Yet far more important than looking at these words to learn our duties is to look at them for what they teach us about the nature and work of Christ himself, which is how we are looking at them in this book. They teach that Jesus died to save us from our sin; that is what his coming to earth was all about.
Famous “Last Words”
I have always thought it unfortunate that the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross have been called his “last words,” because the perhaps unwitting implication is that Jesus did not rise again and therefore never said anything else. Jesus did rise again, of course. The existence of Christianity is one of the best proofs of that astonishing fact. And Jesus had more to say, even before he returned to heaven forty days after returning to life. Those words are the true “last words,” if any are.
On the other hand, the sayings from the cross, although wrongly called Jesus’s last words, are significant for several rea- sons: (1) they show that Jesus was in clear possession of his faculties until the very last moment, when he delivered up his spirit to God; (2) they show that he understood his death to be an atonement for the sin of the world; and (3) they show that he knew his death would be effective in doing that. He was satisfied with what he was doing, and he did not die in despair. Moreover, the words also exhibit his well-known concern and love for other persons, even at the moment of his most acute suffering.
Jesus’s words from the cross are these:
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These words are a prayer for God to forgive those who were crucifying him. They show the merciful heart of the Savior.
- “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). These words were spoken to the believing thief and were a confident promise of salvation. They show that while life lasts, it is never too late to believe on Jesus and be saved.
- “Dear woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother” (John 19:26–27). Here Jesus commended his mother, Mary, to the care of John, one of his disciples. It shows Jesus’s concern for family ties.
- “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). This request shows the true humanity of Jesus. But it also shows his concern that every facet of his death be in accord with the Bible’s prophecies about him.
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matt. 27:46). This statement is the most shattering of all. It reveals more than any other what was really happening on the cross. It teaches the nature of the atonement and what our salvation cost God.
- “It is finished” (John 19:30). These are the most important words, because they refer not to Jesus’s life, as if he were saying, “It is over,” but to his atonement for sin. It is because Jesus made a complete and final atonement for sin that we can be sure of our salvation.
- “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). These words show Jesus to have been in control of his life until the very end. They also show that the relationship between himself and the Father, which earlier had in some sense been broken, was now restored.
These sayings have fascinated preachers and laypeople for two thousand years. They have been interpreted as teaching seven duties: (1) to forgive our enemies, (2) to have faith in Christ, (3) to honor our parents, (4) to set the highest possible value on the fulfillment of God’s Word, (5) to cling to God even in life’s darkest moments, (6) to persevere at whatever task God has given us to the very end, and (7) to yield all things, even life itself, to God at God’s bidding.
Yet far more important than looking at these words to learn our duties is to look at them for what they teach us about the nature and work of Christ himself, which is how we are looking at them in this book. They teach that Jesus died to save us from our sin; that is what his coming to earth was all about. They teach that as long as we are alive, it is never too late to turn from our sin and trust in Jesus as our Savior. The dying thief did that, and he was told by Jesus, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is our greatest wish that as a result of this book, some might pass from spiritual death to spiritual life, as that man did.
This is an excerpt taken from the reprinted edition of the book The Heart of the Cross by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken. Originally published in 1999 by Crossway. Reprinted in 2022 by P&R Publishing in hardcover. Used with permission.