The last word my mother ever spoke to me was “No.” She spoke it repeatedly as she lay in a hospital bed. Her cry was a spontaneous act of resistance, an expression of outrage against the impending dissolution of death. The last thing my father said to me was, “I love you.” He, too, was in a hospital bed, and his words were also a reflex of sorts. Despite his discomfort, it was an automatic response of parental affection. I don’t think either of them realized that these would be their last words to me. Frankly, I am not certain they even knew what they said. They were too busy trying not to die to think about it.
Jesus’ last words before his death were different. They were not spoken as a reflex. Rather than being spontaneous, many of the things he said fulfilled prophecy. What was not prophetic was deliberate. He knew he was dying. He also knew what he was saying.
Not everything Jesus said on the cross was addressed to the Father. Jesus also spoke to one of the two men who was crucified along with him. The Gospel of Mark uses a word that means “robber” or “rebel” to describe them (Mark 15:27). It is the same word that John employs to refer to Barrabas (John 18:40). We know only two things about these men. One is that they were guilty of the crimes for which they suffered and that initially, they had both heaped insults on Christ (Matt. 27:44).
A Change of Heart
Although both were rebels, Luke reveals that one of them experienced a sudden change of heart while on the cross. The other thief continued to bait Jesus, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the repentant thief rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40–41). After this, he turned his attention to the dying Savior and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
With this request, this anonymous criminal voices what may be our most basic fear. It is the terror of being overlooked. To say “remember me” is also to say “do not forget me.” This is what Joseph said to Pharaoh’s cupbearer while still in prison (Gen. 40:14). It was the prayer of the prisoner Samson when the Philistines stood him between the pillars of their temple (Judges 16:28). Hannah prayed this as she wept before the Lord in Shiloh and begged for a son (1 Sam. 1:11). Nehemiah, Job, and the Psalmist all prayed these words (Neh. 5:19; 13:14, 22, 31; Job 14:13; Ps. 25:7; 106:4).
But few have had as little warrant to make such a request as this thief did. He epitomizes the last-minute change of heart. Luke doesn’t say what brought about the change. It is not hard to speculate that it was motivated by Christ’s prayer of forgiveness. Jesus, however, does not ask him for an explanation. Or for anything, for that matter. Instead of telling the thief that the faith he has expressed is too little too late, the Savior assures him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42).
The thief on the cross has served as a beacon of hope ever since. He is the prototype for all deathbed conversions. Jesus’ assurance that such a person would be with him in paradise is a reminder that as long as there is breath, there is hope. As long as we are able, it is never too late to turn to Christ for mercy.
A Word to His Mother
Jesus also addressed his mother, Mary, and the apostle John from the cross. John tells us that he was standing “nearby” Mary. John’s description of the incident may suggest that Jesus was searching for them among the onlookers. To watch Jesus suffer from the foot of the cross must have been painful enough for Mary. For their eyes to meet in that moment had to pierce her mother’s heart like the sword Simeon had predicted in the temple court (Luke 2:35). To Mary, Jesus says, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.” From that time, John says, he took her into his home (John 19:26–27).
Given the circumstances, Jesus’ words to the two of them are almost too mundane to be believed. They are, in a way, purely human words–the words of a dying son who must put his house in order. That Jesus gave this responsibility to John is something of a puzzle. Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3). Why didn’t he place her in their hands? For that matter, why did he even feel that it was necessary to say anything at all? He could have let matters take care of themselves. None of this is explained to us by John, who merely records the charge but does not tell us what made it necessary or whether it had other significance.
Yet Jesus’ words at least imply a fundamental shift in his relationship with Mary. After the cross, Jesus will no longer relate to Mary as a son. That role will be entrusted to John. I doubt that this came as a surprise to Mary. Jesus had already hinted that such a change was coming (John 2:4). On one occasion, after being told that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him, Jesus looked at those seated before him and replied: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34–35).
In the Magnificat, Mary observed: “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). But the title she chose for herself is less exalted. In her own eyes, she was merely a servant (v. 48). Her relationship with Jesus must change once he completes his earthly task.
Jesus was not diminishing Mary when he commended her to John’s care. His words reflect love, not only for his mother but for John as well. Into who else’s care would we expect Jesus to entrust his mother, if not to “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26)? At the most painful moment of Jesus’ experience, his concerns are turned to the needs of others.
Between the cry of dereliction and Jesus’ final prayer committing his spirit into the hands of the Father, Jesus makes two observations. They are both statements of fact that pertain to his suffering. Their only ambiguity is their audience. Are they addressed to the Father or those watching him suffer? Is Jesus talking to himself?
There is a certain irony in the simple statement that the apostle records in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.” It is tempting to look at thirst as the least significant of the physical sufferings Jesus experienced. Yet you could hardly choose a statement more suited to underscore the reality of his humanity. Food and water are essential for human life, yet we can survive without food longer than water. This cry is a reminder that it is the man Jesus who hangs on the cross. He is the God who became flesh (John 1:14).
Jesus’ complaint is especially poignant, appearing as it does in John’s Gospel. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us this is the Gospel in which the Samaritan woman is promised that Jesus will provide her with “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). It is John who tells us that on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood and in a loud voice declared, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). Yet, on the cross, the one who is the source of the water of life suffers from thirst.
John did not put these words in Jesus’ mouth. They are things that Jesus actually said. But as the most poetic of the Gospel writers, John is the one who noticed this theme in Jesus’ teaching and highlighted it. As a witness to the suffering of Christ, he could not help but see the irony of Jesus’ thirst. Yet John also saw beyond the irony. He pointed out that Jesus said this, “knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” Jesus spoke these words to set in motion the actions that would fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 69:21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.”
A Shout of Victory
Jesus’ other statement before his final prayer of surrender is just as brief: “It is finished” (John 19:30). This is the “loud cry” that Mark mentions but does not articulate in his Gospel (Mark 15:37). This statement seems to be combined with Jesus’ final prayer. Perhaps it is part of that prayer. Although John does not include the prayer in his account, it is implied in the statement at the end of verse 30, which says that after Jesus said this, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
Jesus’ suffering ends with a loud cry, but not a cry of despair. “‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle,” Stanley Hauerwas observes. “‘It is finished’ is not ‘I am done for.'” “It is finished” is Christ’s shout of victory. We know this, Hauerwas explains, because just before he breathed his last, Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of the Father.
These are indeed the words of a dying man. But they are not the words of someone who is passing into darkness and the unknown. Jesus’ last word is not even a sigh of relief. It is a cry of triumph from one who knows he has successfully finished his task (John 19:28). The hardest work is done. What remains is resurrection and restoration.
Although Jesus’ last words before his death were not his final words, they cannot help their air of finality. They signify the completion of an experience shared by all who must die but one that is also singular and unrepeatable. Like the rest of us, Jesus passed through the valley of shadow. But unlike us, Jesus did not go there unwillingly. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again,” Jesus said. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17–18).
Jesus’ seven last words were those of a victor, not a victim. They are the words of one who knows he is death’s master. Death has not disappeared. Anyone who has watched a loved one die knows all too well why the apostle calls death the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). But when Jesus said, “it is finished,” he declared victory and sounded the death knell for death itself.
 Stanely Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ, (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 73.
 Ibid., 83.