Friday, 3 April 2015

The last words of Jesus


If you pull the four Gospels together you find that as Jesus hung dying on the cross there were seven moments when he spoke: the famous “Seven last words from the cross”. 

They have been written about endlessly over two thousand years, but they always bear thinking about again. Because they are found scattered in the different Gospels, Luke and John especially, we can’t always be absolutely sure of the exact order in which they were spoken, but I don’t think that matters.

1  Father, forgive them - they don’t know what they’re doing. Luke 23:34.

Can you imagine what it was like to be crucified? Our English word “excruciating” comes directly from “cross” and “crucify”, and we use it to speak of pain beyond words. Most of us would probably be utterly broken mentally, sheer gibbering wrecks, as the horror of what was being done to us dawned.

Hardier souls might be able to keep control of their mental processes - enough, perhaps, to feel rage and to direct hatred towards the perpetrators of this cruelty.

But Jesus? With perfect calm control he offers to his Father in heaven a prayer for the forgiveness of these people. Indeed, he almost seems to be excusing them: “they don’t know what they are doing”, implying that they are more worthy of pity than of hatred.

Jesus called his followers to be forgiving towards their enemies, and they were not just empty words. If ever someone practiced what he preached, it was him. And we who trust in him, who are included in the number of those who have received his forgiveness, are called to follow him in this as in all things.

Lord God, thank you for the wonderful mercy and forgiveness that has been extended to me. Help me always to remember that a forgiven person must also be a forgiving person. Amen.

2  I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. Luke 23:43.

Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One of them abused him, mocking his claim to be the Christ. But the other rebuked that man: he recognised his own guilt, and then added a truly humble prayer: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. To which Jesus replied with the promise that he would, that day, “be with me in paradise”.

The experts debate what exactly is meant by “paradise”. Is it essentially another name for “heaven”? Or is it more like a temporary resting place for those awaiting the final resurrection?

Whatever, two things are certain. First, paradise is wonderful, free of all sin, pain and suffering. Second, paradise is the destiny of a man who had, by his own admission, been involved in crime, violence and disorder.

Death is not the end. For those who are “remembered” by Jesus - and that is anyone who humbly asks him - there are joys beyond our imagining.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you have gone ahead to prepare a place even for me. Amen.

3  Dear woman, here is your son... Here is your mother. John 19:26-27.

The male disciples had run away, afraid that they too might end up on a cross. But the women stayed, huddled together at the foot of the cross, along with “the disciple Jesus loved”, probably the young lad John. 

Jesus looks down and sees his mother Mary and John side by side. He commits them to the care of one another with a great tenderness.

There were times in the past when Jesus had wounded Mary by his single-minded devotion to his heavenly Father. But his love for her was never in doubt, and even in his death agonies, when self-obsession would have been understandable, he is concerned for her well-being.

Poor Mary! Was there ever a darker day in her life? But in John’s care she becomes enfolded in the life of the infant church, and, like Naomi - “the bitter woman” - in the Old Testament, all her sorrow is turned to joy.

Heavenly Father, whatever my trials may be, help me to have more concern for those of others. Amen.

4  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27:46.

Jesus has been on the cross for six hours. Can you feel the searing heat? Can you hear the buzzing of the flies? Can you sense the immense weariness and weakness that is overcoming him? The answer may well be, Yes, to some extent at least.

But if we ask, Can you imagine the immense aloneness that came from bearing the weight of human sin on his shoulders, the sense of being separated even from his heavenly Father, something he had never known before, the only answer can be, No, never.

Is there a greater pain in human experience than being forsaken, abandoned, by someone you have always loved? The woman left by an unfaithful husband... the businessman deserted by the partner he started the business with... the parent cast off by his child... the child cast off by her parent?

Jesus knew all this and more. Hence this cry of utter distress: Father, where are you? Why aren’t you there any more? I can’t cope with this emptiness, this ever-growing vacuum!

Lord Jesus, enable me to know just a little more of what it was that tore that terrible cry from your lips - so that I may love you just a little more. Amen.

5  I am thirsty. John 19:30

At one level Jesus’s pathetic request for water - that, surely, is what this is - simply highlights his humanity. After all those hours grilling in the sun it is hardly surprising if he is parched almost beyond endurance.

But at a deeper level there is something much more significant here. 

If you look up “water” in your Bible concordance you will find that there are more references in John’s Gospel than in the other three put together. John is the only one who records these three little words.

But how ironic it is that they should be spoken by the same man who offered “living water” - fresh, clear, cold, splashing, cleansing water - to the woman at the well! (John 4:10) And that he should be the one who made the promise that  “whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty”! (John 6:35) 

The one who quenches thirst allows himself to be tortured by thirst. If this isn’t love beyond measure, what is?

Lord Jesus, you have given me the wonderful water of eternal life. Help me to return to you my life and all that it involves. Amen.

6  It is finished. John 19:30.

Like “I am thirsty”, what we have in our Bibles as “It is finished” is only one word in John’s Greek.

You could perhaps take it as a word of final despair: “It’s all over. I can’t take any more. I’ve had enough.” But that would be a complete misunderstanding. It is in fact a cry of triumph: Done! Over! Accomplished! Finished!

Jesus is declaring that by dying in this way he has at last brought to an end the work his Father sent him to earth to do: that is, to make atonement for the sins of all men and women. He is the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and this sacrifice is the means by which this is done. 

The experts tell us that the word John uses here is in fact a routine commercial term; it is what would be written on your bill, as proof of payment, once you had finally settled it. In today’s language: Paid. Paid in full.

I wonder if we have ever really got our heads round this greatest of all truths: All my sins are dealt with once for all by the shedding of Christ’s blood. Yes, even the worst, the most shameful.

Which means two great things. First, I am called to sing a song of praise; second, I am called to live a life of holiness. Isn’t this, in a nutshell, what it means to be a Christian?

Father, thank you so much that in Jesus all my sins are dealt with and I am empowered to live a new life! Amen.

7  Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Luke 23:46.

In one sense, Jesus didn’t “die”. Rather, he “gave up his spirit”; he voluntarily surrendered his life. 

Right to the very end he was in control, and after all the traumas and horrors of the preceding hours he now calmly rests himself in the hands of the God who sent him. 

Luke tells us that he uttered this prayer “in a loud voice”. But that doesn’t mean an uncontrolled shout. No, he simply summoned up his last dregs of strength to make sure that everybody within earshot would know that he was dying in confidence and in peace.

If this is so, surely it leaves us only one prayer we can offer...

Father, help me to live such a Christ-centred, Spirit-filled life that, when the day comes for me to die, I will be able to do so with these very words of Jesus on my lips. Amen!

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