I remember the moment very clearly. My mom and I walked into her room in the morning and we could tell that her breathing had changed during the night. After two weeks of watching my Grandmother slowly slip away after a series of strokes, we felt like this was finally going to be her last day. My Mom stood on one side of her bed and I stood on the other as we watched her breathing slow and then very quietly there were no more breaths. We kept waiting and watching for another one – but nothing came. It was an amazingly peaceful end with no final words. In fact, for my grandmother there had been no words for over a year. For a woman who loved words, who loved to read and do the New York Times crossword puzzles and correct all of our grammar, words had not been part of her life since her first stroke 13 months earlier. If there could have been one word that day, I think it would have been, finally. My grandmother was ready to go. She was a woman of faith and trust and she knew there was more life to come.
My Grandmother was the first person I was with when they died, but she has certainly not been the last. As a pastor I have been present with many people and their families when loved ones took their last breath and like my Grandmother, many times there are no final words but with Jesus there were. As Jesus hung on the cross he spoke and his final words tell us a lot about what was important to him in that moment and what he wanted people to remember. We know these words were important to Jesus because he went through extraordinary lengths to speak them.
Last year as we took an in-depth look at the last 24 hours of Jesus life we talked in detail about his crucifixion. If you read any kind of medical explanation of what a body goes through when they hang on a cross you will learn that a person doesn’t die from the nail wounds in the hand and feet and they don’t die of blood loss, in fact with crucifixion there isn’t a lot of blood loss because the nails go through nerves and bones away from major arteries. A person on the cross usually dies of heart failure brought on by asphyxiation. With your arms extended and the full weight of your body pulling you down, to just breathe meant you had to lift yourself up by the nails in your wrists which would have been excruciating painful because of how the nails hit the nerve endings. So to pull yourself up, or push up on your feet enough to fill your lungs in order to talk is almost unimaginable, but Jesus did. He struggled to speak these final words because they were important to him, which means we need to pay careful attention to them.
The 4 gospels combined give us the 7 words, statements really, that Jesus spoke from the cross. Matthew and Mark only record one word and Luke and John each give us 3 different and unique ones and while some people find these differences troubling, it makes sense to me. Again, last year we learned that Jesus wasn’t crucified on a cross high up on a hill with no around him, he was only a few feet off the ground right along a road, so people would have heard him speak, even if he was talking in a whisper. But with all the confusion and noise and different people coming and going at the foot of the cross, it stands to reason that some people heard one word while others heard another.
The assumption we are making is that the difference in the gospels don’t contradict each other but compliment each other. Different people heard what Jesus said, they remembered it and eventually wrote it down and so through the 4 different gospels we have all of Jesus final words from the cross.
Since no one gospel records all 7 words, we aren’t sure of the exact order but a traditional ordering of the words looks likes this:
• Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
• Today you will be with me in paradise.
• Behold your mother… Behold your son.
• My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
• I thirst.
• It is finished.
• Into your hands I commit my spirit.
So let’s start with the first word, Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus begins with a prayer because Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days. When he had major life decisions to make Jesus would go off alone to pray. Jesus’ prayer life was so profound that his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. Prayer was the foundation of all Jesus did and prayer was a big part of what Jesus taught, so it should not surprise us that Jesus begins his final words with a prayer. It should also not be a surprise that his prayer wasn’t for himself but for others.
In fact, if we look at Jesus’ first 3 words from the cross we see that they aren’t about him but others. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Jesus has been betrayed by his friend Judas, denied by his friend Peter and deserted by almost every other friend he has and a few hours earlier he had experienced the most horrifying torture and beating you can imagine. They have just pounded nails into his hands and feet and lifted him into a position where breathing was difficult and painful let alone talking out loud and yet in this moment Jesus isn’t thinking about himself. He isn’t feeling sorry for himself, he isn’t cursing out his friends for failing him and he isn’t even crying out in pain. Jesus isn’t thinking about himself at all, he is thinking about and praying for others. The only way that is possible is if Jesus’ entire life had been spent focusing on and meeting the needs of others. The truth is that is exactly how Jesus did live his life. Jesus denied himself every day which meant that in this moment he was simply continuing to live the way he always had, by denying himself and praying for others.
Praying for others first and ourselves second is part of what it means for us to deny ourselves. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to follow him that we must deny ourselves and take up a cross and this is part of what that means. Self denial doesn’t mean we physically pick up or die on a cross, but it does mean we live a life where we think about others, pray for others and place the needs of others before our own. It means we stop thinking about ourselves first and what is good for us and start thinking about how to meet the needs of those around us. In our me-first world, this way of life is radical, but it is the example given to us by Jesus in this first word from the cross.
So Jesus prays, “Father forgive them.” Now who is the “them” that Jesus is talking about? Well, let’s place ourselves in Jesus’ position. The first people he would have seen would have been the Roman Soldiers who have just pounded the nails into his hands and feet. They were the ones at the foot of the cross tossing dice to see who would get Jesus clothes. As Jesus looked at them, he asked God to forgive them because they didn’t really understand who he was so they couldn’t really understand what they were doing.
But beyond the soldiers Jesus would have seen other people gathered there. Most likely there were religious leaders who had been the ones who condemned Jesus to death the night before. They were gathered there to make sure Jesus really died, but they are also there to mock him and curse him. As Jesus looked at them, he prayed, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. Jesus is doing in this moment what he taught his disciples to do in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus says, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. These were not just words for Jesus, it was how he lived and died. He loved his enemies enough to pray for them even while they are persecuting him.
As Jesus looked out at the crowd I wonder if he was also searching for his disciples. Where was Peter, Andrew or James? Where was Thomas or Nathaniel or Matthew? Why weren’t they there? Why had they all deserted him when they had promised to stay with him until the end? As Jesus was looking for them and thinking about them I believe he was also praying for them. Father, forgive them because they don’t understand what they are doing. They didn’t understand what they were doing. They were afraid and unsure and all their hopes and dreams were broken. Everything they had believed in seemed to be falling apart around them. The one they trusted in seemed in this moment to have failed and they were overwhelmed with sorrow and grief and so they ran away. Instead of cursing his friends for not being there, and instead of condemning them for being weak and sinful, Jesus prayed, Father forgive them.
But then beyond the soldiers who were crucifying him, and his enemies who were persecuting him and his own disciples who had failed him, I think Jesus looked out from the cross and he saw me and you. Now here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t see us when we are at our best, he sees us at our worst. He sees us when we were saying those things we know we shouldn’t say and doing things we know we shouldn’t do and it is in those moments, those moments of our own sin and failure that Jesus prays for us and what he asks is for God to forgive us, because we don’t know the full extent of what we are doing.
The truth is that this prayer of Jesus’ from the cross wasn’t just for those who were there that day, it is a prayer for all of us because we are all sinners. We don’t like to talk about sin much and we don’t like to be reminded of it, but the truth is that we are all sinners. The word sin means to miss the mark or to stray from the path and the truth is that God has laid out a path for us to follow. He has taught us and through Jesus he has shown us how to live our lives and yet we are forever going in our own direction. The apostle Paul says it best in his letter to the Romans when he says in Romans 7 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (7:15),and For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (7:18-19)
So we are all sinners. We are never going to be able to live the perfect life that God wants for us and the Bible points this out not to make us feel guilty and unworthy but to remind us of the abundant grace of God. While Jesus was very honest about the reality and consequences of sin, the heart of his message was forgiveness and grace. It’s funny that many people know John 3:16 by hear, For god so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. But we don’t know the next verse very well and it is this verse that sums up the heart of Jesus message. John 3:17 says, For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him. This is the heart of the gospel, that God sent Jesus not to condemn us of sin, but to point it out so that we might now the power of God’s forgiveness.
If we keep reading Paul’s letters to the Romans we see same thing. Look at Romans 7:24-25. Notice that like Jesus, Paul’s message doesn’t end with condemnation but God’s grace. The whole point of talking about his own sin wasn’t to condemn himself and beat himself up but to give thanks and praise to God who forgives him and offers him grace and peace. God wants the same thing for us. God wants us to get serious about our sin not to make us feel guilty and unworthy but to remind us of his amazing grace and love, a love that was willing to die for us and a love that was willing to endure the pain of speaking from the cross so that we could hear this message of forgiveness.
So the first of the final words is a prayer because Jesus built his life on prayer, it was a prayer for others and not himself because Jesus lived of life of self denial and sacrifice where he placed the needs of others before his own and it was a prayer of forgiveness for everyone because we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and love. While it is important to understand all of this and accept the forgiveness that God offers us through the cross, it’s not enough for us to just hear these final words, we have to be willing to make them the foundation on which we build our faith and our lives. In other words, we have to live them out and apply them to our lives because application is… everything.
Let’s be clear, Jesus didn’t say this prayer out loud so that he could hear the sound of his own voice, it was because he wanted us to hear this message. Jesus wanted us to know that no matter what we have done and who we are we are forgiven. After all if Jesus can forgive those who have just condemned him to die and nailed him to a cross – he can forgive us. But he also wants us to hear this message so that we will forgive others. Again, this final word is nothing new for Jesus, he spent a lot of time teaching us to forgive. Jesus not only told us to forgive our enemies but he said we need to forgive those who have sinned against not 7 times, or 70 times or even 70 times 70 times (or 4,900 times) but all the time. By making this one of his last words to us, Jesus wants to be clear that we need to be willing to forgive others, it really is that important.
But it’s important to remember that forgiving others doesn’t mean that we rush back into a relationship where we allow ourselves to get hurt and take advantage of over and over again. God would not want that. Forgiveness does mean, however, that we let go of the grudge and don’t hold people’s faults and failures and sins against them. It’s not easy to forgive those who have hurt us deeply. It’s not easy to let go of the pain and frustration and disappointment and bitterness that we feel – it’s not easy, but neither is speaking from the cross. Jesus endured the pain to forgive us and sometimes we have to endure the pain of forgiveness because it is the right thing to do. It is also the only path that leads to healing and new life.
If we are going to hold on to the pain and bitterness of those who have wronged us then we will never heal and experience freedom and life, we will simply live in pain and bitterness. God’s forgiveness of us and our willingness to forgive others is what allows us to let go of the pain so we can begin to experience true healing and a better life. If there is someone you need to forgive today – I want to invite you to forgive them. Pray for them this week. Put their name into the prayer of Jesus and make it your prayer this week.
Father forgive ________________, and Father, forgive me.
Final Words ~ Father, forgive them…
1. Read the different accounts of Jesus crucifixion from each of the four gospels and note the differences and similarities.
• Matthew 27:32-57
• Mark 15:21-41
• Luke 23:26-49
2. Jesus’ first word from the cross was a prayer because prayer was the foundation of all Jesus did. Add 5 minutes of prayer into each day this week.
3. Jesus forgives several groups of people from the cross: Roman soldiers, religious leaders, his disciples and the crowd
• What does his forgiveness of these people tell us about his forgiveness of us?
If Jesus offered forgiveness for those who crucified him, he is willing to forgive everything.
• What is the one sin in your life that you think God can’t or won’t forgive? Pray, Father forgive me.
4. This final word is also a call for us to forgive others. Who in your life are you struggling to forgive? Would you be willing to pray for them this week?
Father, forgive ________. You know their heart and my pain. I pray for all those who hurt me. Forgive them and heal me. AMEN