CHRIST’S SEVEN LAST WORDS
By Thomas Cosmades
Every statement from the Incarnate Word bears timeless significance. However, in the last seven words which Christ pronounced from the cross there is historic, theological and existential relevance. From the hour they were first heard during the Savior’s tormenting agony, much has been communicated on the subject. Always some new light or insight emanates from these unfading pronouncements.
On the cruel cross Jesus is displaying the congruity between what he taught and what he put into practice. The first three utterances address some of the people who surround him; another three point toward God the Supreme Judge, and one focuses on both God and man. All seven remind us of Christ’s perfect obedience to the will of the Father, his unmatched love to man, his offer of unconditional forgiveness and his absolute authority to pardon sin and to carry the soul to heaven. There is no end to delving into the wide implications of Christ’s seven last words.
I. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
In his superlative teaching, our Lord Jesus Christ promulgated the unique dimension for man’s conduct and relationships (cf. Matthew 12:19-21; 5:44). This was not a new maxim, but one which commenced in the teaching of the Old Testament (cf. Proverbs 25:21, 22; Exodus 23:4, 5; II Kings 6:20-23; II Chronicles 28:13-16). The Incarnate Word, who came into our world as the pronouncer and propeller of divine love, displayed the extent of his love to men and angels on Calvary’s cross. Only this noble demonstration could effect the transformation of our fallen human race. With this sublime behavior Christ draws the sinner to his unparalleled love.
Stephen, the protomartyr, who probably was in Christ’s company in his earthly ministry fully comprehended the verity of Christ’s love (cf. Acts 7:60). The spirit of Christ alone can carry the person to the full comprehension of Christ’s love. The only mediator between God and man displayed his reconciliatory power. He is the loving mediator through whom the vilest offender can receive forgiveness from God (cf. Isaiah 53:11, 12; II Corinthians 5:21). In this provision of divine forgiveness emanating from love, Christ also shows the extent of man’s captivity to hatred. Here Christ is in absolute command. But those mocking him are displaying their miserable servitude to hatred. While hanging on the cross, Christ was a free person; conversely, his executioners were enslaved to their ugly passion. Christ reveals his inner peace and freedom even while enduring the most painful ordeal known to man.
The religious leaders who crucified him were captives of ignorance (cf. Acts 3:17), so were the rulers of this world (cf. I Corinthians 2:8), ordinary people everywhere (cf. John 1:10), and the intellectuals of the age (cf. Acts 17:30). Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee, was in the same category (cf. I Timothy 1:19), but he later confronted the wise people of his time for lack of perception (I Corinthians 1:20). In this generation of violence when appalling rogueries are invented in malignant minds, perpetrators of all pernicious deeds don’t know what they are doing. They will someday.
II. I Tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
On the way to the cross and on the cross itself God’s Son was the object of everyone’s derision and scorn, perhaps even by some who had forgotten his benevolent acts. Ridiculing the weak and infirmed has always been a baneful trait in that part of the world. By pouring out their contempt on the underdog, people presume themselves to be superior. Even the two condemned men joined in the shrill mockery (cf. Matt. 27:44; Mark 15:32).
In the meantime the Holy Spirit was moving to fulfill an amazing act of conviction and redemption. God’s grace was working in the heart of one of the criminals.
This man observed the sinless Jesus dying in torment and looked at his own wretched life. All he had done passed before his eyes like a video. Not a thing was right. If his aggrieved parties could gather around, how many accusing fingers would be pointed at him! Conversely, not a single person was blaming Jesus of any wrong doing. His accusers could only say again and again that he claimed to be the Son of God. While the other condemned man was getting harder and harder, this one was becoming mellower with each passing moment.
The Holy Spirit was now in control of this sin-infested life. For the first time he came face to face with the reality of deserved punishment for sin. If the judicial powers that condemned him were fair, how much more would God be just in his ultimate judgment! What thoughts went through his mind? Jesus said, “…when the Holy Spirit comes he will convince the world of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Who was he to accuse the innocent Jesus? How could he think of him as an incapable person? This Christ could forgive, grant eternal life and take the soul to paradise. His heart-change was sudden and staggering.
As commonly known, the penitent thief rebuked his friend for his heartless and derisive behavior, drew his attention to the fear of God, and alerted him about the judgment which was upon them. The impenitent man had not given much thought to a deserved sentence. He was eager to seek a convenient way out of death, and if possible to return to his former practices. The condemned man admitted Christ’s total innocence. He addressed him with his name, Yehoshuah, which means ‘Yahweh saves.’ He even subscribed to the eschatological truth regarding Christ’s return as King. He asked forgiveness, realizing that Christ was the only one who could truly forgive. The evidence of repentance was complete.
Christ’s loving response is vitalizing. His absolute authority comes through very clearly. He assured the transgressor of paradise (v. 43). This delightful word appears only three times in the New Testament (cf. II Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7). Christ accomplishes an amazing transformation. He carries the foremost sinner to paradise at his proper approach to the Savior. Christ reveals the destiny of the redeemed soul the moment the sinner breathes his last. Paul explains this as, “being absent from the body, at home with the Lord” (Phil. 1:27; II Cor. 5:8). Through this certainty our Lord exposed the deception of the ‘soul sleep’ theory or the ‘soul’s annihilation’ at death.
In this unequivocal assurance the Savior of the world opens the road to paradise to every redeemed person, delivering him from the dark confinement of Sheol or Hades. Now without hesitation we can clarify to everyone the true nature of Paradise and point him to the Savior who alone grants entry into it. Christ equips his believer with the right to refute all misconceptions and destructive adventures which are fed by false doctrines. We declare to everyone, transgressors of the law of God, that salvation and paradise are available through the Savior who was crucified. The only requirement for the sinner is to believe in Christ, turn from sin and entrust his/her soul to the giver of eternal life.
III. Woman, behold your son! Behold, your mother! (John 19:27)
The most tender-hearted person who walked on earth is hung on the cruel cross. In this third word from the cross his mother is the focus of his tenderheartedness. His merciful behavior is very obvious in the first word as well as in the second. In the third, it reaches its apex. Jesus’ concern for his mother during his hour of agony is a beautiful display of love and concern. These are evident in this profound expression. Addressing his mother as ‘woman’ (cf. John 2:4), should not be considered a term of disrespect. The word may have taken a different connotation in our time, but it was a form of salutation in that age. For references of Christ’s relationship to Mary, confer Luke 2:51; Matt. 12:46-50; John 2:3-5; Mark 3:21.
Jesus received his human body from Mary, but never ceased to retain and reveal his divine nature. Mary’s remarks to Gabriel should also be remembered (Luke 1:38, 47). During Jesus’ life on earth the obvious conflict in Mary’s mind cannot escape the attention of a careful New Testament reader. Her inner crisis is climaxed at the foot of the cross where along with the other three women her soul is tormented. At this critical stage she needs a word of uplift. Her Son’s consoling words reach her and his much-loved disciple John. “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:27). At the Incarnation, the timeless and spanless Christ reached into the realm of time and space. This is certainly one of the mysteries of the ‘Enfleshment.’
Most people’s knowledge of Christ naturally centers on his human existence. However if his divine nature receives little or no attention during this crucial stage of his life, violence to his two distinct natures may accrue. While he lived within the limits of time and space he often manifested his timeless and spanless nature which belongs to God alone. But he who entered into time and space with its restrictions will shortly return to his eternal nature and existence. Paul emphasizes this condition in clear-cut terms: “…even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer” (II Cor. 5:16b). This is a poignant Christological truth which escapes the attention of many.
In the third word from the cross Christ not only showed tenderness to his bereaved mother, but also severed all physical attachment to her. This attachment continued throughout his Incarnation but it was to be terminated at this point. He was moving to timeless and spaceless eons, therefore he could no longer be regarded from a human point of view. With the third word from the cross he put into proper perspective the distinctiveness of his two natures.
Being in the realm of time and space we often encounter some difficulty to comprehend distinctly the supernatural and natural essence of Christ. The mystery of the Incarnation has always required a wide scope of study and certainly, of faith. Mary’s relationship to Jesus started at Nazareth at the Annunciation. It came to an end at Golgotha in the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. The human relationship between the Eternal Word and the chosen virgin had to terminate at this point. Christ is now announcing this necessary break. He is moving away from the restriction of time and space to the realm where neither exists. Every earthly attachment has to come to an end. The Eternal Son is returning to the Eternal Father, leaving behind all earthly attachments. God who sent his own Son at the right time to be born of woman, under the law (cf. Gal. 4:4), now is welcoming his triumphant Son to the eternal domain.
IV. Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
(Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34; Ps. 22:1, 2)
Rejection and separation is one of the saddest human predicaments. A person’s isolation from his fellow-humans is indescribably devastating. The only worse condition is to be separated from God and abandoned by him because of spurning his love. Jesus Christ was forsaken on the cross by God in his princely undertaking of bringing men and women to him. People who are unaware of damnation as a consequence of their rejecting God need to ponder Christ’s own rejection by the Father.
While anyone calling on the Lord’s name is saved many a sinner’s obduracy carries him to the point of no return. The deliberate transgressor may have become dull to his plight. The person in the pale of damnation beyond the possibility of rescue is in desperate straits. Those who foresee the destiny of the lost can appreciate this. Our Lord was forsaken by God on the cruel cross. God said to Moses “…for a hanged man is accursed by God…” (Deut. 21:23b). The Apostle Paul re-emphasizes this saddest condition when he says “For it is written, ‘cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13b). This divine verdict must not be forgotten. The sinless Christ became a curse for us in order to lift God’s curse hanging over us. If he had not been cursed and abandoned by God, you and I would have been cursed and abandoned throughout eternity. The terror of separation seen in the crucifixion of Christ should be a clear warning to every sinner. With his tormented cry our Lord was reminding everyone of the awful prospect of eternal agony.
David opens his renowned prophetic psalm with the same words (cf. 22:1). The writer to the Hebrews is referring to Christ’s “…prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears” (5:7a). Gethsemane, Gabatha (cf. John 19:13), and Golgotha constitute three stages in the divine display of judgment. At the start Christ addressed God as ‘Father’. At this crucial point of separation and adjudication the Father is executing his harsh judgment on the One in whom sin has necessitated total rejection. The Bible is full of ‘whys’. This one is certainly the most thought-provoking. Paul supplied the only valid reply to this ‘why’: “…the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17b).
God judged sin in the severest execution of justice, i.e., in the flesh: “…sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3b). In this divine act the Son was abandoned by the Father “and was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). “God made him to be sin… so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:21). He assumed Adam’s sin and condemnation to death (cf. Gen. 2:17). “He became a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 1:21-23). He suffered to make sinners sons and daughters of God (John 1:12). He became the only price for our redemption (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23). He agonized in order to take our cup of staggering and drink it to the dregs (cf. Isa. 51:17, 22). It is through such humiliation that the sinners’ forgiveness and everlasting blessedness is secured.
V. I thirst. (John 19:28; Ps. 69:21)
Man cannot survive without water. Next to the air we breathe water satisfies our foremost need. Sometimes we hear of people perishing in a desert because of the absence of this essential substance. Ever refreshing is the flow of life-giving water. One views with deep grief a whole series of intense torments of Jesus at the crucifixion. This one appears to be his worst misery.
In the animal kingdom the anguish for water is very plain. David draws a touching scene of it with his pen: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Ps. 42:1, 2). Here is a parallel between the hankering for water and craving for the living God. If we take this in the broader sense we may safely assume that Jesus’ thirst was two-fold: for physical water from which he was deprived and yearning for spiritual water. Not only was he cut off from natural water, but on the cross the Father-Son relationship was woefully broken. During that sad hour his soul was severed from the eternal fellowship with his beloved Father. This was a deprivation which came upon him only on the cross.
Christ the giver of water which quenches thirst forever, the water that becomes a spring, is now cut off from it. He is agonizing for a drop of cold water (cf. John 4:14; 7:37, 38; 6:35b). His acute thirst became a matter of mockery to the soldiers who always carried a jug of water with them (cf. Luke 23:36). They were fully satiated while making sport with thirsty Jesus. Which serene person can conceive of such sadistic disparaging? Isn’t this an appalling picture of fallen man?
Our Lord refused their stony-hearted offer which contained a pain-killing substance. He needed to be dying with his feelings and faculties in tact. Undoubtedly the soldiers had not met another person hanging on the cross who refused this sedative. The religious leaders consistently declining the water which Christ offered to their forefathers in so many circumstances (cf. Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:7-11; Ps. 78:15; 105:41; 114:8; Isaiah 48:21; I Cor. 10:4) were on the road to death in their spiritual drought. They couldn’t care less for Isaiah’s pronouncement: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3; cf. 58:11). Their deception was at its apex. In the Apocalypse John had a delightful glimpse of “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1). What a thrill it must have been to behold this extraordinary river running “through the middle of the street of the city”. (Rev. 22:2). What incongruity! The Lamb was now crying out for water in the hour of his death.
The prayer of David in Psalm 42:1 & 2 will not be heard in the celestial city. An abundance of physical and spiritual water for those who were redeemed by thirsty Jesus will be everywhere. There are those who spurned his salvation as the religious leaders did in Christ’s day. These people will be perpetually thirsty, crying as the Dives did to Father Abraham (Luke 16:24).
VI. It is finished. (John 19:30)
In the long course of recorded events the careful student encounters a number of pointed utterances rendered in a single word. Those who made their pronouncement were certain of their direction and destiny in history. General Douglas MacArthur made an unflagging promise with the word, “I shall return.” Such statements have greater value and validity than lengthy and weighty speeches. Beyond doubt, the most pre-eminent of such succinct declarations is Christ’s penultimate word from the cruel cross: “Tetelestai” (‘teleo’ – verbal form in Greek). The following meanings derive from it: To bring to a close, to finish, to end, it is past, it is made perfect.
When Satan scored his vicious success on our hapless forefather Adam he jubilated with noticeable arrogance, “It is finished!” He grossly erred; the true ‘finish’ was not his. Satan succeeded to drag our race to the pit of sin where he himself was relegated by God. The host of demons joined in dance with the arch deceiver. At the same moment, however, Satan was notified by God himself about the seed of the woman who was to be born to ultimately crush his hideous head. Even before Jesus was born from Abraham’s and David’s progeny Satan conducted a warfare to prevent this extraordinary advent. After the birth of Jesus he carried his fierce combat tooth and nail to murder the Christ. He decidedly failed.
The Savior of mankind crowned his mission with an undeniable conclusion: the Father’s foreknowledge of all happenings in accordance with his sovereign purpose. All prophetic pronouncements from the protevangelium (cf. Gen. 3:15) to the closing proclamation of the prophet Malachi have been fulfilled. The end of the law with its stringent requirements is reaffirmed (cf. Rom. 10:4; I Cor. 15:56). The fulfillment of all rituals and typologies is realized. The fullness of time and epochs is affirmed (Gal. 4:4). Hope shifts to reality; expectations are rewarded. Christ’s own longing which he described as his ultimate baptism is finalized (cf. Luke 12:50; John 4:34). The blood of the eternal covenant is shed (Heb. 10:4, 14; 13:20b). Paradise that was closed is opened wide (cf. Luke 23:43). Satan’s kingdom is doomed. Justification by faith is finalized; the road to perfection of life is thrown open (Matt. 5:48). Eternity is illuminated, resurrection is verified.
Tetelestai contained the total essence of existence. It embodied the sense of triumph, conquest, regeneration, restoration, invigoration, completion. A single word uttered by the everlasting LOGOS charted the orbit of the new creation.
Tetelestai decidedly declared the end of death’s merciless dominion. At that moment God’s angels in heaven were singing: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (I Cor. 15:55). On the third day, Christ’s believers would sing, “…in fact Christ has been raised from the dead...” (I Cor. 15:20). And the risen Christ will reassure everyone from heaven, “I am the Beginning and the End…” (Rev. 21:6a). He who said tetelestai from the cross speaks from heaven this time, “I am the Beginning and the End (telos).” (Rev. 21:6a; 22:13). The Alpha and Omega contains everything in himself. Homer wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad, Aristotle wrote the whole system of philosophy, Shakespeare wrote his unsurpassed masterpieces with the letters between the Alpha and the Omega. In Christ, all things hold together (Col. 1:17b) and in him will be perfected.
Tetelestai: What an authoritative, august affirmation for dying men and women treading in deficiency the irksome road to eternity!
VII. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit! (Luke 23:46)
The Lord Jesus Christ in whom all things were created and hold together in orderliness, became Incarnate in order to complete an impeccable redemption. He was hung as the victim, nevertheless being the central character in mankind’s momentous execution. In the seventh word, Christ announced from the ugly cross the finalized triumph of his mission. He addressed the Father, but at the same time the angels, humans, Satan and demonic hosts were his audience.
God, the author of the salvific attainment was entirely confident of the Son’s accomplishing what he had undertaken. The father could not entrust this grave achievement to anyone but his own son. At the creation Adam received clear-cut forewarning not to eat; in the day he ate he would die (cf. Gen. 2:17). The Son had no forewarning. His absolute authority and effectiveness in the mission was self-evident from the beginning (cf. Hebrews 1).
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
-- Charles Wesley
When Adam sinned, he died and brought the judgment of death on his race. When Jesus died, he gave life to his race (cf. John 10:11; 17:18; 12:24). At death, Adam and Eve went to Sheol (Hades), like all the dead in the old dispensation. But the sinless Christ did not go to the same place. Conversely, he descended into the lower parts of the earth (cf. I Peter 3:18-20; Eph. 4:8, 9; I Peter 4:6). While interpretations vary, my cautious belief is that the Omnipresent, Omniscient Christ who committed his spirit into the Father’s hand between his death and resurrection entered Hades to deliver the Old Testament saints and take them home to Paradise, which he alone could open.
At his death Jesus enabled his saints to enter Paradise as Stephen, the protomartyr did in complete assurance (cf. Acts 7:59). Stephen’s undeniable commitment of his spirit to the Lord Jesus is a glorious sequel of Christ’s committing his spirit to the Father. By entering Paradise at death in spirit and at resurrection in glorified body our Lord provides absolute confidence to his believer. Dying in faith and commitment to Christ, Stephen’s assurance was more real and concrete than the cruel stones of hateful men battering his mortal body. Christ committed his spirit to the Father, Stephen and all believers who followed him in death commit their soul to the Son in Paradise.
The body of Jesus in the grave was awaiting the triumphant resurrection on the third day. The body of Stephen as well as all men and women who die in Christ are awaiting the same triumphant resurrection after his pattern. The only difference is in relation to time. God the Father welcomed the spirit of his only Son returning from his mission triumphantly. Christ the Son welcomes the spirit of every believer returning from an earthly life crowned with his redemption. The resurrection was ahead for Jesus very soon. The resurrection lies ahead for his believer at the sound of the angel’s trumpet. Paradise is the home of redeemed people through the atoning blood of Jesus. It is an assured certainty.
The most lamentable uncertainty among men and women is a person’s obliviousness of his/her eternal destiny. Religious folks, benevolent philanthropists, scrupulous ritualists and a whole lot of people dedicated to their persuasion are unable to talk plainly about the blessed certainty expressed by the Apostle Paul: “absent from the body, present with Christ” (cf. II Cor. 5:6-9; Philippians 1:23).
This assurance is feasible only in the cleansing blood of God’s Son, provided by grace to every sinner. Satan, the determined contender to God’s compassion to regenerate the sinner encourages every exercise of religion and decorum, in fact promotes the same. On the other hand, he goes on resolutely combating the person’s – be he/she religious or irreligious – commitment to the Savior for redemption and justification. This ill-omened ambiguity can only be counteracted by faith in Christ and submission to the Holy Spirit’s convicting power. Have you done this? If not, this season is the most appropriate time.
In a compendium article, we took the subject of The Churches in Christ’s Eyes. In sequence to this, a striking observation comes to light: The letters to the Seven Churches are loaded with serious imperatives from him, related to his solemn pronouncements. These are dispersed between the lines of the epistles, constantly reminding the reader about the urgency of decision and action ... more
(Compendium to above article)