After a night without sleep, countless beatings, a Roman flogging, and now hanging from nails on a cross, Jesus was nearly dead. What we don’t think of, though, were the little pains: the hurt of the taunts, the sweat in his eyes, the raging thirst. The fifth of the Seven Last Sayings of Jesus is a Greek word: “I thirst” (John 19:28).
By this point, Jesus was approaching the end. The soldiers at the foot of the cross heard and saw it all. Jesus didn’t die like other men. The first thing he said from the cross was, “Father forgive them,” and the second was a promise to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even the battle-hardened centurion would have been touched as Jesus entrusts his mother’s care to Jesus’ best friend. The cry of desperation in the language of his childhood, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would have haunted them. Thus when Jesus said in a dry, hoarse whisper, “I thirst,” one of the soldiers rushes to wet his lips with their own “sour wine.”
Why is this saying – actually only one word in Greek – recorded for us to meditate on? Jesus wasn’t play-acting on the cross. He didn’t just say this to fulfill the prophecy, and he wasn’t asking for pity. It reveals his humanity.
This word was a prayer, but not to God. It was addressed to his executioners. There is a kind of pride that says, “I will never ask you for anything!” But Jesus still had faith in humanity – even as they were taking his life. So what possessed an unnamed soldier to run to the aid of Jesus? Touched by Christ, the soldier shared what he had.
So what is “sour wine”? Were they sadistically giving a dying man vinegar? A quick search of the different English translations is revealing. Moffatt’s version and the Jerusalem Bible read “vinegar,” while Goodspeed, Phillips, and the New English Bible translate the word as “sour wine.” Still, I like the Today’s English Version and the New American Bible’s translation “common wine.”
Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible explains: “there were three pressings. The first was extracted by stomping on the grapes. This made the best wine. The second took the must, put it in a bag, and squeezed out the juice. The last took the leavings and boiled them to extract the very last. This was ‘common wine.’” The United Bible Society’s Handbook on the Gospel of John, a help for translators, explains: “The Greek word refers to a diluted, vinegary wine. Since it was cheaper than regular wine, it was a favorite drink of laborers, soldiers, and other persons in moderate circumstances. The translations ‘sour wine,’ ‘bitter wine,’ and ‘vinegar’ suggest that offering this drink to Jesus was an act of cruelty, whereas it had the humanitarian purpose of relieving his thirst.”
Even in his death, Jesus won followers! “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:35).