What Is the Significance of Jesus Saying 'I Thirst' in John 19:28?
- Rev. Kyle Norman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 11 Feb
The cross was not a simple event. Christ’s death on the cross is God’s definitive response to fallen humanity. Instead of judgment, we find grace. Instead of retribution, God bestows redemption. Instead of punishment, Jesus embraces the suffering of humanity. We see these realities nuanced in Christ’s statements from the cross itself. Until his final breath, Jesus proclaims forgiveness and salvation for all who would hear and respond.
One of the statements that Jesus makes while on the cross is “I thirst.” This statement, in some way, seems to stand in contrast to his other statements on the cross. His cry, “forgive them Father for they know not what they do”, for example, is obviously a prayer for forgiveness upon sinful humanity. Similarly, his statements to Mary and John of “behold your son/behold your mother” implies the creation of the Christian community. Yet the declaration of his thirst seems different. The focus of the statement is not on the Father above, or the crowd below, but on himself as he hangs on the cross. Perhaps this is why this phrase has intrigued so many.
So, what exactly did Jesus mean when he declared “I thirst”?
I Thirst Verse Meaning
Jesus Was Thirsty
This may appear overly simplistic. The temptation is to take these words and interpret them in some overly spiritualized manner. We might equate “thirsting” with Christ’s call to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Another possible connection would be to link this statement with Christ’s invitation that all who are thirsty are invited to drink from the waters of life (Revelation 22:17). These interpretive links are not necessarily wrong, and word-studies can be an enjoyable foray into both biblical meditation and biblical study. Such studies may lead us deeper in our faith, and to the uncovering of profound truths for our lives.
Yet we must ask the question: is this what Jesus was referring to when he uttered these two words? I would argue not.
We must recognize this statement in its context. It can be tempting to see the pain of the cross as solely referring to the nails in Christ’s hands and feet. We must remember, however, the cross occurred only after he was paraded through the streets, beaten by Roman guards, and spit upon by bystanders. Once this procession of humiliation was finished, only then did he have nails driven through his hands and feet. To add insult to injury he was erected upon a wooden beam so that he could be mocked and jeered by the very ones he came to save.
On the cross, Jesus hangs in a position of self-suffocation. His only relief from the physical pressure upon his lungs is to hoist his weight upon his nail-scarred wrists and feet. As the hours passed, crucified in the burning heat of the noon-day sun, this action would become more and more difficult, and increasingly more painful. The Romans designed this way of punishment for this very purpose. The cross was a means to inflict the most amount of pain possible. So effective was this that a new term had to be created to describe its effects: excruciating – literally “out of the cross.”
It is out of this place of physical exhaustion that Jesus declares his thirst. The hours spent in the sun, coupled with the physical pain he was feeling, would have created mild, if not severe, dehydration. Jesus speaks of his own thirst out a real human need for sustenance and relief. On the cross, Jesus is physically thirsty.
This fact is important, lest we deny the humanity of Christ. One of the early heresies the church contended with was known as “Docetism.” This was the belief that Jesus only appeared to be human. As one not fully flesh and blood, Jesus did not experience hunger, thirst, pleasure, or pain. Thus, the heresy taught that Jesus, the second person of the divine Trinity, did not experience the suffering of the crucifixion. For the docetists, the cross was a type of divine show. It made no sense, then, for Jesus to cry out “I thirst”, because thirst is a human sensation, one that has no place in the divine being.
Christians believe differently. Christians believe that Jesus was fully human. Jesus was flesh and blood like all others. He ate. He drank. He slept. He laughed and wept. He suffered. He died. Jesus did not escape the crucifixion through some divine loop-hole. Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of God, went to the cross. This is vital to our faith because it teaches us that Jesus enters into the depths of human life. To believe that Christ was somehow not on the cross is to believe that there is something about humanity that Jesus does not enter into. This is vehemently denied throughout Scripture.
The early Church Father, Gregory of Nazianzus, once said “That which is un-assumed [in the incarnation] remains unhealed.” His point is that redemption is only found in Christ’s full embracing of humanity. After all, how can Jesus offer the solution to the world’s brutality and violence if, in some way, he did not experience that? On the cross, Jesus enters the reality of pain, suffering, and death. Jesus takes the suffering of humankind upon himself in order to be the way of redemption. It is because of this fact that we can be confident that nothing in our lives lie outside of Christ’s redeeming love. Because he thirsted, our thirsts can be quenched.
Why Did Jesus Ask for a Drink on the Cross?
Jesus Is Messiah
If we do not understand that Jesus was a full flesh-and-blood human person then we have not fully understood the gospel. Yet Jesus wasn’t just another human being. While fully human, Jesus was also fully divine. Jesus is the second person of the Triune God. His presence on earth was God’s very incarnation. In this way, Jesus is the Anointed One of God, the agent of God's redemption and salvation. This is what we refer to when we use the title Messiah or Christ.
When John records Jesus saying “I thirst,” John adds that “this was to fulfill the scripture” (19:28). Here, John is referring to two passages, found in the psalms. Firstly, Psalm 69:21 states “they gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” This is exactly what occurs in the gospel. At the declaration of Christ’s thirst, the soldiers raise a sponge soaked in sour wine to Jesus' lips.
Similarly, much of what happens on the cross echoes Psalm 22. It is in Psalm 22 that we come across the phrase “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Additionally, verse 15 says “my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You lay me in the dust of death.” Finally, in verse 18 we read “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” This occurs in John 19:24. These verses, and many others, prophesy the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The salient point in all of this is that Jesus did not come out of nowhere. Jesus is the very person to whom the Hebrew Scriptures continually point. In re-living scenes from Israel’s own past, Jesus declares that he is the way of redemption, the inaugurator of salvation. Israel’s anticipation of the messiah is now firmly realized in the person of Jesus. Full redemption is found in him alone. Thus, declaring his thirst is a fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture, testifying that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. While we do not have time here to speak of all the ways Jesus fulfills Israel’s prophetic history, scholars have estimated that Jesus fulfilled roughly 400 messianic prophecies.
Putting the Two Together
We cannot emphasize one aspect of Christ’s existence over the other. If we rest too heavily on Jesus as the divine Messiah, we potentially risk rendering him remote, separate, and unapproachable. If we overly emphasize Christ’s humanity, then Jesus simply becomes another wise sage of a bygone era – one whose words may be inspiring, but whose presence is ripped from our lives. Robust Christian faith holds the two together.
Christ does not have two different and opposing natures. Jesus has one nature – equally human, and equally divine. Jesus was a flesh and blood human being. Jesus felt the emotions we feel and underwent the hurts we experience. Jesus also thirsted just as much as we thirst. Jesus, however, was also the divine enfleshment of God. He was the anointed Messiah in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 2:9). And for that reason, he is able to tackle the deepest longings of our hearts and our souls. That which no other human being is able to affect, Jesus holds mastery. With him alone is forgiveness, grace, and mercy. His love reaches us in whatever situation we may find ourselves in. Because he is fully divine we can be assured that there is nothing in heaven or earth that is outside his power.
It is because Jesus thirsted on the cross that he can quench the deepest longings of our soul. It is because Jesus suffered rejection and cruelty that Jesus is able to offer healing for us. It is because Jesus died on the cross that Jesus meets us in the place of death, and transforms it to a place of eternal life. A Jesus who did not bear these truths is of no use to us. Thankfully, through the mercy of God, this is not the case, for Jesus said “I thirst.”
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/kckate16
The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.
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