Those who gathered around the cross, on that dusty hill, could feel Jesus' raspy cry reverberate in their own dry throats: "I thirst!" These are the words of One whose vitality was almost dried up to death. Yet, in those words we witness the thoughtful tenderness of the Good Teacher as He breathes these words into Scripture for our edification (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The words I thirst reveal rich truths about their speaker.
Jesus Fulfilled Scripture
Jesus' cry of thirst would have arrested the attention of those familiar with the Old Testament. In at least two ways, "I thirst" confirmed Jesus' promise that in Jerusalem, "Everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished" (Luke 18:31).
First, God foretold that His Messiah would thirst. Jesus had just cried out those penetrating opening words of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When Jesus publicized His thirst, He spotlighted the fifteenth verse: "My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death." It is difficult to imagine a more thorough fulfillment of this prophesy.
Second, before Christ came to earth, He said through David that He would drink bitterness: "For my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink" (Ps. 69:21). Ironically, the psalmist was drowning in deep waters (vv. 1, 2, 15), yet his throat was dry (v. 3), and his only drink was bitterness. Jesus, swirling in a sea of sorrow, received only bitter wine to wet His parched tongue.
Jesus Suffered as a Real Man
Frederick Krummacher vividly describes the cross-induced thirst of our Lord: "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." He concludes, "There is scarcely a greater torment than that of insatiable thirst" (F.W. Krummacher, The Suffering Savior, 389).
Jesus was not pretending to be thirsty in order to illustrate spiritual truths. Our High Priest fully sympathizes with all the pains and discomforts that come from living in a sin-afflicted world (Heb. 4:15). If ever there were understanding ears into which we should speak our hurts and cry out for grace and mercy, it is those ears that on Calvary heard the sticky crackling of His own dry mouth (v. 16).
Jesus Bore Our Thirst-Curse
In the Old Testament, God threatened to make unfaithful Israel a "parched land, and fill her with thirst" (Hos. 2:3; see Deut. 28:48). The tongue of the one afflicted by God's judgment "sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst" (Lam. 4:4; see Amos 8:11). Such was the curse for spiritual adultery (Ps. 137:6).
In a startling way, Jesus inserted Himself into His parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In hell, the rich man cried out for mercy, pleading for Lazarus to "dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame" (Luke 16:24). The rich man's croaking screams for relief are denied. So long as He endured the hellish agony of God's wrath against sin, Christ's tongue, likewise, rattled in His mouth. Even when His tongue tasted the sour wine from the sponge, it felt little relief. Did it not burn as the vinegar washed over His withered cells? Was it not a further portrait of the cup of God's wrath that our Lord had consented to drink? Only hours before, Jesus shuddered over His anticipated cup of suffering (Matt. 26:36–46). Then He drank the wine like a man who drinks salt water to assuage dehydration.
On the cross, the Mediator of the covenant of grace experienced the thirst-curse earned by covenant breakers.
Jesus Thirsted for His People
By nature, because we have forsaken God, "the fountain of living waters," and have hewn ourselves "broken cisterns that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13), we are the thirsty ones. God's wayward ones are "parched with thirst" (Isa. 5:13). We are spiritually dehydrated—a deadly condition. But here, Jesus musters a cry from His dry, hoarse throat—and all He gets is sour wine. Why? Because, on the cross, He "redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13). Jesus announced His thirst knowing that "All was now finished" (John 19:28). Of our salvation He could say, "It is finished" (v. 30).
Christ is the rock from which the wandering Israelites drank in the desert (1 Cor. 10:4) and the Living Water that rehydrated the woman at the well (John 4:13–14). On the cross, the Living Water became thirsty, securing the salvation that His spiritually thirsty people desperately needed.
Jesus Refreshes His People
Jesus died thirsty, but He arose refreshed. In His suffering, Jesus thirsted after the full restoration of His Father's fellowship, that the smile of His Father's face might be turned toward Him and His people again (Ps. 69:16, 17). In His glorification, beginning with His resurrection, His thirst was quenched. God will hear the cry of His thirsty people. "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched for thirst, I, the LORD, will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them" (Isa. 41:17). He now says to us, "whoever believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35).
In response, we echo the Man of Sorrows: "I thirst! Give me the water of eternal life gained for me at the cross that I will thirst no more!" The answer to this request is a picture we see in the last book of the Bible: "They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore" (Rev. 7:16).