Among the seven last statements of Jesus recorded in the gospels is one that, at first glance, seems almost insignificant. Shortly before his death he says, “I thirst.” This simple statement seems out of place among the other more dramatic statements he made from the cross. Yet there is more here than meets the eye. Let’s consider some of the possible reasons why John records these words, and what he may have intended his readers to see in these simple words.
At the surface, Jesus' words, “I thirst,” John tells us, lead to the fulfillment of Scripture. What Scripture did Jesus fulfill by making this statement? Most scholars think it is Psalm 69:21b: “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” When he said he was thirsty and was offered wine vinegar, Jesus was pointing us back to this verse from Psalm 69. He was saying, “Look, what I’m doing now was written centuries ago. It is part of God’s plan that was set in place long before now.”
A second possible reason John included these words in his account of the crucifixion may have been to point to Jesus’ humanity. Some in his time, as today, de-emphasized his human nature. But “I thirst” highlights his humanity. Many times while sitting with persons who were dying I’ve heard the words, “I’m thirsty.” Typically a nurse or hospice worker or loved one will bring a cup of ice chips and a spoon to place a chip or two on the person’s tongue. Sometimes a little sponge on a stick is used. It is soaked in water and the dying person can suck on the sponge. This was not unlike what happened at the cross as a sponge was dipped in wine vinegar, affixed to a stick and lifted up to Jesus. Jesus was human; he thirsted as people do when dying.
Let’s consider a third way of understanding these words. At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26:28 NKJV). Elsewhere, when James and John asked Jesus if they could sit at his right hand and his left hand when he came into his kingdom, Jesus replied, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). Likewise, in John 18:11, as Jesus was being arrested, Peter drew his sword; but Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In each of these instances, Jesus used the metaphor of drinking as a way of describing the suffering he would endure on the cross.
Jesus’ words “I thirst” may have pointed not only to his willingness to drink the cup of suffering and sin and hate—but to drink it down to the dregs. Given that he was nearing the end, perhaps he was pointing to the fact that the cup was now nearly empty.
There’s a fourth way of understanding John’s inclusion of these words. In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. She’s been married and divorced five times and was then living with a man who was not her husband. She’s likely an outcast among her own people. Jesus asks her to draw water from the well for him, and then he says, “If you knew who you were talking to, you would ask of me and I would give you living water and you will never thirst again.”
Likewise, in John 7, Jesus said to the multitudes in Jerusalem, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (verse 37). And it is precisely with these two passages, John 4 and John 7, as a backdrop that I believe John wants us to read Jesus' words from the cross, “I thirst.” He who was the source of living water is now thirsty as he dies on the cross. The source of life, of grace, of hope, of love, of living water is drying up. The spring is nearly extinguished. Can you feel the pathos in this scene and these words?
A fulfillment of prophecy, an emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, an expression of his having finished the cup of suffering, and a moving statement that the source of Living Water was drying up—these are all possible ways of understanding the meaning John saw in Jesus’ words, “I thirst.”
Today's post is an excerpt from Final Words From the Cross.
Read other posts in this series: