How precious to us the last words of our loved ones. I once heard Dr. Ernest Kevin speaking at the Neath Mission on Good Friday 1960 on one of these dying words of Jesus, and he told us the last words of his father. “The great truths of the gospel I have believed all my life as a Christian. I believe them yet.” Perhaps we remember the simple words our parents spoke to us, “Nos da cariad, ‘Good night love.’” Or ‘Thank you.’ And what will be your last words? You talk much, and then a day will come when you will have just one last, final thing to say. The day of grace will end at that time. What will it be? Anthony Hopkins has planned his last words, “What was that all about?” You know, Anthony! The late Peter Trumper took you to hear the gospel in Heath Evangelical Church when you were both students in Drama School in Cardiff. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. The heavens have declared to you God’s glory day by day. You conscience tells you what is right and wrong, and Peter Trumper spoke to you about God’s love in Jesus Christ in sending him into the world to save all who believe in him. What will all of you be saying at the end? Will it be any different from what you are saying now? “I did it my way”? He is the way the truth and the truth and the life.
Our Lord Jesus gave us seven last words. Seven is the number of perfection and completeness in the Bible. It was a symbolic number. It meant, for example, that he’d left nothing unsaid and so he could say one of those words, “Finished!” Let us look at the first three. The first was . . .
Luke 23:34 Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
These are Jesus’ first words from the cross. What powerful words. What awesome words, so magnificent in their simplicity. What divine words! This is God, the one who created became incarnate and showed his saving love so that when men crucified him God prayed for their forgiveness! Sometimes, often times, we do things are wrong and we don’t see the full consequences of what we’ve done. So it was when Jesus was being crucified. The soldiers just thought they were doing an unpleasant duty with some perks; they didn’t comprehend that they were killing the very Son of God. The religious leaders just thought they were framing another religious fanatic; they didn’t really believe they were bribing and lying and torturing Jehovah Jesus in the flesh.
So here are the first words of Jesus from the cross. They were a prayer. He was praying, and the verb is in the continuous tense. He was crucified in a spirit of prayer, and his intercession were focused on his enemies. This is the first of three times that he prays on the cross. He could no longer use his hands and feet, nor call little children to his side, but he could still pray. In our last weak days, we may still pray. When man was doing his worst we see the love of Jesus at its best. He could pray for them because there was forgiveness in his heart for them. Let’s look at these words.
1. FATHER. The first word is, “father.” The first sentence from the cross is a prayer and Jesus teaches us to pray. Jesus begins his words from the cross, addressing not the women nor the religious leaders nor the other men on the cross nor the gawking crowd below. Jesus did not speak down at his tormenters but up to God and Jesus began his prayer, “Father…”
Jesus’ choice of the word, Father, reveals his sense of closeness to God at the beginning of his crucifixion. As in all of Jesus’ prayers, he never addressed God as Lord, King of the Universe, Omnipotent Ruler of the Heavens. The distinctiveness of Jesus’ prayer life was to call God intimately by their unique eternal relationship, by the word, ‘Father’ and freshly nailed to the cross his very first word was ‘Father.’ The Triune God is here summarized by that one intimate word, ‘Father.’ Jesus was the first person in the Bible to use the familiar equivalent of Dad, “Abba” to begin his prayer life. In our prayer lives, we are to address God closely and warmly as we would when talking to our parent of childhood. Our prayer life is to be the same as his – to our Father as to his Father. You say you don’t know how to pray? Just speak to God as to the most loving father you could imagine. When we’re in pain and when it is at its worst, then you’ll pray. Jesus did the same. When it’s really hurting, we call out to God to help us handle this situation we are in.
2. FORGIVE. The second word is “forgive.” Rather than calling on God to damn and punish those people who were crucifying and mocking him, Jesus’ heart was full of compassion for them, not rage. The normal thing was to threaten and warn his tormenters, but Jesus’ heart was just the opposite. Jesus called out for God to forgive his tormenters rather then to punish them.
Now, forgiveness of people killing you isn’t easy. It’s not easy to love our enemies and the people who’ve hurt us. It’s comparatively easy to forgive your friends during an argument, or forgive your parents for acting so ridiculously, or forgive your children for doing stupid things. That kind of forgiveness is somewhat easy. But to forgive your enemies is something else. That was not easy for Jesus. But that is what Jesus did from the cross. Jesus loved those who were hurting him and killing him. That is what’s utterly amazing; to love your enemies is a miracle from God.
Let’s say that a possible translation of the word, ‘forgiveness,’ is to “let go.” Jesus forgives our sins; Jesus lets go of our sins. You know the old sermon illustration about how to trap monkeys. A trapper of monkeys sets coconuts at the bottom of the coconut tree, but those coconuts have holes drilled in them, holes about the size of a monkey’s fist. In other to get the white meat in the coconut, the monkey squeezes his hand through the hole in the coconut and when his fist is inside the nut, the monkey’s hand opens and grabs the white flesh inside. The hand is now a clenched fist full of coconut meat. The only way a monkey can get free is to let go of the white coconut. He won’t do it. He can’t do it. The coconut kernel is too precious to let go of and he gets caught and clubbed to death.
The only way we as human beings ever become free in life is to let go . . . to let go of the way our parents have hurt us in childhood, let go of abuse we’ve suffered, to let go of betrayal and opposition, to let go of our past follies. They are forgiven follies. There’s one way, and there are no exceptions, the only way to freedom is to let go of all the hatred and anger inside about hurt I’ve caused in the past or wrongs others have done to me. Let them go! From the cross, God does that very thing to us. He lets go of our sins. Jesus is looking up to God in his first word from the cross and asking God to forgive these people. To let go of their sins. They are all gone for ever.
3. THEM. ‘Them’ refers to the offer of forgiveness to those among the soldiers who’ve whipped him and punched him and nailed him to the cross. ‘Them’ refers to those among the religious leaders who had falsely accused him. ‘Them’ refers to those among the mob of mockers in the crowd of Jerusalem sinners who were chanting their hatred. ‘Them’ refers to the disciples who’d run away.
And ‘them’ refers to you and me who have received forgiveness. We often pray, “Father, forgive me for this and that . . .” We are forever asking God to forgive us for the things we know we’ve done wrong, for the things that were right which we failed to do. We’re forever asking God to forgive us for those ugly things that we didn’t really comprehend just how bad they were at the time. “Father, forgive me,” is on my lips and in my heart continually. I seem to remember more and more of them.
We are in constant need of God’s forgiveness. So often, we don’t give enough time for God. We don’t pray as we ought. We don’t love as we could. Our lives are far too busy, too busy for Jesus Christ, and for loving that is patient and kind. We are not the quality of Christian men and women, Christian boys and girls that we are called to be, and could be, and what others we admire and others we read about have been. And so we pray, Father, forgive us. “Forgive them,” yes, but also forgive us.
4. FOR THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING. The soldiers around the cross didn’t really know that they were crucifying the very Son of God. The religious leaders had little comprehension that they were plotting against the incarnate God. The mockers didn’t realize that they were watching the most loving human being of all time being killed. They didn’t get it. Remember how Paul comments on that in I Corinthians 2 and verse 8, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Jesus of Nazareth, 20 years after the shame of Calvary is being given a title of divine excellence. “Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts he is the King of glory.” Yet he was killed in an action of inconceivable blindness and wickedness. It was something that could only be done through ignorance. They were the most religious people in the world, but in such Egyptian darkness.
And likewise with us today. Men don’t get it. They don’t love their neighbours as themselves, they don’t overcome evil with good, they don’t forgive 70 times 7, they don’t turn the other cheek. They are resentful and bitter and cold and dead. It’s not the sins of commission that trouble us as much as the sins of omission. They really get to us. And we are the ones who don’t know what we are doing. We don’t really comprehend what we are doing with our poor values, when we give little time to God and so much to stuff and people, when we are too busy living our lives that we don’t have a few minutes and fewer hours for the Lord.
And so we need to cry out every day, “Father, please forgive us, for we too don’t really know what we are doing with out time.” That day on the cross, even though the crowds below him didn’t confess or repent or even admit guilt, there was a mighty transaction going on between Son and Father. Jesus was speaking to God, “Father, show to them that you are a forgiving God. Show mercy to Jerusalem sinners.” How was it answered? Mightily, fifty days later, when at the Feast of Pentecost the gospel was preached to them and 3,000 of them received mercy from God.
A few days later when there is excitement again in the city because Peter has healed the cripple at the Temple gate he charges the crowd, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.” But then Peter adds words of encouragement and hope, “But I know that in ignorance you did it.” He puts them in the best light. Let’s cultivate that spirit. Peter picked up our Lord’s words from Calvary, and our Lord’s attitude, as did Stephen as he prays to God as he dies in the stoning, “Don’t hold this sin to their charge.” Let us live and die with a forgiving spirit.
2. HERE IS YOUR SON . . . HERE IS YOUR MOTHER
John19:26 & 27 “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
Certainly before the ninth hour, Jesus addressed his mother and the apostle John (her nephew). “Dear woman, here is your son,” he said to his mother; and to the disciple, “Here is your mother,” and from this time on, [John] took [Mary] into his home (John 19:26-27). The words lack the drama of Jesus’ words to the ‘dying thief ‘, but they highlight, once again, his sensitivity to others, even at the height of his own pain. They also highlight one of the most striking human features of the passion narrative: the loyalty of the group of women who had followed him from Galilee “to care for his needs” (Matt. 25:55).
Here, at the end, according to John’s account, there are four of them: Jesus’ mother, Mary; her sister (possibly Salome), the wife of Zebedee and mother of the apostles James and John; Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene. Earlier (Mark 3:31-35) Jesus had seemed to minimize the importance of family ties, yet here are his mother, his aunt and his cousin with him to the very last. The courage of the women is of the highest order. All the disciples had deserted Jesus and fled (Matt. 26:56), but the women remained; they initially watched ‘from a distance’ (Mark 15:40). As the end approaches they are standing ‘near the cross’ (John 19:25). For his mother, the pain must have been close to unendurable but she could not but watch.
Our Lord was comforted in the hour of his greatest need to know that one group of people near the cross was not there to scoff at him, but because in their love and loyalty they wanted to be near, sharing with him, as much as they could, the shame of his death. He looked down, as best he could, from the cross and spoke for the last time to his mother. As far as we know he did not speak to her again after his resurrection, as he did to Mary Magdalene and others of the disciples. What he said was simple, remarkable, not so much for what he did say, as for what he left unsaid. He offered no explanation of his sufferings. He did not relieve Mary’s anxiety by explaining the deeper meaning of the cross, nor talk to her of heaven or the house of many mansions. None of these things was mentioned in the short sentence he spoke to her. He had one, very practical thing to say. Unable to give any signal, save perhaps with his eyes, he directed her attention to the one disciple standing with her, “Woman, behold your son”. From now on Mary was to have another son in his place to take care of her and love her. Then he spoke to John, without even calling him by his name, “Behold your mother,” “Woman, behold thy son . . . son, behold thy mother.”
It is not without interest to notice the way in which the Lord addressed Mary. John makes it plain to us that Mary was the mother of Jesus, “There stood by the cross of Jesus his mother . . . He sad to his mother . . . When Jesus therefore saw his mother.” At least four times John uses the word mother. Yet when the Lord spoke to her he did not call her mother. He said, ”Woman, here is your son.” His restraint in speaking to her is very important. We must not imagine that there was any harshness in the term “woman”, although it may sound strange to our ears. In the language used by our Lord it would have the same meaning as our word “lady”, or “madam” and so the NIV slips in the word ‘dear.’ It is in effect a title of deference, honour and respect; but it is not what we would expect a son to use when speaking to his mother. The Lord was giving comfort to Mary and making provision for her future care. Would it not have rejoiced her heart had he called her ‘mother?’ But he did not, he spoke to her as “madam”.
Yet history is what John purports to be narrating, and in its context the episode makes perfect psychological and cultural sense. Jesus has already shown his concern for the executioners and for the penitent criminal. It was only natural, then, that he should show at least equal concern for his mother, of whose substance he had been born, who had nourished and nurtured him in his tender years and who was now facing the intellectual, emotional and social cost of his disgraceful death.
A Scottish father coming to visit his daughter, a student in the university here said that it seemed strange that Jesus entrusted his mother to his cousin, John, rather than to his brothers. But John was there; his brothers were not. Very likely they were still back home. Besides, it is very likely that at this point his brothers still did not believe in him. He could be sure, however, of John, the beloved disciple. Mary, for her part, disappears into virtual obscurity. By the time John faced his own personal tribulations in Ephesus and Patmos she had probably passed away, but the excesses of Roman Catholic devotion must not blind us to all that we owe her.
God had not asked her consent before enfleshing himself in her womb, but she had acquiesced meekly and reverently in what he had done. She had borne the disgrace of a ‘scandalous ‘pregnancy, she had known the pain of labour as she had brought the Messiah into the world, she had had to flee as a refugee to Egypt, and she had had to take up residence in what was then the disreputable town of Nazareth. She had taught Jesus all that a child could learn at its mother’s knee, including what the angel had told her as to his identity and as to his unique destiny. She had introduced him to the scriptures which had foretold that he must suffer many things before entering into his glory [Luke 24:26). She had borne faithful witness to him on such occasions as the wedding at Cana in Galilee. She had suffered as she saw him break taboos and offend the establishment. How often she must have wished that he could just be like other men and hold his peace! And now she stands by him in his final moments, steeling herself to gaze on that ‘sacred head sore wounded’ and assuring him by her very presence that she, at least, was not ashamed.
This is not the last time we read of John and Mary. Later we find them in a far different situation, in the upper room where Mary and Jesus’ brothers were with other disciples awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised to send to be ‘their Guide and Comforter. All the disciples who were still faithful to their Lord-one hundred and twenty of them – were all “with one accord in one place”. This is the last time that we read of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and we immediately notice that she was not alone. “Mary the mother of Jesus, and . . his brethren” (Acts 1 : 14). Her other sons came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the family was united in devotion to Him. Perhaps Mary’s stay at the home of John was not a very long one after all.
The last picture we have of Mary is not that of a woman who sustained a particular relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, exalting her above all other women. She is just a believer amongst other believers, who are praying together, giving praise and glory to God, and waiting for the Holy Spirit to empower them to go out and witness to their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
3. TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE
Luke 23:39-43 “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal 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.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In this familiar incident there are four lessons I want us to look at.
A. GOD IS SOVEREIGN IN THE SALVATION OF SINNERS.
The exercise of mercy is optional with God. God says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and on whom I will, I harden.” On Golgotha there were two criminals who were crucified together, one on Jesus’ right and one on the left. Both were equally near to Jesus, both observers and auditors of all that had happened that unforgettable day. Both were dying men; both were in acute pain; alike they had been convicted of heinous crimes; both needed forgiveness. One died in his sins with no sense of guilt, blind to the beauty and reality of he who was hanging alongside him. The other repented and believed and went to be with Jesus forever. Why? Why on earth do we see this? Why was one lost? It was not necessarily because he was worse than the other? Why was only one saved? Not necessarily because he was a kinder or better man than the other? Yet their eternal destinies were as different as heaven and hell. It’s a tremendous warning to all of us.
How is it that two people can hear the word preached like this and one be made alive concerning the living God; his conscience is alerted and convicted? He has dealings with God in Christ, while the other leaves the place as blasé as when he entered, more concerned about sport and sex than his never-dying soul. I’m saying to you, men and women, salvation is all of grace, don’t abuse the mercy of God that has brought you here to hear these words. The exercise of divine mercy to a sinner like you is optional. If you are brought back week after week to hear of good news in Jesus Christ then embrace that news for yourself. Receive it into your life. It is true. Most of the words you read in the papers are biased – anyone who has ever had anything to do with an incident reported in the papers will know that an angle has been put on it. There is not an angle put on anything in the Bible except that of the simple eye-witnesses who are persuaded that what they have written is true. Check up on it! You’d better!
B. THE DYING THIEF GAVE MANY INDICATIONS THAT HIS LIFE HAD BEEN TRANSFORMED BY JESUS CHRIST.
i] He was concerned for his companion and his folly; “Don’t you fear God?” (v.40) he says. He hears the curses from his friend’s lips. “Don’t you, in this wretched state, soon to die, fear God? You and I are hanging on these crosses; isn’t there some fear? Is there reverence? God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Is there some awe of the infinite, unchangeable Jehovah with whom, before the day is out, you are to have an open-ended encounter? It is appointed unto men once to die and after death, the judgment.” He said to his cursing companion, “Do you fear God?” He didn’t say to him, “Do you fear men?” He would never fear anything that a man could do to him ever again; they’d done their worst. They’d crucified him! What more could men do? He was a dying man. There was nothing he feared in men, but beyond the judgment of men, a great white throne.
ii] He acknowledged his own sin. He took responsibility for it. He hadn’t been bought in a victim culture. Here was a man who didn’t blame others. He says, “We are indeed punished justly” (v.41). There was no bluster. There was no cover-up, no protestations of innocence. He was open; he looked back through his life; he thought of those criminal actions that had finally brought the death sentence upon him, “I broke the law,” he said, “I’m guilty,” he said, “I am justly condemned for what I have done. I’m getting what I deserve,” he says.
iii] He declared the impeccability of Christ, that is, Jesus’ blamelessness. The criminal believed in the perfection of the Lord Jesus Christ. “This man,” he says, “has done nothing wrong” (v.41). “We are a pair of crooks . . . but not Jesus;” holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, higher than the heavens, a lamb without spot, and without blemish. fit him in to any category whatsoever. He never did anything wrong.
iv] He believed in Jesus’ power to save sinners. “Jesus!” he says; he addresses one person, one unique individual who bore this saving name. He didn’t cry, “O Ground of Being” or “O Great Deity Above – whoever your name might be.” No, he spoke to this one person, and he uses his great name that speaks of Christ’s divinity, the name that means “Salvation is of the Lord,” or “Jehovah saves,” “Jesus . . . remember me!” Here’s a man who didn’t believe in annihilation, who didn’t think that after they had died on their crosses their lives were going to be snuffed out. The corpses that they would take down and bury would decompose and return to the dust from whence they came.
A dead body, a handful of dust is itself utterly insufficient to explain this extraordinary life. You couldn’t reduce it to its chemical composition and think those elements could explain the love that makes a man lay down his life for his friends. You couldn’t compress a person’s seventy years with all its self-sacrifice, joy and grief and say. “Life’s ultimate meaning is found in death. We live and we die and that corpse is what it’s all about.” No.
C. SEE THE AMAZING POWER AND WILLINGNESS OF CHRIST TO SAVE SINNERS.
The Bible says, “He is able to save to the uttermost those that come to God through him, for he ever lives to make intercession for us.” And you would see the evidence of that in what we’ve been considering today, more than anywhere else in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. Consider that Jesus was at his weakest, under such pressure to be sorry for himself, to be drawn in on himself, unheeding of any in need around him. He who had known no sin was knowing the awfulness of being made sin. The heavens were black; he was the object of the magnificent rectitude of a sin-hating God, and yet in the midst of all this he had time for this man. If he had time on Golgotha to consider this thief, how much more today will he think of you, be ready to get involved in you, and be concerned for you, and ready to change you for ever?
Think again of the utter unworthiness of the criminal, the lack of promise, the total lack of potential in the life of this man. The world looked upon him and said, “He is trash. He’s getting what he deserves, he’s a nobody.” He was at the point of death. What did he have to offer God? This man was not going to be supporting the Lord’s work for the rest of his life. He was not going to become a deacon, or a missionary, or preach in the open air. He was not going to work and invest and expand his business, all the time tithing to the church. He wasn’t going to draw a bucket of water from the well. He was simply going to die. He’d never come down alive from that instrument of torture. Yet with nothing at all to offer God he was saved. He received mercy from God.
Surely if salvation is of grace and not of works, you see it here most clearly in all of Scripture. He was never baptized, he never took the bread and drank the cup, and yet his heart and life moved out to Jesus and the Saviour heard him and saved him, and thankfully the way of salvation never changes. He who saved the dying thief lives and is with us today.
“Dear dying lamb, Thy precious blood will never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day,
And there have I as blind as he washed all my sins away.”
4. HOW NEAR A TRUE CHRISTIAN IS TO GLORY.
The moment a man trusts in the Lord Jesus how near he is to heaven. He has entered its kingdom already. He is under the government of its King. Jesus says to this man, “Today thou shall be with me in paradise.” There’s a body of divinity in that phrase. “Today,” says Jesus. In other words, in Christ you are ready. Let me put it this way. You are as ready this moment sitting in that chair as the moment you die. You are as ready as if you had served and suffered for Christ as Paul had through his thirty years. You are as ready for a glorious entrance into heaven as anyone whose faith is in Christ. If your faith is as thin as a spider’s thread, as long as it is lodged in Christ you are safe. It is not great faith that makes us ready for heaven, it is a great Saviour who saves us. Our salvation depends not on our good works but on God’s delight with the Lord Jesus and his perfect works. For Jesus’ sake God washes us and takes us to himself. It is his joy to open heaven for all of us.
“Today . . . paradise!” is the promise, and it can only mean this, that after death there is no more purging left to be done. “Today you will be with me,” not “Today you will begin a millennium in purgatory.” Today, where I am going you will also be! The only purgatory that heaven and earth knows is the place called Golgotha where he by himself purged us from our sins. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The man just cried, “Remember me . . . don’t forget about me.”
The thief who near the Saviour hung (In death, how happy he!)
Was answered when his dying tongue Said, “Lord remember me.”
My sins are not less black than those Which brought Him to the tree:
No thought can give my heart repose, But Lord remember me. (Newton)
Jesus said, “More than that! Not only will I remember you I will take you to live with me for ever.” That’s the salvation that the Bible speaks of. What a wonderful day it was in the life of this man. That morning he breakfasted with the devil on earth; that night he supped with Christ in glory. That morning he was a culprit standing before the bar of earthly justice and found guilty; that night he stood before the bar of divine glory and was justified. That morning he went out of the gates of Jerusalem hooted and jeered and pelted never to see the Temple again, but that evening the gates of the heavenly city opened wide and an innumerable company of angels rejoiced at his entrance. Jesus who actually died before him was there to welcome him and introduce him to his Father. It all happened that day, it occurred on that wonderful day, that marvellous day. May God bless his word to us today. Amen.