God’s Pleasure in Jesus
At the beginning of Jesus’ adult appearance in the Gospel of Matthew, his Father in heaven, the God of Israel, voices his pleasure in Jesus at his baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17b) (A similar Divine witness is borne at our Lord’s Transfiguration. [Matthew 17:5b]) This experience as written serves, for our meditation today, a threefold function for the reader.
The first function is to let the reader know from the outset the Father’s view of the entirety of his beloved Son’s life and ministry. God is not only with, but also pleased with, Jesus in all he does. And this event shows that God is especially pleased with Jesus in his identification with sinners (while himself remaining sinless [Hebrews 4:15]), thereby fulfilling all righteousness.
The second function is to let the reader know Jesus’ personal experience of his Father’s pleasure in, and affirmation of, him in all he does—especially by identifying with sinners. Matthew highlights Jesus’ personal experience in his baptism by saying, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.” (Matthew 3:16) Jesus did not wonder if God was pleased with, or approved of, him; nor did he merely have object knowledge of it. He knew his Father’s pleasure and approval in him by experience. Furthermore, at the end his temptation period in the wilderness directly after baptism, angels came to minister to him personally. Again, he knew God’s pleasure and approval via personal experience.
The third function is as a two-pronged foreshadow of things to come. Firstly, it reminds us of the Old Testament account of the patriarch Joseph and the pleasure his father had for him in particular. Flowing from that, it secondly reminds us what scorn that produced in his brothers towards him. They would not have him to rule over them. “His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?’ So they hated him even more … for his words.” (Genesis 37:8) Yet, Joseph survived their hate, did come to rule over them, and when the time came, identified with his brothers (that is to say, with sinners) and Joseph’s father was pleased. And just as the title ‘Son of David’ speaks to Jesus ministry and inheritance, it is no coincidence that Jesus’ earthly adoptive father makes him the ‘Son of Joseph,’ inheriting Joseph’s banner over his ministry as well.
These 3 functions, highlighting God’s pleasure in Jesus at all times, are guideposts and are significant as we approach our reading of the Cross in Matthew.
When we encounter Jesus on the Cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is speaking the words of Psalm 22:1. In fact, the entire narrative of events in Matthew 27, in which we find the crucifixion of our Lord, is mirrored so closely with all of Psalm 22 we see that Jesus was not merely quoting this Psalm but, as all who were there present, he was living it! Jesus then, on the Cross, in great pain, was expressing human despair and the feeling of abandonment by God in a way so profound that it renders the original Psalmist, not merely poetic but also, prophetic.
The loneliness Jesus felt on the Cross was real and a profound Mystery; for he alone could do the work there that needed to be done. At this crucial moment in redemptive history, unlike in his baptism and Transfiguration, Jesus had no personal experience in the moment of his Father’s affirmation. And unlike after his testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11), he had no attending angels to experience his Father’s affirmation. Here, like the rest of us when facing death, Jesus must walk by faith. And therein is the key, for Christ is, on the Cross, being identified with despairing sinners as his brothers.
What one of us who lives a life of faith has not cried out in some form or another, at one time or another, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Therefore, he must, for his brothers’ sake, for love’s sake, enter into their situation totally. He must suffer as they suffer. So the writer of Hebrews too quotes Psalm 22 in reference to Jesus’ Cross saying:
[T]he founder of their salvation [is made] perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ —Hebrews 2:10b-12; Psalm 22:22
Now though, we begin to see that even the cry of despair is laced with faith, hope and love for God, especially while he is identifying with sinners as his brothers. God, in his great love and compassion, came down in the person of Jesus and entered into our pain, despair and alienation! And just like Joseph, when overcome by love, was alone when he made himself known to his brothers (Genesis 45:1), Jesus the Son of Joseph, overcome with love, was alone when he made himself known to his brothers. How sweet then his cry is to our ears! How marvelous that loneliness! It was for us men and our salvation that he took on that despair!
Remembering our threefold function of the pleasure of God expressed at his baptism, we look afresh at this cry of abandonment. While Jesus felt forsaken of the Father, it was not a personal forsaking or rejection; for the Father loves, accepts and is pleased with the Son always—especially when he identifies with sinners as brothers! This forsaking is an allowance for Jesus, from love, to go all the way to be with his brothers, as the Patriarch Joseph did, to preserve their life. As Tertullian writes:
In this manner [the Father] forsook [Jesus on the cross], in not sparing him; forsook him in delivering him up. In all other respects the Father did not forsake the Son, for it was into his Father’s hands that the Son commended his spirit.
—Against Praxeus 30
Just as Jacob loved and was pleased with Joseph, just as the Father in heaven loved was pleased with Jesus in his identification with sinners in his baptism—so also at the Cross, the Father loved and was pleased with his Son, for he went all the way to sin and death preserve the life of his brothers!
There was therefore, no turning away of the Father’s face from Jesus on the Cross in rejection. At the moment Jesus was accomplishing the Father’s will by loving God and Mankind even unto death, Christ was especially pleasing to God. As St. Paul tells the Church in Ephesus, “…Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2) This is good news for us as we too at times feel forsaken by God; for we can rest knowing that as we cry out to him in humility and repentance in those moments, he hears and accepts us as well.
Thank you Lord Jesus for coming all the way into our despair and death, so that we may go all the way into your joy and life—thus pleasing your Father in all that you do. Before Thy Cross Lord, we bow down and worship!