- The Seven Words From the Cross -
THE WORD OF FORGIVENESS
And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." So far the Holy Word.
In the Name of Jesus, Who died that we might live, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
"Famous last words." -That phrase has become such a cliché over the years that now it's most often used in a joking way. But behind all the jokes people make there is, as usual, a kernel of truth. Last words are often famous. The dying words of Julius Caesar, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln -- these will stand recorded in the history books until the end of time. Why is it that the last words that a person speaks before death are often so significant? It's because, as death nears, trivial things fade into the background. The thoughts of a dying person are focused only on the most important issues: life and death, God and eternity, heaven and hell. No matter what words a person speaks during his life, the words that issue from his dying lips are likely to reflect the beliefs and concerns that lie closest to his heart.
This is especially true of the last words of our Lord Jesus. Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. Each time He revealed a different aspect of Himself, His love for us, and the agony He endured on our behalf. As we gather for these midweek Lenten services, we'll consider, one by one, the significance of these "famous last words" of Christ. Travel back with me, then, to a dark Friday afternoon on a lonely hill called Golgotha, as we consider the first of the "Seven Words From the Cross"
THE WORD OF FORGIVENESS
Jesus had been through a lot in the last 24 hours. The last supper with His disciples on Maundy Thursday evening: the betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the mock trial and condemnation by a kangaroo court of Jewish religious leaders, the final examination and pronouncement of the death sentence by a wavering Pontius Pilate. He'd seen His friends run away, and He'd heard the blood-lust in the voices of the crowd that shouted, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" over and over. He'd felt the bite of the Roman scourge on His back, the piercing pain of the crown of thorns, and the dull weight of the cross as He dragged it to Calvary. Now the nails had been driven through His hands and feet, and the cross had been lifted up and settled into its place with a wrenching thump. A final six hours now stand between Jesus and death. It is now that the most severe pain is felt. It is now that Jesus endures the very agonies of hell itself.
How can we even begin to understand what Christ went through on the cross? Some time ago PBS had a documentary on the subject of "chronic pain." It dealt with the behavior of people who are forced to endure very severe pain on a daily basis, like chronic rheumatics or migraine sufferers. One phenomena the researchers noted was the fact that, for such people, the pain often is so great that it consumes their whole consciousness. It's usually impossible for them to focus their attention on anything except the pain that they are suffering. What a contrast our Savior presents to us! For in the midst of the most unspeakable pain -- did you notice? -- where are Jesus first thoughts centered? Not on Himself at all, but on others! "And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.'"
Even in the midst of such great physical and spiritual agony, Jesus offers a prayer. More amazing still, it's a prayer not for Himself, but for others. And not for His friends, either, but rather for His enemies! "Father, forgive them." Even in this extremity, Jesus practiced what He preached. For it was Christ Himself, in His Sermon on the Mount, who had told His followers, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." And now, in love, the gentle Savior does just that.
It may be worth your while to consider this Question: who was Jesus praying for, exactly, when He spoke those words? Was He praying for the Romans? Perhaps. The Roman guards had had their sport with Jesus, mocking Him and spitting on Him, ruthlessly driving the metal spikes through His hands and feet. Even now they were sitting at the foot of the cross, ignoring the Sufferer above them, and callously throwing dice for His clothes. They truly didn't know what they were doing. They were just following orders. For them, it was just another execution. A brutal carrying-out of a brutal sentence by a brutal Roman regime. They were used to it.
Was Jesus praying for Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor? Pilate had ignored the warnings of his wife and his own conscience. Knowing Jesus' innocence, he had finally washed his hands of Him, and delivered Him to be crucified. He didn't know what he was doing, either. Perhaps it's Pilate's ignorance that Paul's referring to when he says, in I Corinthians, "None of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." 2:8.
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." Certainly, Jesus is praying for the Jews. The Pharisees, the chief priests and the elders had been plotting against Him for months, hoping to put Him to death. In unbelief, they had rejected Him as the promised Messiah, their Savior. They had ignored His calls to repentance. Even now, we see them passing the foot of the cross and hurling insults at Him in His suffering. Misled by their leaders, the Jewish people - the chosen people of God - had rejected Jesus, too. Many of the same people who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with palm branches and hosannas not a week earlier, this Friday morning had stood outside Pilate's courtroom, screaming for His blood. Certainly, Jesus' prayer is for the Jews. It is for these lost sheep of the house of Israel that Jesus had wept bitter tears, crying, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" Mt 23:37.
But where do we fit into this picture? I mean us - you and me! I think that too often we cast ourselves as innocent bystanders at the cross of Jesus. We sit in judgment of the cruel Jews and the callous Romans. We feel nothing but contempt for the enemies of Jesus, and we imagine how different it would have been if we had been there to befriend Him. But would it?
One lesson of Lent that we've discussed before is that there are no innocent bystanders at the cross! You and I are personally involved, in a very real sense. We were present on that dark, skull-shaped hill, even though it all took place nearly 2,000 years ago. We were there, alright -- and not as friends, either! We were represented at Calvary by our sins - the very same sins that weighed Him down and caused Him such bitter agony on the cross. Yes, it was your sin and my sin drove Jesus there, and that made Him suffer. Isaiah says, "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed." 53:5. By virtue of our sinful flesh, we are the enemies that nailed the innocent Son of God to the cursed tree. When Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them," my fellow Christians, He was praying for us.
"Actions speak louder than words," is how the old saying goes. You folks with parenting experience know the truth of that - what you say to your kids will have little effect on them if you don't back it up by what you do. During His life, Jesus preached love for one's enemies. His last words from the cross reflected love for His enemies. But unlike so many others, Jesus' love for you wasn't just words - it was action. He didn't just pray that the Father would forgive you -- with His death Jesus guaranteed it! Rather than stepping down from the cross - as He could have - Jesus stayed there and suffered until each one of your sins had been atoned for in full. Rather than calling down fire and brimstone to destroy His enemies - as He could have - He prayed for them. He willingly suffered the torments of hell, so that you and I will never face that fate!
All the sins that you and I commit every day, all the sins that plague our conscience, even the secret sins that should trouble our conscience but don't -- Jesus paid for them on the cross. He tore down the last barrier between us and God, removed the last obstacle that stood between us and eternal life. It was a divinely illogical swap - the innocent Lamb of God for us guilty sinners. But with that one sacrifice, our salvation was made! The Apostle Peter says, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit." I Pet 3:18.
Does the date July 14th mean anything special to you? Probably not, but for people in France it's the biggest day of the year. It's known as Bastille Day, because that day in 1789 saw the storming of the Bastille Prison, and the beginning of the French revolution. It was a bloody day, and a bloody revolution, but the French remember it with joy, as the first day of true freedom in their country. In a similar way, many people view the season of Lent as a time of gloom and sadness. Certainly it is a solemn time, a time to repent of our sin, and to reflect on the consequences it held for our Savior. But on the other hand, how can we keep from rejoicing, when we know that the suffering Jesus endured gained heaven for you and me? We can't, and we shouldn't! Rather, let's give our most hearty thanks for this heavenly Friend who loved us so much! John says, "When Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end." Jn 13:1.
"Father, forgive them." -In word, Jesus prayed for it. In deed, Jesus accomplished it. God grant us truly to know the length and breadth, the height and depth of the love that these words contain. For us Christians, they are and indeed deserve to be -- the most famous last words of all! In Jesus' name, AMEN.
-Paul Naumann, Pastor