza (vv. 9-11) is also a memory of the past. What is the psalmist remembering here?

Application: If you are going through some kind of suffering or trial, recount evidences of God’s faithfulness to you in the past. What does that teach you about the Lord and what you can expect him to do for you?

2The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), note to Psalm 22:7.

3Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1973), p. 107.

4The technical possibilities are discussed by most of the commentators, but the most thorough is probably J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, pp. 246-248. Original edition 1878-1879. However, Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms [Leicester, England and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1973], pp. 107, 108) and Peter C. Craigie (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1-50 [Waco, TX: Word, 1983], p. 196) also have helpful discussions, the latter with many references to additional scholarly material on the subject.

Theme: Died He for Me?

In this week’s lessons we look at how this psalm, written hundreds of years before Christ, describes the details of Jesus’ suffering and death by crucifixion.

Scripture: Psalm 22:1-21

6. The turning point (vv. 19-21). As I suggested at the beginning of this study, the climax of the first part of Psalm 22 and the turning point between part one and part two comes in this section as the suffering one finds his communion with God restored.

Yet the change is abrupt in spite of the steady progress from despair to renewed trust which I have been outlining. Strangely, the New International Version does not capture this well. It ends the section with the words “save me from the horns of the wild oxen.” But the verb literally means “you have heard” (see NIV note), and it is held to the very end so that the final couplet actually reads: “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions, from the horns of the wild oxen. You have heard me!”

As I said earlier, this is a cry of triumph, not despair. It marks the moment at which the period of darkness was past and Jesus, having suffered a true alienation from the Father as punishment for our sins, becomes aware of God’s presence and favor once again.
At this point the psalm takes on an entirely different tone, as it begins to celebrate the great victory of the cross. That victory is so great and its effects so extensive that it deserves to be explored by itself in the next study. But we cannot go on to that discussion without first asking if the atonement described in part one was for you. In what is probably the greatest of all Charles Wesley’s hymns, that great evangelist and poet of the Methodist church asks:

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?

That possibility was so wonderful to Wesley that he composed the entire hymn around it, describing such love as “amazing” and the death itself a “mystery” beyond the ability even of angels to fathom. But though he could not exhaust its meaning or ever cease to marvel at such love, Wesley knew that it was indeed for him that Christ died and that his only hope of salvation lay in that atonement: ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free; for, O my God, it found out me.

The question is whether it has found out you. It is a wonderful thing to know that Jesus died for sinners. It is amazing to study a prophetic picture of Christ’s suffering and death, as we have done. But all that can happen, and yet the person who hears can still perish in sin because he or she has not trusted in Jesus personally. Have you done that? Will you do it? All you have to do is tell him that you trust him, saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for dying for me. I am ready to follow you as my Lord and Savior.” If you will pray that prayer, you will find that Jesus has indeed made atonement for your sins. He was forsaken so you might never be forsaken. He bore your sins so that you might not have to suffer for them.

Study Questions:
1. What is the turning point of the psalm?
2. How does the second part of this psalm (vv. 22-31) compare with the first part we have studied this week?

Application: Who do you know who needs to hear from you about the atonement made by the Lord Jesus Christ for sinners?

Theme: Old Testament Prophecy Fulfilled

In this week’s lessons we learn how the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ described in the first part of Psalm 22 turn into a statement of great victory.

Scripture: Psalm 22:22-31

One of the fascinating features of careful Bible study is that we so often come upon statements that are tantalizing but which we cannot fully understand. An example is the well-known statement of Jesus to the Emmaus disciples recorded in Luke 24:27.

The two disciples had been in Jerusalem over the weekend in which Jesus had been arrested, tried, crucified and resurrected. But although they had received reports from the women who had been to the tomb and seen angels, and from Peter and John who had later raced to the tomb and found it empty, they did not believe in the resurrection and so were on their way home, convinced that their dream that the Messiah had come was over. While they were talking about all that had happened, Jesus drew alongside of them and asked what they were discussing. They replied by telling him about himself, how the leaders of the people had handed him over to be crucified but how they had hoped that he was the one whom God had appointed to redeem Israel. That is what he had been doing, of course, but they had not understood it.

At this point Jesus could have identified himself, saying, “Look, it’s me, Jesus!” But he did not do this. Instead, we are told that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27). This was the first Bible study of the Christian era.

What a fascinating statement! “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” What do you suppose those Scriptures were? Don’t you wish you could have been there to have heard him select those texts and provide their explanations?

I find this verse stimulating because its sets me thinking about the Old Testament as prophesying Christ’s death and resurrection, which is certainly the most profound of all ways to understand it. Yet it is not an easy train of thought. Some passages are obvious prophecies, Isaiah 53, for example. Others are less obvious. One passage that is very clearly a prophecy of the Lord’s death and resurrection is Psalm 22. It is so clearly a picture of death by crucifixion and a triumph to follow that it is just not possible to explain it by anything any mere human being in the Old Testament period may have suffered.1 David suffered through many hard times, but nothing like this. This is a portrait of the death and triumph of Jesus Christ alone. Therefore, it must have been one of the texts he picked out and explained to his two disciples on the famous walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

Study Questions:
1. What were the two from Emmaus hoping that Jesus was going to do? Why did they begin to return home believing Jesus was not the Messiah?
2. When they meet Jesus after his resurrection, why does he not tell them who he is? What does he do for them instead, and why?
1J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 245. Original edition 1878-1879.

Theme: Jesus and His Brothers

In this week’s lessons we learn how the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ described in the first part of Psalm 22 turn into a statement of great victory.

Scripture: Psalm 22:22-31

But it is not only by a process of reasoning that we must identify Psalm 22 as a prophecy of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we study the New Testament, we also find that this is its explicit teaching.

Hebrews 2:12 quotes Psalm 22:22, referring the verse to Jesus. In this important chapter of Hebrews, the author is teaching the superiority of Jesus to the angels, a theme begun in chapter 1.

Jesus is superior because he is God’s Son and not merely a servant as an angel is. He is superior because he has been appointed ruler of an everlasting kingdom. All things have been subjected to him. Now, however, having stressed his superiority to all other created beings in those ways, the author shows that Jesus has also become the Savior of his people by becoming like them and making them members of his own family. This is the point at which the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 22:22: “Both the One who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises’” (vv. 11, 12).

This quotation tells us how to interpret the psalm. It tells us that Jesus is the speaker, not just in this verse but throughout. And it tells us that the “brothers” (and sisters) of the psalm’s second half are those for whom he died and rose again.

At the beginning of the last study I pointed out how during the early phases of the crucifixion the attention of the Lord was on other people: the women who had followed him to Golgotha weeping, the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, the believing thief who was crucified with him, his mother Mary who was present at the cross, and John, the beloved disciple. I showed how this changed as the three hours of darkness, in which Jesus was made sin for us and was punished for our sin, settled over the land. These were private hours in which Jesus agonized over his abandonment by his Father and cried out to be heard.

But Jesus was heard. The very last phrase of verse 21 declares it: “you have heard (or answered).”2 This verse therefore marks a great turning point in the psalm, a turning point which must be associated with the passing of the period of darkness. In the context of the crucifixion, Jesus has not yet died. That comes after the final sentence of the psalm, where Jesus said, “It is finished,” which is what verse 31 means. At that point: 1) the curtain of the temple that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom, signifying that full atonement for sin had been made; 2) Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46); and 3) Jesus died. But before this Jesus was already assured that his Father had heard him, that his atonement was accepted and that untold generations of people would be saved and would become his brothers and sisters because of what he suffered.

Study Questions:
1. How can we know that Psalm 22 is a prophecy of Christ’s death and resurrection?
2. How is verse 21 a turning point in the psalm in terms of the events and meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion?

Reflection: Because God the Father heard Jesus’ cries, what are the implications of this for our own prayers?

2For some reason the New International Version does not reflect this abrupt declaration, though it is clear in the Hebrew text, where the verb (translated “save” by the NIV) comes last. See the previous study for a more extensive discussion.

Theme: An Expanding Congregation

In this week’s lessons we learn how the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ described in the first part of Psalm 22 turn into a statement of great victory.

Scripture: Psalm 22:22-31

The second half of Psalm 22 is a throbbing, soaring anticipation of the expanding proclamation of the gospel and of the growing church. It is represented in three phases.

1. My brothers (vv. 22-24). The first phase concerns the Jewish people. In themselves the words “my brothers” could be understood of all who should come to believe in Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile. But the parallel phrases in verse 23 (“you descendants of Jacob” and “you descendants of Israel”) make clear that in this stanza they have a more restricted meaning. They refer to Jews. If that is so, then “the congregation” of verse 22 must also be the assembly of the Jewish people. It is appropriate that Jesus’ words should focus on this body of people first, since the gospel was proclaimed to them first. The principle is: “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). Similarly, in Acts 1 the missionary plan for the geographic expansion of the church was unfolded in these stages: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8).
Jesus wanted his Jewish brothers to know that, although he was despised by them, he was not despised or ultimately forsaken by God but was heard by him. It follows from this that he was not the blasphemer he was accused of being but rather he was who he said he was, namely, the unique Son of God and the Messiah. Moreover, he accomplished what he said he had come into the world to achieve, which was an atonement for sins.

2. The great assembly (vv. 25-29). In verse 22 the psalmist speaks of the “congregation.” In verse 25 he speaks of the “great assembly.” Actually the words “congregation” and “assembly” are the same Hebrew word (qahal). So there is an expansion of the idea of the assembly from the earlier reference to the second. It is an expansion from Jews alone, who were to be the first target of the missionary task, to the Gentiles, who were the second. The parallel phrases in verse 27, “the ends of the earth” and “the families of the nations,” make this clear.

This was a strong element in the thinking of Jesus Christ. During the days of his itinerant teaching he often spoke of a great banquet to which the close friends of a king were invited but who, when the day of the feast came, made excuses and refused to come. As a result, the king sent servants to call in other people, some of whom were despised as outcasts (cf. Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-23). It was a prophecy of the salvation of the Gentiles after an initial period of Jewish rejection. The story of the workers in the vineyard also has the salvation of Gentiles in mind (Matt. 20:1-16). They are the ones hired last, paid equally and therefore resented by those who had labored throughout the day as the Jews had. Most striking perhaps is Christ’s great prayer of John 17, in which he prays for his disciples and for all “who will believe in me through their message” (v. 20). It is clear from the rest of the prayer that these new believers would be drawn from the entire world and would be witnesses to it.

3. Future generations (v. 30). In the final phase of this prophesied expansion of the number of those who would come to praise God because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, there is a reference to “future generations” and to “a people yet unborn.” In these last verses the psalmist bursts all bounds, so intent is he on stressing the universal value and world-embracing proclamation of the gospel. He has spoken of Jew and Gentile, those who are near and those who are far off. He has embraced the poor (v. 26) and the rich (v. 29). Now he is thinking of unfolding generations of people down to the very end of time.

You and I are included in that number, if we have really trusted in Jesus and his death for us. Since this is what Jesus seems to have been thinking of while he hung on the cross during the three hours of darkness, this means that he was thinking of you and me just before he committed his spirit to the Father. Isn’t that wonderful? You and I were in his thoughts at that moment. It was for you and me that he was dying.

Study Questions:
1. List and explain the first phase of the expanding proclamation of the gospel.
2. What is the second phase of expansion, seen in verses 25-29? How do we know it includes Gentiles?
3. What is the third phase, and who does it include?
Application: Since every Christian is a member of this great assembly that Christ has gathered because of his death and resurrection, how ought we to treat one another? Consider ways in which you can put into practice the unity for which the Lord Jesus Christ prayed, and the love for fellow believers that he commands.

Theme: “It Is Finished”

In this week’s lessons we learn how the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ described in the first part of Psalm 22 turn into a statement of great victory.

Scripture: Psalm 22:22-31

The last verse of the psalm contains the words “he has done it” or, as Jesus seems to have understood the sentence in his quotation of these words from the cross, “it is finished” (John 19:30). In Psalm 22 the words are linked to the proclamation of “his [that is, God’s] righteousness to a people yet unborn,” so we know they concern the gospel. What is finished is the atonement by which the righteous demands of God for sin’s punishment have been fully satisfied and the righteousness of God is now freely offered to all who will believe on Jesus.

This is an aspect of the atonement that has always figured prominently in Protestant presentations of the meaning of the death of Christ, in distinction from Roman Catholic theology. The Roman church (and many unsound Protestant churches too) maintains that the death of Christ does not relieve the believer from making satisfaction for sins which he or she has committed. More precisely, it distinguishes between sins committed before and after baptism, and between temporal and eternal punishment for those sins.

So far as sins committed before baptism are concerned, both the temporal and eternal punishment are blotted out through the application of Christ’s death to the individual through baptism. So far as sins committed after baptism are concerned, eternal punishment is blotted out. But the temporal punishments require the making of satisfaction by the individual himself either in this life (through a faithful use of the sacraments and by living a meritorious life) or else in purgatory. While this system of salvation allows the greater part of the work to be God’s and even acknowledges that the faith and merit of the believer are attained by the prevenient grace of God, it nevertheless requires the believer to contribute to his own salvation in some measure. More must be added. The importance of the Mass, in which the sacrifice of Christ is constantly reenacted, is evidence of this outlook.
But this is not right. Consequently, Protestant thought has always contended rightly that “the satisfaction of Christ is the only satisfaction for sin and is so perfect and final that it leaves no penal liability for any sin of the believer.”3

It is true that Christians often experience chastisement for sins done in this life, though never in full measure for what they deserve. But this is not satisfaction. It is discipline only. It is given that we might grow by it. Even in times of severe chastisement it is still true that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Similarly, it is also true that the believer is to do good works. We have been ordained to do them (Eph. 2:10). But these are done because we are saved, not in order to be saved. Good works flow out of the salvation already accomplished for us by Jesus and as a response to it.

How could it be otherwise? We are not the God-man. Jesus alone is that. We are not saviors. Jesus alone is the Savior. He alone shed his blood on the cross in order that we might be saved from sin. And having done it, he has set his seal upon that perfect and completed work by the declaration: “It is finished.” No wonder we sing:

Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain;
He washed it white as snow.

Study Questions:
1. When Jesus declared on the cross that “it is finished” what did he mean?
2. How does Roman Catholic teaching differ from Protestant teaching on this issue?
3. How do good works fit into the believer’s life?

Key Point: Similarly, it is also true that the believer is to do good works. We have been ordained to do them (Eph. 2:10). But these are done because we are saved, not in order to be saved. Good works flow out of the salvation already accomplished for us by Jesus and as a response to it.

3John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 51.

Theme: “You Shall Be My Witnesses”

In this week’s lessons we learn how the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ described in the first part of Psalm 22 turn into a statement of great victory.

Scripture: Psalm 22:22-31

But if Jesus has done what is needed for our salvation, and that our good works do not in any way contribute to it, someone might ask, “What, then, is left for us to do?” Nothing, except to believe in God’s word and trust Jesus. Jesus himself said this. When some of the Galileans asked him on the occasion of his multiplication of the loaves and fish, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus replied, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28, 29).

Arthur W. Pink tells a story that is helpful at this point. A Christian farmer was concerned about an unsaved neighbor who was a carpenter. The farmer had been trying to explain the gospel to his friend, particularly that the death of Jesus had accomplished everything that was needed. But the carpenter kept insisting that he had to do something for himself.

“Jesus did it all,” said the farmer.

“No, I must have to do something,” said the carpenter.

One day the farmer asked his friend to make a gate for him, and when it was finished he came for it and carried it away in his wagon. He hung it on a fence in his field and then arranged for the carpenter to stop by and see that it was hung properly. The carpenter came at the time arranged. But when he arrived he was surprised to see the farmer standing by with a sharp axe in his hand. “What is that for?” he asked.

“I’m going to add a few cuts to your work,” was the answer.

“But there’s no need to do that,” the carpenter protested. “The gate is perfect as it is. There is no need to do anything to it.”
Nevertheless, the farmer took the axe and began to strike the gate with it. He kept at it until within a very short time the gate was ruined. “Look what you’ve done,” said the carpenter. “You’ve ruined my work.”

“Yes,” said his friend. “And that is exactly what you are trying to do. You are trying to ruin the work of Christ by your own miserable additions to it.”

According to Pink, God used this lesson to show the carpenter his mistake, and he was led to trust Christ who had died for him.4

The final section of Psalm 22 describes the attitudes of those who enter into this salvation. It is for all types of people, Jew and Gentile, near and far, rich and poor, living and yet to be born. But it is nevertheless also only for those who humble themselves and trust Jesus. The psalm shows that it is for those who “fear [that is, reverence] the LORD” (vv. 23, 25), “seek the LORD” (v. 26), “remember and turn to the LORD” (v. 27) and “bow down (or kneel) before him” (vv. 27, 29). The problem is not the sufficiency of the atonement. Christ’s work is utterly sufficient. The problem is our own stiff necks and hard hearts.

But there is this element too: those who believe will also be witnesses. At the start of this section Jesus said that he would declare the name of God to his brothers. But here, as the psalm closes, it is the future generations who have come to Christ who have become his witnesses: “They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn.” That is our task. We are to trust and tell others until Jesus comes again.

Study Questions:
1. What does it really mean to believe and trust in Jesus?
2. What is our task according to verse 31?

Application: Who has God placed in your life who needs to hear about the message of salvation—perhaps even more than once? How will you strive to be the witness this psalm talks about?
For Further Study: Order your copy today of James Boice’s three-volume set on the Psalms for 25% off the regular price.

4Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), pp. 119, 120. The discussion of the full sufficiency of Christ’s atonement is borrowed in part from James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John: An Expositional Commentary, vol. 5, John 18:1-21:25 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), pp. 240-242.

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