Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection lie at the center of the Christian faith. Because of the cross, reconciliation with God is possible. And through the power that raised Jesus from the dead, we are empowered to live victoriously.
We didn't work to earn these gifts; they were freely given to us by a gracious God who loves us dearly. This is why Paul tells the church in Galatia, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
Meditating on Christ's last words
Throughout church history, Christians have found solace and inspiration by meditating on the words Jesus spoke from the cross. These expressions have come to be known as the "seven last words." You can hear these by watching the "JESUS" film. They include:
- "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
- "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
- "Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother" (John 19:26–27).
- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matthew 27:46)?
- "I am thirsty" (John 19:28).
- "It is finished" (John 19:30).
- "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
These sentiments spoken during the six hours Jesus was hanging on the cross are not only significant because of what they teach us about the Christian faith, but also because they demonstrate the consistency with which Jesus lived His entire life.
The Sermon on the Mount was a significant and world-changing discourse. But what makes it more beautiful and powerful is the way we see Jesus demonstrating those words during the most excruciating and stressful moments of His life.
Let's take a more in-depth look at these seven last words.
The first word: "Father, forgive them"
The era between 27 BC and 180 AD was a time of unprecedented peace and stability throughout the Roman Empire. It came to be known as Pax Romana, a Latin phrase meaning "Roman peace." While many point to this unbelievable period of peace as miraculous, the truth is that it wasn't.
Rome maintained peace by publicly torturing and shaming anyone suspected of treason or rebellion. Historians estimate that Rome crucified hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, after the first-century revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus alone, 6,000 slaves were crucified.
Jesus was executed in a manner that was intended to be as painful and shameful as possible. It was designed to be an object lesson for everyone present that Rome didn't tolerate sedition. The scourging that preceded a crucifixion was intended to make this form of punishment as painful and gory as possible (Matthew 27:26).
It wasn't enough to crucify the criminal; they needed to be humiliated, too. This is why no one batted an eye when:
- Soldiers beat and mocked Jesus (John 19:2,3)
- Soldiers gambled for Jesus's clothes (Matthew 27:35)
- People hurled insults at Jesus (Matthew 27:39–43)
Jesus's words of forgiveness
In the midst of this torture and shame, it would make sense for Jesus to display His anger and wrath. After all, He wasn't just some common criminal. They were killing Jesus for demonstrating what a perfectly righteous human life looked like—they were crucifying God. Yet during His suffering, Jesus showed compassion.
The man who had taught the masses to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) proved that it was more than empty talk. He looked out over this crowd gathered before Him and said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
But in those words, He did more than forgive them for their mistreatment. He displayed empathy for humanity's actual condition. These people mocking Him, abusing Him, and putting Him to death didn't understand what they were doing. In some twisted way, many of them believed that what they did was noble—even good.
It was the darkest day in human history, and many of the people responsible genuinely felt like they were doing God's work.
When we see Jesus on the cross manifesting love and forgiveness to the very people killing Him, we should be inspired. Not only should it stimulate us to show compassion on those who mistreat us, but it should also remind us that God reveals the same tenderness toward our own mistakes and rebellions.
The second word: "Today you will be with me in paradise"
The abuse Jesus experienced on the cross didn't just come from the crowds in attendance; even one of the other crucified criminals began to insult Him:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39)
The other criminal being crucified recognized the ridiculous irony in taunting Jesus, and he immediately rebuked the first man:
But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong" (Luke 23:40–41).
Jesus's reputation precedes Him. Even among Palestine's criminal element, He's known as an upstanding teacher. The thought of lashing out at an innocent man who's also being executed is just absurd. But then this second criminal turns to Jesus and makes a startling request:
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42).
Take a moment to picture this scene. Celebrities often complain about how frustrating it is to be out in public and have people asking for photographs and autographs all the time. It makes sense. That does sound like a hassle. But imagine what an imposition it has to be to have someone ask you to do them a favor while you're dying.
But Jesus responded, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Even in His last hours, Jesus put others first. This might be what Paul had in mind when he urged the Philippians to be like Christ, charging them to:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:3–4).
The scandal of grace
This episode should continuously remind us of mercy’s shocking nature. This man's entire life was wasted. We see him coming to Jesus in his very last moments—slipping in under the wire. He's not going to be able to make restitution for his wrongs. He's not going to be able to apologize to the people he's hurt. He's not going to be able to turn his life around.
He's a living example of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–6). He's coming in at the very end of the day and receiving the same payment as those who have been faithful to God their whole life.
God's grace is freely given and remarkably scandalous.
The third word: "Woman, here is your son."
The last time Joseph is mentioned in the Gospels is when Jesus is left at the Passover festival when He is 12 years old (Luke 2:41–52). After that episode, we see Mary, but we never hear about Joseph again. This has led many scholars to assume that Joseph died before Jesus's ministry starts.
The life of a widow is difficult. If they didn't have a child to care for them, they were forced to fend for themselves in a culture where women didn't have a lot of rights. As the firstborn, Jesus was responsible for Mary. And even though Jesus had brothers, He entrusted her care to John (the only disciple present).
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, "Woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home (John 19:26–27).
Jesus had spent the last three years with John. The disciple that He loved knew who He was while His brothers had not yet become believers according to Mark 3:21. On top of that, Jesus probably wanted to ensure that Mary was cared for by entrusting her to someone present.
Regardless of the reasons He chose John, we see Jesus for the third time looking to the interest of others even while He suffered.
The fourth word: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that an afternoon darkness covered Jerusalem. At noon, the sun was hidden and it became dark. Three hours later, Jesus cried out, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" Both writers translate this Aramaic phrase to mean "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:33–34).
Why do both writers give us the Aramaic translation? It's probably to explain the crowd's response. Jesus was tired, in immense pain, and dying. His words "Eli, Eli" (or as Mark translates it "Eloi, Eloi") were probably misheard by some in the crowd as "Elias, Elias" (the Latin and Greek equivalent of Elijah—Ilyas in Aramaic).
This is why the few standing closest to Jesus shout: "Listen, he's calling Elijah" (Matthew 27:47, Mark 15:35).
"Why have you forsaken me?"
Jesus's cry here has been the cause of a lot of speculation over the last couple thousand years. What did He mean? Did He really feel like God had forsaken Him? Many have suggested that in taking on the weight of humanity's sin, God was forced to turn His face away from Jesus. That's complete conjecture, but maybe it's true.
What we do know is that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22:1–2).
In His darkest moment, Jesus turned to the Psalms for sustenance, and in doing so, revealed the prophetic nature of David's words. As the Psalm suggests, Jesus was scorned and despised by the people. They hurled insults at Him and challenged Him to call on the Lord for deliverance (Psalm 22:22:6–8).
As Roman soldiers cast lots for His clothing (Psalm 22:18), His hands and feet were pierced (Psalm 22:16). His next words (John 19:28-30) would be that He was thirsty, echoing David's words: "My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death" (Psalm 22:15).
The beauty is that Psalm 22 is transformed from a poem of lament into a declaration of victory. In celebration of what was happening on the cross, the psalmist declares:
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (Psalm 22:29–31)
If you're reading these words, he's talking about you. Thanks to Christ's work on the cross, you're the future generation that will be told about the Lord and hear His righteousness proclaimed.
The fifth word: "I am thirsty"
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus's lips (John 19:28–29).
Earlier in the crucifixion narrative, Mark tells us that the soldiers had offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh. This mixture of wine with myrrh was intended to dull some of the pain for those being executed. Jesus refused this mixture.
But here, John tells us that Jesus took the wine and vinegar mixture to fulfill prophecy:
You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed; all my enemies are before you. Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst (Psalm 69:19–21, emphasis added).
It's interesting to note that the hyssop plant used to lift the drink to the Lord is the same plant used during Passover to brush the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of Hebrew homes (Exodus 12:22). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls Jesus our Passover Lamb.
The sixth word: "It is finished!"
John tells us:
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30).
This wasn't merely an acknowledgment that crucifixion had run its course and His life was over. This was an exclamation that His work was done. He had revealed the coming kingdom, established a group of disciples who would spread the gospel message, and—most importantly—He had made Himself a sacrifice to reconcile the world to the Father.
Despite what every onlooker must have thought, crucifixion didn't defeat Jesus. After six agonizing hours on the cross, Jesus was announcing His victory. If there is a more triumphant and inspiring three-word sentence in the world than "It is finished," you're going to have a hard time finding it.
The seventh word: "Into your hands, I commit my spirit"
Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus told the disciples:
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (John 10:14–18).
In these last words before dying, Jesus proved that to be true. Jesus's spirit wasn't taken from Him by force. He willingly gave it up in order to redeem us. And even though those close to Jesus would mourn His passing and struggle to figure out what was next, Jesus knew that He would be resurrected. In a matter of days, death would be swallowed up in victory (I Corinthians 15:54).
The world's darkest day
Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities" opens with the famous line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …" This sentiment could be applied to Jesus's crucifixion.
On this dark day, the creation rose up against the Creator. Humanity attempted to silence the only perfect human permanently. In a history full of rock bottoms, it was humankind at our lowest point. The God who rejoiced over His creation was put to death as a common criminal.
And yet ...
This terrible moment was predicted back in the garden. Humanity's rebellion would be a tool that God would use to reconcile the world to Himself. This dreadful moment wasn't the Sanhedrin's victory over a meddling heretic—it was God's triumph over the dominion of darkness. As Jesus predicted:
Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12:31–32).
Throughout Jesus's ministry, He had proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come, and on the cross, the gates to that kingdom were thrown open wide. As the Lord spoke in the midst of His agony, it was finished!
To learn more about Christ, watch JESUS.
All Scripture references are from the New International Version of the Bible.