‘Why Have You Forsaken Me?’: Teaching Jesus’ Words from the Cross to Teenagers

At the cross, Jesus took on the penalty and punishment for sin—the sin of all those who will turn from their sin and trust in him. Imagine bearing the weight of sin for every murder committed over the course of human history—past, present, and future. The weight of that one type of sin is too much to bear on its own, not to mention adding the weight of every other sin.

Jesus became sin (2 Cor. 5:21). In taking on our human sinfulness, Jesus also took on the wrath of God against sin. As a perfect and holy God, God hates sin and cannot be in the presence of sinners. They stand as enemies to him and to his plan for the world. To be a just Judge, God must punish sin. At the same time, his ultimate plan is to dwell with human beings for eternity (Rev. 21:3). How do we reconcile these two realities?

When our students think of the punishment for sin, they typically think of hell. Throughout the Bible, we see different descriptions of hell. Jesus referred to it many times as a place of suffering (Luke 16:23), pain (Matt. 8:12), and wrath (Matt. 10:28). Revelation pictures hell as a lake of fire (Rev. 19-20). Although the Bible uses various images, it is clear that hell is a place where God pours out his wrath on sin and sinners.

At the cross, Jesus went through hell in the place of sinful people who would trust in him. He experienced the wrath of God due to the sins of the entire world. In Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus crying out as he experiences the punishment of hell at the cross:

And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matt. 27:46

In this moment, God had turned his back on Jesus because Jesus was bearing the sins of the world. On the cross, Jesus is actively experiencing the wrath of God due to your sin and my sin. He cries out to God even as he experiences being forsaken by God.

To be forsaken is to be lost, alone, and disconnected. Jesus cried out to the Father in lonely desperation as he received punishment for sin. The Father turned his face away from Jesus and brought divine wrath on the sin that Jesus chose to bear.

These words stand as the darkest moment at the cross. Jesus’ cry should alarm anyone who hasn’t responded to the gospel because we were not meant to spend eternity separated from God. Jesus is taking upon himself the punishment we deserve in experiencing this separation. God in his goodness has provided a way to save us from the punishment for sin that we truly do deserve.

These words of Jesus’ suffering offer great hope for our students who have surrendered to Jesus. Because Jesus was forsaken, we will never be forsaken. Because Jesus took our hell at the cross, we will never have to experience hell on our own. Because Jesus took the wrath of God, we will never have to experience His wrath.

Application for Teenagers

Teenagers often experience loneliness or abandonment. They may feel foresaken by parents who are relationally absent from their lives. The student with a father who is always working may feel as though his father doesn’t have time for a relationship. The teenager whose parents have recently divorced may wonder whether her parents still love her, or she may question whether the divorce was somehow her fault.

Your students may also have had experiences of their friends forsaking them. A teenager may have had to step away from a friend group because his friends were making poor decisions. Or a student may feel pushed out of a friend group because the other students in the group are more interested in seeking popularity. In either case, these teenagers will miss the sense of community they once had.

The ending of a “long-term” student dating relationship could leave a student feeling at a point of forsakenness. Perhaps your student longed for the opportunity to go to the senior prom only to have her hopes smashed by a text message the week before explaining that the relationship was over. 

Jesus experienced these feelings to the ultimate extreme. By going to the cross for our sake, he took on the forsakenness from God that we deserved. God will not abandon us if we come to him in faith (2 Cor. 4:9) because Jesus took this penalty for us at the cross.

Your students who trust in Jesus have been freed from the punishment and penalty for their sin because of Jesus’ substitutionary death for them at the cross. Jesus went through the hell that we all deserved for our sin and opened the way for imperfect people to have a relationship with God again. The beauty of the gospel’s rescue is that Jesus chose to experience hell so that we could receive his forgiveness and grace.

Truth for Gospel Living

Jesus’ forsakenness and suffering brought us hope, freedom, and the truth that we will never be alone. In Jesus, we have a God who loves us so much that he was willing to endure hell—all so that we could have a restored relationship with the Father. 

As you teach the words of Jesus to the teenagers in your care, remember that you and your students are neither alone nor forsaken. People may have walked away and abandoned you, but Jesus has not left you. You may feel like no one cares about your hurts and you suffer all alone, but Jesus cares for you. We have the privilege of offering the care we have received from Jesus to the students God has entrusted to our care.

Ben Birdsong is a church and para-church student ministry veteran and currently serves as the Minister of Missions at Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also an adjunct professor teaching children, youth, and family ministries at Birmingham Theological Seminary. Ben also helps churches with custom curriculum through Your Youth Ministry Curriculum and authors with book projects through Birdsong Innovations. Ben has bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and Human Resource Management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a Master of Divinity degree from Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, and a Doctor of Ministry in Ministry to Emerging Generations from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. As an author, Ben has written the devotional books Words from the Cross: 7 Statements that Will Transform Your Life, journeying through Jesus’ final moments before His death, and James: Everyday Faith. He is also a monthly contributor for parenting and family ministry content for Birmingham Christian Family magazine. Ben also wrote the John study and a portion of the Psalm study for Rooted Reservoir. Ben is married to Liz. He enjoys reading, writing, watching movies, and blogging at www.benbirdsong.com.

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