Why Did Jesus Say “I Thirst” On the Cross? A Sermon on John 19:28-29

I had the privilege of preaching the Good Friday sermon at our home church in Raleigh this year. When I was asked to preach, I was told that I would be continuing a series of the last seven words of Jesus, and the words that I would preach would be the words “I thirst” recorded in John 19:28. At first glance, I wondered how I could preach an entire sermon on these words. But as I continued to study them, I wondered how I could preach only one sermon on these words! What I found as I studied made this my favorite sermon I’ve preached to date. I wanted to share it here as well as my sermon transcript in case anyone would rather read it. However, please be aware that I try to write my manuscripts as I will preach them, so the verbiage/writing style may not be top-notch English!

[Transcript: “I Thirst”; John 19:28-29]

If you knew you had just a few hours left to live, who would you want to talk to, and what words would you say? I would assume that most of us would want to speak to those we love, and we would want to offer words that express our love, that give comfort, and maybe even direction. When people have this opportunity- to think through and speak their “last words,” it can have a great impact. These words are remembered and cherished by those who hear them. Yet they also have the effect of revealing the heart of the person speaking them- who they love, what their hopes and fears are, whether they are content, joyful, or afraid.

This Good Friday we are continuing our series on the last seven words of Jesus- and these words are similar to the “last words” we might speak. They are spoken to those whom Jesus loves, they offer hope, encouragement, direction, but ultimately reveal who He is and what He is doing. In our passage, Jesus has been turned over to the authorities, nailed to a tree, and is experiencing the wrath of God being poured out on Him as he bears our sins. And He utters the words, “I thirst.” At first glance, we might be tempted to think that this saying is not as important as the other sayings such as “why have you forsaken me?” or “it is finished.” But this phrase actually reveals a great deal about Jesus and the nature of His work on our behalf.

To see this, we’ll look at three things the phrase, “I thirst” reveals to us about Jesus. First, that Jesus suffered physically. Second, that Jesus fulfilled Scripture. And that Jesus provides for our thirst. Physical Suffering, Fulfillment of Scripture, and Provision for our Thirst. Let’s begin by considering the first revelation: That Jesus Suffered Physically.

Jesus Suffered Physically

Our passage begins in verse 28 after Jesus told his disciple John to take care of his mother in vs. 25-27. Read verse 28 with me, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said, “I thirst.” John prefaces Jesus saying, “I thirst” with the statement of “knowing that all was now finished.” What does that mean? It means that Jesus’ declaration of thirst comes at the tail end of His sacrifice on the cross. He had been mocked, beaten, crucified, and as we saw in the previous verses, made provision for His mother. His work of dying a sacrificial death was nearly complete. It’s at this moment that Jesus utters the words, “I thirst.”

At this point, Jesus feels death coming. Just like we feel the feeling of sleep coming over us when we lay in the bed at night, Jesus begins to feel the wave of death crashing toward Him. And He feels this, in part, because of the climax of His physical suffering- unquenchable thirst. Consider how the German theologian Friedrich Krummacher describes this thirst in his book, The Suffering Savior:

The blood vessels of His sacred body are almost dried up. A dreadful fever rages through His frame. His tongue cleaves to His jaws. His lips burn…” and he concludes, “There is scarcely a greater torment than that of insatiable thirst”

The phrase, “I thirst,” reminds us again of the incredible physical suffering that Jesus suffered on our behalf. As we will see, there is beautiful spiritual significance behind this phrase, but Jesus was not pretending to be thirsty to illustrate these truths. He really was desperately thirsty. He suffered as a real man. This was part of him being truly human and experiencing the pain and suffering of a fallen world. And on the cross, he bears this suffering acutely, experiencing the full effect of what we have caused by our sin as he bears them on the cross.

So this Good Friday, as we consider these things, hear the cry of Christ, with dry tongue sticking to His mouth, and see him suffering, physically, on your behalf. Try to imagine what Jesus felt, what he experienced, what this feeling of thirst was like. And recognize that he was experiencing the pain and suffering that our sin has created in order pay for our sin and eventually remove that pain and suffering from this world.

However, the experience of “thirst” was not a random effect of the fall that Jesus experienced. It had a specific purpose, which John tells us was “to fulfill the Scripture.” This brings us to our second revelation of “I thirst”: that Jesus fulfilled Scripture.

Jesus Fulfilled Scripture

Look back at verse 28 with me. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” John tells us plainly that Jesus’ statement fulfills Scripture does. This qualification is helpful because we probably wouldn’t naturally think “fulfillment of Scripture” when we read Jesus saying he thirsts. But what Scripture is John referring to?

First, Psalm 22. Matthew and Mark record Jesus crying out and quoting the opening lines of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This invocation would’ve brought to mind the rest of the Psalm, showing Christ to be the fulfillment of the psalmist’s words. In the fifteenth verse of this chapter, the psalmist says, “my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”

The psalmist’s experience of suffering and a sense of forsakenness is described as a loss of strength, an unquenchable thirst, and a feeling of death. And Christ fulfills this Scripture as the one who’s strength really was drying up, who’s tongue really did stick to his jaws, and who really was laid in the dust of death.

Second, Jesus fulfills Psalm 69.

In Psalm 69:1-3, the psalmist writes,

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am wearing with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

Ironically, the psalmist describes himself as sinking in deep waters with a flood sweeping over him…but with a parched, thirsty throat. The psalmist goes on to say that he looked for pity, for relief for his thirst, but was only given sour wine to drink. Verse 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. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”

Jesus fulfills this psalm as he actually drowns in the deep waters of God’s wrath against sin but is thirsty, yet when he asks for something to drink, he is only given bitter wine, just as the psalmist wrote. Look with me in verse 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.” Jesus fulfilled Psalm 69.

The fact that Jesus fulfills Scripture in his last words should be great encouragement to us. Why? Because, in a sense, Jesus is saying “everything is going to plan.” He told his disciples in Luke 18:31 that “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” And as he hangs in agony on the cross, he declares his thirst in the fulfillment of Scripture, reminding us that He is the suffering servant, he is the lamb of God, He is the one who takes away the sin of the world, and that God’s plan of our salvation is being fulfilled as it was written.

Therefore let us look to Christ on the cross as the One who fulfilled the Scriptures. And let us recognize that even though Satan, the Jews, and the Romans meant His death for evil, God meant it for the greatest good of the world. Everything was going according to plan. Even down to the finest details of Christ’s thirst. Be encouraged that this is the God we worship- who makes promises- and who fulfills them- all the way to the finest detail.

TS: We have seen that Jesus suffered physically and fulfilled Scripture when He said, “I thirst.” But we must ask the question, “why thirst?” Why did Jesus need to suffer in this way? Why was thirst a part of Scripture that needed fulfillment in the first place? We’ll find the answer in our final revelation, where we see that Jesus provided for our thirst.

Jesus Provided for Our Thirst

To understand this point, we have to go back to the beginning, where God created Adam and Eve. He created them in a perfect garden that had everything they needed for life, food, and the enjoyment of His presence, including a great river that was the source of the great rivers of the east (Genesis 2:10). They had it all. God’s presence. Pleasant food. Beautiful scenery, and plentiful water. No death, no hunger, no thirst. Until they disobeyed God by eating of the one tree He commanded them not to eat from. Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden where they would experience all the effects of their sin, including hunger, death, pain, sorrow, sickness, and thirst. All of these things pointed to their broken relationship with Him- what they had lost.

But God in His mercy called a man named Abraham and promised to make him into a great nation. This nation was the nation of Israel, with whom God made a covenant- a promise- to be their God and they be his people. They were given commands that required them to be faithful to God and worship Him alone. These would lead to covenant blessings if kept, but if disobeyed, they would lead to covenant curses. And one of these curses was thirst.

In Deuteronomy 28:48, God warns the Israelites that they will be sent into exile if they break the covenant, where they will serve their enemies in hunger, and nakedness, and thirst.

In Hosea 2, God commands Hosea to plead with the people of Israel to turn from their idolatry lest He afflict her with thirst:

Plead with your mother [to Israel] …to put away whoring from her face, and her adultery from her breasts…lest I make her like a parched land, and kill her with thirst.”

And in Isaiah, God warns his people that if they do not turn from their idolatry they will be “like a garden without water” (1:30). God’s people forsake Him, which Jeremiah describes as forsaking the fountain of living waters and digging their own cisterns which can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13). God sends them into exile, where Jeremiah describes their judgment by highlighting thirst of the children (Lamentations 4).

But there’s hope. Isaiah prophesies about a coming servant that will suffer on behalf of the people, and who will become King, and who will lead his people to become “like streams of water in a dry place” (32:2). When the suffering servant comes, the invitation of Isaiah 55:1 is given, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” And for those who come, God promises, “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (58:11).

Here is the point: thirst was a picture of judgment. It was a sign of our broken relationship with God. Of our sin. It was a physical representation of our spiritual dehydration. And our need for salvation. Our need for someone to bear our thirst- curse and give us living water. That’s who Isaiah prophesied about. That is who Jesus is. We see this in John 4:13-14, where Jesus tells a woman at a well:

Whoever drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.”

And he says in John 6:35, “whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

This is the third thing that Jesus’ statement, “I thirst,” reveals to us: He is providing what the curse of physical thirst points to: our spiritual thirst! Our broken relationship with God. And he does so by becoming thirsty himself, in our place, even though he perfectly obeyed God’s commands, so that He could give us a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” In his physical thirst, He is bearing our curse of spiritual thirst by receiving the wrath of God against our sins. And though He dies, He will rise from the dead, ascend to the right hand of the Father, and give eternal life to everyone who repents of their sins and places their faith in Him and his work on the cross. In him, we have our spiritual thirst for reconciliation with God quenched for all eternity. That’s the spring of water welling up to eternal life. And its available to any who heed His call to “Come.”

This is the glorious truth we celebrate this Easter. Have you believed it? Have you repented of your sins? Have you trusted in Christ who payed for your sins on the cross? Who bore your curse to give you life? If not, trust Him! Everything else in life will leave you thirsty, panting after that which only He can provide- reconciliation and relationship with God. And if you are trusting Christ, rejoice in the fact that He has born our thirst-curse. Rejoice in the eternal life He has provided for you. Savor it, meditate on it, and praise Him who gives us this living water.

Conclusion

Isn’t God’s Word incredible? At first reading, the record of Jesus’ thirst might seem like a minor detail in the crucifixion account. But as we’ve seen, it actually reveals a great deal about the One who uttered, “I thirst.” We’ve seen that it reveals that Jesus Suffered Physically. We’ve seen that it reveals that Jesus Fulfilled Scripture, and we’ve seen that it reveals that Jesus Provided for our Thirst. And I want to conclude by issuing you a challenge to savor, worship, and follow Jesus- even in the midst of our trials in this world, including all that we are currently experiencing. We are experiencing the effects of sin all around us. But we’ve seen today that Christ experienced these effects to finally remove them in eternity. And as we trust Him day by day, we can rest assured that He is leading us home. Consider what Revelation 7 says about our home and those who have trusted in Christ, “They are before the throne of God and serve him night and day in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 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.”

My brothers and sisters, though we still suffer hunger, thirst, pain, hardship, and death here, it will not always be so. Jesus, who gives us the waters of eternal life, will take us home, where these things will be no more. I encourage you to celebrate and delight in this truth with me today, and press on toward that day when we enter our eternal home where he will continually lead us by springs of living water.

Amen.

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