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 will examine the deeper significance of all seven statements.
Bible writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each give us unique insights into the crucial few days surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion.
Setting the Scene
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.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
One would normally expect that as the gruesome process of crucifixion began, the victim would fill the air with expletives, cursing the soldiers nailing him to a cross—to say nothing of sadistic onlookers. And who would have faulted anyone in Jesus’ place if he had made threats of retaliation against the Jewish leaders and Pilate for being instrumental in placing him on the cross? It would have been only natural if Judas, the betrayer, had also been the target of curses and threats of revenge.
In addition, during the seemingly endless hours that followed, we read that a steady stream of ridicule and scorn was hurled at Jesus:
“Look at you now! …You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!” (Matthew 27:40 NLT).
“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:37 NIV).
“He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35 NIV).
“He saved others… but he can’t save himself! So he is the King of Israel, is he? Let him come down from the cross right now, and we will believe in him!” (Matthew 27:42-43 NLT).
In spite of all of this, there is no evidence in Scripture that Jesus expressed any anger or resentment. Contrary to what would have been normally heard at an execution site, Jesus gave quite the opposite response.
When they hurled their insults at him, he [Jesus] did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23 NIV).
Rather than cursing his enemies, Jesus spoke of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NIV).
The verb tense of the Greek word forgive found in the text here suggests that Jesus spoke these words repeatedly, perhaps beginning even as the soldiers were nailing him to the cross. It may have been Jesus’ response to every blow of the hammer driving in the spikes. Possibly it was his response to every taunt and jeer he heard as he hung exposed for all of the world to see.
During Jesus’ brief years of ministry, much of his teaching challenged the norms to which his listeners were accustomed. When faced with opposition, Jesus taught:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28 NIV).
Elsewhere, the Bible quotes Jesus saying:
“Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:44 NLT).
On one occasion Jesus was asked how many times a person should forgive someone else. He responded by emphasizing that there should be no limit to how often we ought to forgive (Matthew 18:22). God wants the forgiveness we extend to others to be unconditional.
These weren’t simply pious words. Jesus himself practised what he taught: “Father, forgive them…”
Even as Jesus was making “intercession for the transgressors,” he was fulfilling prophecy (Isaiah 53:12 ESV). Even in the midst of his terrible agony, Jesus did not forget why he—the Son of God—had come to earth. It was all part of God’s plan for restoring sinful mankind to a right relationship with himself.
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17 ESV).
Father, forgive them…
It is significant to note that Jesus’ appeal to forgive was not directed to some aloof and distant “God” or unapproachable “Lord” who would show no interest, no concern, no compassion for the nature of the plea. Rather, Jesus was praying to his heavenly Father. The Aramaic word Abba that Jesus used was a term of endearment, expressing an intimate relationship. In English, it might be equivalent to Daddy or Papa. As the terrible events of the next few hours began to unfold, Jesus expressed his unreserved love and trust in his Abba, Father as he began to pray.
A further look at this phrase, “Father, forgive them…,” prompts the question: Who is Jesus praying for? Those Roman soldiers directly involved in the crucifixion? Pilate, who passed the death sentence? The chief priests and religious leaders who had plotted Jesus’ demise? All these certainly had a part but, ultimately, the Bible makes it clear that it is you and I who are the ones responsible for Jesus’ death.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NASB).
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16 NIV).
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12 NIV).
Forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t asking his Father to ignore or somehow excuse those who were responsible for his impending death. A holy God cannot overlook sin. God’s justice demands that sin be dealt with. And that is exactly why Jesus was on the cross—bearing the punishment deserved by guilty man, dying in place of sinful man. In doing so, Jesus was making possible the very thing he was asking God to do—forgive.
They do no not know what they are doing
This wasn’t a generic request for just any forgiveness. Rather it was because, in Jesus own words, “…they do not know what they are doing“ (Luke 23:34 NASB). As Jesus prayed, his mind must have included the Roman soldiers who were just following orders. They knew little, or nothing, of the Jewish Scriptures and of the ancient prophecies they were fulfilling inadvertently. Jesus’ thoughts must have also included onlookers who were simply following the crowd. Even those who were directly accountable for Jesus hanging on a cross at Golgotha had been blinded by their hatred. The truth of the matter is that no one really understood that it was the Creator of the universe, Almighty God, Yahweh himself who had been nailed to a rough, wooden cross.
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8 ESV).
Paul himself had been in a similar situation.
I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13 NET).
What made Jesus’ prayer especially meaningful and consequential was that he was appealing to his heavenly Father, the “God of mercy.” In essence, Jesus was praying, “Father, these are needy people in desperate need of the forgiveness only you can give and they don’t even know it. They need your mercy far more than they deserve.”
You, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15 NLT).
When the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared [in the person of Jesus Christ], he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy (Titus 3:4-5 NET).
These first words of Jesus from the cross assures us that God has provided a way for mankind to find forgiveness.
“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
The gospels record that two criminals were crucified at the same time as Christ—one on either side of him. By their own admission, both were guilty as charged.
In a lot of ways, these two men were very similar. They were both robbers (Matthew 27:38), perhaps partners in crime with Barabbas, the murderer who had been earlier released by Pilate in place of Jesus (Luke 23:13-25). Though both were sharing the same cruel sentence as Jesus, we read that these condemned men joined the crowd of onlookers in hurling a deluge of insults at the figure hanging in the middle (Matthew 27:44).
But then, a difference between the two robbers emerges. A change in attitude, understanding and conviction becomes evident.
The First Criminal
The first criminal continues to heap scorn on Jesus. “Jesus, if you really are who you profess to be—Christ, the Messiah—then get the three of us out of this mess!”
His understanding of messiahship was very much in keeping with the prevalent view of the day. The commonly held perception was that the long-expected Messiah would finally deliver downtrodden Israel from the tyranny of foreign powers. (At the time, this would have been Rome.) There was no understanding that possibly God’s promised Christ, the Messiah, might be coming to offer deliverance to mankind from a different sort of bondage—the bondage of sin and eternal death.
The Second Criminal
On the other hand, the taunts expressed by the second robber have fallen silent. Then, when he does speak, they are words of rebuke to the other thief. He reminds the first man that both of them are suffering the just consequences of their crimes. Their criminal pasts have caught up to them. In contrast, this One hanging between them has done nothing wrong.
Then this second thief turns to Jesus with a simple appeal: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 ESV).
His appeal is remarkable—one dying man placing his faith in another dying man, requesting that he, an undeserving sinner, be remembered after death! This convicted lawbreaker is under no illusion that death would end everything. Rather, he has a simple faith that this Jesus—who is dying for no sin of his own—will remember him in a life to come!
Truly, I say to you…
In response, Jesus underscored the reliability of his promise to the thief with emphatic language. His words literally read, “Most assuredly, I tell you…” The man could stake his life on what he was about to hear.
Now, it is important to understand that the plea of this dying man was not dependent upon anything he had done or could offer (after all, he had lived a life of crime). Nor did he have any hope that he could do anything deserving of God’s mercy and grace (he was at death’s door). As far as any merit of his own, he was empty-handed. Yet, when he turned to Christ in simple trust, this man was instantly assured of Paradise when he died.
You shall be with me…
But the promise that Jesus gave him wasn’t of some mystical, other-worldly place. It wasn’t some abstract offer of feel-good metaphysics. Rather, it all centred on the confident assurance of being with Jesus Christ himself. That is the real hope of the believer. It is only made possible because, like the thief, it looks beyond the cross to the resurrection. In the words of Jesus…
“…that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3 ESV).
The apostle Paul puts it this way:
“To be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NKJV).
This is why Peter could call the believer’s assurance a “a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3 ESV).
Today in Paradise
Furthermore, Jesus assured the dying man that his promise was a certain hope that could be immediately counted on as being true “today”—not some kind of vague hope in an uncertain, distant future. But now!
“Woman, behold your son.”…“Behold, your mother!” (John 19:25-27).
Among the larger number of followers who accompanied Jesus on his travels were a group of women. The gospels specifically state that many of these were present at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and were watching from a distance. Of these, four women—including Mary, Jesus’ mother—were standing near the cross. With them was John, the disciple whom Jesus especially loved (cf. John 21:20-24).
To be sure, it must have been particularly excruciating for Mary and John to watch their loved one suffer such agony. But for Mary it would have brought back a heartbreaking memory from years before, from shortly after Jesus’ birth. An aged prophet by the name of Simeon had been given special insight into the identity of Christ by the Lord. Furthermore, God had given him a specific word for Mary that now took on poignant meaning:
“A sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:35 NLT).
In the midst of such personal pain and suffering, Mary must have felt very much alone with all that she was feeling.
Apparently, Mary had been a widow for some time. The biblical record is silent regarding Joseph from the time Jesus started his public ministry. As to Jesus’ brothers, we are told earlier that they didn’t believe in him (John 7:5). Apparently they only became believers after Christ’s resurrection.
So, who could understand the depth of emotion she was feeling? Yet Jesus knew, and Jesus cared far more than anyone might expect in spite of all of the agony he was experiencing himself. And that was enough. In the midst of his own pain, we hear the words… “[Dear] woman, look, [here is] your son!” (John 19:26 AMP) and then, speaking to John… “Here is your mother” (John 19:27 NIV).
Mindful that he has nothing of material goods to leave for his mother, Jesus gives her what she needs most at the moment—comfort and strength in the midst of all her pain and sorrow. When it seems that no one else is available to provide the love, care and support that his mother needs at this time of extremity, Jesus is able to turn to John when he is needed most. Jesus entrusts to the one he loves the precious responsibility to act in his place as a son in caring for his dear mother.
Here we find an important reminder that, in the midst of grief, an important source of strength and comfort for our heartache and pain is found in the spiritual relationships we share with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Through these few short bursts of speech from the cross, we’ve gained insight into Jesus’ heart for his people. He desires to have a relationship with us through forgiveness of sin. He longs to spend eternity with us and went to great lengths to secure the way for us. And he cares for our needs here on earth, whatever shape they take. Truly, He is a wonderful Saviour.
Going Deeper series: Each of GoodSeed’s tools is written in such a way as to provide the reader with a foundational overview of the Bible’s core message in order that they might clearly understand the gospel. We do this by presenting key stories from creation through the Cross. We don’t attempt to be exhaustive in our approach nor is that our goal. There is too much that could be said about life, death and life after death. Likewise, we don’t want the reader to get sidetracked from learning the Bible’s primary message regarding salvation—perhaps for the first time.
However, we also recognize that the Bible is a rich spiritual treasure trove, deserving of a lifetime of study and consideration. With that in mind, each month the Going Deeper series is going to examine some nuggets to encourage your heart, enlighten your mind and motivate you to dig further into God’s Word yourself!