It was an act of cruelty, not comfort. That is what we see in the last minutes of Jesus’s life, as described in the Gospel of Mark.
Customary of Mark, he gets straight to the point in Mark 15:33. The sixth hour had come and brought darkness. Now it was the ninth hour, three in the afternoon, darkness still smothering the landscape. And Jesus cries out with a loud voice,
Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?
Mark tells us the Aramaic because that is exactly what Jesus said. The details are important here. Jesus shouts toward heaven, which Mark translates for us, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus has quoted from Psalm 22:1, identifying himself with the righteous sufferer from the Psalms of David. This is the most theologically rich moment in history. It should have overwhelmed those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. It should have made things click. Everything should have made sense. But actually, few, if anyone, heard Jesus right.
The bystanders are standing there when Jesus addresses God in Aramaic — “Eloi, Eloi” — but they mistake him to be calling for Elijah — “Eli, Eli.” They misunderstand, yet again, the most misunderstood man to ever live. And what do they do?
How do they respond to the battered-breath cry of a dying man, which they confuse to be an appeal to Elijah for rescue?
Have Some Sour Wine
One of the confused bystanders rushes to fill a sponge with sour wine, puts it on a reed, and offers it to Jesus for a drink, saying “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down” (verse 36). Immediately, Mark tells us, Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last (verse 37). He died.
So the sponge didn’t work. What was this bystander up to anyway? What was he doing?
It was nasty, every bit of it. As much as we’d like to imagine that there was this one nice guy at the foot of the cross that Friday, that maybe this fellow felt sorry for Jesus and tried to help, the Bible indicates otherwise.
There is another key passage in the Psalms, similar to Psalm 22, that foreshadows the suffering of Jesus. It is Psalm 69, which says in verse 21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine.” The righteous sufferer, in his moment of agony, is given sour wine. This is no kindness. It is insult, mockery. And each Gospel writer alludes to this when they describe Jesus’s death, specifically citing “sour wine” (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:29). Not to mention, the “reed” that extended this sour wine links back to the “reed” used to strike Jesus in the face (Mark 15:19; James Edwards, Pillar).
On the Ground of Golgotha
So we know overall, because of the Psalms and how it plays out in the other Gospels, this sour wine is a bad move. It is yet another sting in the excruciating cross of our Savior. And I think Mark, in particular, shows us how. Theologically, we can understand its heinous role in the mockery, in the Messiah’s suffering, but then Mark brings us down to the ground of Golgotha. Again, the details are important.
According to Mark’s account, there is more rationale for why the bystander, after mistaking Jesus to be calling for Elijah, offers him the sour wine. We see it in his words. He offers the sponge to Jesus and says, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come take him down” (Mark 15:36). Wait, he says. Wait. Jesus is nearing his final breath, as the next verse says, “he breathed his last” (verse 37). And this bystander says to wait.
Wait, in other words, let’s not let him die yet. Let’s help him hang on a little longer to see if Elijah might really come.
We don’t know exactly what this bystander had seen. Presumably he had at least heard that Jesus worked wonders. Thousands had eaten when there wasn’t any food. Real people who once could not walk, or see, now could. Whether witnessed or heard, this bystander knew the dying man on the tree had a reputation for the miraculous. And here, in the intensity of Jesus’s passion, just before he breathed his last, the bystander wanted to squeeze him just one more time for some good glitz. He didn’t really think Elijah would come, but maybe. Jesus had done some amazing things. But now, the bystander didn’t really hope for his rescue, he wanted his dazzle. He didn’t want a suffering Savior, he wanted a spectacular stunt. He didn’t want Jesus, he wanted his show.
And so did we.
The Deep Miracle
That is how sin works. That’s what you do if you’ve only heard of someone without really knowing them. You care about what they can give you. It’s about the gifts, not the Giver. We want the stuff of salvation, not the One to whom we’re saved.
And only a miracle can change this — a miracle of depth, not glamor. Which is what Jesus does. The real miracle is not in the hype our fallen hearts would hope for, but in the quiet wonder of making our fallen hearts alive. Jesus makes us see. Really see. Through the gifts. Through the goods. Through the sour wine.
Jesus makes us really see him.