You can spend moments reflecting on the last seven words of Jesus on the cross. In some parts of the world, congregations gather to meditate on the final words of Jesus on a Good Friday. I recall being one among the seven speakers for a three-hour agony service beginning at 9 am to noon. It’s both informative and an invitation to transform our lives.
Jesus’ last words are recorded in the Gospel between the time of his crucifixion and his death, often revealing his divinity and humanity. The tradition to reflect on the last seven words of Jesus began in the 17th Century. Today these refections are widely used in Good Friday sermons. Jesus’ final words quickly became part of the Church’s Lenten tradition.
On a Good Friday, the traditional service will include music, prayer, and reflection. Churches would choose seven different speakers to bring various perspectives on the last words of Jesus based on scripture.
First Word: Jesus Speaks to the Father
Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:24)
Jesus focuses on others even amidst excruciating pain. Jesus is hanging on the cross between two criminals. The soldiers follow orders – performing the routine job of crucifixion. They are bored, tired, and calloused – gambling on the criminal belongings to pass their time. Amidst brutal torture, Jesus says an unselfish prayer.
In contrast, people who suffer seek God’s help for deliverance. Jesus isn’t asking anything for himself. Jesus asks his Father to forgive the people responsible for his death.
The word ‘Father’ communicates trust, confidence, and endearment. Jesus does not say, ‘God’ – a generic term for deity. Neither does Jesus says ‘Lord’, a word of respect and honor. Jesus avoided available alternatives like Almighty God– a rather formal way to address. Jesus used the intimate Aramaic word, Abba, just like he addressed his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). and as the model prayer, Jesus taught “Our Father … (Matthew 6:9).
Who does the “them” refer to? Look at the prayer again: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing (Luke 23:34). What are the possibilities? It could be the soldiers, Pilate, Chief Priests, Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Jesus could be praying for the Roman soldiers who routinely execute people at Golgotha. They follow orders with no choice to walk away. Jesus could be asking forgiveness for Pilate, whose orders led to the crucifixion even when the victim is innocent. Pilate acted out of the Jewish leaders’ pressure and fear of riot – more like a self-serving politician.
The prayer seeking forgiveness was possibly for the Chief priests and scribes – the prime force behind Jesus’ death. They plotted to kill Jesus, orchestrated the betrayal, fabricated the false testimony, and stirred the crowds to demand crucifixion. But it could be the Pharisees and Sadducees as recipients of Jesus’ mercy. The Sadducees attempted to discredit Jesus. The Pharisees were the first to plot against Jesus. The Gospel does not say who would be the actual beneficiaries of the prayer.
Jesus on the cross is extending the prayer of forgiveness for our sins, our negative behaviors. Is anyone that is mentioned above, worthy of forgiveness? The prayer is far more merciful than anyone deserves. Forgive means to send away. Forgive is to release from a legal or moral obligation. Sin is a debt owed to God, and God writes it off. That’s forgiveness. Remember the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35).
Second Word: Jesus Speaks to the Criminal on the Cross
I tell you the truth; today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43)
Imagine the scene! One criminal hurls insults while the other seeks a favor from Jesus on the Cross (Luke 23:39-43). One criminal rebukes the other for accusing innocent Jesus.
A criminal could either be one who committed a serious crime or a theft. A thief is taunting Jesus’ inability to live up to the title of the messiah. The event fulfills what is written in the scriptures “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3) and “scorned by men” (Psalm 22:6-8).
As one criminal hurls insult, the other rebuked him, stating that Jesus did nothing wrong (Luke 23:40-41) while they deserve the punishment for their evil deeds. It’s a blasphemy when people speak irreverently, impiously, or disrespectfully of or about God.
The request of the second thief on the cross is astonishing: remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42). In sharp contrast to Jesus’ disciples who flee the scene of execution. But the criminal sees Jesus as a messiah. It is a display of intense faith in dark times. The dying thief believes amidst the gruesome scene.
You know Jesus has an affirmative answer: Today, you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). A promise Jesus offers to the believing thief – a presence with Christ in paradise. Jesus rebuked his disciples for their unbelief. But during his last hour, the second thief exhibited great faith in the messiah. Jesus admired the Roman Centurion’s faith, who requested Jesus to say a word and heal his servant. The centurion is a Gentile, and the other is a criminal, but they both display great faith in Jesus. In a way, Jesus did not die alone, but in the company of a firm believer – who looked beyond the raw wood, nails and body drenched with blood.
Third Word: Jesus Speaks to Mary and John
"Woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother" (John 19:26-27)
Jesus looks down from the cross with concern for his mother. Except for John, the other disciples had fled to avoid punishment by association. But along with Jesus’ mother, other believing women stood at the foot of the cross. The disciple whom Jesus loved took Mary into his home. (John 19:25-27).
Gospel writer John notes the presence of Jesus’ mother at the scene of the crucifixion. Mary would be there in Jerusalem with friends and relatives for the feast of the Passover. She witnesses Jesus’ death. We recall Simeon’s prophecy: a sword will pierce your own soul (Luke 2:35). Mary stood with a broken heart, consoled by friends.
We assume that the disciple whom Jesus loved is the apostle, John. John does not identify himself, perhaps out of modesty.
Jesus’ third word from the cross has fascinating implications. Jesus addresses his mother as a woman. However strange it may sound to our modern ears, it’s a formal address under Jewish family law. As Mary’s firstborn, Jesus is responsible for his mother’s welfare. John’s commitment is more than an act of filial devotion. Mary is now appointed the mother of all disciples (not just beloved disciples) and the church.
Fourth Word: Jesus Cries Out to the Father
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)
Jesus cried in the darkest hour of his suffering. It was the opening words of Psalm 22. Jesus expressed separation from God. Jesus calls out to God rather than to his Father.
You know that during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, darkness has descended on the earth. An ordinary eclipse would be impossible during the time of the full moon on which the Passover falls. There was something different. Everyone is waiting for a crushing gloom.
Jesus had lost a lot of blood even before coming to Golgotha. Jesus lasts six hours on the cross.
Darkness can be a symbol of moral degradation, fulfillment of prophecy, Father’s judgment on the world’s sins. The darkness during the daytime was also viewed as an impending death of a king.
Jesus cried in a loud voice, pleading. It’s the same verb used to capture a man begging Jesus to heal his son (Luke 9:38), the blind man seeking mercy (Luke 18:38) or the voice crying in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3 & Matthew 3:3).
Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22. Some did mistake Eloi as a call for Elijah. Judaism considered Elijah would return during the last days to help in time of need and save the righteous.
You noticed the difference. Jesus used God in his prayer, while in most instances, Jesus uses Father. Perhaps it manifests a loss of contact with the Father in the moment of desolation. But Jesus does trust, although the fellowship seems broken.
Forsaken is a harsh word even to imagine. It means to separate connection with someone. Even if it is contrary to the promise of God: I will never forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). But Psalm 22 ends with hope and triumph.
Jesus probably felt separated from God. In a way, Jesus is forsaken by God because he took the burden of our sin. Since God is holy, God cannot associate with evil. Jesus is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Jesus knew that the cross would feel like a separation from God, as he prayed in Gethsemane: Not my will but your will be done (Luke 22:42).
Forgiveness is never free. There is a price to be paid. It isn’t easy for the Father or the Son. The price feels like being forsaken by God. Sacrificial love does not falter even in moments like these: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.
Fifth Word: Jesus is Thirsty
I am thirsty (John 19:28)
You notice that Jesus refused the initial drink of vinegar, gall, and myrrh offered to alleviate the suffering. But several hours later. Jesus says: I am thirsty. Jesus is on the cross for six hours. With his breath failing, his mouth is parched with exhaustion. As scripture is fulfilled: they put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst (Psalm 69:21), Jesus asked for something to quench his thirst.
Jesus earlier had refused to drink bitter wine offered before being crucified. The intoxication of bitter wine would avoid the pain for those being crucified. Jesus even rejected a grain of frankincense to numb the pain. Jesus is committed to offering the sacrifice – there is no attempt to lessen the pain of the sacrifice. All this was before the crucifixion.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, what the soldier offered is wine vinegar known as posca – sour wine mixed with water. It’s the soldiers’ favorite drink, not to get drunk, but to quench their thirst. It was a better substitute for dirty water, as it killed harmful bacteria in the water. The sponge makes it practical to drink from the cross.
You may wonder what sponge is doing at Golgotha. It was part of the Roman soldier kit, often used as drinking vessels. The soldier offered the posca from their own supply, using their own sponge. They were not required to share their drink with criminals. Perhaps the soldiers saw something different in Jesus. It was an act of mercy towards the one who brings mercy to humanity.
John tells us that Jesus drank the sour vinegar posca from the sponge before saying: it is finished (John 19:30). It was not acting on the cross – pretending to undergo physical torture. The suffering and thirst were real. It’s a reminder that Jesus died in the flesh for us and our sins.
Sixth Word: Jesus says it is finished
It is finished (John 19:30)
Jesus knew the purpose of crucifixion. You recall Jesus’ words during his ministry: No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord (John 10:18). It’s not just suffering that is finished or payment for sin and redemption of the world. It is the reason for which Jesus came to the earth. It is a final act of obedience.
The journey that began in a simple stable is now accomplished on the cross. What is finished? Jesus’ mission to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18, 43), to bring life (John 10:10) to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8), and to testify to the truth (John 18:37). The disciples will understand this only after Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus had a clear purpose. We can use the metaphors: to drink the cup and to be baptized (Mark 10:38, Luke 12:50, Luke 22:42, & John 18:11). The redemptive power of the cross bears the sins of the world. At the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus surrenders to the Father’s will.
It is finished means fulfillment or completion. It’s like the bill had been paid in full; the debt has been paid off. It is the cry of victory – it is finished. It is also an announcement that obedience is fulfilled. It is the final culmination of a life of obedience, humility, and suffering – ushering in a new era.
Seventh Word: Jesus’ loud voice echoes
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)
Jesus surrenders with a loud voice with the words of Psalm 31:5. With complete trust, Jesus says: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Jesus’ life is a perfect sacrifice, now placed in God’s hands.
The Roman practice of death by crucifixion served as a public reminder of the danger of resisting Roman power. It was to inspire horror in the hearts of the people. Some criminals would last for days before succumbing to death. But due to some agreement not to offend Jewish sensibilities, the soldiers would kill the criminals by breaking their legs before Sabbath.
Temple curtain torn is a sign of heaven being opened. Jesus’ redemption of the cross made accessible the presence of God to everyone. The temple curtain separates the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place.
Jesus’ final word is from Psalm 31:5 ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth. Devout Jews used it as part of evening prayer. The last words communicate intimacy, trust, and surrender.
Something for you …
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