This year our Good Friday service was structured around the three last words that Jesus speaks from the Cross in the Gospel of Luke:
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
- “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
- “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
Within that structure, I brought three short messages reflecting on those final words. I am including the full text of my messages below.
First of all, we enter into the words of Jesus as His words and prayers from the Cross. In this way, our journey with the Cross takes us deeper into His life and the meaning of the Cross.
Second of all, we enter into the Jesus’ words from the Cross to shape our own life with God, and specifically our life of prayer. In this second way, our journey with the Cross changes us, leading us to become more like Jesus’s life.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Forgive them. Who is it that Jesus is talking about? Think through the list of characters:
- Pilate – who washed his hands of Jesus and handed him over to scourging and crucifixion – Of Pilate, Jesus says: forgive him
- The Roman soldiers – who had scourged, beaten, mocked, and then affixed Jesus to the Cross – Of the soldiers, Jesus says: forgive them
- The Jewish leaders – who had been scheming since earlier in his ministry to do away with Jesus; those leaders who had put together a trial empty of justice in the middle of the night – Of these leaders, Jesus says: forgive them
- Judas – the betrayer, who turned Jesus over to the religious authorities because of his greed, his misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry goals, or something else – Of Judas, Jesus says: forgive him
- Peter – the denier, who claimed such strong faith but couldn’t admit his connection with Jesus when the pressure was on – and the rest of the disciples – who fled after Jesus’ arrest and hid somewhere in the background throughout the time of Jesus’ crucifixion – Of these disciples, Jesus says: forgive them
- The crowd of people – who had acclaimed Jesus in His triumphal entry over the Mount of Olives just a short time before this, but who were now crying out ‘Crucify Him!’ – Of this crowd, Jesus says: forgive them
- And who else, if not us – all of humanity who, although we were not there in that specific moment, are no less culpable before God and needing forgiveness as one part of the vast crowd of humanity who hungers to kill God and be done with Him so that we can assert our own authority – even of us, Jesus says: forgive them
Jesus’ prayer takes all the characters of the story before God in a prayer of intercession and absolves them of their guilt. Jesus faces the full evil pain of human wrong and does not return upon this motley cast of character in kind, but actually takes the path of self-sacrificial love to show us the character of a God so much unlike us. The Cross becomes the enthronement of Jesus the King and His new kingdom whose motto is: “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
And even as we enter into the meaning of the Cross, Jesus’ prayer becomes a prayer in our mouths. A prayer in a world of injustice and sin that both names injustice and sin for what it is, but chooses another pathway of response. As Eugene Peterson says, “Justice is not the last word. In all matters of wrongdoing, in all matters of sin, in all that has to do with what is wrong with the world and with us, what is wrong with our enemies and our friends, forgiveness is the last word.”
And so, we take the words of Jesus – Father, forgive them – and speak that word over the motley cast of characters in our own lives:
- The family member who wrongs us
- The co-worker who misuses us
- The stranger who hurts us
- The social commentator who derides us
In all things, we speak, with Jesus and because of Jesus, powerful words that release grace and truth: “Father, forgive them.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
The crowd surrounds and mocks Jesus: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35). The soldiers gamble for his clothes and deride Him: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (23:37). Crucified between two criminals, one of them insults Jesus: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (23:39). Like a scapegoat labelled and cast out, Jesus is pushed not only outside the city but cast outside of the common care of humanity.
The One who set the stars and creation into its place is now harshly affixed to a Cross, and put in a place no one desires to go. The One who spoke everything into being is spoken against and rejected. The Lord of life is led by humanity into the lair of death and left to His fate. What does it mean that Jesus is fully God and here finds Himself totally rejected, despised, and brutalized by humanity? What God would endure this? As Isaiah the prophet says:
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.” (Isaiah 53:8)
But in this scene of vicious voices arched with antagonism, one voice speaks a different tone. The second criminal rebukes the other because they are due their punishment, but Jesus is something else altogether. Even this criminal, gasping for breath amidst the slow suffocation brought on by crucifixion; even this criminal recognizes that Jesus doesn’t deserve what He endures. Then he says it: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Can faith rise up in unexpected places? Can faith rise up when the person is hemmed in on every side? Can faith cry out amidst human lives gripped by terror? Can faith cry out from an undeserving place of punishment?
The criminal speaks of Jesus’ coming kingdom, seeing that there is more happening at the Cross than is apparent to the eye. He may not understand all of it – do we? – yet this man is gripped by Jesus and His passion.
And the response of the Savior, who first looked outward with forgiveness, now looks outward to this one man with the gift of salvation: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). Jesus makes clear what is happening at the Cross: the work of salvation, the entry point into paradise with God, the welcome of undeserving sinners into forgiving reconciliation with Father God for eternity. “Today,” Jesus says to the man… “today you will be with me in paradise.” The “amen” – that ‘truly’ – of Jesus’ statement means this will undoubtedly come to be. This man, who in just a few hours will die, will immediately leap right into the presence of God – paradise, Abraham’s bosom, the place of peace. Because of Jesus – His sacrifice, His rejection, and His death – the way into God’s presence is immediately open wide. And this criminal is, by faith, a child. This felon is, by faith, forgiven. This sinner is, by faith, saved by the Crucified Savior.
And what wonder is this that the Messiah, the King, the Lord, the Son of Man and Son of God would choose this way? What wonder is it that “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14)? Yet what other way was there for a God who longed to be in such close proximity to sinners? For a God whose very nature is love, for a God whose heart is filled with compassion for the least of these, what else could be done? What wonder that He would choose even here to be in such close company of those rejected by humanity. This is our God.
When life is abundant, we rarely think of paradise beyond this life. When we have so much, we rarely look for or pursue the treasures of heaven. But when we are in the grip of need, the reality of life, death, and life beyond death loom large. May our prayer arise out of right perspective on life, the world, our death, and ourselves, may we also cry out: Jesus, remember me. And may we hear the words marked by the absolute amen: today you will be with me in paradise.
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them: “When you pray, say: “Our Father, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9; parallels in Luke 11:2). While this was not unheard of, it was definitely outside the norm for a religious Jew to refer to God primarily as Father in prayer. But that was what Jesus did again and again in His ministry:
- “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)
- “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Luke 10:21)
- “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Father…Abba in Jesus’ language of Aramaic…Father was the heart cry of Jesus and the way that His disciples were to relate to God.
And so, the prayer to Abba was an echo that carried forward even into the writings of the early believers, as seen in the Apostle Paul who writes in Romans 8:15, “And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”
How does this fit with the Cross? In the midst of the crucifixion, Jesus takes upon Himself all the most difficult aspects of our world: the sin, the shame, the wrong accusation, the false power, the injustice, the hypocrisy, and the evil. At the Cross, Jesus has embraced humanity in that sin-sick place, kissed us with forgiveness, and opened the doorways to real human life and salvation in His Name.
Even as Jesus brings that dramatic work to a conclusion He returns to the tender prayer of the One and Only Son before His Father. We hear it again: Abba Father! Jesus takes into His mouth a prayer from Psalm 31:5. This psalm was often used as a nighttime prayer; a prayer similar to the one many of us heard as children: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul will keep…”
Jesus takes those words from Psalm 31:5, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God,” and redirects them from the Cross to His Abba Father.
The Cross thus becomes both the place of brutal pain and tender care, the picture of total abandonment and total trust. And thus, entrusting Himself and His work on the Cross to His faithful God and Father, Jesus sleeps the sleep of death after His victory at the Cross.
His last breath is a breath-prayer of trust to His faithful Father. And we see, even in the most grotesque moment of the Cross, the intimacy that exists within the Triune God. Here, the Son, who has drunk the cup of the Lord’s wrath to the bottom, still turns to Him as Father and entrusts His life – even in death – to God.
So we, too, can learn to pray like Jesus. We can learn to pray the prayers of forgiveness and we can learn to call out to God for salvation. And in the lowest moments of our lives – even in the last moments that we draw breath before death – we can learn to entrust ourselves to our faithful Father God. Because of Jesus – enthroned now on the Cross as King – we celebrate life that is given even through His death.
(c) 2017 Matthew Erickson
 E. Peterson, Tell It Slant (Grd Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 247.