THE FIRST WORD
The somber procession had arrived at the outskirts of the city on a small hill called Golgatha, literally “the place of the skull”. The name in Latin is “Calvaria”, so today we often refer to this sacred place as a hill called “Mt Calvary”. There the Roman soldiers affixed Jesus, along with two condemned thieves, to His cross, driving the nails through His hands and His feet. As the soldiers lifted the now occupied crosses up they would drop them into place with loud thud. This was just the first of many agonies one experienced in death by crucifixion.
Jesus had taught His disciples to “love their enemies” and “pray for those who abuse you”. As His ordeal on the cross begins He puts into practice the things that He had taught. In the midst of this initial searing pain He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing?” His concern was not just for the ignorance of those carrying out His death sentence, but for the ignorance of all those who had sent Him there – the Jewish leaders who had instigated the crucifixion, the crowd that had demanded it, the disciples who basically had scattered, and even for Judas who had betrayed Him. In fact, this prayerful cry was on behalf of humanity as a whole, who had willfully chosen to rebel against a loving God.
Stop and consider for a moment how you would respond if someone were torturing you. Some of us would suffer in silence. Others would cry out in pain. A few might shout out defiant oaths at the tormentors. But Jesus didn’t do any of those things. Instead, He asked His Father to forgive those who were responsible for this horrific scene. How is that even possible?
Actually we shouldn’t be so surprised that Jesus would pray in this way……not if we really understand who Jesus is! The scriptures make it very clear that Jesus is “Emmanuel” – meaning “God with us”. He is “God in the flesh”. As such He is the exact representation of God’s nature. And what is the essence of who God is? It’s love! God is love……and He loves people more than anything. Jesus didn’t seek retribution for those who were crucifying Him; He loved them and wanted His Father to forgive them.
Jesus’ prayer on the cross also does something FOR US. It assures us that as terrible as our sins may be, Jesus is anxious to forgive us too. He willingly allowed Himself to be hung on that cross to satisfy the penalty for our sin. God’s holiness demanded justice; God’s love offered grace. If Jesus could forgive those who were crucifying Him, He can and will forgive us.
But Jesus’s prayer also requires something FROM US It calls us to follow His lead. As followers of Christ we need to forgive those who have sinned against us just as He has forgiven us. At times that may not be easy to do, but it is one of the important ingredients in Jesus’ own plan to save the world. We must learn to forgive. It’s not an optional request.
Let’s be thankful Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them” because that means He can forgive us. And tonight, as we remember the scene that purchased our salvation, let’s recommit ourselves to follow His example. Consider for a moment, who has hurt you? Who has injured you? Who do you need to forgive? Bring their face into focus so that you can see them clearly. Then pray, “Lord, help me to forgive them as you have forgiven me”. Jesus’ first words from the cross were “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
THE SECOND WORD
Jesus wasn’t alone at His crucifixion. He was joined by two thieves. Unlike Jesus, they were there as a consequence of bad choices they had made and laws that they had broken. Though the punishment was cruel, the legal justification was not in question. They had no one to blame but themselves for the circumstances they found themselves in.
One of the thieves cries out to Jesus “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us”. IF – that is the word the devil used when he tried to tempt Jesus. “If you’re the Son of God, command this stone to become bread”. “If you’re the Son of God, cast yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple….” That was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now at the end of His ministry the challenge comes again, “If you are the Christ…..” IF! Prove it! Do something! Save yourself and us! The man’s insult went unanswered. Jesus knew who He was; there was no IF!
But there was a second thief, and that thief answered for Jesus. He acknowledged he was being punished for what he had done – in fact, both he and the other thief were guilty. But he said “This man has done nothing wrong”. Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. That moment changed his eternal destiny.
Picture it -Jesus turning his head toward this thief and saying “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”. Jesus recognized the sincerity of the man’s heart. This thief had acknowledged his own sin and entrusted what little there was left of his life to the only One that could redeem him. That’s the kind of prayer Jesus always answers with a YES!
Some Christians are disturbed by this account. After all, the man hadn’t walked down the aisle and prayed at the altar. He didn’t have time to make any restitution for his past sins. He wasn’t baptized nor did he have the opportunity to do any good works. He may not have even have heard any of Jesus’ sermons. But he did confess his sins and ask Jesus to remember him. And if that was good enough for Jesus, that should be good enough for us.
The early Christian leader, Augustine, knew that some people were troubled by this story. He had these words of wisdom to share with his readers: “There is one case of death bed repentance – that of the penitent thief, that none should despair; and only one that none should presume.” What does that mean? It means we should repent and receive the forgiveness God has offered without delay. We should not despair – God’s offer is valid; but we should not presume we can make that decision at a later time.
We must remember that paradise is the destination God has in mind for us all. We were created to spend eternity with Him. Sin and death were never a part of His plan. The fact that Jesus came and was willing to go to that cross is evidence of how strongly God wants to bring us home to Him. Jesus had told His disciples earlier that “If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also”. The thief on the cross got there before us, but the promise of paradise still holds for all those who will confess, repent and believe what Jesus says. Jesus’ second words from the cross were
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”
THE THIRD WORD
In the midst of his misery Jesus had the grace to consider the needs of others. First, He asked for forgiveness for His tormentors. He then assures the second thief that he would find himself in paradise, the recipient of God’s grace. After that He turns to those that are closest to Him – His own mother, Mary, and the disciple whom He loved, John. As He considers the prospect of their welfare after He is gone Jesus says, “Dear woman, here is your son” and turning to the disciple He says “Here is your mother”.
Most likely Mary had been widowed for quite some time. We hear nothing about Joseph since Jesus visited the Temple with His parents when he was 12, some 20+ years earlier. This meant Mary was most likely a middle-aged widow, making her vulnerable, especially in a male-oriented society. As her oldest son, Jesus had an obligation to provide for her – an obligation that He takes very seriously even as He is dying. His intent is to entrust the care of His mother to His closest friend and disciple, John.
Jesus certainly loved all the disciples, but He felt a special bond with John. He didn’t play favorites, but He had developed a trust in John that enabled Him to make this request as He hung on the cross. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus had other brothers, so one would think they might take on this responsibility. However, at this point they had not come to a place of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. In addition, we don’t even know if they were in Jerusalem at this time. Since the other disciples had scattered after Jesus’ arrest, to best of our knowledge John is the only male disciple or relative present at the crucifixion.
This assignment was not a one way street. In saying these words He was also enlisting His mother to care for His close friend and disciple. After spending three years with Jesus, John was hurting too. Jesus’ last gesture gave Mary both something to live for and someone who would care for her. Two of the most important people in His life could now lean on each other.
Life had never been easy for Mary — not since the day the angel of God had first visited her and told her she would give birth to God’s son. God honored her by that choice, but that put both her and Joseph in the bullseye of trouble – first with a pregnancy before they were married, then from the danger of King Herod, the death of her husband, and now as the witness to the execution of her son in a particularly horrible manner. Jesus knew what Mary had suffered to fulfill the role God had given her. He deeply loved her and wanted to give her a blessing. Yet, stripped of even His clothing, He had nothing to offer her –nothing at all — except one thing. He could provide for her care by asking someone He trusted the most.
As we reflect on that statement we are reminded that Jesus has entrusted others to our care. In many cases we are His hands and feet to help meet their needs. We have a God-given responsibility to look after others. Certainly we can’t solve all their problems, but we can provide them with the thing they need most, our presence. The challenge for us is to pay attention and identify those individuals and families Jesus is pointing in our direction. If not us, who? If not now, when? Jesus wants us to see the people around us the way He does.
The third word from the cross: “Dear woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother”.
THE FOURTH WORD
We’re almost shaken when we hear the next words from Jesus on the cross. They are words of pain and despair. He feels crushed, forsaken, abandoned – no longer in touch with His Father. In agony of body and spirit He cries out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means “MY GOD, MY GOD WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME”
To understand these words we must acknowledge that Jesus is fully human. He took on the form of man for this distinct purpose. He came to suffer and die, and He is doing just that! He is experiencing the reality of human pain – the depth of human despair – the separation from God that is the consequence of sin. Not only is He suffering from His wounds, He is also suffering from the weight of the burden He has carried to the cross.
The words are taken from Psalms 22. Listen to what the Psalmist said in the first two verses:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? My God, I cry in the daytime, but you don’t answer!”
Is there anyone here who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another? Haven’t we all felt God-forsaken at some point? Haven’t we all thought, “My God, I cry out to you, but you don’t answer me”. We may not understand the physical pain Jesus was enduring, but we are certainly well acquainted with the emotional/spiritual desperation He was feeling that day!
One of the most beautiful things about the Bible is its honesty. It deals forthrightly with all sorts of difficult things in our lives. It confronts us about our sin, reminding us that there is still black and white in a world pushing us to accept the concept of gray. It assures us that God hears the groanings of our spirit when we can even put our despair into words. The Bible speaks into our relationships, establishes ethical boundaries, and illustrates human frailties. You can’t run away from reality when you read God’s word.
Jesus doesn’t try to hide His humanity as He endures the cross. He freely chose to be there, but that didn’t lessen the anguish of the moment. Already tortured and flogged, His body is writhing in rebellion against the nails in His hands and feet. His lungs are filling with fluid as He slowly begins to suffocate. He hears the jeers of the crowd and rehearses over and over in His head Judas’ betrayal, the mockery of His trial, and the long walk down the Via Dolorosa to this wretched place of execution.
Most of all Jesus senses the unbearable knowledge that His Father has turned His back on Him. The Father had no choice — Jesus has become the essence of sin! The sin is ours, not His, but that makes no difference. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. The Father can have no fellowship with sin and evil. His holiness will not allow it, and His justice demands satisfaction. By taking this role Jesus becomes the recipient of the penalty for our sin. That’s a choice He made willingly, but it came at a tremendous cost. We must never forget the pain and despair Jesus felt on that Friday afternoon when He gave His life for us. WE must remember that the nails that held Him on the cross were intended for us. But as Max Lucado once wrote, “He Chose the Nails”. The fourth word from the cross,
“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
THE FIFTH WORD
The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all were written to show how the life of Jesus was the fulfillment of scripture. The Old Testament prophets had laid out a fascinating picture of who the promised Messiah would be. While Biblical scholars disagree on the exact numbers, it’s safe to say that there are at least 300 specific Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, including the place of His birth and how He would died.
It would appear the 5th word from Jesus on the cross fits into that category. As the torment of the crucifixion continued Jesus cries out and says “I AM THIRSTY”. In response a Roman soldier lifted up a sponge filled with wine vinegar. Unknowingly that Roman soldier helped prove the validity of Jesus’s identity. One of those 300+ Old Testament messianic prophecies, Psalms 69:21, says, “They gave me gall for my food. In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”.
Let there be no doubt, Jesus was indeed thirsty. It had been many hours since His arrest. He had stood trial, been flogged and beaten, and then forced to walk to the crucifixion site. Withholding water was a part of the overall crucifixion process. The Romans hung their prisoners on a cross through hot days and cold nights – with no clothing, no food or water. Those being crucified might not actually die for 36-48 hours. The Roman soldiers stood guard to insure that family members couldn’t come forward to help the condemned men or hasten their death. Therefore it’s not difficult to understand how physically thirsty Jesus truly was.
But we need to hear Jesus’ cry “I AM THIRSTY” on a different level. In that same prophetic passage the Psalmist says, “My throat Is dry. My eyes fail, looking for my God”. But the Psalmist went on to say, “I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving……For God hears the needy and doesn’t despise his people”.
Jesus’ physical thirst was secondary to His thirst for God. He sought that communion with His Father even more than He wanted water to drink. It had always been that way in His life! And He had tried to teach His disciples that principle. Early on at the Sermon on the Mount He said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
The words “hunger and thirst” mean much less to those of us who are affluent First World Christians today than the people in Jesus’ time. If we are hungry we just get something to eat. If we are thirsty we just get something to drink. But in Jesus’ time it was much different! People were often hungry – sometimes even starving. In many parts of our world today that is still true. Millions simply don’t have easy access to food and water. Hunger and thirst are compelling. A hungry person can think of very little else but food. A thirsty person can think of very little else but water. To hunger and thirst is to be totally focused. And Jesus promised that those who hunger and thirst for “righteousness” will be filled! What a promise!
If Jesus was nothing else, He was focused! More than anything else He sought to be in total communion with His Father. He wouldn’t have taken things this far if He wasn’t. Physically His body was craving water; spiritually His heart was craving His Father. On this day He was counting on the principle He had taught His disciples that such a craving would be filled! The fifth word from the cross – I AM THIRSTY!
THE SIXTH WORD
The minutes must have stretched on like hours, each moment a bit worse than the moment before. Crucifixion was a cruel and excruciating way to die. The sad souls nailed to a Roman cross would often linger in unbearable pain, crying out for the relief of death, but unable to stop the involuntary fight for the next breath. Each gasp for air brought a renewal of the torture they were enduring.
Jesus was not spared from that agony. He, too, had to face a protracted and brutal extermination of His physical life, just like the criminals being executed next to Him. It’s hard to imagine what went through His mind as He hung there, suspended between life and death. How did Satan gloat over Him in those moments? What questions or doubts plagued Him? What emotions overwhelmed Him? What scenes from His life and ministry were replaying in His memory as the minutes turned into hours? After all, this wasn’t just a situation that required a moment of extreme courage followed by an immediate death. The sadistic reality of the Roman cross is that it took your life slowly, giving you plenty of time to suffer. And suffer you did during the process — physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
Therefore, as Jesus’ life ebbed away He utters His 6th word from the cross – “IT IS FINISHED”
That was not a despairing word of failure, but a glorious recognition of success. He was saying “My work is complete. I have finished what I came to do”. What a blessing that must have been for Jesus. He had accomplished the mission the Father had assigned Him. Jesus could die in peace knowing He was in full compliance with the Father’s will.
In one sense the soldiers, priests, scribes and Pharisees killed Jesus. Jesus had been handed over for them to do so with Pilate’s full approval. But in a higher sense, Jesus died in accordance with The Father’s plan for His life. He was in control of His life, and even His death. He was not a victim of treachery, but was instead a willing sacrifice giving His life for others. As the old hymn says, “He could have called 10,000 angels to destroy the world and set Him free…..but He died alone for you and me”.
Someday we will all die. We don’t like to think about it, but unless the Lord returns during our lifetime, we, too, will cross that bridge between this world and the next. It is our common hope when that moment comes the words on our lips will reflect the sentiment that Jesus shared that day. We all want to be able to say “My work is complete. I finished what I came to do. I have lived my life in accordance with the Father’s will.”. Oh, there may be some experiences we still wanted to have, or some dreams we never reached. But we can go to our grave content that we’ve done what we could and are ready for what lies beyond. We can know God has forgiven us and brought His focus into our lives. And with His help we can truly say “MY LIFE IS COMPLETE. I HAVE FULFILLED MY PURPOSE”.
Not everyone was willing to be helped by Jesus. Some didn’t believe. Some still don’t. But that’s their choice, not His! He’s paid the price. He completed the job He came to do. The offer still stands. His mission was accomplished. He said so from the cross: IT IS FINISHED!
THE SEVENTH WORD
The Gospel of Luke is the only one of the four accounts of Jesus’ life that records the actual moment of Jesus’ death. Being a doctor himself, Luke was attuned to such specific details. The other gospels simply focus on Jesus’ final words from the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit”. Luke records those words as well, but then goes on to add “Having said that , He breathed His last”. Jesus died! Luke didn’t leave any room for confusion or speculation about that fact. It’s almost as if he knew someone would question that.
Of course, we all now know that on the other side of Easter Jesus would breathe again! But that’s getting ahead of the story. Sunday may be coming, but this was Friday. It was a dark day – the darkest day anyone has ever, or will ever, see. It appeared that evil had won the day and God’s own Son was resigned to the grave. The gloating by Satan and his minions must be outrageous as they watched Jesus dying. They thought they had achieved their ultimate victory and darkness would reign.
However, Jesus’ last words were like a lightning bolt shattering the darkness. When he said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” He wasn’t expressing the words of a man who had suffered an ultimate defeat. These were the words of a man who was going home. Jesus was entrusting His spirit to His Father and getting ready to rejoin Him in the heavenly realm where He had dwelled with the Father before the beginning of time. These were not words of resignation and loss, but rather words of triumph and victory. The darkness had not won! What an amazing exchange those final words expressed!
Finishing well is something we all desire. And when our times comes we, too, may have the opportunity to express this heartfelt prayer as we let go of our life here and anxiously anticipate being in the presence of our Heavenly Father and His glorious Son. What a blessing it would be, especially if we could do so in the company of our loved ones. There is no greater testimony than such a scene around the death bed of one of God’s children.
But we don’t have to wait until our death bed to say those words. We can pray those words whenever we are troubled or burdened, whenever worry threatens to consume us or circumstances overwhelm us. We can pray those words when our problems defy solutions, when we are tempted or tried, or when doubt casts a shadow across our faith.
And let us pray those words today as we are gathered here to see Christ on the cross, when the horrible realities of the crucifixion break our hearts and we realize our sin is the reason Jesus hangs there. May we remember today that when we commit ourselves to God He places His strong arms of love around us to hold us, comfort us, strengthen us and give us new life.
The meaning of Good Friday is that, with God’s help, it isn’t over until it’s over. Where there is a cross, we can anticipate that there will be an open tomb. Where there is darkness, we can anticipate that God will bring us light. But that’s getting ahead of the story! Perhaps, therefore, it best to close by saying “To Be Continued.” So let’s take time today to consider the cross. It was real….it was horrific…but it wasn’t the end. It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming!
Jesus’ 7th word from the cross:
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”