Over the course of Monday and Tuesday evenings this last week, thirty of us gathered to think about and discuss some of the last things that Jesus said on the cross according to the different Gospel accounts. One that we did not consider is what John places as the penultimate words Jesus says, ‘I am thirsty.’ I want us to consider firstly what this means and secondly what it means for us.
Many times I’ve said that when we read John we need to read him on two levels. Firstly he is recording what took place, but beneath that we always have to ask, ‘Why did he record this detail as opposed to another detail?’ One thing you can rely on with John was that every detail was there to explain something. So at face value, why does he record that Jesus was thirsty? Well it’s pretty obvious. He’s been beaten to within an inch of his life, kept up all night, forced to carry the cross piece of his own cross, and has been on that cross for several hours in the heat of the day with huge nails pinning him there. It’s no wonder that he’s thirsty. At face value, saying that he is thirsty is no huge surprise. Yet John records it anyway. Why?
If we pull all of the Gospel accounts together we find that this is not the first time that Jesus has been offered something to drink that afternoon. Both Mark and Matthew record that just before he was crucified Jesus was offered wine mixed with something else. Mark says it was mixed with myrrh, which seems unlikely in itself because that was considered a luxury drink. Matthew said it was mixed with gall which is pretty unpleasant and you can’t imagine anyone would have drunk that. But when taken together commentators seem to think that both Matthew and Mark recognised that Jesus was offered wine that had in some way been altered, although they disagree over what caused the bitterness. The most likely explanation was that this first offering of wine was drugged.
Jesus had said no to it as soon as he tasted it and realised it had been tainted. The aim behind drugging the wine would probably have been to alter the consciousness of the crucified person. It may have been a poison to make them die more quickly so the soldiers could go home, or perhaps a narcotic of some description. In any case, when Jesus was first offered this drink he declined it, and we must presume it was so that he could face the coming ordeal in command of himself and without taking an easy way out.
So why then does John record that just before he died, Jesus says that he is thirsty? And why, now, does he drink when before he didn’t? Well this time around it wasn’t drugged wine that he was offered, it was a drink called Posca which would have been there because it was a medicinal peasant wine drunk by Roman soldiers. We might want to ask why the soldiers would let a condemned dying man have some of their wine. Maybe it was because of the manner of his dying. Mark and Luke both record how a centurion on duty said things about Jesus after his death that might suggest a kind of admiration for him. The soldiers were probably used to criminals who would have died cursing and swearing. Instead we get a picture of Jesus cursing no one, but bearing the pain and the agony and refusing any drugged help. The sponge that the wine was soaked up in was probably from a Roman soldier’s kit, so again we get the impression that after the way he bore his torment on the cross, the opinions of the soldiers about Jesus may well have been altered.
We also see that John specifies that the sponge was put on a hyssop branch, an interesting detail because the hyssop was associated with sprinkling blood on the door post and lintel at the first Passover, and with sacrifices. Remember, John puts detail in for a reason.
And then finally we come to asking why Jesus asked for this drink, so close to the end. I mean what takes place next is that he declares, ‘It is finished’, and then he dies. So why take a drink? Isn’t that just a little pointless? Why not just die? I want to suggest to you that it was imperative that Jesus was able to make a triumphant declaration. He wanted to speak out into the universe that, ‘It is finished’, his final words before he died, but he couldn’t because he was parched.
Those coming final words were vital. They carried a sense of triumphant accomplishment. They were the words of an artist looking at his creation, or of a builder at the end of a long project, or the words on a receipt meaning, ‘Paid in full’. They were the words that God said at the end of the first creation. They were the words from the very end of Psalm 22 - ‘God has done it’...
...and they are the words at the end of the Bible, at the beginning of the new creation, when in Revelation 21 St John describes what he hears from the throne of God. John writes:
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
"And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done!
The final words that Jesus says from the cross, ‘It is finished’, are the words that no one else could say, and he had to die in order to be able to say them. But he was so dry, so thirsty, so parched and exhausted, that in order to be able to say those words he first needed to wet his lips.
So in the final analysis, why did Jesus say, ‘I am thirsty’? It was because drinking something was a necessary prelude to making his triumphant declaration that he had finished his mission and had confronted death head on. He needed to drink in order to complete his task.
And that then turns the spotlight on us. Firstly, how aware are we of what our own mission in life is? Every one of us, I believe, has a vocation. We all have something, or a number of somethings, that we are called to do over the course of our life. Do you know what that is for you yet? Jesus lived his life purposefully because he knew what the Father had called him to do. So are we living purposeful lives? That’s the first question. If you don’t know what you should do next, pray about it and talk with a trusted friend to help you discern it. I want to be able to get to the end of my life and say , ‘I did it. I did what I was asked to do.’ Don’t we all want the same thing?
The second question is, if we know what God is calling us to do, what do we need in order to be able to do it? Jesus needed to declare that he had done it, that he had completed his mission, but in order to do that he needed to have enough of a voice to make his final declaration.
Do you know what you need to do what God is calling you to do? And if you do, how are you going about obtaining it? Jesus needed a drink and he asked for one. The drink came from a very unlikely source, the soldiers who had crucified him. When we ask for what we want from God in prayer, we shouldn’t be surprised if God answers our prayers from an unexpected source.
So Jesus knew what his life’s mission was, and to complete it he needed one more thing, something to slake his thirst enough for him to be able to triumphantly declare that it was complete. Do we know what God is asking us to do? Have we questioned him about that in prayer, seeking our calling? And once we know, have we asked God to provide what we need to accomplish what he is asking of us?