SEVEN WORDS OF THE CROSS
By Pastor Ohm Prakash Kevaley
First word: Lk.23:32-38
"Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
Luke alone, of the Gospel writers, mentions the criminals in advance of Jesus’ conversation with them. The effect is that his humiliation is underlined – he voluntarily identified with sinners in life, and is now identified with them in death as well.
And it is only Luke who records Jesus’ prayer for his executors. This fits in well with Luke’s interests, for throughout his Gospel he portrays Jesus as offering God’s grace and forgiveness to sinners.
In Lk.6:27-28, Luke records Jesus’ teaching on love for one’s enemies and on praying for those who hate you and mistreat you. Among the passages that are found only in Luke, we have the narrative in Lk.7:36-50, where Jesus is anointed by a woman who had once been a notorious person, and he explains that her overflowing affection is an expression of her gratitude that she has been forgiven.
And, of course, we have in Lk. 15:11-32, Jesus’ unforgettable picture of God as the father of the prodigal son, who is prepared to forgive his penitent son, with no questions asked and no conditions laid down.
So here in Lk.23:32-38 we read that in the midst of all his pain and suffering, Jesus prayed for those who were participating in putting him to death. The basis for the prayer is that they do not know what they are doing – that is, they do not realize the wrong that they are perpetrating.
In the Jewish cult, sin that is committed unintentionally brings guilt, but there is provision in the cult for making an offering and being forgiven or absolved. In Leviticus 4-5 we have clear directions regarding the sacrifices that need to be made in different cases. However, there is no provision for forgiveness and absolution for those who sin deliberately or with a high hand.
It is against this background that we can understand the basis for Jesus’ prayer. They are acting in ignorance. Therefore, forgive them.
Jesus’ willingness to pray for forgiveness for his enemies challenges our contemporary world. Today, the widely held assumption is that revenge and retaliation is fully justified. This hold true whether we are speaking of relations at the international, national or personal levels. But if we take our discipleship seriously, we must follow Jesus’ example.
Second word: Lk.23:39-43
"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
This conversation underlines two important points: one, the innocence of Jesus, and two, the immediate realization of God’s saving grace through Christ.
In Luke’s passion narrative, the point is repeatedly made that Jesus was perceived by many to be innocent. Just before this passage, in vs.22, we have Pilate for the third time insisting that he found no grounds for the death penalty.
In this passage, witness to Jesus’ innocence comes from an unexpected quarter – one of the criminals that was being executed at the same time. In Mt.27:44 and Mk.15:32 both the criminals insult Jesus, but Luke focuses on one of them. Aren’t you the Messiah? is bitterly sarcastic. It is a taunt that refuses to take Jesus’ powers seriously.
But the other criminal recognizes that Jesus is no mere pretender and is appalled that he is being treated in the same way as they were. They deserved their punishment, but the same could not be said of Jesus.
He also recognizes that he will reign as king and asks him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Several details of interpretation are uncertain here, but it appears that the criminal expected that Jesus would assume his reign immediately. Only so can we understand his request. Jesus responds that he does not need to wait for any future event but that he will immediately enjoy fellowship with him in paradise. The word paradise is a Persian word meaning park or garden and is used in Gen.2:8 to refer to the garden of Eden. Elsewhere it symbolizes the future bliss (e.g. Isa.51:3; Rev.2:7).
The language here is close to that of Paul in Phil.1:19-26, where he is considering the possibility of his being sentenced to death. He tells the Philippians that he is not afraid of such a prospect for that would only mean that he would depart and be with Christ (vs.23). Using the principle of interpreting the unclear passages of Scripture by those that are clear, we would have to conclude that these passages are implying that immediately after death, believers experience the presence of Christ in some anticipatory way. The fullness of the experience lies beyond the Parousia and Consummation.
Third word: Jn.19:25b-27
"Jesus said to his mother, `Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, `Here is your mother’."
In the previous two words, Jesus is mindful of others, and this one is no different. Although the Gospel writers are very sensitive in the way they describe Jesus’ sufferings, the horror of the experience nevertheless comes through. And yet, in the midst of all the pain and suffering, Jesus is mindful of others.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, does not play a very prominent role in the Gospel tradition, except in the birth narratives. In the Synoptics, she does make an occasional appearance. For example, in Mk.3:20-21,31-35, she and other members of the family are concerned that Jesus is so busy in his ministry that he is neglecting himself. And in John’s gospel, she is with Jesus at the wedding in Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine at her request to help out in the rather embarrassing situation.
Nevertheless, in the birth narratives Mary is portrayed as a pensive, God-fearing person, who takes in all that is said in the context of the extraordinary birth of her firstborn son. In the short span of two chapters, Luke refers twice (2:19 and 2:51) to Mary treasuring all these things in her heart and pondering over them.
Among the things that were said were the words of Simeon addressed to Mary: A sword will pierce your own soul too (Lk.2:35). We do not know how much of all this Mary shared with Jesus as he grew up, but there is no reason to hold that she did not share anything at all. In any case, from the scanty data that is available, it is clear that Jesus showed Mary the deference and respect that was her due.
If Mary had been a widow for some time – Joseph is not mentioned outside the birth narratives – and Jesus was her eldest son, one can appreciate his concern for her at this point. It was important for her to be taken care of, and Jesus does what he can under the circumstances. But more, Jesus must have been concerned for he knew that his suffering would have its own impact on his mother, and it was important for there to be some support available as she grieved.
Honor and respect for parents is basic to the Biblical faith. This may work out in different ways in different contexts and cultures. We must beware of being legalistic. But the obligation remains.
Fourth word: Mt.27:45-49
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
We call these words the cry of dereliction. They are a citation from Psa.22:1, and raise an important question:
What does the psalm quotation signify?
In recent times, there have been several who have suggested that the citation must be understood against the entire psalm. The psalm begins with this sense of desolation but ends with the triumphant vindication of the righteous sufferer. Therefore, it is held, that Jesus’ cry reflects full confidence and not mere despair.
But if the citation is taken on its own, it is a cry of despair alone and it appears unacceptable to use the context of the entire psalm to nullify the meaning of the actual quotation. It is better to take the words at face value and conclude that Jesus was conscious of being abandoned by the Father.
In Gospel research, it has long been held that Jesus’ self-understanding was based on his being the Son of God. In the Synoptics, in both the related narratives of the baptism and testing of Jesus, it is the son ship of Jesus that is a central theme. Similarly, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is the Son who has been sent from the Father with a very specific mission and the necessary authority to fulfill it.
It is in the light of this intimacy between Father and Son that we begin to understand the cry of dereliction. If Jesus was dying the death that is the penalty of sin, that was an experience that was totally new for the one who was without sin. Perhaps Paul’s statement in 2 Cor.5:21 throws some light on the matter: He made him who had no sin to be sin for us.
“The depths of the saying are too deep to be plumbed, but the least inadequate interpretations are those that find in it a sense of desolation in which Jesus felt the horror of sin so deeply that for a time the closeness of His communion with the Father was obscured.”
As such, the cry underlines the cost that was paid for our ransom and reconciliation. Grace is free; but grace is not cheap. And that is why the writer to the Hebrews tells his readers in 6:4ff. that those who spurn the grace of God, are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Fifth word: Jn.19:28-29
"I am thirsty."
John’s Gospel begins with the words,
In the beginning was the Word. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
And it is in John’s account of the passion that we read that, a little before he died, Jesus said, I am thirsty. Here was the one through whom creation had come into being, and yet, he was brought so low that he had to ask for a drink to quench his thirst.
Jesus as the agent of creation is a familiar theme that is developed in the NT writings. In the Christ-hymn in Col.1:15ff. Paul says, By him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. Indeed, he is first described as the firstborn of all creation before being described as the head of the new creation, the church.
Besides, there are several texts that indicate that creation finds its cohesive principle in Christ. Here in Col.1:17 we read : all things were created by him and for him. Creation derives its meaning from him.
Against this background, the words, I am thirsty, sound shocking. And the only way to make sense of them, and of the desperate plight that Jesus found himself in is to put them in the context of what the incarnation meant for him. There are two texts that bring this out. In 2 Cor.8:9 we read, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ , that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. Now there is no evidence that the earthly Jesus was at one point rich, but gave up his riches and embraced poverty. Quite clearly, the Apostle is speaking figuratively of the incarnation.
In the Christ-hymn in Phil.2:5-11, we read that Christ did not use his equality with God to his advantage, but made himself nothing, and became obedient, even to the point of becoming a human being and dying on a cross. So the limitation that Jesus submitted to was part of his submission to the saving purpose of God that involved his becoming one of us, with all that that entailed.
Sixth word: Jn.19:29-30
"It is finished."
It would be all too easy to understand these words as words of relief that Jesus’ ordeal had finally come to an end. But that would be to misunderstand them, for in the context of the Gospel, it is clear that they are in fact a cry of victory – a victorious exclamation that he had successfully completed the mission that he had been sent on.
It is true that from the preaching of the early Church and on through the rest of the NT writings, the resurrection is seen as the undoing of the great injustice that had been perpetrated when Jesus was put to death. In that sense, the resurrection and the exaltation to the right hand of God formed the final act. For example, in Acts 2:36, Peter says, Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. And in the great resurrection chapter, 1 Cor.15, Paul says in verse 20, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Christ the first fruits, then, when he comes, those who belong to him. And so on.
Nevertheless, in John’s Gospel, the perspective on the cross appears to be different. Let us confine ourselves to just one line of thinking. John uses an important word in the Gospel to refer to Jesus’ death on a cross – the word translated lifted up. The first occurrence is in 3:14, where the analogy is the serpent of brass that Moses put up on a pole on God’s instructions. All those who looked at the serpent recovered and did not die from snake bite.
However, there are other passages. In 8:28, the reference to his death is implied, but in 13:32ff. the word appears again. This time, John makes a clarification that he was speaking about his death on a cross.
The significance of this word is that it is ambiguous, for it can mean literally lifted up, but it can also mean exalted, glorified. That Jesus’ death was seen as the means whereby he was glorified, is confirmed by another set of texts where this connection is made more explicitly.
In 7:39 the reference may not be to his death alone, but to the subsequent exaltation as well. But in 12:23ff. the reference to his coming death appears to be more explicit.
In other words, although, the more common interpretation is to interpret the cross in the light of the resurrection,
in John’s gospel, the cross itself is the means whereby Christ is lifted up and glorified. There is an incidental confirmation of this understanding of the cross in Col.2:15 where Paul speaks of Christ triumphing over the evil powers by the cross.
Therefore, in the context of John’s gospel, the words It is finished is a triumphant cry that the mission that was his has been successfully completed. And how thankful we must be that that is so.
Seventh word: Lk.23:44-49
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
These are Jesus’ final words recorded. The Synoptics agree that there was darkness for about three hours, but they do not tell us what the significance of this darkness is. They also record that the curtain in the Temple, between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, was rent in two. In Hebrews 10:19-22 the writer sees the significance of this as access into God’s presence being now opened to all through the death of Christ.
Jesus’ last words are from Psalm 31:5, which was used by the Jews as an evening prayer. In the light of the fact that Jesus’ death was a voluntary act, these words are strikingly appropriate. The task has been completed. He is at peace with himself and with the Father. And he commits himself into his hands.