I have been with dozens of people as they were approaching death. A person’s dying words sometimes simply express his or her needs: “Could you please move the pillow?” or “May I have a drink?” Sometimes they express a concern for others—a final “I love you” or “It’s going to be okay.” A person’s final words reveal what is on his or her heart at the time, and sometimes they reveal the nature of the person’s faith and hope.
In the case of one being crucified, the very act of speaking was painful and required great exertion. It is thought that death comes to those being crucified due to some combination of exhaustion, shock, buildup of fluid around the heart and in the lungs, and asphyxiation. To speak while being crucified would require great effort as the victim would have to pull himself up by the nails in the wrists in order to expand the diaphragm to speak. For all of these reasons, words were sparse among the victims of crucifixion.
The Gospels record seven statements Jesus made from the cross. There are three reasons why we can assume these statements are important and should be considered for what they teach us about Jesus, about his Father, and about ourselves.
First, Jesus went to some effort and bore great pain to speak them. Second, Jesus came to reveal God—to be God’s “word made flesh.” And finally, the Gospel writers, as they were trying to communicate not only who Jesus was and what he did but also the significance of his life, felt it important to include his dying words.
We begin our study of Jesus’ final words with the first words from the cross recorded by Luke, words uttered by Jesus just after he was crucified: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).
It is not surprising that these words—the first words spoken by Jesus from the cross—were a prayer. What is surprising, haunting, and, for some, disturbing, is what he prayed—“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”—and for whom he prayed.
He was, of course, praying for the soldiers who cruelly tortured him and crucified him and who were preparing to gamble for his clothes. “Father, forgive them.”
He also was praying for the crowd who, even now, were beginning their verbal assault on him—Luke notes that they were deriding him, shaking their heads and mocking him. For them he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
Then there were the religious leaders who, from their own jealousy and spiritual blindness, conspired with the Romans to kill him, just as the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day had sought to kill him. For these hypocritical leaders he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
This is astounding! Can you imagine such mercy? That Jesus would pray for them as he hung on the cross is one of the most powerful images in all the Gospels.
But there is someone else included in Jesus’ prayer, someone for whom Jesus was pleading from the cross for God’s mercy to be extended: We are among the “them” Jesus was praying for as he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
There’s an old gospel hymn that asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The answer is that, in a profound spiritual sense, you were there. The entire human race was there at the Crucifixion. The death of Jesus was an event that transcended time. Jesus’ prayer gave voice to what Jesus was doing on the cross. He was offering himself to God his Father as an offering of atonement. In this moment he was both the High Priest pleading for atonement for the human race and the offering itself. This sacrificial act was for those who had come before and for those who would come after just as much as it was for those who heard his words that day.
As often as I’ve preached on forgiveness, I still find there are moments when a resentment I thought I had let go of comes back to me and I feel the anger creeping back into my heart. The prayer of Jesus on the cross is meant to become our prayer. If Jesus can pray, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” then with his help, I can, too.
Take a moment to think about people who have wronged you. Would you be willing now to join in the prayer that Jesus prayed for those who crucified him?
Father, forgive them. Father, you know their heart, and you know my pain. I pray for those who hurt me. Forgive them, and heal me. Amen.
Today’s post is an excerpt from Final Words From the Cross.