After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
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.
Those simple words: “I thirst.” Can there be any more human expression than that? Jesus, as the Bible presents him, is the Word of God made flesh – he's fully divine, fully one with his Father, fills the roles that only the God of Israel could fill; but if we ever had any doubts that he's as fully human as you or I, only without sin, let them be forever dispelled by these words: “I thirst.” Jesus got hungry. Jesus got thirsty. Jesus could suffer and bleed – and, as we find out today, die.
But the way John writes these words – isn't it a bit odd? Jesus admits his thirst to the crowd, perhaps to the soldiers... “to fulfill the Scripture”? And this sour wine, or wine vinegar in some translations, is delivered on a sponge stuck to a hyssop branch, an unwieldy thing used by priests to sprinkle blood on the altar? If we rush past this saying too quickly, we're prone to miss out on a lot.
What seems to be clear is that Jesus has one more thing to do, before his death, so as to fill out the role given in the Hebrew Scriptures to the righteous suffering Messiah. And so, as he hangs suspended on the cross, Jesus' mind is singing through the psalms of Israel, and he remembers what might have been one of his favorites, Psalm 69. It's there that we hear the words, “For my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
But really, the whole psalm is one that Jesus must have loved. In it, the psalmist is in deep trouble – he is in mortal danger, saying things like, “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Psalm 69:2-3). The psalmist is in a position like dying, and he's calling out, “Save me, O God!” (Psalm 69:1), “Answer me, O LORD” (Psalm 69:16) – he doesn't want this scene to be his end. The psalmist, probably the king of Israel talking on behalf of his people, says he's surrounded by a crowd of hostile nations, who set themselves up as his enemies: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” (Psalm 69:4).
And as he reflects on what led him here, the psalmist says he's being persecuted and mocked because of his loyalty to Israel's God: “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face. … For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:7-9). Because he was so passionate about the house of God, those who hate God and hate holy things choose to mock him, surround him, mistreat him, give him sour wine to drink in his time of greatest thirst.
And that's never been truer of any king than of Jesus. When Jesus overturned tables in the temple court and drove out the money-changers, John quotes this very psalm to explain it: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Jesus was hated by the temple establishment because of his zeal for God's temple in Jerusalem, for its purity as a place where the poor and outcast were welcome and where even foreigners could come and encounter the true and life-giving God Jesus called Father. It was meant to be a house of mission and mercy, but defiled by the merciless exploitation that clogged the way there.
But what's more, what really led Jesus to the cross was his loving zeal for his Father's living house, the new temple – us, the church, who are “grow[ing] into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21; cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Jesus is immensely passionate, he's saying, for us to be a pure residence for the Spirit, for us to be a living house of mission and mercy, a sanctuary on the move, bringing the nations to God and God to the nations, a living temple where all can meet him.
And because Jesus is zealous for this house of God, those who oppose God's plans – and that is so often us, resisting God's holiness with our sin, denying God's truth with our opinions, stifling God's mission with our selfishness, muttering against God's love like Jonah, rattling sabres against God's peace – well, those (like us) who oppose God's plans put Jesus on the cross. They hated him without cause and left him there in the whelming flood of death (cf. John 15:25). That wouldn't be the end – as the psalm goes on to say, God would hear Jesus' prayers, rescue him on the other side of death, and those who love God's name will yet find life in his Holy City (Psalm 69:33-36).
But before that happy ending comes to pass, Jesus looks around from the cross, looking for a sign of human mercy, of loyalty, of companionship. What did he find in the crowd that day? “Reproaches have broken my heart … I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20). In that hour, he was abandoned and forsaken. He was alone amidst the crowd. He was opposed on every side. And he was pushed to the uttermost limits his flesh could bear, in ways he hadn't been since his forty-day fast in the desert. And just as he surely did then, so he does now: he thirsts.
Jesus Christ, the Promised King, the Righteous Branch, the Son of God, is thirsty. And he looks to us, to humanity, not because he needs us, but because he chooses to ask us for an offering. And what did the soldiers give him? Did they give him a tall glass of champagne? Did they give him refreshing water from a mountain spring? Did they give him a Coke or a Pepsi? Did they give him anything rich, anything satisfying? No, because he fulfilled the pattern laid out in the psalm: “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:21). Sour wine – not terribly pleasant. It's the cheap stuff, the thoughtless gift they happened to have on hand, the soldiers' leftovers – the poor priestly offering from an ungrateful pagan hand.
So it was with King Jesus on the cross, in his last minutes of life before death's futile interruption. But, sad to say, it's often the case even now, as he reigns in glory. He looks to us each Sunday, asking us to offer him our worship – do we give him rich wine, or do we give him the cheap stuff? He looks to us throughout our weeks, thirsting for our lives to look like his own holy love – and do we give him that, or do we give him the cheap stuff? And he gazes into our eyes from the faces of the oppressed and poor and tired and needy, and in their outstretched hands he stretches forth his – and do we give him a gift of abundance, or do we give him the cheap stuff, or do we give him nothing at all?
That day on the cross, where consuming zeal for this house of the Father led him, the Son of God's thirst was met with sour wine, vinegar, the cheap stuff. This day, when the Son of God comes to you and says, “I thirst” – what offering will you give him? Think on these things.