Christ on the cross

Good Friday Reflection

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Bill Fowler, YTI Church Relations, Professor of Biblical Studies

April 14, 2017

Jesus’ Last Words

From the cross of Calvary Jesus uttered seven statements that are often referenced as “The Seven Last Words of Jesus.” Of course, these are NOT the seven last words that Jesus ever spoke. The risen Christ had much to say, and he continues to speak to those who follow him! But as the seven last “words” or sayings of Jesus from the cross, these are profoundly important.

As he was being crucified:
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

As his mother Mary and the beloved disciple (John) looked on in grief:
“Woman, behold your son.” “Behold your mother.” John 19:26-27

In response to the thief on the cross who asked to be remembered:
“Truly, truly, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43

To the Father as darkness closed in:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34

As the pain and suffering were extended into the afternoon:
“I thirst.” John 19:28

When the full measure of suffering had been completed:
“It is finished!” John 19:30

And as he finally yielded up his life:
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46

The order of these is subject to debate, but if this is a fair accounting of the seven, then it is instructive to note that the first, middle, and last sayings of Jesus were prayers to the Father. This is the way he had lived his life, in absolute dependence upon the Father. This is the way he would give his life as well…in prayer!

Jesus Was Saying…

For me, the first saying holds special meaning. As profoundly significant as this prayer for our forgiveness is, I believe that the Greek text of Luke implies something even more powerful than we often imagine. Our English translation leaves us with the notion that Jesus prayed this prayer once. That would be significant enough in itself, but the Greek text demands that we look at it more closely.

The characteristic verb tense for speech in narrative is an aorist tense. Basically the aorist tense captures an event and gives it to us as a whole, “Jesus said…” This is what we find in the other six sayings from the cross. Sometimes in narrative an author will use a present tense to make the retelling of an event more vivid, “Jesus says…” We call these historic presents. Only rarely do we find what Luke uses in this instance, the imperfect tense. What the imperfect most often portrays is continuous action, or repeated action, in past time. By his use of the imperfect tense, not at all regular in narrative texts, Luke is going out of his way to emphasize this statement of Jesus! The translation might better be cast as “Jesus was saying…”

At the very least, Luke draws particular attention to this utterance of Jesus. More likely Luke would have us understand that Jesus spoke these words repeatedly as he submitted himself to the ordeal of crucifixion. Imagine, as they forced him to the ground, “Father, forgive them…;” as they drove the nails into each hand and his feet, “Father, forgive them…;” as they hoisted the cross into the air and let it drop into place, “Father, forgive them…;” as they mocked him, spit on him, gambled for his clothes at his feet, “Father, forgive them…!”

Jesus’ Love

If this was Luke’s meaning, then I am totally overwhelmed by this love. It reminds me that Jesus did not simply forgive me of my sins once (though he did), but that he forgives me repeatedly in all my failure, disobedience, and sin. I, who daily stand in need of forgiveness, can be assured that I have a great high priest who constantly intercedes for me, “Father, forgive him…!” I have tasted of this love and cannot speak enough of its goodness.

Someone once wrote, “Until you taste on the tip of your tongue the love of the one who said, with spikes in his hands and spit in his face, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,’ until you taste that love, you are only marking time between your cradle and your casket.” This is the love that Good Friday holds out to each of us. Don’t miss it!