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Seven sayings from the cross

April 2003 | by John Keddie

The last word from the cross is found in Luke 23:46: ‘Father, “into your hands I commend my spirit”.’

There is often a fascination with the last words of dying people. No doubt they reveal hope or despair. It is of more than passing interest, then, just how the Lord Jesus Christ encountered death itself.

Death, after all, is ‘the last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26). In that connection Jesus’ last word from the cross must be a great help and instruction to the believing man or woman, and a challenge to the unbeliever.

Jesus had already cried, ‘It is finished!’ (John 19:30). That was a cry of triumph. Contrary to appearances, his sacrificial work was over.

He had borne the penalty for sin and fulfilled the law’s demands. There would follow, on the third day after his death, the glorious resurrection that put the seal on his work upon the cross.

At this point, however, he faces death itself, physical death. At this point, too, he is fulfilling Scripture as he quotes from Psalm 31:5: ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’.

How does this last word from the cross reflect on Jesus’ experience, and how does it challenge men in approaching their end?

The comfort of prayer

This last word is a prayer. Several of the sayings from the cross are prayers. The first is ‘Father, forgive them…’ and the fourth is ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And this final saying is also a prayer: ‘Father, “into your hands I commend my spirit”.’

Prayer is, of course, the mark of an exercised soul. We are to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and doubtless Jesus was an example of such an attitude. A prayerful concern over the circumstances of our death is surely appropriate. Preparation for that moment is all important, not least because it may overtake us unawares.

It did not take Jesus unawares, of course, but he nevertheless approached it prayerfully. People whose tenor of life is godless often imagine vainly that they will have time to take care of the end when it comes.

However, as one older writer put it: ‘If, then, we desire our last words to be words of prayer, we should commence to pray at once. If the face of God is to shine on our death bed, we must now acquaint ourselves with him and be at peace.

‘If, as we look upon the dying Christ or on the dying saints, we say “let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his”, then we must begin now to live the life of the righteous and to practise its gracious habits.’

The comfort of Scripture

It is also significant that Jesus’ last utterance from the cross was couched in the words of Scripture, from the familiar strains of the Psalter. What better source of help to a dying soul?

There is no greater comfort in death than such Spirit-inspired words. Here is a book of Scripture which, in Calvin’s words, is an ‘anatomy of all the parts of the soul’.

He says of the Psalter, ‘there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise…

‘The Psalms … will principally teach and train us to bear the cross; and the bearing of the cross is a genuine proof of our obedience, since by doing this we renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God.’

This is what Jesus was doing at this moment. Someone has truly said of the Psalter that it is ‘the most perfect expression which has ever been given to experience; and to know and love it is one of the best signs of spirituality’.

The fact that it is so little used in the sung praise of Christian churches is a significant loss for the piety of the churches. Jesus at any rate went to the Psalms as he faced the final conflict of his ebbing life.

The words of the Psalm upheld his human spirit as he ‘breathed his last’.

The committal to the Father

Jesus is fully conscious of what is happening. He lays down his life voluntarily. He commends his spirit to his Father in heaven.

Christ was fully human. In his human nature he was body and soul (or spirit). Body and soul are not meant to be parted from one another. Their parting constitutes physical death.

The soul (or spirit) leaves the body and goes to God who gave it, for one destination or another – heaven or hell – depending on whether the person in question is saved or not in this life.

Sin brought in this death (Romans 5:12). Jesus suffered on the cross as the God-man – in two natures and one person – to destroy the one who has the power of death (Hebrews 2:14).

In his humanity he faced death, the separation of soul and spirit. His spirit will go to God and his body will be laid, for a while, in the grave. He now commits his human spirit to his Father’s keeping.

Christ knows he is breathing his last. But he also knows the Father. He can with confidence commit himself to him. Clearly there is nothing more important than that we put our life into God’s hands – not only in this world but also in the face of death itself.

Confidence and reality

This is what Jesus was doing here, and it is a great lesson for us. It was a lesson learned, for example, by Stephen who, when he faced death, could cry with reality: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ (Acts 7:59). A person can only have such confidence if he has Christ as his Saviour and substitute.

Christ’s dying word indicates the reality of the hereafter. The only alternative to eternal death hereafter is to know Christ, to be united to him by faith.

Apart from this, we are without hope. Only through faith in the living God and the now exalted Saviour can any soul pray with confidence: ‘Father, “into your hands I commend my spirit”.’