Five things we learn from Jesus' statement of thirst
By David Froese
We are all acquainted with physical thirst. Our bodies, according to some estimates, are 80 percent fluid. Apart from brains, bones and a few organs, we’re walking buckets of water.
Stop drinking and see what happens. Our eyes need fluid to cry; our mouths need moisture to swallow; our glands need sweat to keep our bodies cool; our cells need blood to carry them. Our body needs water.
As Jesus hung on the cross, the Gospel writers record his seven last “words” or statements. The apostle John records one of these statements: “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips” (John 19:28-29).
Jesus’ statement in John 19 tells us five things.
Jesus is human
The first thing that Jesus’ statement in John 19 tells us is obvious: He is physically thirsty. Jesus is expressing his humanity. He is thirsty.
Think about what he has experienced. It began a few hours earlier, praying in agony with his Father to the extent that Jesus sweat drops of blood. There was no sleep that night. He was dragged from trial to trial. He was ridiculed, beaten and scourged. He lost a lot of blood. No IV’s for Jesus. No breakfast of LIFE cereal, strawberries and orange juice.
Instead, soldiers put a cross on his back and asked Jesus to carry it to Golgotha. He never made it with the cross. His strength was depleted.
Jesus had hung on the cross for about six hours when he pleaded for relief: “I am thirsty.” Of course Jesus was thirsty. Sweating, struggling to breathe, bent over and bleeding. He had never experienced such thirst. His body was crying out for water.
His words remind us that God came in the flesh. While fully God, Jesus was also fully human and able to understand and sympathize with any suffering we experience. Jesus understands our thirst; he was thirsty.
Jesus is claiming victory
Jesus’ words tell us that he is pronouncing victory. John writes in verse 28: “Later, knowing that all was now completed… Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’”
Knowing that he had accomplished his mission, Jesus requested something to drink. We’ve all been there. As we work in the hot sun, our shoulders begin to ache and our mouths become dry. There is just a little more to do so we tell ourselves: “I’ll get a drink when I’m finished.” After we’ve finished, we stop and enjoy a cool drink of water.
Jesus delayed quenching his thirst until his work on the cross was done. His mission accomplished, Jesus was ready to lubricate his throat for his final words. Jesus wanted to pronounce victory with a shout but there was no saliva left to wet his whistle. He asked for a drink: “I am thirsty.” He had a victory to pronounce, and he wanted to shout it out!
Jesus is fulfilling prophecy
Jesus is intentionally fulfilling prophecy: “So that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’”
What Scripture? Jesus was very aware that one thing was still left undone. Psalm 69:21 prophecies these words about the Messiah’s death: “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.”
This was not the first time Jesus had been offered some type of wine mixture. Both Mark and Matthew observe that Jesus was offered gall just prior to being crucified. It was thought that gall served as a sedative, but Jesus refused to drink gall. He was committed to experiencing the full suffering of our sins, and he didn’t want to take anything to lessen the pain.
What was a jar of wine vinegar doing at the foot of the cross? Wine vinegar was sour wine that had turned to vinegar and was diluted with water. It was inexpensive and considered more thirst quenching than water. It killed harmful bacteria in the water, and the vinegary taste made bad-smelling water more palatable. Wine vinegar was the soldier's drink of choice.
What the soldiers didn’t know was that God was directing their actions to fulfill Scripture. Very intentionally, being in full control, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”
Sponge was a common item in the Roman soldier’s tool bag. Sponges were found along the Mediterranean coast and were widely used in ancient times to line and pad a soldier's helmet. Soldiers also used sponges as drinking vessels.
A soldier took a sponge out of his pouch, poured wine vinegar on it, placed it on the end of the hyssop and raised it to Jesus to quench his thirst. Jesus Christ was on a divine schedule to fulfill every detail of prophecy so that his people would recognize him as the Messiah, the Son of God. One last prophecy was now fulfilled.
Jesus bears our sins on the cross
Jesus’ words tell us that he was bearing our sins on the cross. Jesus’ thirst was far more than physical. He was spiritually thirsty. He was experiencing the alienation and separation from God that we as sinners have experienced. Jesus experienced the condemnation that we all deserve. He was cursed in our place.
In the parable Jesus told of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus highlighted thirst as a symbol of the experience of divine punishment. As hot as the fire was, it was the inward thirst of the rich man that was most pronounced. He begged Abraham to allow Lazarus to place a drop of water on his parched tongue. It was a symbol for dryness of the soul, a dryness that could only be relieved by a personal relationship with God. It was an intimacy that those in hell will never know.
I believe Jesus was experiencing excruciating spiritual thirst. Jesus had been forsaken from God because he bore our sin. He was experiencing the condemnation we all deserve. His soul was thirsty for a restored relationship with his Father. It was not only his mouth, but his soul that was parched.
Jesus is the water of life
This brings us to the last thing Jesus’ words, “I am thirsty,” say to me. Jesus’ words of thirst remind us that he is the one who can quench the thirsty longing of our souls. The paradox of the one who claimed to be the water of life dying in thirst is striking. The one who is living water suffered excruciating thirst so that our souls would never be thirsty again.
In John 4 we have the story of Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well. Jesus asked her for a drink and then proceeded to share with her that, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman of Samaria tried to satisfy that spiritual thirst with man after man—but Jesus said, “I am the man you need.”
The people of Israel reenacted God’s provision during their wanderings in the wilderness during the Feast of Tabernacles. They slept in tents, and each morning a priest filled a golden pitcher with water from a spring and poured it out on the altar. The priest did this every day for seven days. On the last day the priest would encircle the altar seven times and douse it with seven pitchers of water. It may have been at this very moment that Jesus commanded the people’s attention with these words: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
Are you thirsty?
Stop drinking and your body will send you all kinds of messages that it needs water: dry mouth, thick tongue, achy head and weak knees. Deprive your soul of spiritual water, and your soul will tell you. Dehydrated hearts send desperate messages: anger, critical words, anxiety, guilt and fear.
Is your heart crying out for water? Drink Jesus. What water can do for your body, Jesus can do for your heart. Lubricate it. Aquify it. Soften what is crusty, flush what is rusty. Pleasures of this world might hide a thirst but never satisfy. Only Jesus quenches it. Drink Jesus!
Jesus said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink." Let Jesus be a spring of water welling up to eternal life in your soul.
Philip Yancey, writing in Christianity Today, tells a story he heard from Mike, a young man who works among the homeless: “My friend and I were playing guitars and singing As the Deer Pants for the Water when David, a homeless man we knew, started weeping. 'That's what I want, man' he said. 'I want that water. I'm an alcoholic, and I want to be healed.'"
Is your soul thirsty? Is your heart shriveling? The one who is the water of life died on the cross and rose again so that we can drink living water. Go to Jesus and drink the water of life. Become hydrated with Jesus. When you place your faith in Jesus, there is a well of life-giving water springing from your soul. Drink!
David Froese has been a USMB pastor for more than 40 years in Kansas, Oklahoma and California and is currently the interim pastor at Koerner Heights Church, Newton, Kan. This article is adapted from a sermon he preached as part of 2015 community Lent services in Hillsboro, Kan.