Crucifixion was an awful agonising death. Yet strangely the New Testament gives few details about the torture involved. The one exception is when John tells us that Jesus cried out “I am thirsty” (John 19.28). In the heat and dust of the day, he was parched. He longed to moisten his lips, let alone have a decent drink.
John wrote that it was “in order to fulfil the Scripture” that Jesus cried out “I thirst”. The Scripture in question was Psalm 69. 12: “When I was thirsty, they offered me a drink of vinegar”. Indeed, this is precisely what the soldiers did. They offered him cheap wine, so cheap that it was tantamount to vinegar (see 19.29).
This link between the event and the purpose of God does not mean that Jesus cried out simply to fulfil a Scripture – he cried out because he was desperately thirsty. Yet, Jesus, as any good Jew of those days, would have known the Scriptures. It is quite conceivable that his mind did go to Psalm 69. For Psalm 69 is the prayer of a righteous sufferer. Unintentionally, it became prophetic of the sufferings of Jesus.
Psalm 69 begins: “Save me, O God. The water is up to my neck; I am sinking in deep mud, and there is no solid ground. I am out in deep water, and the waves are about to drown me” (69.1). Jesus could well have identified himself with the feelings of the Psalmist. He must have felt out of his depth. Dying is never an easy business. But Jesus was not just drowning. He was suffering. Tortured by thirst, his whole body must have been in agony.
There were those in the early church who were unwilling to take the humanity of Jesus seriously. For example, the so-called Acts of John said that the feet of Jesus left no print on the ground when he walked, and that his body was immaterial to the touch. Jesus was held to have a ‘psychic’ body, not subject to the laws of matter, not subject to any human desire, passion, or emotion, and quite incapable of feeling pain. But this was not true. Suspended on the cross itself he was tortured by a terrible thirst.
Down through the centuries the cry of Jesus, “I am thirsty”, has been interpreted in a variety of ways. For some it has been indicative of the agony of soul experienced by Jesus. Is it a Johannine equivalent of the cry recorded by Matthew and Mark, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me” (Mark 15.4 // Matt 27.46). Was Jesus at this stage desperate for a sense of God’s presence – was he thirsty for God? Psalm 69.3, 16-18 may well be prophetic of what went through the mind of Jesus: “I am worn out from calling for help and my throat is aching. I have strained my eyes looking for your help… Answer me, Lord, in the goodness of your constant love; in your great compassion turn to me! Don’t hide yourself from your servant; I am in great trouble – answer me now! Come to me and save me; rescue me from my enemies.”
For some the cry, “I am thirsty” has been indicative of the agony of heart experienced by Jesus. Jesus, it has been suggested, was yearning for the souls of men and women. Donald Coggan, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, drew a parallel to Mark 6.34, and added: “It was an almost physical longing to reach them, to woo them, to embrace them, and to win them home where they belonged”. John records in his Gospel Jesus saying: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12.32). But on the day in question they mocked him and made him wear a crown of thorns (John 19.1). How dreadful it must have been for Jesus to see people indifferent to his love. But unlike the righteous sufferer of Psalm 69, he did not cry out: “Strike them with blindness!… Keep a record of all their sins; don’t let them have any part in your salvation. May their names be erased from the book of the living; may they not be included in the list of your people” (Ps 69.23a, 27-28). He loved us to the end (John 13.1).