Last Words of Life: Living Words from the Dying Lord
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, November 10, 1996
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
Theologians often speak about the seven words Jesus Christ spoke from the cross. All of these words are found in the four gospels, although no gospel contains all seven of them. One is found in Matthew and Mark, three are found in Luke and another three in John.
Theologians have also observed that there is a progression in these words. In the first word, Jesus speaks about his enemies: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Then we hear the words of the Lord to the repentant thief: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Then Jesus isolates himself further and speaks to his mother because he is interested in providing her with security and comfort after his death (John 19:26). Then he enters into the tunnel of pitch darkness of divine abandonment, and towards the end of this state of abandonment, Jesus says two things. First he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34). Then he said, "I thirst" (John 19:28). We see Christ emerge from the tunnel of divine abandonment, declaring, "It is finished" (John 19:30), and finally we hear him cry, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
It is true that we do remember the dying words of our loved ones. In the same way, let us consider the dying words of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pardon from the Cross
The first word is found in Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." This was the prayer that Jesus offered for the forgiveness of his enemies. He spoke it probably while his enemies were nailing him to the cross. As nails were being driven into our Lord's hands and feet, this prayer was coming from his mouth, "Father, forgive them." In fact, in the Greek it says that he did not just pray once but he kept on praying.
Now, Jesus had taught that we should pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Here we see him practicing what he taught and preached. This prayer shows that there was no bitterness, no rancor, and no malice in Jesus toward his enemies, and as Christians we must emulate his attitude. Jesus was concerned about the salvation of his murderers.
But we must ask one question: Does this prayer mean that Jesus' murderers, both Jews and Gentiles, would be forgiven of all their sins automatically by the Father? The answer is no. We are taught in the Bible that forgiveness has to be particular, not general, and that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. This prayer, in my view, does not mean automatic forgiveness to all, but it does mean that the Father will forgive even the most terrible sin of murdering the Son of God on the basis of repentance.
After his resurrection, the Lord Jesus told his disciples in Luke 24:46, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem." The apostles did exactly this on the day of Pentecost and thereafter. In Acts 2:23 we read, "This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." And later in verse 36 Peter said, "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." Convicted of their sins, those listening cried out, "Brothers, what shall we do?" In other words, these people were asking Peter, "What shall we do to be saved? Yes, we acknowledge that we nailed Jesus to the cross. We murdered him! But what shall we do?" And Peter answered them, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38).
In Acts 3:15 Peter again told a crowd: "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this." And in verse 17 he said, "Now, brothers," meaning those who had killed the author of life, "I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders." And then he says in verse 19, "Repent, then, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord." What happened when Peter spoke these words? Many people repented and put their faith in Jesus Christ. They were baptized in water and in the Holy Spirit, and the church was formed. We are told that even a number of priests repented and joined the church.
Later on we find St. Paul himself speaking about his own salvation. In 1 Timothy 1:13 he says, "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief." Let me tell you, wicked acts done in ignorance and unbelief are sin. The Bible clearly says that. Yet they will be forgiven on the basis of the intercessory prayer of Jesus from the cross. But no sins shall be forgiven without repentance and faith.
As Jesus Christ prayed upon the cross, then, we notice he was acting as our mediator, as our intercessor, and as our high priest. He was making intercession for sinners in fulfillment of a prophecy found in Isaiah 53:12, "For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors." His was a priestly prayer--again, not for the automatic salvation of all sinners, but for the salvation of any sinner who will repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a prayer for the elect transgressors, and in answer to this prayer the apostles were allowed to preach the gospel in Jerusalem for forty years before its destruction, and we notice many people coming to know Jesus Christ. Many churches were founded in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria during that time.
This prayer of intercession tells us that God the Father will forgive any sin anyone has committed, no matter how terrible it is. This prayer gives a repenting sinner great encouragement to come to Christ for salvation because God the Father heard his prayer. Notice, Jesus' prayer was not for his own forgiveness. He didn't pray, "Father, forgive me my sin." He was without sin and was dying for our sins. But this first word from the cross was for sinners. It was profitable for the repentant thief who hung beside him. It was profitable for the centurion who declared, "Truly this was the Son of God!" In my opinion, it was profitable for Simon the Cyrene who carried Christ's cross. In fact, we notice the thief repented, probably as he heard this prayer. He put his trust on King Jesus and was instantly saved.
Friend, have you paid attention to this first word of Jesus from the cross yet? Your sins shall be forgiven if you repent and believe that this dying one is both God and Christ.
Word of Salvation
The second word from the cross is found in Luke 23:43. It is the word spoken to the repentant thief, who prayed, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And the answer was given him: "Today you will be with me in paradise."
This word granted salvation to a wicked thief who repented on his cross and trusted Christ the King for his salvation. He said, "Jesus," which means Savior, "remember me," or show me kindness, in other words, and give me a little share in your kingdom. What happened? The repentant thief was given salvation instantly. He received from Jesus exceeding abundantly above all that he asked for and imagined. This particular word should give encouragement to anyone who comes to Jesus and prays for salvation. Let me assure you, such a person will instantly cross from the sphere of death, gloom, and hell to the sphere of life, peace, and joy.
A Word of Love
The third word is found in John 19:26-27. "When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, 'Dear woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home."
From the moment the angel Gabriel announced the good news to her concerning the conception of Christ, Mary's troubles began. She was misunderstood by many. Simeon prophesied to her, "A sword will pierce your own soul too." Her family had to flee to Egypt from Herod when Jesus was young. It may be that by now her husband was no longer living. I am sure Mary felt the pain of the animosity of the religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, toward Jesus, and now, as she stood near the cross, the sword was fully penetrating her soul. But Jesus was mindful of Mary. In fact, he was being crucified for her salvation also. If she repented and believed in Christ, she would be saved, and history tells us that she did repent and believe in him. We do not see Jesus' brothers near the cross, but we do see Mary, along with her nephew John, her sister Salome and some other women.
From the cross Jesus saw Mary and spoke to her and to his cousin John. John, together with the other apostles, fled initially when they saw Jesus was arrested. But now this disciple whom Jesus loved in a special way came back and was standing near the cross next to Mary the mother of Jesus. This, of course, is love. It is good to come near the cross of Jesus as Mary, John and the others did. Why? Jesus will speak a word to us from there. He will communicate as well as commission us for his service. If we come near, what joy that will come to our soul from the words of life from the cross!
In this third word from the cross Jesus fulfilled the fifth commandment which tells us to "Honor your father and your mother." His mother was probably a widow, probably about fifty years of age, and her other sons were still unbelievers. But by this word Jesus provides security for her life. He commissions--in fact, he commands--his cousin John the apostle to take care of Mary for the rest of her life.
What love and care Jesus showed here, even from the cross! What zeal for the fulfillment of God's commandment! Let me tell you, Jesus understands and cares and sympathizes with us. He provides for all our needs. From that time on John would provide Mary with spiritual fellowship and with material needs. We have indication that John owned a home in Jerusalem and was financially better off than, perhaps, some of the other disciples. John would also provide Mary with the comfort of Scriptures, for he would be inspired to write portions of the New Testament. The Lord himself would soon pour out upon Mary the Holy Spirit, who would be with her forever to comfort and guide her. What rich provision Jesus gave to his mother!
So we read, "From that time on, this disciple took her into his home." Let me assure you, Jesus cared for us also from the cross, and cares for us also from heaven. Have you come near to him on the cross? Come closer and look at him hanging there. Have you heard words of comfort from the cross? If you come to him in repentance and faith and look at him, he will make provision for you too. And by way of application, are we who are Christians also taking care of our parents, whether they believe or not? Do you obey the fifth commandment, or do you still demand that your parents take care of you? We must consider these questions as we study the example of Jesus.
The Cry of Dereliction
The fourth word is found only in Matthew's and Mark's gospel: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbacthani ." This is the great cry of dereliction from the cross. We are told from noon to three p.m. there was great darkness, and it seems to me that towards the end of this three-hour period of desolation this word came from the mouth of Jesus. We are told he said this in a loud voice, and if you understand anything about crucifixion, it meant that Jesus had to experience maximum pain to cry out like this.
This question of Christ was a quotation from Psalm 22:1, and as it appears in the gospel, it is a mixture of Hebrew and Greek. What did he cry? "Father, why have you forsaken me?" Now, you and I may not appreciate this question, but we must understand that Jesus always enjoyed the presence of the Father. For example, in John 16:32 he told his disciples,"You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me." In John 8:29 we read, "The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him." Jesus was saying, in other words, that he did not sin but always did that which pleased his Father; therefore, his Father was always with him. That should tell us something about how we can experience fellowship with God. When we do righteousness, we will experience the presence of God.
But here we are told that Jesus was abandoned. What does this cry mean? Certainly, it does not mean that God the Father abandoned God the Son. No, it means God the Father has abandoned Jesus in his human nature. Yet the full meaning of this cry of dereliction must remain mysterious. In some way that we do not understand, God abandoned Jesus on the cross for three hours.
Why did this happen? We must examine the Scriptures to find the answer. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 St. Paul says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us," and this took place at that time on the cross. In Galatians 3:13 Paul writes, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." He was becoming a curse for us during this time. Isaiah 53:6 is a prophecy about this event: "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," meaning he was bearing the sin of his people. John the Baptist spoke this about Jesus: "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). Jesus was doing that during this three-hour period.
The question then, is, why did Jesus experience this abandonment by God his Father? In Psalm 22:3 we read,"Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One." You see, this God is the Holy One. We are told by Habakkuk that God's eyes are too pure to look on evil. But the Bible says all are sinners. That is the thrust of the third chapter of the book of Romans. None is righteous! All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. We are told in Ezekiel 18:4, "The soul who sins is the one who will die" and in Romans 6:23, "The wages of sin is death." Death is being cut off from the presence of God forever. So Jesus, as our mediator and substitute, bore our sins. As a result, the Father abandoned him and forsook him. Thus Jesus suffered the wrath of God in our place. That is why the darkness came.
Therefore, this abandonment was for our sakes. Never before in the life of Jesus had he experienced any abandonment by the Father, but now, on the cross, he truly tasted death for his people. He was cut off from God and suffered hell for us on the cross. But because he was abandoned, we shall never be abandoned. We shall be received, forgiven, reconciled, adopted, and justified through Christ and have eternal fellowship with God.
The Cry of Humanity
In John 19:28 Jesus cried, "I thirst," and I believe that was also spoken toward the end of this three-hour ordeal. By this cry Jesus was fulfilling prophecy found in Psalm 69:21 and elsewhere. Why did Jesus experience this thirst? Let me assure you, it was so that we may never thirst. This thirst of Jesus reveals his true humanity. He truly suffered. Of course, the Bible says he is forever God, but he is also man--very God and very man. And as man we are told that he grew in wisdom and stature. As man he thirsted, hungered, became tired, groaned, and was troubled. He wept, slept, and experienced severe pain. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Now Dr. James Boice tells us about the issue of suffering in his treatment of John (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John: An Expositional Commentary , [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985], pp. 1357-1358). First, he says, Jesus Christ was not a docetic person. Jesus did not believe in docetism, which is the belief that matter, evil,and sufferings are illusory. A Christian Scientist may be a docetic, but Jesus Christ was not.
Jesus was not a stoic. How does a stoic deal with suffering? Realizing that suffering is inevitable, a stoic would say that the way to deal with suffering is to control one's responses to circumstances, to both good and evil, through repression. He would say, "Don't be too happy or too sad. Control yourself."
Jesus Christ was not a stoic, nor was he a hedonist. Hedonism is the philosophy of this country today: Let's live to maximize pleasure. A hedonist would say that the best way to deal with suffering and pain is to enjoy the maximum amount of pleasure and try to avoid or minimize pain. Jesus Christ was not a hedonist.
Was Jesus an existentialist? Existentialism says human life is meaningless and total absurdity, and therefore the existentialist would advise us to have existential courage and commit suicide. Now, if we don't want to commit suicide, the existentialist would tell us to live as though life is meaningful, even though we all know it is absurd. But Jesus was not an existentialist. He truly suffered.
We do not fully understand suffering. We know there was no suffering before the fall and there shall be no suffering in heaven or on the redeemed earth. But we experience suffering now and there is quite a bit of mystery about it. We cannot say that the man who is suffering most is the most heinous sinner, or that the man who doesn't suffer much is a saint. But we know one thing: the suffering of Jesus Christ contributed to our salvation. He truly suffered, and we know, as Paul says, that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose. The sufferings that we experience contribute to the good purpose of God. And having suffered in all these real ways, Jesus, as our high priest, is able to understand our sufferings and sympathize with us. He knows and understands. If we go to him, he will assist us and walk with us.
Jesus thirsted so that he could give us the water of life that we may never thirst again. Do you remember how he asked for a drink from the sinful Samaritan woman? She came to draw water to satisfy her thirst, and Jesus gave her to drink of this living water. That is what he is saying to all of us: "Come unto me and drink." He thirsted and suffered that we may never thirst again.
Have you come this one who thirsted for you in order to provide you with living water? Oh, you are going every other place and subscribing to every other kind of philosophy! I invite you to come to him who alone is able to assuage your thirst.
It Is Finished!
The sixth word is found in John 19:30. By now I believe Jesus came out of the tunnel of divine abandonment. His hell was over and the darkness was gone. So Jesus cried out with a shout, "It is finished!" and in the Greek it is one word: Tetelestai .
Now we know from Greek papyri that this word was used to mean "paid in full." In New Testament times, if you paid your tax, your receipt would be stamped with the word tetelestai. It was also the shout of the victor. It was a shout of triumph. It could be the shout of a person who satisfactorily defended his Ph.D. thesis. At the end of your examination, what would you say? Tetelestai--it is finished! I have finally accomplished all things, in other words.
Jesus was ever-conscious of his mission to minister and to give his life as a ransom for many. He came to die for the sins of the elect. In John 4:34 he told his disciples, "My food is the do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work." We are told that he set his face toward Jerusalem for this purpose. In Luke 12:50, Jesus said, "But I have a baptism to undergo"--speaking, of course, of his death on the cross--"and how distressed I am until it is completed!" He longed for the fulfillment of his mission! And in John 17:4, in the upper room, in anticipation of his own sacrifice Jesus prayed to the Father, "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do."
"It is finished." Those words speak about Christ's sacrificial death--the violent, bloody death of the innocent God/man for the guilty. One died, but not for one person or a family or even a nation. One died for the whole world. Jesus' death was a propitiation. We must all learn this word which deals with the wrath of God. By his death Christ suffered God's wrath and turned it away from us. As a result, God can now be just and the justifier of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. God is now propitious toward us.
Jesus' death brought about reconciliation. His death alone solved the problem of human alienation forever and forever. God had declared war against all of his enemies, but Christ, by his death, brought about peace and reconciliation between God and man. There is no more enmity and war; instead, there is peace and love between God and us in Jesus Christ. And so we read, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1).
Not only that, this cry, "Tetelestai," means Jesus accomplished our redemption. What does redemption mean? It means to buy back by paying a price. It speaks about buying back us from bondage and slavery. In 1 Peter 1:18-19 we read, "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect."
We have been redeemed from our empty way of life and from slavery. Our slavery was multifaceted--we were slaves to sin, slaves to lust, slaves to Satan, slaves to the world, slaves to the law, slaves to religious ceremony, slaves to dead works, slaves to arrogance, slaves to pride, and slaves to self-importance. We had absolutely no freedom. But when Jesus shouted, "Tetelestai! It is finished!" it meant he paid the price to redeem us from slavery. If the Son sets us free, we are free indeed--free from sin, Satan, lust, and law. They shall have no more dominion over us.
By his death Jesus Christ granted us freedom, and Paul, therefore, spoke about the liberty of the glory of the children of God. Is there a sin that you fall into again and again? Why don't you go to the cross and hear that word: "It is finished"? Because of that, we can stand fast in the liberty with which Christ has set us free. So Jesus shouted in triumph, "Tetelestai!" He fulfilled his Father's will and accomplished redemption for his people--salvation by grace through faith plus absolutely nothing.
Have you appropriated the power of this word, "It is finished"? Have you experienced freedom from guilt, wrath, alienation, and bondage? If that is true, may you rejoice greatly in the Lord!
Restoration of Fellowship
The seventh word is found in Luke 23:46. "Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.'" Now his hell was over, the gloom was gone, and the darkness had disappeared. There was now only the sunshine of the Father's presence. PGM Here on the cross Jesus quoted, with some adjustment, from Psalm 31:5, "Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth." And then he added something to that. What was it? Father! That meant that fellowship with God was restored fully.
Then Jesus said, "I commit my spirit." This was speaking about his freedom to voluntarily give up his spirit. In John 10 Jesus spoke about this aspect of his death. In verse 11 he said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." And in verse 17 he said, "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and authority to take it up again." Didn't he say, "I commit my spirit"? It was a free and voluntary act as we read in Ephesians 5:25, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."
Jesus not only added the word "Father" to this quotation, but he also omitted something: "Redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth." Why? Jesus was without sin. He died that he may redeem us who are sinners. He had no need of redemption and so he omitted this part. Thus he died in calm repose and entered into paradise to welcome the thief into it. He entered into paradise that he may welcome to paradise all who will cry out to him, "Redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth!"
Our Last Words
Have you trusted in this Christ? His words from the cross are words of life and love for everyone who prays the sinner's prayer, "Have mercy upon me, a sinner." What will be your last words? Will you curse and speak about darkness? Will you speak about seeing God, the judge? Will your last words be like those we read about in Revelation 6:15-17 who cried out to the mountains, "Hide us! O mountains, fall on us! Hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!"?
Maybe you are counting on these last words: "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women. Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Hail Mary, full of grace. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." Let me assure you, those words will not work. Mary cannot save anybody. She is not the redeemer. She herself was redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone is the redeemer.
Will your last words be like those of Stephen? He saw Jesus in heaven, standing at the right hand of God, and in Acts 7:59 we read his last words: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." What about Paul? Did he pray to Mary? Was there contingency in his prayers? No, at the end of his life he wrote, "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8). This is total assurance of salvation.
Are you longing for his appearing? Some people think they can serve the world and live in sin, but when their last moments come, they can just shift gears into kingdom longing. It never works. If you want to die a good death, live a good life. It is that simple.
Have you trusted in Christ and Christ alone? You must not depend on your life or on anything you did or will do. As the hymn says, "Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe." I recently met with some teenage boys. I told them, "Jesus said only one thing is needful. Now, your mother and father may have said many things were needful. You mother may want you to play piano or learn wrestling or study business. Your father may want you to do many other things. But what did Jesus say? Only one thing is needful. Why, then, haven't you trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation?" Let me tell you why they had not. Like many of us, they did not think that what Jesus said is true, that one thing alone is needful. And like them, many of us live careless lives. We don't pay any attention to God. But soon the hour of our death will come upon us. We may want to shift into the realm of faith at that time but it will not work. We must cry out to God now and ask him to have mercy upon us, that the Spirit of the living God may convict us in such thorough manner that we will cry out, 'What must we do to be saved?' If we do that, what is the answer found in the Scripture? "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved."
May God have mercy on us all! May he help us to ensure our salvation by trusting in his Son as we listen to his words of life from the cross.
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Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
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