The loss of blood, the unnatural position of the body, the extreme tension of the hands and feet, the outstretched muscles, the wounds exposed to air, the headache from the crown of thorns, the swelling of the blood vessels, the increasing inflammation—all would have produced a physical thirst. As Samson thirsted after his tremendous battle wherein he slew hundreds (Judg 15:18), so now our Lord thirsts after His struggle has deteriorated His physical condition.
He who threw stars into their orbits and spheres into space; He who shut up the sea with doors; He who made water come out of the rock smitten by Moses; He who made all the seas and rivers and fountains; He who said to the woman of Samaria, “But whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst” (John 4:14), now lets fall from His lips the shortest of the seven cries from the Cross: “I thirst.”
What a marked contrast is His pathetic cry to other occasions where He offered to quench the thirst of others. While in Jerusalem He promised a great multitude, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” At the well of Jacob with the Samaritan woman, He pointed to the springing fountain at His feet and said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but 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 4:13–14). Is this the same Jesus who now, in mortal exhaustion, cries, “I thirst”?
He refused to take the first concoction offered Him; now He avidly asks for a drink. But there was considerable difference between the two drinks: The first was myrrh, a stupefying potion to ward off pain, which He refused in order that His senses might not be dulled. The drink now given Him is vinegar, or the sour bad wine of the soldiers (John 19:29).
He who had turned water into wine at Cana could use the same infinite resources to satisfy His own thirst, except for the fact that He never worked a miracle on His own behalf. But why does He ask for a drink?
I. THE REASON JESUS CRIED FOR A DRINK
It was not solely because of the need. The real reason for the request was the fulfillment of the prophecies: “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’” All that the Old Testament had foretold of Him had to be fulfilled to the smallest iota. In the Scriptures, David had foretold Jesus’ thirst during His passion: “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth . . . They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst” (Pss 22:15; 69:21).
Thus, the soldiers, though they gave Him the vinegar in mockery, nevertheless fulfilled the Scriptures. The vinegar was given to Him on a bunch of hyssop, a plant that grew about eighteen inches high. It was hyssop, too, that was dipped in the blood of the Paschal Lamb; it was hyssop that was used to sprinkle the lintel posts of the Jews in Egypt to escape the avenging angel; it was hyssop that was dipped in the blood of the bird in cleansing the leper; it was David himself, after his sin, who said that he would be purged with hyssop and be made clean.
II. THE IDENTITY OF THE ONE WHO CRIED FOR A DRINK
Jesus came to suffer and die. But He would not give up His life until He had fulfilled details of the Scriptures that men might know that it was He, the Christ, the Son of God, who was dying on the cross. He was taking from Scripture the idea that the Messiah of the promise must not accept death as a fate but perform it as a deed. Exhaustion was not to put Him to death, as exhaustion accounted not for His thirst. It was the prophecies concerning Him as High Priest and Mediator that prompted the cry of thirst. Indeed, the Jewish rabbis had already applied that prophecy to Him; the Midrash states, “Come and dip thy morsel in the vinegar—this is spoken of the Messiah—of His Passion and torments, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities.’”
Since the soldiers mockingly gave Jesus the vinegar at the end of hyssop, it is very likely that they intended to ridicule one of the Jewish sacred rites. When the blood of the lamb was sprinkled by the hyssop, the purification through a symbol was now fulfilled as the hyssop touched the blood of Christ (see Heb 9:12–14).
The bystanders at the cross, who knew well the Old Testament prophecies, were thus given another proof that He was the suffering Messiah. Jesus’ Fourth Word, which expressed His sufferings of soul, and His Fifth Word, which expressed sufferings of body, were both foretold.
III. THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF THE CRY FOR A DRINK
Thirst was the symbol of the unsatisfying character of sin; the pleasures of the flesh purchased at the cost of joy of the Spirit are like drinking salt water. In the parable, the rich man in hell thirsted and begged Father Abraham to ask Lazarus to wet his tongue with just a drop of water. Making complete atonement for sin demanded that the Redeemer feel the thirst of even the lost before they are lost. But for the saved, too, it was a thirst—a yearning for souls. Some people have a passion for money, others for fame; Jesus’ passion was for souls! “Give me a drink” meant “give Me thy heart.” The tragedy of Jesus’ love for mankind is that, in His thirst, men gave Him vinegar and gall.
The Savior is still saying, “I thirst,” but how and when? Jesus answers, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Matt 25:35).
“Lord,” we ask, “when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” (v. 37).
Jesus replies, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40).
Wherever followers of Jesus are suffering, sitting in lonely rooms and wishing somebody would come and visit them, or lying on beds of pain and needing somebody to ease the pillow or bring the cup to their dry lips, Christ is saying, “I thirst.” Will He ask in vain? But Christ sees to it that none who thus serve Him lose their reward, for “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Matt 10:42).
The words “I thirst” have a double meaning. Jesus thirsts for the love of His redeemed and for fellowship with them. He thirsts for love. He thirsts for prayer. He thirsts for service. He thirsts for holiness. Whenever the human heart turns to Him with penitence, affection, or consecration, the Savior sees the travail of His soul and is satisfied. AMEN.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.