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Some have called Jesus’ seven statements from the cross his “last words.” The label is striking but somewhat misleading. They are not individual “words” but a collection of sentences or phrases. Neither are they technically the last words of Jesus but merely the last things he said before his death and resurrection. It turns out that Jesus still had much to say. After the resurrection, he showed himself to be alive to the disciples and spoke to them over the course of forty days and beyond (Acts 1:3).
Still, there is something unique about these sayings. For one, there is a starkness to them. The dying, as a rule, are not talkative. If they are not unconscious, they are too uncomfortable to be chatty. Dying is hard work, and those engaged in the task are usually too preoccupied to be loquacious. Jesus’ words are as terse as one would expect from someone entering the final throes of death.
The First Prayer
Among these seven sayings are three prayers, of which the first is, in some ways, the most astonishing. In this prayer, Jesus asks the Father to forgive those who crucify him (Luke 23:34). This is poignant but especially so coming between Jesus’ warning to the daughters of Jerusalem of a terrible judgment yet to come and Scripture’s observations about the scorn of the watching crowd. Luke’s description paints a picture of callous disregard blended with pride. Jesus hangs naked between two criminals as the religious leaders sneer. “He saved others,” they taunt, “let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).
The soldiers do their work with the brutal indifference of soldiers. They pound nails in Jesus’ hands and feet and haul him up. They parcel out Jesus’ clothes. Instead of water, they offer him wine vinegar. The soldiers point to the sign Pilate has ordered to be placed above his head and say, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Yet instead of asking for justice, Jesus pleads with God for mercy on their behalf. More than mercy. Jesus asked God to absolve them “for they do not know what they are doing.”
But they do know what they are doing. At least, they think they know. The crowd, which has been swept up in these events, watches it all unfold. Some with ghoulish interest and others with sorrow. The soldiers are only following orders. The rulers, likewise, are just doing their job. They believe they are acting responsibly by ridding the nation of a dangerous person. Yet it seems that Jesus is right after all. They are all of them ignorant. None of them has any idea what is really going on.
Jesus’ request that God forgive is not a dismissal of the cruelty of their actions toward him. This is not the kind of false forgiveness we sometimes offer, saying, “Oh, it was nothing at all. Think nothing of it.” Rather, Jesus’ petition acknowledges that he knows what is happening. Jesus is not a victim. He is acting as a high priest, praying for the sins of the people. But Jesus is doing more than praying. He is also offering the sacrifice that gives him the warrant to ask for forgiveness on their behalf. It is the sacrifice of Jesus himself (Heb. 7:27).
The Second Prayer
Jesus affirms this in the second prayer he utters from the cross. If Jesus’ first prayer from the cross is astonishing, his second is disturbing. Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:45–46 reveals that Jesus spoke these words in darkness at three in the afternoon. This sharp cry is separated from the petition for forgiveness by at least three hours of suffering.
Some find these words of Jesus’ troubling, interpreting them as a moment of doubt or maybe even despair. But they are something else. They are a quote from Psalm 22, which is also a prayer. Acting as both priest and sacrifice, Jesus utters a liturgical prayer: “He reached up for a word of the eternal God and sent it back up again.” Jesus’ words do not reflect a loss of confidence in God, but they suggest that there is more going on in this moment than merely a symbolic act. Something is happening between Jesus and the Father that is deeply distressing to the Savior. If we take Jesus at his words, it is a separation. Somehow, the unity between Father and Son that existed since eternity past was broken at that moment. Philip Jamiesen explains, “The cry of dereliction reveals that the Son has lost His direct access to the Father even as He calls out to Him as God.”
It is easier to explain what happened than to precisely describe what Christ experienced. 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Those who stood by the cross watching did not recognize it but were seeing themselves at that moment. Jesus was sundered from the Father because he had taken upon himself the “sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The Third Prayer
The third prayer Jesus uttered proves that this cry of anguish was not a cry of despair. It is Jesus’ last statement from the cross. Luke 23:46 says, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” On the heels of his cry of anguish, Jesus makes this remarkable confession of trust and commits his spirit into the hands of the Father, whose presence he can no longer feel. This is the prayer of someone who knows that he is dying. Yet, it is also more. This is the prayer of someone who trusts the hands into which he has fallen. In Jesus’ experience, it is a leap into darkness but not a blind leap. Jesus knows where he is going and how this story will end.
The Methodist preacher William Sangster pointed out that, without the cross, Christians would have nothing to say to those who suffer. Jesus speaks to us, not only as one who was himself wounded. He speaks by his wounds. “To all those whose minds reel in sorrow; to all those who feel resentful because life has done to them its worst; to all those tempted to believe there is no God in heaven, or at least, no God of love, he comes and he shows them his hands,” Sangster declared. “More eloquently than any words, those pierced hands say, ‘I have suffered.'”
Yet the mere fact that Christ suffered is not enough. What does it matter that Jesus’ suffering outstripped ours, if all it means is that he suffered too? If all the gospel has to say is that Christ feels our pain and understands our experience, it is no gospel at all.
Jesus’ three prayers from the cross help us to place the suffering of Christ in a larger context. Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). Sympathy was certainly one motive for this but only in part. The ultimate reason was so that Jesus could die on our behalf. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” Hebrews 2:17 goes on to explain, “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
This is the power of the cross and the reason for Christ’s suffering. He came not only to die but to rise again on our behalf. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of Jesus’ words from the cross. Solomon observed that love is as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6). But in Jesus Christ, we see a love that was even stronger.
 Helmut Thielicke, Christ and the Meaning of Life, trans. John Doberstein, (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1962), 44.
 Philip D. Jamieson, The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2016), 99.
 William Sangster, “He Dies. He Must Die.” In Classic Sermons on the Cross of Christ, compiled by Warren W. Wiersbe, (Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1990), 32.