A frequent question when someone dies is this: “Did He say anything at the end?” We want to know what the last words were. We are hopeful that there will be a final affirmation or an acknowledgment that they understood how much we loved them. We look for some word of insight, a wise truth, a word of hope. Dwight Moody on his deathbed sat up suddenly and proclaimed, “Oh, it’s beautiful” and then died.
More often than not, due to pain medication we are unable to understand any last words. They are mere mumbles or they are so disjointed that they don’t make any sense.
Over the next three weeks we are going to look at the last words of Jesus. These are commonly called the seven last words. They are not really “words” they are sentences. To find them you have to look at all the gospel accounts. These seven sentences give us an insight into Jesus and provide a challenge for our own living. But before we get there . . . . let’s look at the events just preceding the cross.
A couple weeks ago we looked at the arrest and trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. We saw the illegal nature of the frame-up that was taking place. Last week we looked at Pilate as the man who had agreed to hand Jesus over to the Jews only to be struck by the nature of the man. His struggle: do I do what is right, or what is expedient? Pilate gave in to the crowd.
THE EXPERIENCE OF JESUS
He was Abused
We read that Jesus was “flogged”. This was usually done with a whip that had bits of bone embedded into it. The effect was to tear up the back of the person.
Following the whipping we are told that the soldier mocked and beat Jesus. They dressed him up as a king with a crown of thorns on his head. Then they beat Him and spit upon Him. They hurled insults at Him. The soldiers enjoying proving their “toughness” by their abuse of a prisoner. The videos on television of Police brutality are similar to what was happening to Jesus.
Do you understand what He was going through? Perhaps you have been in an abusive situation:
- Physical abuse from a trusted friend or spouse
- Ridicule from classmates or acquaintances
- Mocking from someone whose approval mattered to you
If so, you know the pain Jesus suffered. Not only the external pain but the internal pain.
He was Rejected
Pilate brought Jesus out to the crowd (trying one more time to get Him released) and points to this pitiful man who is beaten and mocked and says, “Behold the Man!” I think Pilate was saying, “Look, He’s learned His lesson…..isn’t this sufficient?” Pilate knew He was innocent. He knew He should be set free.
The crowd of people . . . Jewish leaders . . .the “spiritual leaders” of the people, called for His execution. They said Jesus had to die because He claimed to be the Son of God. They would not rest until they had Him dead!
We read, “When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid.” Pilate must have wondered if maybe this WAS the Son of God. He knew Jesus was not guilty but He was in a real bind. Pilate kept trying to set Jesus free . . . the Jews kept calling for His death. They also attacked Pilate. They accused him of being disloyal to the Emperor . . . a charge that stung. They even proclaimed, “We have no King but Caesar!”
Now put yourself in the shoes of Jesus. He is deserted by His followers….the disciples have scattered. The leaders of the people He came to save . . . . His own race, is calling for His death. The religious teachers, those the people trusted, are telling people to reject the one who came to save them. And to top it all off: God’s special people are claiming that their only allegiance is to Caesar. Can you even begin to imagine the heartbreak?
Some of you can understand that sense of rejection. You’ve experienced
- a spouse that says, “I don’t love you any more.”
- an employer that says they have to “let you go” due to downsizing
- a child that says, “I hate you!”
- a love interest that doesn’t even know you exist.
- a trusted friend who tears you apart
He was Humiliated
The soldiers made Jesus carry His own cross to the place of execution. The whole process was designed to humiliate. People stared, whispered, shook their head. Others cried and looked away. Jesus was being treated like a vile criminal. He was beaten, bloodied, exhausted.
If that was not enough He was executed publically. People stood around and waited for Him to die. Every gasp, every twitch from pain, every moment of struggle was watched by the crowd. Surely one would yearn to die in peace . . . but no, it was meant to be a public spectacle. He couldn’t even talk privately with His family and friends!
But there was yet one final insult. Even as He was hanging on the cross the guards were gambling to see who gets to keep his clothes. This is worse than the family fighting about the will before anyone has died. It’s like watching all your possessions sold before your very eyes. His dignity is gone.
None of us have experienced this kind of humiliation. However, we have known was it was like to have a crushing defeat in public. We may have known what it was like to have our weakness seen by the world. Maybe you yelled at your children and didn’t think anyone was around . . . but they were. Maybe you tripped and fell in front of a group. Maybe you forgot your lines in a speech contest. Remember how you felt . . . then imagine how He felt.
THE RESPONSE OF JESUS
In the midst of the abuse, the rejection and the humiliation we wonder how Jesus will respond. We know how we would respond. Our desire would be to have some Rambo, Dirty Harry, Steven Segal or Walker Texas Ranger type come and right the wrong. We’d like them to come in with “guns ablazin” to rescue us from the injustice that is taking place. We’d be vindictive, spiteful and really really mad!
But the contrast with Jesus is stunning. We read the first word from the cross in Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
What? Forgive them? No! No! No! That’s not how it is supposed to end. The bad guys should be defeated, the good guys set free.
Forgive them. Jesus intercedes for the very ones who abuse, reject and humiliate Him. You see, Jesus understands something: “they don’t know what they are doing.” They have no idea who it is they have on the cross. They don’t know how deadly sin really is. They don’t understand the vast disparity between Heaven and Hell. They are acting in ignorance and the Savior understands.
Please understand, ignorance is not bliss. These people are not “off the hook” because they didn’t understand . . . if they were, they wouldn’t need forgiveness. What they are doing is wrong and sinful. But their ignorance does touch the heart of the great Shepherd.
Jesus understands that anger is not what these people need. Anger escalates trouble. These people need Grace. The wandering sheep need a Shepherd.
Jesus gives us a great illustration of His love. These words are spoken not just for the crowds that were watching Him die. They were also spoken for us. While He was on the cross it was His desire that you and I know forgiveness as well. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. He knows we don’t understand . . . but He still loves us.
How different Jesus is from us. When people hurt us we assume they knew exactly what they were doing.
- they knew how it would hurt
- they knew what the consequences would be
- they knew how we would interpret their words or actions
- they knew we were having a bad day
Yet, when we are the offend-er rather than the offend-ed we want people to give us a break. We want them to understand that if we knew what was going to happen we wouldn’t have done it.
Jesus gives us a model. When hurt comes our way we must remember that those who afflict are acting out of ignorance. They don’t know any better. They are sheep without a Shepherd. We must learn from Jesus that in these times what is needed is not anger . . . .but Grace. In the times of hurt we need to “turn on the light” to reveal the Christ who forgives . . . . even the people who hurt us.
I’m not saying it’s easy . . . it’s not. It goes against every desire in our heart. But it is the right thing to do. It’s best for them. It’s best for us.
It’s strange . . . we hear the plea for forgiveness but somehow we seem to feel that it is an invitation to everyone BUT us. The next word from the cross drives home the point.
Today, you will be with me . . .
In the midst of our Savior’s agony He takes time to reach out to another. When we would be self-absorbed, He was reaching out. When we would have shut others out . . .He was drawing another lost sheep to the fold.
Ken Gire writes,
We know nothing about that criminal on the cross next to Christ. We don’t know how much he stole or how often. From whom or why. We know only that he was a thief- a wayward son over whom some mother’s heart has been broken’ over whom some father’s hopes have been dashed.” (Gire, INTIMATE MOMENTS p. 107)
What we do know about the thief is that He had earlier joined the taunting of the Savior. Matthew 27:44 tells us, “in the same way the robbers [note the plural] who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.”
Isn’t that typical. When we are wounded, we tend to strike out at anyone who comes close . . . just like an animal. Yet, this man softens as he hangs there. What happened?
We don’t know. But I suspect that just like Pilate, this thief saw something in the man on the cross that was different. I think when Jesus prayed for forgiveness of his persecutors, the thick wall that had covered the heart of this thief fell down. In a moment the Spirit of God “turned on the light”. Maybe this was the first time this man had ever seen forgiveness instead of bitterness, tenderness instead of toughness, love instead of hate. We don’t know. All we do know is that all of a sudden this thief saw that there was a God. He understood that this man WAS a King but a King of a different realm. He believed that this King had power to grant entry into His Kingdom.
When the other thief cries out in a scoffing tone this changed man stands up for Jesus. The crowds had turned away. The disciples hid. The leaders framed Him. But the thief, this thief, defends the bruised Messiah. He makes a startling confession: “we are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
In the midst of his own suffering, this thief confesses his own sin and proclaims the Savior’s sinlessness. Then, in a bold act of the faith . . .this thief; this man who not long ago was cursing Jesus has the audacity to ask: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The nerve of this man! Who does he think he is? After a lifetime of crime to now, at the last minute, he reaches out to the Savior. Does he really think that is going to do any good?
Jesus response, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” “Today” not some day after your soul has slept for awhile. . . .TODAY. Those who are granted eternal life enter into the presence of the Lord at the moment we die. “Today, YOU will be with me”. Jesus is not saying that everyone will eventually go to Heaven. He doesn’t include the other thief . . . only the one who trusted Him.
That’s the gospel . . . simple as that. It’s never too late to come home. As long as you have breath you can invite the Savior to lead you to Heaven also. It doesn’t matter what your “rap sheet” says. It doesn’t matter what your reputation is. It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve messed up your life. What does matter is whether you respond to the man on the cross. It takes an acknowledgment of sin and a sincere declaration of trust. That’s it. The same Savior will welcome you.
We’ve seen two groups of people: those who turned away and those who reached out in faith. Which group do you belong to?
You’ve seen two examples of how to handle the pain of life: those who lash out in anger and the one who sees lost sheep and seeks to turn on the light. Which example will you follow?
Do you feel that life is “beating you up” right now. Do you feel that no one understands? Are those around you more condemning than supportive? Friend, look to the cross. There is one who understands. He knows what it is like to be abused, rejected and humiliated. He understands and what’s more . . . . He loves you. He will delight to help you . . . if you ask.
Do you feel that your life is beyond hope? Do you feel that there are too many mistakes in your past to over overcome? My friend, remember the thief on the cross. Remember the one who bled and died to pay for your stained past. And when you have remembered, dare to believe that His death was sufficient even for you . . . even for the thief . . . even for me. It’s time for the walls you’ve built to protect yourself to come down. It’s time to dare to trust again. It’s time to ask the Savior to remember you. And if you do . . . . He will.