28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
There is a very famous statement that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It goes like this: “Preach the gospel all the time. Use words only when necessary.” As it turns out, Francis almost certainly never said that, but it is a powerful sentiment, in my opinion. It has its critics, to be sure, but the point of it is clear enough: our lives preach the gospel more powerfully than our words. Critics of the statement point out that the actual content of the gospel must be clearly preached for it to be grasped. I agree completely. But the point of the saying stands: our words, while necessary, do not carry as much weight as our actions.
I think we can see this reality playing out on the cross. The gospel was being displayed in the suffering and death of Christ. He suffering was His sermon and His words were few. But He did find some words necessary; seven, to be exact. This fifth word from the cross, “I thirst,” is a very short word. In it we see that Jesus was using words only when necessary. But this short word is not an easy word. It is certainly not a cheap word. It, too, contains the gospel. So on the cross the gospel was preached in action and preached in words, and here it is preached in the words, “I thirst.”
The fifth word from the cross presents us with an illuminating irony that highlights the agony of the cross and the mystery of the incarnation.
There is an illuminating irony in the words, “I thirst,” particularly since they appear in John’s gospel. Jesus has spoken of water before in John’s gospel. The irony has to do with the water as well as with the idea of a cup.
Do you remember Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well? In John 4, Jesus passes through Samaria. He disciples find convenient excuses to be elsewhere. So Jesus comes alone to a well and there he meets a Samaritan woman.
7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
When one puts the statement, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again,” beside the statement, “I thirst,” all one can do is marvel. How can the source of a water that quenches all thirst forever say, “I thirst”? How can the spring of eternal life be dry? And let us make no mistake: Jesus is, in Himself, the spring of eternal water. In John 7, we read:
37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
We come and drink from Christ…and now this Christ says, “I thirst.” There is only one inescapable conclusion: something terrible happened on the cross. To be sure, the gospel tells us that something indescribably beautiful happened on the cross as well, but, first, something terrible: the spring of living water, the source of that nourishment that banishes all thirst cries out, “I thirst!”
What is more, there is another image that comes to mind at this point with the full force of irony. I am speaking of the image of the cup. In the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus goes to pray, He prays about a cup. We find this in Matthew 26.
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
Jesus prays that the cup might pass, but only if it be the Father’s will. The cup can be understood in many ways. It may refer to the Father’s wrath, as it did often throughout the Old Testament. It may also be seen as an image for the painful task that lay before Jesus. In this sense, the cup is the cross. Regardless, Christ pays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”
It is an intriguing image, this cup, for the Father does not let it pass and Jesus drinks it. But in so drinking, He thirsts. The irony is in this fact: Jesus thirsts while yet drinking the cup the Father gives Him. But this cup of the cross is not a nourishing cup for Jesus. It is a cup of pain. It is a cup of agony, to the extent that the fount of all living water, while drinking it, thirsts and cries out.
The fifth word from the cross presents us with a painful fulfillment of a prophesied suffering.
Of course, John himself gives us some help in understanding this word from the cross.
28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
That parenthesis is important: “to fulfill the Scripture.” In other words, the cry of thirst fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the suffering servant. James Montgomery Boice proposes that Jesus was thinking of all the Old Testament prophecies that needed to be fulfilled, realized that one had not, and so cried out on that basis.
Apparently his mind had also run over other prophecies, almost, it would seem, checking them off to assure himself that everything prophesied concerning his life had been accomplished. Was there anything in Genesis that had been left undone? No. Exodus? No. Deuteronomy? No. At last he reached Psalm 69 where it is said in verse 21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.” Already they had offered him gall to deaden his pain…but there had been no offer of vinegar for his thirst. Therefore, he calls out “I thirst” that this might be completed.
While I appreciate the emphasis on Christ knowing that all prophecy needed to be fulfilled, there is something clinical and mechanistic about Boice’s idea. In fairness, Boice is simply appealing to an image to help us understand, but it almost runs the danger of depicting Jesus as “tacking on” this fifth word to make sure all the boxes were checked.
No, He actually did thirst, and, in so doing, He fulfilled the scriptures. But what scriptures specifically? It should be noted that John does not actually say. Many point to Psalm 22.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
This is quite possible. The imagery works and is a more than fitting picture of what Christ was suffering on the cross. “My tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death,” is a profoundly jarring and memorable picture of the agonies of Christ on the cross. Even so, the majority view appears to be that Jesus was referring to Psalm 69.
19 You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor; my foes are all known to you. 20 Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. 21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.
This psalm mentions thirst as well as the fact that the suffering servant was given “sour wine” to drink. This matches well the words that follow the fifth word from the cross, John 19:29.
29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Psalm 69, however, is the suffering servant’s declaration that His heart has been broken. Surely this is speaking of the deep wells of pain that Christ experienced in His soul on the cross and, specifically, the amazing moment when Christ became cursed for us.
I do not deny that Psalm 22 and 69 are almost certainly what is being alluded to, but Psalm 42 should also be considered. Again, John does not name the specific text that is being fulfilled, and some argue that the parenthetical reference to fulfillment is speaking of all the Old Testament texts that speak of the agony of the Son. Regardless, there is another thirst spoken of in Psalm 22 that brings a helpful nuance to this fifth word.
1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. 5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6 and my God.
This, too, fits well the scene of the cross. It also potentially helps us understand further the cry, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” In Psalm 22 the suffering, lonely servant thirsts for God and thirsts for the day when He will stand again before the God. This speaks of a fracture in their relationship that will be overcome in time. There is a note of hoped-for completion in this depiction. There is also a note of victory:
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6 and my God.
The fifth word from the cross presents us with a despair-destroying solidarity and a life-granting substitution.
But what of the actual meaning of, “I thirst”? What does it mean for us? I would propose that it is a statement of solidarity from Jesus that drives away despair. It also highlights Christ’s substitutionary work.
There is a fascinating and beautiful picture in Revelation 7 that speaks of the significance of the fifth word.
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“They shall…neither thirst anymore.” Why? “The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” The significance of this lies in the fact that it points to what the thirst of Christ has won for us. In short, Christ thirsts so that we will inherit a Kingdom in which there is no thirst at all. He thirsts in order that our thirsts might be quenched.
This means that suffering humanity can draw strength and courage from the fifth word from the cross. Those who are thirsty today can look to the cross and see that Christ understands their thirst, has taken their thirst upon Himself, and has forever quenched the thirsty souls of man. Herman Ridderbos put it beautifully, when he wrote:
“I thirst” is…a lament wrung from him out of the depth of his suffering in which his solidarity with those who had lamented their suffering in Scripture consists above all in the fact that he and they took their suffering to God and laid it out before him…That Jesus knew…that in his suffering he was fulfilling a divine calling…in no way detracts from the deep reality of his suffering and solidarity with his own.
Yes, the thirsting Christ stands in despair-destroying solidarity with all hurting humanity. But there is one more dynamic that needs to be considered.
I mentioned earlier that part of the significance of “I thirst” is that it is situated in John’s gospel and that Jesus speaks of thirsting and water in fascinating ways in John. Specifically, we need to revisit John 2 at this point.
1 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Now here is a fascinating thing indeed. In Jesus’ first miracle in John’s gospel he (a) turns water into wine and (b) turns this water into high quality wine. Thus, Jesus’ ministry begins with Him providing good wine for others.
But here, at the end of His life, Jesus asks for water and is given “sour wine” (v.29). “Here is Jesus, thirsty” remarks N.T. Wright, “and they give him the low-grade sour wine that the soldiers used. He gave others the best wine, so good that people remarked on it. He himself, at his moment of agony, has the cheap stuff that the lower ranks in the army drank when on duty.”
Here we see again the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Jesus provides good wine for others, but, for Himself, there is only sour wine. He gives us what is sweet and generous and remarkable. He takes upon Himself what is sour and poor and wretched. He freely gives bountifully out of His abundance, but for Himself there is only the stingy and mocking offering of a humanity that does not know up from down.
Christ gives good wine.
Christ is given gutter wine.
This is the cross: Christ putting Himself in our place and taking upon Himself our curse. He thirsts so that we can be filled. He is stripped and exposed so that we can be clothed and protected. He is mocked and beaten so that we can be healed and blessed. He is tormented so that we can be saved.
“I thirst…so that you will not have to.”
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John. Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 1523-1524.
 Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p.616-617.
 N.T. Wright, John for Everyone: Part Two. (Louiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p.130.