‘Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.’ (John 19:28-29)
Jesus’ fifth word is one of distress. Having endured torture, crucifixion and prolonged exposure in the baking sun, Jesus’ body is weak and dried up and he says: “I thirst” (v28).
Those two English words are a single word in the Greek, and the balance of the sentence is revealing. One Greek word is spent on Jesus’ distress, “I thirst”, while the rest of the sentence tells of his motivation.
This was not simply a cry for refreshment. It was a calculated word, uttered at a precise time – ‘when everything had now been finished’ – and for a particular reason – ‘so that Scripture would be fulfilled.’ Even in his most powerless moment, Jesus is shown to have incredible power.
This is a theme that John has already alluded to in this chapter. At his trial, Pilate said to Jesus, ‘“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”’ and Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”’ (John 19:10-11).
The events of Good Friday reveal the true power and authority of Jesus. Even in his distress, there was never a moment when things were out of his control. Everything happened in line with his timing, his plan, and his word.
But what Scripture is Jesus alluding to when he speaks of his thirst?
It is almost certainly a combination of two. Psalm 22 prophetically depicts Jesus’ experience on the cross, including his mouth drying up and his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth (Psalm 22:15). Psalm 69 similarly speaks of his throat being parched (Psalm 69:3) and his enemies giving him vinegar for his thirst (Psalm 69:21).
But with hindsight, and the full canon of Scripture, the idea of Jesus thirsting should call to mind a few other stories, within John’s very own gospel.
On three occasions Jesus appealed to thirsty people:
Firstly, to the Samaritan woman at the well he said: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water… whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 13-14).
Secondly, following the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus declared: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
And thirdly, at the Feast of Tabernacles he spoke of the promised Holy Spirit, saying, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38).
And yet here at the cross, it is as though the source of living water has dried up. The one who claimed to quench the eternal thirst of others, is himself dying of unquenchable thirst.
But John understands that Christ’s thirst is necessary, if our thirst is to be quenched. Indeed, when Jesus spoke about the promise of living water, John explained that it was tied to the cross. ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified’ (John 7:39).
It is through Jesus’ thirst that springs of living water would be opened up, and made available to all. As the hymn puts it:
‘On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide.
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy,
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above.
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice,
Kissed a guilty world in love.’
Questions for Reflection
- Do you feel that God is quenching your thirst? Why don’t you ask for more of His Holy Spirit in your life today?
- Today, try to be conscious of your own feelings of hunger and thirst. When you experience them, take a moment to reflect on Jesus’ experience at the cross.
I acknowledge that I experience a thirst no fountain can quench.
I turn to you, the fount of living water,
Trusting that you can satisfy.
Would you fill me today with your Holy Spirit,
And may the streams of living water bubble up within me,
That I may never thirst again,
And may enjoy eternal life.
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