Sermons

Summary: The "seven words of the cross."

WORDS FROM THE CROSS

It is finished!

Often the final words of a great saint are poignant and compelling. For example, one can scarcely not be moved by the words of Paul to his young protégé, For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on the Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4.6-8; cf. the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30.11-20, or Joshua speaking to the twelve tribes in Joshua 23.6-16, or Paul speaking to the Ephesians in Acts 20.13-38). The words of Jesus to the disciples in the upper room have a similar ring to them (John 14-17). But the words from the cross are even more penetrating theologically and emotionally. They are summary statements of Jesus’ life and his great redemptive work.

The seven words from the cross are found in Luke 23 (3 words), John 19 (3 words), and Mark 15 (cp. Matt 27.46). The Synoptic Gospels approximate the crucifixion at midmorning (the third hour), while John notes the time at about midday (the sixth hour). One must be careful not to impose upon the first century the modern Western fixation with time. Indeed, such precision was not possible without a clock. However, John’s reasoning for fixing the death of Jesus near the noon hour may be theologically motivated as is evident from John 1.29, where he notes that Jesus was identified as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (cp. 1.36) and it was the custom to sacrifice the Passover lambs at noon.

While we consider the words of Jesus from the cross we may also want to remind ourselves of the testimony attached to the cross on the titulus (the sign above Jesus’ head). Written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek were the words: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews (Matthew 27.37; cp. John 19.20). Like the words of Caiaphas (John 11.50), they are an unwitting testimony to the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. While there is no absolute certainty as to the exact order of the utterances from the cross, I have listed them in their traditional order.

1. Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23.34).

People often act with great zeal, convinced that their actions are completely justified, no matter the results. Such was Paul’s conviction as he persecuted the early Christians. He testifies before Agrippa, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26.9-10). When Jesus speaks these living words from a cross on which He was dying they are addressed broadly to the ignorant bystanders as well as the Roman guards and Jewish leaders. Of course, these are also the words of Stephen, the first Martyr of the Christian church (Acts 7.60).

Despite the precedent of Old Testament prayers for vengeance (e.g., 2 Chronicles 24:22; Ps 137:7–9; Jeremiah 15:15; 17:18; 18:23; 20:12), Jesus prays that God will forgive his persecutors. Those who were executed were supposed to say, “May my death atone for all my sins”; but Jesus confesses instead the sin of those who falsely convicted him, who under Old Testament law were liable for his penalty before God. (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Luke 23:33)

2. I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23.43).

That Jesus was the most important victim of the day is evidenced by His being centered between the two malefactors. It is possible that His cross was slightly elevated above the other two (Mark 15.30; John 3.14; 8.28; 12.32-34; [cf. Robert Stein, Jesus the Messiah, p. 247]). It was from this central position that the two criminals uttered their own accusations against Him (Mark 15.32). It is hard to imagine the extent of the abuse that Jesus endured. To the affliction he received from the Jews, we may add the abuse of these two strangers, who, though bound with Him in an earthly fellowship of death, railed against Him with their own dying breaths. Indeed, the words of Isaiah are graphically fulfilled in their insults: He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… (53.3).

Yet, there are no other words from the cross that have given men more encouragement than these, I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. We do not know what precipitated the change of heart in one of the bandits, whether it was the demeanor of Christ, or his extraordinarily gracious words of forgiveness previously uttered. Whatever it was, it elicited from the criminal more than a mere acknowledgement of Jesus’ innocence, like that of Herod and Pilate; he acknowledged Jesus as the true King of the Jews when he said, Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus’ response to this declaration of faith has given hope to many through the ages: a confidence that salvation is by grace alone. No matter how heinous the crime, nor how late the hour, if one but turn to Christ and confess Him as Lord, he will be saved: if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved. … For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10.9-10, 13).

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