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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."


A Series of Seven Essays
by Timothy Cross

Christ on the Cross by Jusepe De Ribera


It was said of the Lord Jesus Christ that ‘No man ever spoke like this man!’ (John 7:45). Jesus’ first recorded words are ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49). These were spoken in the Temple at Jerusalem when He was just twelve years old. They reveal that He was aware of His unique, divine son-ship even at that early age. Jesus’ last recorded words however were spoken as He suffered and died to redeem sinners on the cross of Calvary. There were seven of these:-

  1. ‘Father, forgive them ...’ (Luke 23:34).
  2. ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
  3. ‘Woman, behold your son!’ ‘Behold your mother!’ (John 19:27).
  4. ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).
  5. ‘I thirst’ (John 19:28).
  6. ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).
  7. ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’ (John 23:46).

If the last words of anyone are especially poignant and solemn, how much more so are the last words of the Lord Jesus Christ – He who is the very Son of God Himself.
The following pages explain, explore and apply these last words of the Saviour. In considering them we are given a special insight into the person and work of Christ and taken into the very heart of the Christian Gospel.


A Word of Forgiveness

‘Father, forgive them ...’ (Luke 23:34)

‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2) lies at the very epicentre of the Christian Faith. Crucifixion was a very cruel form of capital punishment practised by the Romans. It entailed its victim being nailed to a plank of wood and hoisted up to die. When the Roman soldiers crucified Christ, the physical agony He experienced cannot be imagined. Yet Christ responded, not by calling out for vengeance on His enemies, but by praying to God for their forgiveness. Christ actually had ‘more than twelve legions of angels’ (Matthew 26:53) at His disposal. These could have, at His command, meted out the most merciless punishment on both the Roman soldiers who supervised His crucifixion and the Jewish authorities who handed Him over to be crucified. But instead, Christ prayed. His first words from the cross were words of mercy: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).

In His famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Christ enjoined His disciples to ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:43). Christ’s first words from Calvary reveal that He practised what He preached. Christ was characterised by non-retaliation. Years later, Peter recalled how ‘when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered He did not threaten; but trusted to Him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23).

The Gospel of Forgiveness

Christ’s first words from the cross therefore were words of forgiveness. ‘Father, forgive ...’ His words have an infinitely wider application than their immediate context, because the forgiveness of sins is at the very heart of the heart of the Christian Gospel. Divine forgiveness is central to Christian salvation. The forgiveness of sins ‘music to the sinner’s ear’ indeed – is a blessing known to Christians alone and makes the Christian Gospel the Good News that it is. The Christian Gospel proclaims that, in the eternal plan of God, the Lord Jesus Christ died to procure the believing sinner’s forgiveness:-

He died that we might be forgiven
He died to make us good
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by His precious blood
(Mrs CF Alexander).

            The verb ‘to forgive’ means ‘to pardon, remit, cancel the debt, refrain from inflicting the punishment deserved.’ ‘Forgiveness’ is the resultant state of blessedness from being forgiven. Forgiveness is a synonym for salvation. ‘Forgiven’ may be written on every believer’s grave.

The brightness of the Gospel of forgiveness however makes no sense at all unless it is preached against the dark background of human sin. We need to be forgiven. According to the Bible we are all sinners both by nature and practice. ‘Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins’ (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The Shorter Catechism defines sin as ‘any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God’ (Q. 14). It is when we are enabled to realise that sin is ultimately against Almighty God Himself that we realise both the seriousness and eternal consequences of sin. Sin put us in God’s debt. Sin renders us liable to God’s punishment. Sin, in being rebellion against God, robs Him of His honour and robs us of the fellowship with Him which is our chief end and true joy ...

The Good News of the Gospel however proclaims that there is forgiveness for all who put their faith in the crucified Saviour. His first words at Calvary were ‘Father, forgive ...’ It is precisely because Jesus died in the sinner’s place at Calvary that Almighty God is able to forgive our sins. He is able to forgive us our sins because Jesus bore them there on the cross. 1 Peter 2:24 states ‘He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.’ He was punished by God for our sins so that by believing in Him we may know the pardon of God for our sins. On Calvary, He was condemned so we might be acquitted. He suffered the wrath of God for our sins so that we might be saved from the wrath of God for our sins. Jesus – the sinless, son of God – died, not for His own sins, but for the sins of others. His death was substitutionary. His death was propitiatory. ‘Christ died for our sins ...’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). ‘Who was put to death for our trespasses’ (Romans 4:25). Some 700 years BC, Isaiah the prophet gave a detailed prophecy concerning the death of Christ at Calvary. He concludes this by saying that Christ  both ‘bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53:12). The prophecy was most wonderfully fulfilled. Christ did indeed die for the sins of others at Calvary. And Christ did indeed make intercession for sinners at Calvary, when He prayed ‘Father, forgive them ...’

The Apostles’ Creed is an early summary of the essential, non-negotiables of the Christian Faith. Notably it includes the line ‘I believe in ... the forgiveness of sins.’ The forgiveness of our sins through the shedding of Christ’s blood at Calvary is not a facet of the Gospel. It is actually the very Christian Gospel itself. Paul could write ‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace’ (Ephesians 1:7). John the Apostle wrote ‘I am writing to you little children because your sins are forgiven for His sake’ (1 John 2:12).
Thank God then that Christ died for sinners at Calvary. Thank God that He sent His only Son ‘not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him’ (John 3:17). Thank God that Christ’s first words on the cross were a prayer, not for retribution or judgment, but for forgiveness. John Calvin wrote:-

It is on the foundation of the remission of sins that our salvation is built and stands ... Christ has Himself purchased the remission of sins and paid for it with the price of His own blood ...’ (Truth for all Time, p.46).

Timothy Cross, Cardiff Wales

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Last Update: 2016-09-01 12:11