I Thirst

All Things Having Been Accomplished

They gave me also gall for my meat, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.—Psalm 69:21

Russell Marten

Of the seven utterances from the cross, the fifth marked the beginning of the end. It was the last point at which our Lord was able to fulfill prophecies by his actions. The first four of these utterances may have been spread over hours, but the last three were likely within minutes of our Lord's death. The first of these last three was a simple statement of just two words: "After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst" (John 19:28).

Hours earlier when Jesus was first placed on the cross, he rejected a mind-numbing drink (Matthew 27:34), realizing the pain associated with his death would be a very necessary part of his sympathetic high priest experience. Although this drink was commonly and readily accepted by those being crucified, our Lord was determined to experience in full consciousness every emotion and physical pain of his final hours on earth. Throughout his life on earth Jesus had disdained the needs of the flesh that he might serve God more faithfully. The human nature abhors pain and wants to avoid the experience. Because Jesus sought to triumph over the needs and the desires of the flesh, for the next several hours the pain of one of man's most cruel forms of execution would build and he would bear it fully.

But at the point of verse 28 all things were accomplished, death was near, and all the agony associated with crucifixion had been experienced. Having earlier refused drink, why did Jesus request something to alleviate the burning thirst he had? This simple statement was not just one of his physical need but was the last fulfillment of prophecy under his control: "They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (Psalm 69:21).

Vinegar to Drink

We have no way of knowing how much pain and anguish he was experiencing. It was no doubt near the limits of human endurance. Many, writing on the physical stresses on the body during crucifixion, describe the last stages just before death as wrought with extreme dehydration brought on by high fever and profuse sweating, which in this case were compounded by the heat of the midday sun. He was not offered the pure water that quenches thirst best, nor was he offered wine (one of the more common beverages of his day). He instead was offered vinegar. Vinegar is made from the fermenting of mild alcoholic solutions, so we might see why the translators would use vinegar, but a better translation seems to be sour wine. It was a cheap drink used by the common people including the Roman guards. It may have been just a jug of what the guards had on hand to quench their own thirst, or it may have been explicitly brought there for the condemned.

The sponge was put on a hyssop branch and lifted to him. We often see depictions of the crucifixion where Jesus and the others are high in the air with their feet at about the height of a full-grown man. Because hyssop grows barely a foot and a half tall, a branch from it would seem inadequate to reach the lips of one on a cross by one standing on the ground. In reality, the Roman method of crucifixion was only to have crosses high enough to have a victim's feet a short distance above the ground. This would make the use of such a short branch more than sufficient to extend a sponge to his lips.

Only John records our Lord saying "I thirst," even though Matthew and Mark record the raising of the sponge of sour wine to his lips (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36). Reading only their accounts would give the impression that the offer of the sour wine was in response to his cry, "My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?" It might also give the impression that the consumption of the sour wine would ease a mind now being driven mad from the physical effects of the torture that his body was undergoing at the time. However, John's inclusion of the simple quiet request for a small relief from his burning thirst gives us the proper prospective of the events. His mind was not being incapacitated; he was fully aware of the conditions he was feeling and others were seeing. The caustic remark from the crowd—"Let us see whether Elijah cometh to save him" (Matthew 27:49)—was no doubt at the earlier indication that God had broken the intimate communication link Jesus had enjoyed throughout his human existence, so that the son would experience the separation from God that would plague the human family for over 6,000 years. It was some time later that Jesus said, simply, and quietly so only those very near him could hear: "I thirst."

Those who were close to our Lord, who braved persecution and the taunts and anger of the jeering crowd by witnessing his last few moments here on earth, were probably now struck by his request for some relief from burning thirst. Throughout his entire earthly experience he had asked nothing for himself, he had refused attempts to moderate the intensity of the experience in any way. He had instead shown more concern for his natural mother and his disciples than for any of his own needs. This subtle request was a signal that something was to change shortly. John, writing this account later and reflecting on it, realized as he wrote that at this point all things Jesus had set out to do in his consecration were accomplished and the remaining events were simply a natural consequence of them.

The pressing of the sponge with this sour drink fulfilled the last prophecy regarding our Lord prior to his death which would be just minutes away: "And in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (Psalm 69:21). At this point Jesus knew this was his final opportunity to do anything else. It was somewhat fitting that for one who used all his human vitality for three and one-half years to deny the needs of his flesh that God may be glorified, would in his last act of prophetic fulfillment receive a short but welcome relief from one of the physical assaults on his human body. How small an accommodation in light of such an incredible sacrifice.

Spiritual Thirst

Is there more of a lesson in this for his followers? Thirst and hunger are not limited to their primary application to a longing for drink and food. Often they are used to indicate the longing of a heart for things which are not yet realized but sincerely desired. Jesus himself often used this to emphasize the full devotion to his cause and to righteousness required of his followers.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6, NASV). The child of God needs to develop and cultivate within his character that longing, that hunger, that thirst for righteousness. Is our desire for righteousness, not only in ourselves now, but for the world in the next age, the same or greater than our human desire and need of food and drink? Thirst is a symbol even more appropriate than hunger. We can give up temporal possessions and items of comfort with comparative ease for the rest of our lives. We can even go a long time without food. But our need to quench thirst, particularly for water, is such a physical need of our human bodies that we can only exist a few days without it. After just two days without water some of the internal systems of the body start to shut down to conserve what little water is left. That sensation our Lord felt there on the cross is a burning thirst that becomes so intense it dims the mind to thoughts of little else than the need for water. Have we so learned to hate evil that our longing, our thirst, for righteousness is of equal or greater intensity?

When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink (John 4:5-26), he also brought forth a lesson about thirst. This account is only recorded by the apostle John. We know the gift of God and we ask for living water from him. Natural water quenches thirst only for a while; a natural man will thirst again. The truth symbolized by water that Jesus and the Scriptures give us are the living waters that can permanently quench thirst. As Jesus explained: "Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life" (John 4:14, NASV).

Jesus made another reference to the thirst he permanently quenches in the synagogue in Capernaum: "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35, NASV). Jesus provides all the necessities of life, not with literal and imperfect food and water, but with spiritual food and the water of truth. He provides the necessities not for human life, but for life everlasting: justification, grace, truth, and the holy spirit.

All Was Accomplished

Shortly after receiving the sour wine his next utterance, "It is finished" (only recorded by John), indicates that all had been accomplished and fulfilled. He had completed the will of the Father in every aspect. He had come to provide a ransom for Adam and his posterity. He had come to work out his own salvation and in doing so, open a way, a narrow way, for his bride.

He was now thirsting not just for a bit of liquid to quench a physical desire, but he was hungering and thirsting for home, the heavenly home. The work had been done. All had been accomplished. The final event in our Lord's life would not be in his control, nor in the hands of the Roman government. It would be in the hands of his Father. Three and one half years of complete devotion to God and seeking to do his will had reduced a perfect human man to one so completely spent that a drop of refreshment on the tongue was all he would request for the relief of his earthly body.

A man dying of thirst in the desert only has one desire, one goal, one focus for all of his remaining strength: find some water to quench a burning thirst. We too should be as single-minded. As Jesus admonished us to hunger and thirst after righteousness and truth let us thirst after being spent in his service, that we may consume the old man in seeking the glorification of the new creature. Let us thirst as Jesus did to please the Father, to be found worthy and faithful, and to join our Lord in the heavenly courts.