33 – When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified Him, along with the criminals-one on His right, the other on His left.
34 – Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up His clothes by casting lots.
35 – The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at Him. They said, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
36 – The soldiers also came up and mocked Him. The offered Him wine vinegar
37 – and said, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.”
38 – There was a written notice above Him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Part of my calling and privilege as a pastor is to minister to the dying and their families. Over the years I’ve noticed that family members listen very closely to the final words spoken by their loved ones. I mean several times as I have entered the room where the dying father or mother was laying, I’ve found family members and friends quietly hovering close to the bedside straining their ears to hear so as not to miss any of those final parting words.
If you’ve ever had a parent or sibling die then you know what I mean. In fact, I would guess that you’ve memorized their final words. These last sayings of our loved ones are indeed PRECIOUS to us aren’t they-for we know that a time will come very soon when we will no longer hear them speak, so we strive to catch every priceless syllable.
Another thing I’ve noticed is this. Final words can be very REVEALING. Like an X-ray, they tend to expose the heart and mind of the dying person and enable us to see their true feelings about life. For example, I was not surprised this week to read that P. T. Barnam, that great circus showman who worked all his life to make money-I was not surprised to read that his last words were these: “What were today’s receipts?”
And then a person’s last words can also be filled with a special depth of WISDOM. I mean, most people don’t engage in idle prattle when they know they are about to breathe their last. No-some people seem to have great insight as they die-like that which was shown by Alexander the Great in his final words, for he said, “When I die, thrust my hands through my death shroud so the world may see that my hands are empty.”
But, you know, of all the final words that have been spoken, none are more precious-none are more revealing-none are filled with more meaning and wisdom, than are those crucial last words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I mean, in a very real sense these particular seven last words are WINDOWS that enable us to look into eternity and see the heart of the Savior as well as the heart of the gospel.
Well, for the next couple months leading up to Holy Week. I want us to study these precious words, because if we do I think we will better understand exactly WHY Jesus came into this world-why He did what He did-why He died as He died.
And you know, in order for us to fully grasp the importance of Jesus’ final words, we must remember HOW He died-for these words are significant not just because of WHO said them-but also because of WHERE they were said.
You see, Jesus uttered these last words, not from a hospital bed or while He was comfortably ending His days in some peaceful hospice-nor did Jesus say them as He lay in own bed in His childhood home. No, Jesus’ last words were spoken as He was hanging from A CROSS. Jesus uttered these precious and powerful words as He was being CRUCIFIED by Roman soldiers at the insistence of the Jewish religious leaders.
And at the onset of this study we should remind ourselves that crucifixion differs from the various forms of execution known today in two major ways.
FIRST of all, today’s executions are, for the most part, PRIVATE events.
They are not televised or viewed in any way by the general public. At the time of execution a few are allowed to watch but that’s all. The general public is not permitted to witness executions these days. In contrast, crucifixion was not only ALLOWED to be a public event, it was DESIGNED to be so. The Romans WANTED it to be memorable for those who witnessed it. They wanted a BIG crowd because they wanted their conquered subjects to have a vivid reminder that the penalty for breaking their laws was certain, brutal, and extreme. And they must have felt the need to remind people of this quite often-for history records that the Romans executed as many as 30,000 people a year on the cross.
Now, the Romans didn’t have many original ideas. History records that they tended to adopt the culture of the people they conquered and we see this in crucifixion. Because they weren’t the first to use this method of execution-no, crucifixion had been around for hundreds of years. And, according to journalist Jim Bishop, the original inventors of this horrible form of execution designed it to be a way to inflict the maximum amount of pain on a victim before death. He writes, “They had tried death by spear, by boiling in oil, impalement, stoning, strangulation, drowning, burning-and all had been found to be too quick. They wanted a means of punishing criminals [publically] and slowly, so [they] devised the cross. It was almost ideal, because in its original form it was as SLOW as it was painful and the condemned at the same time were placed in clear view of the people. A secondary consideration was nudity. This added to the shame of the evildoer and, at the same time, made him [even more] helpless before the thousands of insects in the air. The ROMANS adopted the cross as a means of deterring crime, and they had faith in it. In time they reduced it to an exact science with a set of rules to be followed.”
Secondly-today’s executions are swift and even somewhat merciful: the flash of electricity through a body, the quiet swift death of a lethal injection. But, crucifixion, on the other hand, was designed to be an excruciatingly painful, humiliating, LINGERING death. Merrill F. Unger, the late biblical scholar, states that “instances are on record of persons surviving for NINE DAYS on the cross.” No wonder Kausner, a Jewish historian, says, “Crucifixion is the most terrible and cruel death man has ever devised.” Cicero, who, as a Roman citizen, was himself well-acquainted with crucifixion would have agreed. for he once said, “It is the most cruel and shameful of all punishments.”
And, as if crucifixion and flogging and the crown of thorns thrust on Jesus’ head weren’t enough, that horrible day our Lord also endured bitter, mocking WORDS from the onlookers and the religious leaders and the soldiers themselves. Now, if you’ve spent any time in the military, then you can imagine the kind of language these men must have used to taunt our Lord. If you haven’t then trust me. As Jesus stood broken and bruised and bleeding in that humiliating place, He heard every obscene and coarse comment ever devised by degraded minds and it was aimed at Him.
Now, in the midst of such punishment most people would rant and rave at the crowd and especially at their executioners. Their final words would be curses full of anger and vitriolic hatred. But not so with Jesus. His last seven sayings were anything but that. In fact, each of His words is packed with SELFLESS promises not only for you and me but even for those who brutalized and crucified and mocked Him that day. I for one cherish these words Jesus spoke from the cross because in them I can hear and feel God’s love for me so clearly. I mean, it seems as if the Gospel were somehow condensed into these precious final syllables.
Okay let’s begin this morning by looking at Jesus’ FIRST saying from the cross. In fact I want us to diagram this sentence he uttered-and as we do, we’ll see that it is a PRAYER-a prayer that has four significant parts. It is addressed to Someone; it offers a request; it has a definite object; and it cites a reason. Who was it addressed to? Right-GOD!
1. Jesus said, “FATHER…forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Now-in reading the Gospels have you ever noticed how frequently this word, “FATHER,” was on Jesus’ lips? Do you remember what He said to Joseph and Mary when they lost Him and then found Him in the temple? He would only have been about 7 or 8. It is His first recorded saying:
“Don’t you know that I must be about My FATHER’S business?”
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of His Father, 17 times. Before He left His disciples He said, “In My FATHER’S house are many mansions.” And, as we’ll see in a few weeks, His LAST word from the cross was, “FATHER in to Your hands I commend My spirit.”
Well I think it is important for us to note that even now, in spite of all that He had been through, in spite of all that He was GOING through-Jesus still looked up and said, “Father…” In other words, He still believed that God was His loving Father and would do His best for Him. All that had happened during the last brutal few hours had in no sense shaken Jesus’ faith that He was the beloved Son in Whom His Father was still well pleased. This provides a lesson for us because when life is hard and unfair-when disaster and heartache and fear dogs our path-we are so inclined to question the validity of God’s love and goodness. In times like this it is hard for us to believe that God really does love us enough to “work in ALL THINGS for our good.” (Romans 8:28) I mean its EASY to believe in a loving God when life is wonderful-but it’s NOT SO EASY in those times when life falls in on us is it? Ask yourself. How strong is your faith in a loving God when deadly disease comes or when your loved ones die suddenly or when war looms or when painful tragedy comes your way? You see, Jesus’ first word from the cross should remind us that we must ALWAYS believe in God’s goodness-we must always trust in His loving purpose-and that we can and should always pray to our Heavenly Father, for as someone has said, “When life knocks us to our knees, we are in a perfect position to pray.”
But I want you to note another thing. Up until this point in His life, Jesus had never asked the Father to forgive anyone. Instead, Jesus Himself forgave sins. In Mark 2:5 for example He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” You should remember that whenever Jesus did this-whenever He forgave someone’s sins-it infuriated the Pharisees for they thought, “How could any man forgive sins. This is something only God can do.” Well they were right but Jesus WAS God-God in the flesh. And because He was, He had the right to forgive sins. He had the credentials of deity. But, on the cross, He did not exercise this divine prerogative. Instead He asked the FATHER to do what HE had previously done. Sacrificed as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world, He refused the role of deity. He was still God, to be sure, but He so completely identified with us that He temporarily withdrew Himself from a position of authority and prayed that the unforgiven might be forgiven.
Look at it this way-of all humanity our Savior alone has the right in Himself to address God as “Father.” But He went to His death that others-like you and me-might share this privilege. The Son of God endured a shameful cross so that we can become children of God.
2. And this leads to a second thing we should note about Jesus’ first saying from the cross. It involved a specific REQUEST. Jesus said, “…Father FORGIVE…”
Now, we should note at this point that these words were a fulfillment of Scripture. Hundreds of years earlier Isaiah had foretold Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf describing it perfectly when he said, “…He poured out His life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12)
Now, the Greek verb here that we translate as “forgive” is a very rich word-it has several shades of meaning so we need to look closely if we are to understand every facet of Jesus’ prayer.
First off, the word “forgive” expressed the idea of letting go of a debt by not demanding its payment. Jesus was asking that our sin debt be forgiven. But you see, this could only be done by placing the obligation on another. So in His prayer for our forgiveness Jesus was asking that our sin be placed on Him. In short Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them by condemning Me.” As He hung there on the cross, Jesus did not ask that God IGNORE our sin. A righteous God could not do that. God could not simply say, “Let’s just forget about mankind’s sin and let bygones be bygones.” No-God’s searing holiness demanded an infinite penalty. Our sin had to be atoned for. There was a price to be paid-and only Jesus could pay it. And that’s what He was doing. Jesus was saying, “Father, let Me pay the price for their sin.”
You see the Bible clearly teaches that each of us has accumulated a moral debt before our just and holy God and it’s been growing for years. Every time we are less than honest or fudge an expense account or tax return or treat our children too harshly or make a cutting remark we shouldn’t or speak the truth in love but don’t-every time we gossip or tell a racist joke or entertain sexually impure thoughts-each sinful act adds to a mountain of moral debt so high that we could never pay it. Well, as He hung on the cross Jesus said, “God, let Me pay it. Let Me pay the debt for Mark’s sin…and Steve’s sin…and Dale’s sin…and Sue’s sin…and Betty’s sin…” And so on and so on-On the cross Jesus paid the sin debt for every human who has ever lived or ever will live.
And another thing-the form of this Greek verb also indicates that Jesus prayed this prayer of intercession more than once. You see, this verb is in the imperfect tense which indicates repeated action in the past. In fact your Bible may translate verse 34 in this way, “But Jesus was SAYING, ‘Father, forgive…'” In other words Jesus prayed this prayer over and over again. So the Bible is saying that, when they arrived at the place of the skull, Jesus looked about and prayed, “Father, forgive them…” As the centurion crushed Him to the ground and tied His arms to the cross beam, He prayed, “Father, forgive them….” When the blunt spikes tore through each quivering palm, He prayed, “Father forgive them….” When they nailed His feet to the beam, Jesus prayed, “Father, Forgive them…” When they lifted that timber high and dropped it in the hole with a jolt that tore His flesh, Jesus prayed, “Father, Forgive them…” When the crowd cursed and reviled Him, He prayed, “Father, forgive them…” When the soldiers parted His garments and gambled for the seamless robe, He prayed, “Father, forgive them…” In fact, no one knows how many times that prayer pierced Heaven’s blue but Jesus prayed this prayer over and over again continuing to intercede for the transgressors.
And you know the truth is He STILL PRAYS this prayer for you and me.
As Romans 8:35 says, “Christ Jesus, Who died and Who was raised to life is [even now] at the right hand of God…interceding for us.”
And then a third thing I want to point out in the Greek here is that the word “forgive” also means “permit.” So Jesus was also saying, “Father, permit them; do not hinder them from doing this to Me.” Now, why would such a prayer be needed? Well do you remember what Jesus had said on the night before the cross? He said, “Do you think I cannot call on My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) Picture it like this in your mind’s eye. With the crucifixion in progress, Jesus looks heavenward and there He sees these legions of angels straining at the leash. They are waiting only for the word from the Father to sweep down, destroy the crucifiers and rescue the Beloved of Heaven. And Jesus says, “Father, hold them back! Do not hinder these men. Permit the crucifiers to continue. They are not taking My life from Me. I am laying it down Myself. It is necessary if mankind is to be saved.”
Now keep all this information we’ve gleaned from our Greek study in your mind and remember, Jesus had been brutally scourged. He had not had any food or water since the night before when He shared the Passover Meal with His disciples. Add this to the pain of crucifixion-and note that in spite of all this enormous discomfort and indescribable pain, Jesus spoke SELFLESS words of genuine forgiveness from the cross. In this time of intense personal pain, Jesus focused on others-on you and me.
This realization may lead you to make the same conclusion as did the centurion in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion who said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54) I mean, you may think-only God could do that-for, when humans like you and are in pain we intercede for ourselves not others so we think only Jesus could be that selfless-NOT ME! None of us could love others like Jesus did that day! But the Bible disagrees for it records that at least one human did. Remember Stephen? That deacon died for his faith-stoned by the Jewish religious leaders-but Acts 7 records that, as he died, he echoed Jesus’ words and said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And Stephen is not alone in this. Other Christian martyrs down through the centuries have done the same thing-prayed for their murderers.
Well, this should convict you and me-you see no normal human can pray this prayer but a transformed child of God can…a Christian-a man or woman whose life has been changed by the power of God can and should pray such a prayer when they are persecuted. When you and I are attacked and accused and treated unfairly, we should emulate our Lord. We should obey His command and, “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”
3. And then thirdly, there was an OBJECT of His request. Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive THEM…”
Now, exactly WHO was Jesus referring to. I mean, Who is the “them” and who are the “they?” in His prayer? Well, in general terms the Greek here infers that our Lord was referring to His immediate world-every Jew who had planned His death and initiated the trials that were such a sham-Pilate and every other Gentile who had even the smallest part in His crucifixion. And amazingly enough, His prayer even included the Roman soldiers who had just tortured and crucified and mocked Him.
Think of it this way. He Who was the victim of history’s greatest crime prayed for the criminals who had committed that crime. As someone once said, in Christ’s life He prayed for His friends, while in His death He interceded for His enemies. But you know, as we have seen already in our study this morning, Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness included far more than the Jews and Romans who worked together to crucify Him. It was much broader than that. His prayer includes all of us-you and me-the entire world throughout the sweep of history-for all of us are sinners in need of God’s grace.
I’m saying that Jesus-our omniscient God in the flesh-was praying for us that day on the cross. He was thinking of you and me. I say this because John 17 says that a few hours earlier Jesus prayed not only His contemporaries but also for “…them which shall believe on Me through their word.” That’s us. He Who needed no forgiveness died for ALL those who are condemned without it. He became the unforgiven that we may become the forgiven.
When someone was crucified it was customary to force them to hang from their neck a sign or “titilus” on which were written their crimes. This sign was then nailed above their heads as they hung on the cross in essence saying, “This is why this person has received this punishment.”
Do you remember what Jesus’ titilus said? Look at verse 38. It said, “The King of The Jews.”
So, in essence He was executed for treason-for claiming to be King in Caesar’s place. But in truth Jesus’ titilus included much more than that. It contained a list of your sins and mine.
Max Lucado puts it this way. “There was a long list…a list of our mistakes…our lusts and lies and greedy moments and prodigal years. A list of our sins. Nailed to the cross was an itemized catalog of your sins….my sins. The bad decision from last year. The bad attitudes from last week. There in broad daylight for all of heaven to see is a list of our mistakes.” Lucado goes on to say, “But in a very real sense the list cannot be read. The words can’t be deciphered. The mistakes are covered. The sins are hidden-for they are covered by His blood.” As Colossians 2:14 says, “Your sins are blotted out. He has forgiven you all your sins: He has utterly wiped out the written evidence of broken commandments which always hung over our heads and has completely annulled it by nailing it to the cross.” (Philips) “This is why when it came time to drive a nail through Jesus’ hand, He did not resist. He saw the list. He knew the price of those sins was death. Jesus knew the source of those sins was you, and since He couldn’t bear the thought of eternity without you, He chose the nails.”
4. And then finally note that Jesus said there was a REASON for His prayer. His last phrase was,”…for they know not what they do.”
In other words Jesus said, “They don’t realize the significance of their act.” Today we’d say, “they don’t have a clue.” Now-don’t misunderstand me here. There was a great deal that Jesus’ crucifiers DID know. Judas knew that he had betrayed a wonderful leader and friend. CAIAPHAS knew that he had resorted to bribery and illegal tricks to bring Jesus into his trap. The CHIEF PRIESTS knew that they had brought false charges against Him. Pilate knew he was condemning an innocent Person to death. The SOLDIERS knew that Jesus did not deserve such an awful fate. The CROWD knew that to mock Him in His hour of agony was sadistic to the extreme. I mean, there was not a person among those who participated in Jesus’ execution who could honestly plead, “Not Guilty.” They knew they had committed a great evil.
But they WERE ignorant in the sense that there was so much they did NOT know. They were ignorant in that-though they knew they were doing wrong, they did not and could not realize just how WRONG. They did not know the ENORMITY of their sin. I mean it hadn’t dawned on them that the hands and feet they had nailed to the cross were the hands and the feet of the Son of God. They hadn’t the foggiest idea that the body they had nailed to those timbers was the spotless Lamb of God, Who was taking away the sins of the world. As the apostle Paul said, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2:8)
That day the Romans and Jews knew what they had done, but they did not know ALL they had done. And in the midst of all His unbelievable pain Jesus saw this. I mean it’s as if Jesus considered this bloodthirsty, death-hungry crowd not as MURDERERS, but as VICTIMS. It’s as if He saw in their faces not hatred but confusion. It’s as if He regarded them not as a militant mob but, as He put it, as “sheep without a shepherd.”
And you know, as Christians-as His disciples-Jesus calls us to this same perspective. He commands us to look at the people who make our lives difficult-those people who hurt us with their hateful words and actions-in the same way. I can think of no better way to summarize this final point-in fact all we’ve learned this morning-than by sharing a story with you from Charles Swindoll’s book, Improving Your Serve.
It’s about a young seminarian named Aaron-a student at Chicago’s Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. At the end of his second year Aaron began looking for something to do in the coming summer. And he didn’t just want a job-he also wanted a meaningful ministry. So he prayed and asked God for a position on some church staff or some Christian organization. But in spite of his prayers, nothing happened. Weeks of interviews yielded no openings and finally Aaron faced reality and realized he needed ANY job he could find. He checked the want ads and the only thing that seemed a possibility was driving a bus in the south side of Chicago-nothing to brag about but it would help with tuition in the fall.
Well, after learning the route, he was on his own-a rookie driver in a dangerous section of the city and it wasn’t long before Aaron realized just HOW dangerous his job really was. A small gang of tough kids soon realized he was green and inexperienced so they began to take advantage of him. For several mornings in a row they got on, walked right past him without paying, ignored his warnings, and rode until they decided to get off-all the while making smart remarks to him and others on the bus.
Finally, Aaron decided that this had gone on long enough. The next morning, after the gang got on, Aaron pulled over and reported the offense to a police officer. The officer told the gang members to pay or get off the bus. They paid-but unfortunately, the policeman got off and they stayed on. Then, when the bus turned another corner or two, the gang beat Aaron to a pulp. When he came to, blood was all over his shirt, two teeth were missing, both eyes were swollen nearly shut, his money was gone, and the bus was empty. After returning to the terminal and being given the weekend off, Aaron went home, sank onto his bed and stared at the ceiling in disbelief. Resentful thoughts swarmed his mind. Confusion, anger, and disillusionment added fuel to the fire of his physical pain. He spent a fitful night in prayer wrestling with his Lord. “How can this be?” he thought. “Where is God in all of this? I genuinely want to serve Him. I prayed for a ministry. I was willing to serve Him anywhere, doing anything…and THIS is the thanks I get!”
On Monday morning Aaron decided to press charges. With the help of the officer who had encountered the gang and several who were willing to testify as witnesses, most of the thugs were rounded up and taken to the local county jail. Within a few days there was a hearing before a judge. But as Aaron looked at the gang that day-who by the way were glaring at him from across the courtroom-as he looked at them he was seized with a whole new series of thoughts.
Not bitter ones, but compassionate ones. Hie heart went out to the guys who had attacked him.
Under the Spirit’s control he no longer hated them. In fact he pitied them. He saw that they needed help, not more hate. He wondered and prayed what he should do. Then after there had been a pea of guilty, Aaron suddenly felt led to stand up and ask permission to speak. He said, “Your honor, I would like you to total up all the days of punishment against these men-and I request that you allow me to go to jail in their place.” The judge didn’t know whether to spit or wind his watch. Both attorneys were stunned. And as Aaron looked over at the gang members-whose mouths and eyes-were like saucers he smiled and said quietly, “It’s because I forgive you.” The dumbfounded judge then reached a level of composure and said rather firmly, “Young man, you are out of order. This sort of thing has never been done before.” To which Aaron replied with genius of insight, “Oh yes it has your honor. Yes it has. It happened over 19 centuries ago when a Man from Galilee paid the penalty that all mankind deserved.” And then, for the next three or four minutes, without interruption, Aaron explained how Jesus Christ died on our behalf, thereby proving God’s love and forgiveness. Now, the judge did not grant his request but Aaron visited the gang members in jail, led most of them to faith in Christ, and began a significant ministry to many others in the south side of Chicago.
Let us pray
Father God, Thank You for Your inspired Word-the Bible-in which we find recorded these precious final words spoken by Your Son. Thank You for the opportunity we have had this morning to hear these words again and study them together as Your church. Speak to our hearts God, and remind us of Your command to forgive as we have been forgiven. I especially pray for those who are present today who have never claimed the forgiveness that is only available through Your Son, Jesus Christ. Knock on their heart’s door God. And it is in Jesus’ name that I pray. AMEN
This morning as we sing our closing song, I invite you to respond in any way that God leads. God may be convicting you of your need to forgive someone who has hurt you. He may be leading you to join our church family.
If you are not a Christian then I would remind you that God’s forgiveness-offered through Jesus’ death on the cross is only available to those who ask for it. God wants you to have pardon and forgiveness of your sins. But He will not force it upon you. You must ask for it. You must admit your need of Jesus’ forgiveness. Pray right now and claim the forgiveness Jesus’ offers-commit to live your life with Him as Lord and Master. And if you do that, come and share that decision-or any other decision you wish to make with me. Won’t you come now, as God leads?