Woody Allen, reflecting on life and death, once said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I think there are quite a few people who would agree with that; unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to work out too well for us. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we each have an appointment with death. Still, there’s this innate desire within each one of us to not only ensure that our lives matter but that we also make our deaths count, too. So much so, that we’ve grown quite fond of recording and remembering some people’s famous last words. Morbidity aside, some people have really seized their one and only opportunity to declare some truly great words. To demonstrate what you’re stacked up against, I handpicked some incredibly clever famous last words.
- “Pardon me. I didn’t do it on purpose.” Marie Antoinette had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot as she climbed the scaffold and made her way up to the guillotine. Though she lost her head, she apparently kept her manners.
- “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Okay, you can already imagine what happened here. John Sedgwick was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He saw battle on numerous occasions, being struck by a bullet three different times, but apparently remained fearless―and maybe a bit arrogant―to the very end.
- “How’s this for your headline? ‘French Fries.’” This one is probably my favorite. James D. French was an American criminal who was the last person electrocuted under Oklahoma’s death penalty laws prior to the Furman v. Georgia decision which suspended the death penalty until 1976.
- “Die my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do.” Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977. He wanted his gravestone to be inscribed with the words, “Excuse me. I can’t stand up.” He was a jokester through and through.
Words matter; and, last words really matter. Through the Gospels, we find it’s truly no different with Jesus. In fact, we see there are really seven significant phrases that Jesus said during His crucifixion. And, in this morning’s message, I want to take a look at just three of these famous last words.
Last week, as we began this series, Pastor Jason brought us through that dark and lonely night when Jesus was betrayed. The sermon was intentionally unsettling in that hope was difficult for us to see. Quite literally, there was no cross in sight. Much like that night, there was a palpable darkness. Now, this morning, I’ve started us out talking about death; but, I promise it’s going to get better because, as we continue to move through the narrative this week, we find ourselves now chronologically at the original Good Friday.
Though we will be looking specifically at that Friday, historically speaking, you may know today is Palm Sunday―the day the multitudes joyfully welcomed Jesus. We read in Luke 19:36-37, “And as [Jesus] rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. As He was drawing near―already on the way down the Mount of Olives―the whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the crowd triumphantly welcomed and embraced Jesus on this day in history, but within that week, they would betray and execute Him. Don’t get me wrong: none of this caught Jesus by surprise. Just one chapter before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus actually told His disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon” (Luke 18:31-32). So, again, the betrayal, the mockery, the shame, the spit, the murder were all a part of the plan; none of it was a surprise. But, I wonder, at times, if we aren’t too dissimilar from that crowd. I wonder if we, too, welcome and embrace Jesus but, completely miss the point of what He came to accomplish in our lives? Do we truly understand the implications of the cross for us today?
Someone once said that without Good Friday, there is no Easter Sunday. It’s true that we remember and memorialize the lives and deaths of many different people; but, there has only ever been one Easter. There was something truly unique about that Friday. And, have you ever thought about its name? It can be difficult to attach the qualifier “good” to the events that transpired that day. Yet, in some peculiar and perplexing way, all of the betrayal and all of the torture and all of the mess―the very worst and the very best of all human deaths―resulted in a very good Friday. So, finally, there is some hope is on the horizon.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And, so, this morning, we continue our narrative in the Gospel of Luke. We read in Luke 23:32-33, “Two others, who were criminals were led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on His right and one on His left…”
Okay, let’s just pause here for a moment and think about all that has happened up to this point. Jesus lived the perfect, sinless life. He loved everyone, including those that His culture rejected. Through His ministry, He performed miracle after miracle. He had caused the lame to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, the dead to live. He taught with authority and truth that changed people like they had never experienced before. Then, in the midst of this, Jesus endured the incredibly long and lonely night we talked about last week. He was betrayed and abandoned by those closest to Him. He was wrongly accused and arrested and subjected to a trial where He was shamed and mocked. They beat Him. They whipped Him. They placed a crown of thorns on His head. They bloodied and bruised Him. They led Him to a place called The Skull, or Golgotha, where they executed criminals. And, through all of this, Jesus remained remarkably silent. He hasn’t pleaded His innocence. He hasn’t begged for mercy. He endured it all silently. And, as He is hanging from the cross, His lips begin to move. Everyone leaned in closer for that moment, wondering, “What’s He going to say?”
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:34). Can you imagine? These are the first words uttered from the cross. It’s interesting to note what Jesus didn’t pray for in that moment. He didn’t pray for healing. He didn’t pray a prayer of blessing. No, He prayed for the forgiveness of our sins. And, in so doing, He revealed our deepest and greatest need. I mean, isn’t it so fitting that the very first words uttered from the cross, where our redemption was ultimately purchased, were a prayer of forgiveness?
Now, in reading through this narrative, it’s painfully obvious that these people needed forgiveness. We’re usually pretty great at picking up when someone else needs to change. But as someone once famously said, when looking for faults, we must use a mirror and not a telescope. Jesus wasn’t just praying for the crowds there; He was praying for us. Lest we should ever forget that we are a people in need of forgiveness, the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now, you don’t have to raise your hands on this one, but how many of you have done something you wish you wouldn’t have done? How many of you have said something you wish you wouldn’t have said? Silly questions, right? There are definitely transgressions in each one of our lives for which we know we need forgiveness. And, yet, it’s not just the things we get caught doing that makes us sinners. It’s not even just the things no one else knows about us that makes us sinners. Sin is so much more pervasive. It’s the things that are often buried deep within ourselves that we, too, can be ignorant of that makes us sinners. So, what hope in the world do we have?!
That’s why David prayed in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me…” See, nothing surprises God. He knows our sin. He even knows the sins that are painfully obvious. He knows the sins that we try to hide. He knows the sins that we’re ignorant of ourselves. But, our ignorance doesn’t produce innocence. This morning, you may be just like the crowds unaware of their need of forgiveness. Unaware of your sin. Unaware of your guilt. But, all have sinned and fall short. John Stott said it this way, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we have to see it as something done by us.” We caused the cross. You did. I did. Our sin did.
But, then, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” because the good news is that the cross takes away all our sin and shame. This is that hope on the horizon revealed. We definitely didn’t deserve it, but we so desperately needed it. The good news this morning is that though there are some of you have been holding onto your sin, unable to change your destructive cycles and behaviors, the cross can take away your sin.. Even at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, some three years before the cross, John 1:29 records John the Baptist as declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
There are also some of you who may have embraced the forgiveness the cross has provided, but you have been holding onto the shame and guilt of your past mistakes. John 3:16, which many of you probably have memorized, says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” But, John 3:17, which is less often memorized, continues in saying, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” You know you’re eternally secured in the cross, but day-in and day-out, you continue to wrestle with your own guilt, condemnation, and shame.
This morning, I want to remind you that the cross takes away all of our sin, but, in so doing, it takes away all our guilt and all our shame. The cross changes our mistakes into testimonies. The cross changes our failures into opportunities. The cross changes our guilt into victory. The cross changes our shame into His glory.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So, these first words that Jesus spoke from the cross remind us that He died to take away our sin and our guilt, but that is not all Jesus said as He died. We read in 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?’” There are a couple important things about this passage that let us know what’s going on here. First, it’s been three long hours of darkness and silence from the cross after Jesus’ hopeful words of forgiveness. We know that Jesus was crucified somewhere around the third hour; so, at this point, it has been six hours since the sound of the hammers driving the nails into His wrists. Then comes His cry.
And, the word for “cry” here is actually more the word for scream or to shriek. And, we find that terrifying moment recorded in Jesus’ spoken language of Aramaic. Even though Matthew is writing in Greek to Greek speakers, he writes the actual Aramaic here. There’s really no need to do that, but what we are being reminded of here is that this is an eyewitness memory. People remembered and they could never forget that cry. Not just what Jesus said, but how He said it, pierced their hearts and etched this moment forever in their minds.
And, what does Jesus cry? “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Here, Jesus quotes David in Psalm 22. A side note that is worth mentioning here is that in Jesus’ darkest, loneliest, and most brutal moment, He recites Scripture. He comes back to the Word of God. Perhaps Jesus recited the continuing verses from Psalm 22 internally, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet, You are holy…” See, theologian Donald Macleod observed, “Even in the darkness God was, ‘My God,’ and though there was no sign of Him, and though the pain obscured the promises, somewhere in the depths of His soul there remained the assurance that God was holding Him.” This is a unique moment in the narrative. Up to this point, we have read and walked through the physical anguish and torment of Jesus’ crucifixion, but in this singular shriek, we now experience the anguish of His soul.
On that cross, Jesus didn’t simply bear some vague relation to sinners. He’s numbered with the transgressors. He becomes one of them. No, He’s not just one of them. In fact, He is all of them. Not just my sin, but your sin, and his sin, and her sin, and their sin. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin…”
Never before had anything come between Him and His Father, but now the sin of the whole world has come between them, and Jesus anguishes. Jesus screams His forsakenness to Eli, the God-Most High, to God-All Holy. On many other occasions throughout the Gospels, Jesus had characteristically called out to God as Abba―which is this intimate and tenderhearted name for the Father―but not so here. Here, Jesus is before the Judge of the World as the Sin of the World. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all…” Later, Paul would write in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” He was the Forsaken, the Judged, the Curse.
Jesus became our sin. He became all of our hatred, our lies, our jealousy, our envy, our lust, our greed, our adultery, our murder, our slander, our gossip, our betrayal, our idolatry, our wickedness. He became it all. And, when Jesus became this, God’s eyes were too pure to look upon sin; so, He turned away. Habakkuk 1:13 reminds us, “You are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong…” So, the Father looked away from Jesus. And, it was dark. It was silent. It was treacherous and anguishing.
But, then, suddenly, it was over. And, “then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’” (Luke 23:46). Once again, Jesus is quoting David, this time from Psalm 31. But, this time, Jesus does so with a minor change to the psalm. He adds the word Abba. Jesus called the Father Abba again. The penalty of all our sin was paid for by the Sinless One. Donald Macleod again observes here, “We have no means of knowing what intervened between the two cries. We know only that the cup [of God’s wrath is drained and the curse exhausted, and that the Father now proudly holds out His hands to the spirit of His Beloved Son.” See, the good news is that cross takes away the wrath of the Father. And, the great news is it doesn’t stop there.
In theological terms, we call this propitiation. Propitiation is a two-part act where the wrath of God is turned away but reconciliation is also granted. The cross takes away the wrath of God and grants us favor instead. I mean, let that sink in for a moment. Your sins haven’t just been forgiven; His righteousness has been counted to you. I love Francis Chan’s reflection on propitiation as he observes it’s not just that we’re no longer dirty as we stand before God. The cross didn’t make us spiritually neutral with God. He made us righteous. He made us attractive. Isaiah 61:10 says it this way, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” The power of the cross is that we’re made that beautiful to Him again.
“It is finished.”
So, Jesus’ cry from the cross reminds us that He died to take away the wrath of the Father. But, as we move to our third and final statement from the cross this morning, I first want to ask you: what’s the farthest distance you have ever traveled? Personally, the farthest I have traveled was on a missions trip to Argentina, which is approximately 5,600 miles. It was nearly a 14 hour flight, and it may be because I hate heights, but it was a long 14 hour flight. But, really, 5,600 miles is nothing when you consider some of the following. For example:
- What’s the farthest distance a human has been from earth? It was during Apollo 13’s wrap around the dark side of the moon. After an on-board explosion, the team had to reorient their path which involved using the gravitational force of the moon to do a return mission back to earth. Their farthest distance away from earth equated to 248,655 miles.
- Okay, what about the farthest distance a man-made object has traveled? As of August 2012, Voyager I has traveled a whopping 125 AU. An Astronomical Unit is the distance from the Earth to the Sun, or roughly 93 million miles. So, that’s 125 multiplied by 93 million miles away or 11 billion, 625 million miles.
- One more: what’s the farthest object in space that we have observed? Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a galaxy named GN-Z11 (apparently, we’ve run out of actual names) that is 13.4 billion light years away. A light year is 63,200 AU. So, that’s 13.4 billion multiplied by 63,200 multiplied by 93 million miles away or 78 sextillion, 759 quintillion, 840 quadrillion miles).
I can’t even fathom that sort of distance; and, yet, there’s more we have yet to explore beyond that. Still, no distance compares to the distance sin had produced between us and God. The prophet Isaiah reminds us, “The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or His ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:1-2). And, despite everything we might try on our strength, we could not overcome the distance.
But, then we read in John 19:30 that Jesus said, “‘It is finished,’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” Some of you are still reeling from that math lesson a moment ago, but allow me to move to an important grammar lesson now. The phrase “it is finished” is actually translated from a singular Greek word tetelestai. In the Greek language structure, tetelestai is written in what’s called the perfect passive indicative tense. The perfect tense tells us that the act has been completed―it’s done―but also that it’s affects are continuing and ongoing with full effect. The passive tense means the subject is being acted upon; and, the indicative tense lets us know that this is a statement of fact. So, to summarize the grammar lesson, when Jesus spoke tetelestai He was clearly and boldly declaring to us that what He set out to accomplish, He completed. We weren’t the ones it depended upon; no, we’re the subjects who receive the full benefits of the cross. And, we are truly receiving the benefits in full force even today.
But, the question remains: what did He set out to accomplish? What exactly is finished? In summary, Jesus tells us in John 14:6, when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” and we are reminded of this again in 1 Peter 3:18 when Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God…” Simply put, He came to provide a way back to the Father. He came to provide reconciliation and relationship once again.
This includes all the people that culture and society have rejected. Jesus came to reconcile even them to the Father. Through the Gospels we see Jesus restoring relationships with the deaf, the mute, the lame, the paralyzed, the leprous, the blind, the disciples, the children, the soldiers, the tax collectors, the demon-possessed, the beggars, the religious leaders, the foreigners, the prostitutes and adulterers, the widowed, the dead, the lost and the sinful. Jesus came to restore relationship to the Father with the most unlikely of people.
So, this morning, if you desire a real relationship with the Creator of the universe… If you desire to know the life changing power of a personal God… If you want to know the reality of being a son or daughter of God… It is finished. It is finished in the perfect passive indicative tense. He finished it on the cross so that you don’t have to do, but you get to be.
So, the good news today, that we are still experiencing the full effects of, is that the cross takes away the distance between us and God and it takes away the distance between us as people. Theologian John Murray wrote, “The glory of the cross is bound up with the effectiveness of its accomplishment.”
The glory of the cross is bound up with the effectiveness of its accomplishment.John Murray
Hebrews 12:2a encourages us to, “[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross…” Without a doubt, Jesus set out to glorify the Father; that was the joy set before Him, but how so? How did He glorify the Father? In that it reconciled us back to Him. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:15-16, “… He who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me…” The insurmountable distance has been bridged. Reconciliation is possible. Relationship is real. We can once again be near to the Most High God.
And, I love what this practically means for us this morning. He did not only restore our relationship to Himself, but He restored our relationship with one another. Take a look around this room this morning. What do we all have in common? Frankly, not much apart from our need for a Savior. That’s why in Acts 20:28, the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock… to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.” The Church itself was purchased by the blood of Christ. You and I are here this morning because of the blood of Christ. The Apostle Peter would later go on to write in 1 Peter 3:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” We, with our various backgrounds and mistakes and histories are now unified by the grace of God. In Christ, what do we have in common? That we are called God’s people. The distance between you and me has been removed. The distance between us and the Father has been remedied.
So, this morning, as the worship team makes their way back to the stage, I want to ask you to respond to those famous last words from the cross.
Maybe you’ve sat here this morning and you’ve heard for one of the first times that the cross can remove all of your sin and guilt. The cross takes away the wrath of God. The cross bridges the distance between you and God. And, you know that’s exactly what you need today. Scripture makes it clear that God’s grace is free to all; but, without repentance, we remain in our sin and guilt with the wrath of God separating us from Him. Paul states in Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” So, my first challenge is to those here today who have never done that. Oh, you may have admitted your mistakes in the past, but you have never confessed your need for a Savior. You have never truly surrendered your life to Jesus. Now is the time to confess Jesus is Lord, to repent, and to be free of that sin and shame.
Maybe you’re in a different group of people this morning. You would say that you have done that. You’ve confessed Jesus is Lord; you’ve repented. But, perhaps you have lived your life thus far devoid of the true power of the cross. You knew it provided forgiveness for your sins, but you still are living daily in your shame and guilt. You knew the cross has taken away the wrath of God, but you have never truly embraced the righteousness that He now calls you toward. You knew the cross traversed the distance between us and God, but it has been awhile since you have taken advantage of your access as a son or daughter to His presence. Now is the time to truly live in the power of that wondrous cross.
And, finally, as I invite you all to now stand with me here this morning, I have one final response. Worship. Maybe you don’t fit into one of the previous groups, but as we reflect on that terrible but wonderful cross, you are drawn to worship. As the band plays through one more song this morning, I want to invite you to respond. Our altars are open to you, but, most importantly, I pray that you open your heart to the Lord. Now is the time.