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The last words uttered by a person before death are often of great significance.
Many final words have been recorded. Some of them are quite humorous:
“He’s so tame you can put your head right inside his mouth.”
“Clip the red wire first.”
“They only attack when they are hungry.”
Others are more of a profound nature:
Martin Luther said “God is our goal from whom comes salvation.”
John Wesley said, “The best of all, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!”
Dwight Moody said, “This is my triumph, this is my coronation day; it is glorious!”
Or take the last words of Jesus as He hung nailed to the cross. He didn’t make one statement; the eyewitnesses’ recorded seven different statements uttered by Jesus as He endured approximately six hours of suffering on the cross. People down through the centuries have hung with bated breath upon these seven dramatic, awe-inspiring, faith-building statements spoken from the lips of the Christ.
During the six Sundays that lead up to and then including Easter, I’d like to re-examine each saying:
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
“Mother, behold your son, son behold your mother” (John 19:26-27).
“I thirst” (John 19:28).
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).
“Truly, truly, today you shall be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
On Palm Sunday, we’ll examine what Jesus meant by, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we will be greatly encouraged by His last, last words: “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Final words; each one a window through which we can better see and comprehend the heart of Jesus.
These 7 statements cannot be fully appreciated apart from the context of the crucifixion.
This infamous event is familiar to us as a story, but unfamiliar to us in our experience. We’ve never witnessed death on a cross, but in Jesus’ day, it was an all too common experience, always performed in a public place.
In Jesus’ case, it was performed at the place called the skull; or you may know it in Hebrew, as Golgotha, or in Latin, the place is known as Calvary. Either way, it was known as a barren mound located outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Citizens were encouraged to look on as Jesus was crucified between two criminals. First Jesus was bound with ropes to the cross as it lay on the ground, then large spikes at least 8 inches long were driven through his hands and feet. The cross was then tilted upward and shockingly dropped into its socket. Jesus, like all victims of crucifixion, had to be in constant motion to avoid asphyxiation. When His muscles could no longer lift His body, the objective of the cross was met. One didn’t die from the loss of blood but from suffocation. The whole idea of crucifixion was one of progressive weakness, giving way to increased pain.
But beyond the physical pain of crucifixion was the emotional pain inflicted upon Jesus by those who stood by and watched as He died. From the onlookers, “Look at you now! You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!” (Matthew 27:40). From the religious leaders, “He saved others but He can’t save Himself” (Luke 23:35). From the soldiers, “If you are the King of the Jews, save Yourself” (Luke 23:37).
In this series, we are considering the last words that Jesus spoke, but think for a moment about the last words that Jesus heard. Bitter, hateful, irreverent words. Wasn’t it enough that he was being crucified? Was the crown of thorns too soft? Had the flogging been too short?
Peter says, they didn’t just speak or yell or scream; they “hurled” insults; verbal rocks! They had every intention of inflicting emotional pain. They had broken His body; now they were adamant about breaking His Spirit.
And in the midst of it all, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). During His time upon the earth, Jesus said many wonderful things. But certainly, these are the most remarkable words He ever spoke.
I would like for us to note four quick things in general about this phrase before we settle down into the meat of this saying.
First, it’s one of three prayers Jesus prayed as He hung upon the cross. Along with, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And, “Father into Thy hands I commit My Spirit, He prays, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus gives human beings an example to follow: when life takes a turn for the worse, pray.
Similarly, we see Jesus practicing what He preaches. In the Sermon on the Mount, He instructs His followers to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Third, this prayer is a fulfillment of prophecy. Seven and a half to eight centuries before this crucifixion scene, Isaiah the prophet penned these words:
But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death. He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. (Isaiah 53:3-12)
Notice the last statement, “He interceded for sinners.” Here in these words, Luke records that this prophecy was fulfilled. Jesus interceded on their behalf: “Father, forgive them.”
Fourth, it is important to note that this prayer was spoken not once, but in all likelihood several times. The original text literally says, “Jesus was saying, Father, forgive them.” You English majors will recall that imperfect tense, which is used here conveys the idea of continuous past action. Thus “He was continuing to pray, ‘Father, forgive them, ‘Father, forgive them, ‘Father, forgive them.’”
When and how many times, we’re not sure, but we can well imagine as they drove the nails into His wrists and feet; “Father, forgive them.” As they raised the cross to fall into its socket tearing His flesh, “Father, forgive them.” As they hurled their insults and verbal abuse at Him, “Father, forgive them.” As they took his garments and gambled for them, “Father, forgive them.”
Amazing isn’t it? If someone crucified me, I doubt that I could pray that kind of prayer? Why, for much lesser offenses, I am ready to defend myself and fight back. And here’s Jesus, “Father, forgive” who is attempting to teach us by example that we need to forgive one another in the same way that God forgives us.
Peter tells us in his letter that “when they hurled their insults at Him, Jesus did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23). If ever a person deserved a shot at revenge, Jesus did, but He didn’t take it.
Author Anne Lamott writes, “Forgiveness of others means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” 1
The Journal of Adult Development found that 75% of people believe they have been forgiven by God for past sins, mistakes, and wrong doing but only 52% say they have forgiven others. 2 Perhaps some of us have room to grow in this regard.
I pray we are all inspired by the following story.
As part of being initiated into the cadet corps at Texas A & M University, Bruce Goodrich was forced by the cadet corps leaders to run until he dropped – but he never got up. A short time after the tragedy, Bruce’s father wrote the following letter to the administration, faculty, student body, and the corps of cadets:
I would like to take this opportunity to express the appreciation of my family for the great outpouring of concern and sympathy from Texas A & M over the loss of our son. We were deeply touched by the tribute paid to him in the battalion. We were particularly pleased to note that his Christian witness did not go unnoticed during his brief time on campus. I hope it will be some comfort to know that we harbor no ill will in the matter. We know our God makes no mistakes. Bruce had an appointment with his Lord and is now secure in his celestial home. When the question is asked, ‘Why did this happen?’ perhaps one answer will be, ‘So that many will consider where they will spend eternity.’
I often find myself thinking about those who made the decision to make Bruce run until he dropped. I know that they have lost sleep, they have cried, and they will probably spend a part of every day for the rest of their lives thinking about the consequences of their actions. They are human beings just like I am, and just like I make mistakes, they made a mistake.
I will never forget that God, in Christ, has extended great compassion toward me though I did not deserve it. I have made many mistakes that have offended God. But He had so much compassion for me that He sent His Son to receive the consequences of my actions. If God can forgive me for my actions, I cannot help but forgive those men of theirs.” 3
“Be ye kind and compassionate toward one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Father, forgive them.”
I have a question for you. Who is “them?”
Was it the soldiers who actually drove the spikes into his hands and feet, the Roman Governor, Pilate, who ordered them to do so? Or was it the Jewish religious leaders who first found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and then pressured Pilate into condemning Jesus? What about the crowd who when given a chance to free either Barabbas or Jesus chose Barabbas?
Surely His prayer includes all of those who immediately played a role in His death.
But His prayer reaches far beyond the place called the Skull, far beyond a Friday afternoon in Jerusalem. Included in this prayer is a multitude that no one can number; of all nations and peoples. This prayer can be heard echoing down through the centuries, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Is there any reason in the scriptures to deny that this prayer was uttered for you and me?
The Bible is clear. Romans 3:23 says, “Everyone sins; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Couple that with Ro. 6:23 “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Anyone without Christ is still sitting on death row never knowing when the hammer is going to drop. And here’s Jesus ready to sign a pardon for whosoever will.
Alexander III was Tsar of Russia from 1881-1894. His rule was marked by repression, and in particular by persecution of Jews. His wife, Maria, provided a stark contrast, being known for her generosity to those in need. Once her husband had signed an order consigning a prisoner to life in exile. It read simply, “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Maria changed that prisoner’s life by moving the comma in her husband’s order. She altered it to “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.” 4
In Christ God has changed the comma that once condemned us to life apart from God. From “Pardon impossible, send to hell” comes the good news of salvation: “Pardon, impossible to send to hell.”
There was a Priest who was working by candlelight late on a terribly stormy Saturday night trying to finish Sunday morning’s sermon when suddenly the phone rang. It’s the hospital calling from 30 miles away to let the Priest know that they have a dying man who is asking for Last Rites; “Will you come?”
The old Priest gets in his car and it takes him 1½ hours to go 30 miles in the storm. Finally he meets the man who refuses to confess his sin as part of the Last Rites. He begins to tell this old Priest that he used to work as a switchman on the railroad. “32 years, 2 months and 11 days ago I was working on a night like tonight. The whole crew was drinking and when it came time for me to check a switch to make sure the next freight stayed on the main right through town, I lined the switch wrong sending that train through the yard at 50 miles an hour. The engines and first 10 cars derailed. One of the engines fell right over on top of an automobile sitting at the crossing. A young man, his wife and two children were all killed. I have been living with that ever since that night. Do you think that God could possibly forgive me?”
After what seemed like an eternity, the Priest put his hand on this man’s shoulder and said very quietly, “If I can forgive you, God can forgive you. Because in that car was my father and mother and my two older sisters.”
God can forgive you . . . of all the things you have done wrong up to this point in your life and all the things that you will do wrong from here on out. So if you haven’t made it . . . you have a choice to make: You can either choose to repay your debt to God yourself; that is, die forever. Or you can choose to allow Jesus to die in your place. It’s your choice.
1 Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (Riverhead Trade, 2006) https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2008/january/3011408.html
4 (Sources: biography.com and Today in the Word, July 14, 1993.)