Jesus' Final Sayings From the Cross
Observations, Meaning, and Implications
Every time I speak with my family members, the last words I say are “I love you.” If something were to happen to me, I want my last words spoken as a husband, father, or grandfather to be that of love. These words are intentional, not perfunctory.
Words spoken to others matter, and last or final words seem to carry even greater weight. It has the sense of a last will and testament, though stated in the context of love, not a contract. This is true in the Scriptures as well. Both Jacob (Gen. 47:29-49:33) and David (1 Chron. 28:1-29:20) delivered parting messages to encourage followers to remember the promises of God and to be faithful to God. Jesus did the same in his farewell discourse given to his disciples in the Upper Room on the way to the Mount of Olives, on the way to the cross (Jn. 13:31-16:33 [or 17:26]). What preceded this was Jesus washing his disciples feet, an acted parable conveying truth in word and deed, and the statement of his betrayal (Jn. 13:1-30).
The Scriptures also contain the actual final words of Jesus uttered from the cross. They are not spoken in the form of a farewell address, and they are scattered in seven different places in the Gospel accounts: three in Luke, one in Matthew and Mark, and three in John. Murray J. Harris, The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross: Their Circumstances and Meaning (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2016), xiv, notes, “these seven pre-death sayings do not form a unity but address seven very different situations. They are not remotely like any other final words ever recorded as being spoken by a leader. They are exceptionally brief and poignant; they are not intimate words of farewell spoken to all his disciples; and they are uttered in the midst of prolonged death throes.”
The Seven Final Sayings of Jesus
Read through each of these texts prayerfully seeking to understand the context, the circumstances, and the meaning. Through these sayings are not uttered in one final farewell address, they are not random. They are spoken throughout Jesus’ time on the cross. Everything about Jesus person, life and ministry was purposeful. Even on the cross, and especially evidenced in the cross, this was the plan to redeem and restore and save sinful, condemned humanity. God’s wrath against all humanity would be placed on God the Son, propitiation would be accomplished and expiation, the removal of sins, would be possible.
Jesus is truly and fully God and truly and fully man. Jesus is/was the perfect representative and substitute. He was born to die (1 Jn. 4:9-10). No one took his life (Jn. 10:18; 19:11). Though humanity was held responsible, it was according to God’s plan (Acts 2:23-24; cf. Acts 3:13-17; 4:27-28). The cross is the greatest manifestation of God’s love and holiness/justice/wrath. John captured Jesus’ love for is own in that “he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1), which could also be said of his love for the Father, in that he delighted to do his will (Heb. 10:5-7; cf. Ps. 40:8) and he submitted to his will, which is seen supremely in the Garden of Gethsemane on his way to the cross (Matt. 26:39, 42). These words of Jesus must be read and understood with all of this in mind.
- Luke 23:34: And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments.
- Luke 23:43: And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
- John 19:26-27: When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
- Matthew 27:45-46: Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mark 15:33-34: And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
- John 19:28: After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), "I thirst."
- John 19:30a: When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, "It is finished," and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
- Luke 23:45b-46: And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last.
What do we notice about these sayings? Harris, 89, highlights a number of important facts. The first three sayings were made by Jesus during the daylight, between 9:00-12:00 Noon, and his focus was on others. In the first saying, Jesus’ prayer is for his executioners that his Father might forgive them (Lk. 23:34). As the Suffering Servant, he not only fulfills that promise by being on the cross, but also while on the cross he fulfills Scripture by “making intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12c). In his second saying, he makes a promise to a fellow-sufferer who acknowledged that he deserved to be on the cross while Jesus did not. He cried a prayer of faith to Jesus, and Jesus promised him he would be with him that day in paradise (Lk. 23:43). In the third, Jesus expresses his love and concern for his mother and reminds John, "the disciple whom he loved," to care for her (Jn. 19:26-27; cf. Ex. 20:12).
In the final four sayings, Jesus turns his focus to himself, as he increasingly experiences the weight of bearing the sin of humanity and the holiness/justice/wrath of his Father. In the fourth saying, Jesus address his spiritual anguish, of his sense of being forsaken (Matt. 27:45-46; Mk. 15:33-34; cf. Ps. 22:1). In the fifth, he expresses his physical anguish in that he was thirsty (Jn. 19:28; cf. Ps. 69:21). In the sixth utterance, although it conveys the sense of Jesus’ life being over, “It is finished,” and it is, this is Jesus’ cry of victory (Jn. 19:30a; cf. Ps. 22:31). In the seventh and final saying of Jesus on the cross, he addresses in familial love his Father, and he also entrusts himself fully in humble submission to him and his will, being the fulfillment of the prayer prayed in Gethsemane for his will to be done (Lk. 23:45b-46; cf. Ps. 31:5). (It is vital to remember that God the Father and God the Son are not against one another in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The inseperable operations of the Trintiy are affirmed. Fred Sanders describes it in this way: "According to common Christian confession, the external operations of the Trinity are 'indivisible' or 'inseparable.' This follows from the principle that who God is in himself (ad intra) determines the shape of God’s free actions outside of himself (ad extra). Because the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one simple God, their actions outside of themselves are indivisible operations. The three persons do not merely 'cooperate' in their external works, as if each person contributed his distinctive part to a larger operational whole. All of God’s external works—from creation to consummation—are works of the three divine persons enacting one divine power, ordered by one divine wisdom, expressing one divine goodness, and manifesting one divine glory.")
Observations on Jesus’ Final Sayings
Harris, The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross, concludes his excellent work by making a number of “final observations on the sayings,” which I quote in full (pp. 87-88):
- The crucifixion of Jesus began at 9 a.m. (“the third hour”) and the darkness fell at noon (“the sixth hour”) and lasted until 3 p.m. (“the ninth hour”) (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:25, 33; Luke 23:44). The first three “words” of Jesus were spoken at unspecified intervals during the first three-hour period, while the fourth word (“the cry of dereliction”) was spoken at the end of the second three-hour period. It would appear that the last three words were then uttered in quick succession, with the only interval being the time needed for the supplying of the sour wine in response to Jesus’ request, “I am thirsty.” So the last four words were probably spoken within five to ten minutes.
- All four Gospel writers contribute to the recorded words of Jesus spoken on the cross: Matthew and Mark record the fourth; Luke, the first, second and seventh; John, the third, fifth, and sixth.
- Only the fourth and sixth words were spoken “in a loud voice,” the former expressing the pain of abandonment, he latter the pleasure of victory.
- The three addresses in the sayings – “Father…my God…Father” – indicate that on the cross Jesus was preoccupied, as he had been throughout his life, with his relationship with God his Father. All seven words were cradled by God’s fatherly care and Jesus’ filial trust.
- There is an ever-narrowing focus on Jesus’ attention in the seven words. First, his executioners (1), then a fellow sufferer (2), followed by his mother and cousin (3a and b), and finally himself (4-7). Only when the needs of others had been addressed did Jesus think of his own situation.
- Clearly the mind of Jesus was saturated with Scripture, witness the last four words that quote or allude to the Psalms. We may compare his repeated use of Deuteronomy during his wilderness temptation (Matt 4:4, 7, 10).
- Jesus was fully aware of his physical needs (“I am thirsty!”) as well as his spiritual needs (“Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit”), and addressed them both.
- If the fourth cry (”My God…”) represents the desperately sad low point in Jesus’ experience on the cross, the sixth cry (“It is finished!”) forms the climactic high point, also being the only saying without an explicit addressee.
- The immediate sequel of Jesus’ seven sayings and death was the earthquake (Matt 27:51b), the resurrection of many saints (Matt 27:52-53), the confession of the centurion (Matt 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47), and the burial of Jesus (Matt 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:31, 38-42). The ultimate sequel was the resurrection of Jesus, his appearances, and his ascension into heaven.
It is finished . . . Peace be with you!
As Christians living after the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, we cannot remember the crucifixion apart from the resurrection. Although we remember and focus on each of Jesus’ experiences during the passion week, and we attempt not to move too quickly through them, we cannot just focus on the parts apart from the whole. We learn a great deal about Jesus by focusing on his last sayings which were made while on the cross.
But in the life of the church, Good Friday would not be referred to in that way without the resurrection. As Jesus noted, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy" (Jn. 16:20). Good Friday would be marked by weeping and lament, while the world rejoiced. We linger on this day for a moment, sensing the gravity of what Jesus did in his death on the cross on our behalf. But we then move quickly, as those first disciples ran to the tomb (Lk. 24:12; Jn. 20:2), to the resurrection, which was Jesus’ vindication (Rom. 1:4) and our justification (Rom. 4:25). Our sorrow turns to joy because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So we must hear Jesus’ last words from the cross before submitting himself to his Father, and his first words spoken to his disciples. They are connected. It only makes sense that the last words of Jesus, “It is finished,” which reflect the completion of the earthly work Christ came to accomplish, are followed immediately after the resurrection with “Peace be with you.” The death-burial-resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ground by which sin, our defiance and rebellion against God, is addressed (Gen. 2:16-17) and his wrath is propitiated (Rom. 3:21-26). Faith is the means by which this completed, finished work of Christ is received in our lives. That is, if we truly understand Jesus’ final words from the cross, we then ought to expect that Jesus’ first words to the disciples would be “Peace be with you.”
These two historical statements are rich with theological truth, and essential for our new life in Christ. The peace pronounced and accomplished by Jesus in the New Testament is the fulfillment of the shalom promised in the Old Testament. G. R. Beasley-Murray, a New Testament scholar, captures the essence of this truth in the following statement:
It is well known that that was (and still is) the everyday greeting of Jews in Palestine – ‘Shalom to you!’ But this was no ordinary day. . . . Never had that ‘common word’ been so filled with meaning as when Jesus uttered it on Easter evening. All that the prophets had poured into shalom as the epitome of the blessings of the kingdom of God had essentially been realized in the redemptive deeds of the incarnate Son of God, ‘lifted up” for the salvation of the world. “His ‘Shalom!’ on Easter evening is the completion of ‘It is finished’ on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted. ‘Shalom!’ accordingly is supremely the Easter greeting. Not surprisingly it is included, along with ‘grace,’ in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT.
Dear brothers and sisters, It is finished . . . Peace be with you!
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