Going Deeper: Final words of a dying Saviour, Part II

Jesus made seven statements during the final hours on the cross before his death. These are recorded for us in the Gospels, and GoodSeed’s primary tools emphasize three of them. In this two-part Going Deeper article, we examine the deeper significance of all seven statements.

Introduction

Jesus of Nazareth has been arrested in the night on trumped-up charges. Falsely accused, he is paraded through a series of courts. These court sessions are simply a pretext to provide legality to what is already a foregone conclusion in the minds of the Jewish religious leaders: a sentence of death for blasphemy. Jesus is beaten and mocked before he is sentenced to death by crucifixion by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

The intent of this barbaric form of execution was to prolong the agony of dying as long as possible. However, the crucifixion of Christ lasted a relatively short time, from the “third” hour—about 9:00 a.m. (Mark 15:25) to about the “ninth” hour—3:00 p.m. (Mark 15:33).

As a person reads the description of what happened during those six hours, what isn’t found are sensational, lurid details of the physical suffering Jesus experienced as he hung on the cross. The Bible doesn’t indulge our curiosity. There are none of the horrific details that one might expect in tabloid journalism. Rather, the account of the crucifixion is told in a simple, straightforward manner without any dramatics. This is not to minimize the physical agony Christ felt on the cross. His pain was very real, but pain isn’t what Scripture highlights. Instead, the Bible gives us glimpses of Jesus’ heart for humanity through seven statements he made during the final hours before his death. Just as the final words spoken from the deathbed of a loved one hold great significance to family and friends, so these words of Christ are such that they have reverberated down through history.

In the first part of this two-part article, we delved into the significance of Christ’s first three statements from the cross. Now we will discuss the final four statements.

Statement Four

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

As we examine the Gospel accounts regarding Christ’s crucifixion, we learn that after Jesus had been hanging on the cross for about three hours, a darkness settled over the scene, obscuring everything from sight. With the darkness there must have come an unsettling quiet. Apart from the moans coming from the crosses, probably little was heard from those witnessing the gory and painful spectacle before them. The steady stream of insults and ridicule must have been quickly muted as each on-looker tried to process the significance of this unnatural and unexpected disappearance of the sun from view.

Then, out of the blackness, came a startling cry—an agonizing, gut-wrenching sound.

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV)

The words that came from the lips of Jesus were Aramaic—the common, every-day language of that part of the world. Regardless of the language, the words are simple. But what do they mean?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV)

The unnatural darkness seems to have been a visual expression of the sense of abandonment that Jesus was feeling. Yet, it was much more than a terrible feeling of separation; it was a necessary reality, though bewildering and unfathomable to our finite minds. It strikes us as incomprehensible. The same God who assures us, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 NIV), who said of Jesus at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV), now forsakes his only beloved Son? How can that be? For what reason?

It seems that it was during this period, when the sun was hidden from view, that the Most High God, the Holy One, could not look upon his dear Son. The Bible tells us that Jesus became the Sin-offering for mankind.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT)

He [Christ] personally carried our sins in His body on the cross [willingly offering Himself on it, as on an altar of sacrifice]. (1 Peter 2:24 AMP)

What we have is God—infinitely holy, far beyond anything we can comprehend—turning away from the view of his sinless Son bearing the full weight and consequence of the sins of all of mankind upon himself.

The basis for such a separation is difficult for us to grasp from the perspective of our very human, earth-bound minds. After all,

I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5 NLT)

But God, who is holy, cannot tolerate sin in any form.

Your eyes [God] are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. (Habakkuk 1:13 NIV)

And, because God is just, he cannot overlook sin. Sin must be dealt with. Sin must be punished. Even though Jesus had no sin of his own for which he was responsible, yet he willingly took upon himself all the guilt and shame of the sin of the world.

The horrifying reality of what it meant for Christ to be separated from God, his heavenly Father, is a sobering reminder of what it meant for Jesus to bear the consequences of our sin.

More than 700 years earlier, in anticipation of what would later happen on the cross, the prophet Isaiah put it this way:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)

Our human nature wants to downplay the sinfulness of sin. We minimize and trivialize sin. We find all sorts of ways to rationalize our sin. But the Bible says that…

…the wages of sin is death. (Romans 3:23 NIV)

The Bible says elsewhere that the essence of death is separation—not only from all that we hold near and dear in this life but, more importantly, from God himself for eternity. It is a fact of life—and death—for everyone born into this world that we are…

…alienated from God. (Colossians 1:21 NIV)

The agonizing cry, “My God, my God…,” that welled up from the innermost being of Jesus is a stark reminder of why Jesus felt so utterly abandoned on the cross by God. He was experiencing the separation we deserved.

Though these words are a direct quotation taken from Psalm 22:1, Jesus was not merely reciting familiar words to somehow express his feelings of anguish. Rather, this and other references to Psalm 22 are prophetic statements, anticipating what would happen on the cross centuries later.

In light of that, it is important for us to understand the significance of Jesus “bearing the sin of the world.” It points back to an origin in time more than 1500 years earlier when the Lord instituted the sacrificial system in conjunction with the use of the Tabernacle. Among the instructions that God gave to the Israelite people was the bringing of animals to the Tent of Meeting to be offered on the bronze altar. They were specifically told what kind of animal to bring (Leviticus 1:1-3). Then, the one bringing the animal was to…

…lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. (Leviticus 1:4 NIV)

The action of an individual placing his hand on the head of the animal was an expression of identification. It symbolized that the person’s sin and guilt were thereby transferred from himself to the animal. Because death is the penalty for sin, the animal had to die. It was the innocent dying in place of the guilty.

This was all part of an elaborate visual aid God provided the Israelites. At the time, the people had a limited understanding of the significance of what God was asking them to do. But, as they responded in simple faith, God took care of their sin problem. The animal sacrifice only provided a temporary answer to a person’s need for forgiveness. But, it looked ahead to a time when a sinless Sin-Bearer would die in our place, paying in full the penalty for our sin that we deserved to pay. It would be a once-for-all, never-again kind of payment.

Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. (Hebrews 9:28 NKJV)

For our sake, Jesus willingly “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2 NET). There on the cross, he experienced the kind of abandonment by his Father never before experienced so that God’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 ESV), might become possible for us.

None of us will ever be able to comprehend what those hours of total and utter separation must have meant to Jesus—for the beloved Son of God to be abandoned by his Father. Yet, in spite of experiencing the full measure of God’s judgment upon man’s sin, Jesus never renounced his heavenly Father as “my God.” Rather, he turned to God in his time of despair—Why, God, why?

Jesus never lost sight of God in the midst of his horrible ordeal. Thank God we will never face the depth of the sense of aloneness that Jesus experienced on the cross. Yet there will be times in our lives when heaven seems like brass, when God seems distant—indifferent to the cries of our hearts. David often felt that way but he never hesitated to bring his “whys?” to the Lord as he poured out his heart in prayer (e.g. Psalm 10:1; 43:2; 88:14; cf. Psalm 6:3; 13:1ff.; 77:7ff.).

After six excruciating hours on the cross, the point finally came when Jesus knew that his ultimate purpose for coming to earth had been fully accomplished—“knowing that all was now completed” (John 19:28 NIV). The penalty of man’s sin had been fully paid.

After that, it seems that Jesus’ final three statements came in rapid succession.

Statement Five

“I thirst” (John 19:28)

Initially, it would seem that the meaning expressed by this short statement is very simple and straightforward. By this time, it is very understandable that Jesus would have been severely dehydrated after all he had endured. Remember that Jesus had not only been suffering the excruciating agony of crucifixion in the heat of the Mediterranean sun but that this had been preceded by long hours of torture and abuse at the hands of soldiers. The physical thirst was very real but Scripture chooses not to elaborate on this or any other of Jesus’ sufferings.

It is true and a very valid observation that this brief statement was another fulfillment of prophecy. No detail of prophecy was too small to be fulfilled. After all that Jesus had been through, his lips and throat must have been parched to the point where he could hardly utter his final words before he died. Here again, this detail had been recorded in Scripture hundreds of years earlier:

“The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery; my tongue sticks to my gums” (Psalm 22:15 NET).

Though this is the only reference that Jesus made as to his own physical needs in the midst of all of his suffering, yet these words, “I thirst” were merely incidental to the larger intent.

Other passages of Scripture record that Jesus, just before he was crucified, refused something to drink. So why now, six hours later, just moments before he breathed his last, did Jesus want to quench his thirst?

To answer the question “Why?” consider the following: In reference to Jesus’ initial refusal (Mark 15:23; Matthew 27:34), “wine mixed with myrrh” was a drug meant to deaden the sense of pain. Jesus wanted nothing that would dull his awareness of what it meant to bear the sins of the entire world. What it would take to pay man’s sin penalty was not a matter of accomplishing some arbitrary cosmic, divine expectation. Rather, it was the deliberate, conscious choice of Jesus to go to the cross in complete submission to the will of his Father to accomplish what could only be done by his suffering and death. He would have it no other way.

But there is something more. Now in response to his “I am thirsty,” Jesus is given a sip of wine vinegar (John 19:28; Mark 15:36 NET). I don’t believe that this was simply to meet his physical needs, as real as they were. After all, his suffering was about over; he was about to die. Rather, it was the significance of what he was about to utter that made it so imperative that Jesus’ voice be heard and not be misunderstood.

Having moistened his cracked lips and dry throat, Jesus was now able to cry out with a “loud voice” his potent, final words—a statement of triumph. It took a supreme effort for Jesus to utter his final cry. These words didn’t escape the attention of the disciple John who was standing near the cross (John 19:26). It is he who recorded these words in Scripture. They were words that were meant for all time, to be taken to heart by everyone for whom Christ died.

Statement Six

“It is finished” (John 19:30 cf. Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37).

A basic understanding of what this phrase originally meant as it was uttered by Jesus is important in helping us grasp the depth of its meaning.

The phrase translated into English, “It is finished,” is a single word in Greek—Tetelestai—conceivably the most significant word ever spoken by Jesus. Its perfect verb tense could be rendered, “It was finished in the past, it is still finished in the present and it will remain finished in the future.”

This wasn’t the “I am finished” whisper of an exhausted, defeated man in the final moments of life. Rather, it was a triumph cry of completion. When Jesus cried out “It is finished,” he was expressing the idea “I successfully completed the work I came to do.”

Not many people who come to the end of their life can say, “I have finished everything that I have wanted to do. There is nothing left undone or incomplete.” Yet that is exactly what Jesus meant to say. When he died, he left nothing behind that was unfinished.

Hours earlier, Jesus had gathered together his disciples in an upper room. As began to pray, he first prayed for himself. As he poured his heart out to his heavenly Father, Jesus declared:

“I brought glory to you [God] here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” (John 17:4 NLT)

As he prayed, Jesus was anticipating what was about to happen on the cross and spoke of this “work” as being completed, as certain as if it had already happened. “It is finished.” To be able to speak of future events as if they had already happened is something only God could do.

But now we hear those climatic words from the cross, Tetelestai. So, what did Jesus mean?

That word, tetelestai, had many different usages in the culture of Jesus’ day, but the following three have particular significance to the biblical account of Christ’s final words. The following comments come from GoodSeed’s publication, By This Name:

  1. Tetelestai was used by a servant reporting to his master upon completing a task: “The job you gave me is finished.”
  2. Tetelestai was also a familiar term in Greek commercial life. It signified the completion of a transaction when a debt was paid in full. When the final payment was made, one could say, “Tetelestai,” that is, “The debt is finished.” Ancient receipts have been found with “tetelestai—paid in full”—written across them.
  3. The selection of a lamb for sacrifice in the Temple was always an important time. The flock would be searched and upon finding an unblemished lamb, one would say, “Tetelestai—the job is finished.”

In a sense, Jesus cried out: “The work is completed, the debt is paid, the sacrificial lamb is found!”*

The wonderful news is that, by his death on the cross, Christ completed in full the work of redemption necessary for our salvation. What Christ did for us will never have to be repeated. Nor can anything on our part be added to his perfect sacrifice.

Unlike those other high priests, he [Jesus] does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins. (Hebrews 7:27 NLT)

None of the sacrifices of the Old Testament could take away sin; their blood only provided a temporary covering of man’s sin. But when Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, died on the cross, his death took away the sin of the world forever. Earlier, John the Baptist anticipated what Jesus would do when he declared,

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV)

It was through the shed blood of Christ that our sin—my sin and your sin—has been paid in full. Having been “paid for in full,” it would be foolish for us to attempt to do anything more in an effort to pay for our sin. For us to try to add anything to what Jesus did would indicate that we don’t really believe that Jesus paid it all. Christ did it all. All we have to do is to believe what Jesus did for us on the cross was sufficient and full payment for our sin. All we have to do is to simply accept God’s gift of salvation—marked “paid in full”—as intended for me and for you.

The amazing truth is that, by his death, Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to pay for the sins of all of mankind, of every person who has ever lived—past, present or future! No wonder that Bible teachers talk about the “finished work” of Christ!

Tetelestai is the perfect expression that sums up what Christ did for us on the cross. By his death, Christ fully accomplished God’s plan of redemption for mankind—a plan that God had in mind from the very beginning.

Three short days later, Christ’s triumphal cry of victory “It is finished!” received God the Father’s ringing endorsement when Jesus rose triumph from the grave—victorious over death!

Statement Seven

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46 ESV)

Moments before he breathed his last, Jesus spoke his final words from the cross. In these few words, one senses an amazing calmness and hears the confident assurance of Jesus’ trust in his heavenly Father.

These words are in stark contrast with what one might normally expect from one on the verge of death. The fact that Jesus even spoke and did so with coherency and with purposeful meaning is significant. Life didn’t simply slip away from him.

Furthermore, Jesus’ words weren’t the frantic cries of desperation of a dying person trying to cling to life. They weren’t the panicky words of someone fearing the worst as he slips into eternity. No, they expressed a heart at peace as when one surrenders his life to the tender care of God. They echo the same calm assurance that Jesus had earlier given his disciples:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3 NIV)

Another rendition puts these same verses this way:

“You must not let yourselves be distressed—you must hold on to your faith in God and to your faith in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s House. If there were not, should I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? It is true that I am going away to prepare a place for you, but it is just as true that I am coming again to welcome you into my own home, so that you may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3 Phillips)

These final words heard from the cross express a confidence and sense of peace far beyond human comprehension. They were a powerful expression of certain expectation, only possible because Jesus was soon to be welcomed Home into the loving arms of his Father. Earlier, just before the Passover Feast, the Bible records that…

Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. (John 13:1 NIV)

Now that time had come.

Up to the very end, Jesus was in control. Facing imminent death didn’t catch him by surprise. After all, the focal point of Jesus’ life was that he came into the world for the express purpose of dying. The apostle Paul stated it very explicitly:

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15 NIV)

John, the beloved disciple of Jesus who had been present at the crucifixion, wrote these words years later after the actual event:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10 NIV)

Now, his work of redemption completed, Jesus deliberately chose the precise time when he surrendered his life to his heavenly Father.

“The Father knows Me and I know the Father—and I lay down My [very own] life [sacrificing it] for the benefit of the sheep. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My [own] life so that I may take it back. No one takes it away from Me, but I lay it down voluntarily. I am authorized and have power to lay it down and to give it up, and I am authorized and have power to take it back.” (John 10:15, 17-18 AMP)

And so it was that Jesus breathed his last and dismissed his spirit. It wasn’t a lingering death. Rather, he gave up his life voluntarily, without compulsion (Matthew 27:50). No one took his life from him. He gave it freely.

As a western culture, we struggle with the realization of the transient nature of life and do almost anything to avoid the reality of it. The emphasis is on living in the “now”—to avoid thinking about the unspoken inevitable certainty of death. For most people, it is probably their greatest fear because death is so final. So unknown.

The Bible doesn’t ignore such fear. It recognizes that the fear of dying and of death itself is very much part of life. It is our enemy. But the Bible hastens on to assure us that…

The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26 NKJV)

It was because of that certain knowledge that Jesus, with his final breath, was able to commit his spirit to the Father with calm assurance. Death was not to have the final say. It wasn’t going to mark the tragic end to yet another life.

Rather than ending in defeat and despair, the account of Jesus’ death suddenly turns into a story of triumph and victory!

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he [Jesus] die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NLT)

By his death, Jesus broke the power of the devil. By doing so, he made it possible for us to be set free from the grip of the fear of death in our lives. Though death is still very much part of our human existence, yet because of what Christ did for us on the cross, he made it possible for mankind not to fear the finality of death but rather to experience it as a passageway, ushering us into the very presence of God.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.                          (1 Corinthians 15:55,57 NIV)

*John R. Cross, By This Name, (Olds, Alberta: GoodSeed International, 2015), 293.

Author: David Cross

Curriculum development manager and staff writer at GoodSeed's International Office.