A meditation on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross

Posted in Blog, Christianity

This is the text of a meditation on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross I led at the Church of the Virgin Mary, Down St Mary, Devon, on 2 April 2014

The Seven Words from the Cross

Jesus spoke seven short sentences from the cross. None of them was uttered in bitterness or complaint.

 1 His Prayer for his Executioners

Jesus said: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34)

The first three words from the cross portray Jesus the example.

They express the love he showed to others.

‘Weep not for me’ he has said earlier and now on the cross he doesn’t weep for himself.

He doesn’t dwell in self-pity on his pain and loneliness, nor on the gross injustice which is being done to him.

He has no thought for himself, only for others.

He has nothing left now to give away; even his clothes have been taken from him.

But he’s still able to give people his love.

The cross is the epitome of his self-giving.

His first word is his prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners.

Think how remarkable this is.

His physical and emotional sufferings have already been almost intolerable.

But now he has been stripped and laid on his back, and the rough hands of the soldiers wielded their hammers clumsily.

Surely now he will think of himself?

Surely now he will complain against God, or plead with God to avenge him, or exhibit a little self-pity?

But no, he thinks only of others.

He may well have cried out in pain, but his first word is a prayer for his enemies.

The two criminals beside him curse and swear. But not Jesus.

He practises what he has preached in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you(Luke 6:27, 28).

 We sing the hymn ‘We sing the praise of him who died’.


2 His Salvation of a Criminal

Jesus answered him (the penitent thief), ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43)

All four gospel writers tell us that three crosses were erected at Golgotha that fateful morning.

Jesus is on the middle cross, while two robbers are crucified on either side of him.

At first both thieves join in the chorus of hate, to which Jesus is now subjected.

But only one continues hurling insults at Jesus and challenging him to save himself and them.

The second thief rebukes him saying: ‘Don’t you fear God … since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly … But this man has done nothing wrong.’

Then, turning to Jesus, he says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:40-42).

It’s remarkable that the dying thief gave Jesus the title of king.

No doubt he has heard the priests mocking his claim to be the King of Israel, and he has probably read the inscription over his head ‘This is Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews’.  

He has seen Jesus’ quiet, regal dignity. He has come to believe that Jesus is a king.

He has heard Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners, and forgiveness is what he knows he needs, since he confesses that he is being punished justly.

In answer to his cry to be remembered, Jesus replies: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’.

There are no recriminations.

Jesus doesn’t reproach him for repenting only at the eleventh hour.

He doesn’t cast doubt on the genuineness of his repentance.

He simply gives this penitent believer the assurance he longs for.

He promises him not only entry into paradise, involving the joy of Christ’s presence, but an immediate entry that very day.

I think that, during the long hours of pain which follow, the forgiven thief will stay his heart and mind on the sure and saving promise of Jesus.

 Lord Jesus, even in your deepest agony you listened to the crucified thief: hear us as we unburden to you our deepest fears. You spoke words of love in your hour of death: help us to speak words of life to a dying world. To you, Jesus, who offer hope to the hopeless, be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen

 3 His Commendation of his Mother

Jesus said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son’, and to the disciple (John) ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19:26, 27)

Perhaps Jesus closes his eyes as he bears the brunt of the first onslaught of pain.

Perhaps as it subsides a bit, he opens them again.

As he looks down from the cross, he sees a little group of women, and the apostle John (‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’). And then he sees his mother.

He was conceived in her womb by the operation of the Holy Spirit.

She gave birth to him, laid him in a manger and cared for him during his childhood.

She taught him the biblical stories of the patriarchs, kings and prophets, and the plan and purpose of God. She has set him a radiant example of godliness.

Now, we read, ‘near the cross of Jesus stands his mother’. It’s hard to imagine the depth of her grief as she watches him suffer.

The old man Simeon’s prophecy is being fulfilled that a sword will pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35).

Jesus thinks not of his pain but of hers.

He is determined to spare her the anguish of seeing him die.

So he avails himself of a right which a crucified man had, even from the cross, namely to make something called a testamentary disposition.

So Jesus puts his mother under John’s protection and care, and puts John under hers.

Immediately John takes her away to his Jerusalem home.

This is love, and Scripture says to us: ‘Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us …’ (Ephesians 5:2).

 4 His Cry of Dereliction

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:45, 46)

The crucifixion takes place at about 9 in the morning, and the first three words from the cross seem to have been spoken near the beginning of this period.

Then there’s silence until about 12 noon.

At this point, when the sun is at its highest, a strange darkness steals over the countryside.

It cannot be a natural eclipse of the sun, because the Feast of the Passover occurs at full moon.

It’s a supernatural phenomenon, perhaps intended by God to symbolize the horror of great darkness into which the soul of Jesus is now plunged.

It lasts three hours, during which no word escapes the lips of the Saviour.

He bears your sins and mine in silence.

Then suddenly at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Jesus breaks the silence and speaks the remaining four sentences from the cross in rapid succession, beginning with ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

This terrible cry is recorded by Matthew and Mark in the original Aramaic – ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’

The onlooker who says ‘he is calling Elijah’ is almost certainly jesting; no Jew can be so ignorant of Aramaic as to make that foolish blunder.

Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22. But why does he quote it and declare himself forsaken?

There can be only two explanations.

Either Jesus is mistaken and not forsaken, or he is telling the truth and is forsaken.

Surely Jesus is not mistaken and ‘God is forsaken by God’, – the estrangement is due to our sins and their just reward.

And Jesus expresses this terrible experience of God-forsakenness by quoting the only Scripture which foretold it and which he has perfectly fulfilled.                       

 We say together the first line of verses 1-5 of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord? and the whole of verse 6 – 93 in The New English Hymnal.

 5 His Agony of Thirst

Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’ (John 19:28)

When he is first nailed to the cross, Jesus is offered wine to drink mixed with gall, but after tasting it he refuses to drink it (Matt. 27:34), perhaps because he is determined to be in full possession of his senses while suffering for us on the cross.

Hours later, however, on emerging from the God-forsaken darkness, and knowing that the end is near, he says:

I am thirsty’.

In response, the bystanders soak a sponge in wine vinegar and lift it on a stalk of hyssop to Jesus’ lips.

This is the only sentence from the cross in which Jesus expresses physical pain.

He says it, John adds, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.

Indeed, it has been prophesied twice in the Psalms. In Psalm 22 it is written that ‘my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth’, while in Psalm 69 we read: ‘they put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst’.

Surely his thirst symbolises the torment of separation from God.

Darkness, death and thirst. What are these but what the Bible calls ‘hell’ – the horror of exclusion from God? This is what our Saviour suffered for us on the cross.

‘Thirst’ is a specially poignant symbol, because Jesus earlier said: ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink’ (John 7:37).

But he who satisfies our thirst himself now experiences on the cross a ghastly thirst.

Thus Jesus thirsts on the cross that we may never thirst again.

 I heard the voice of Jesus say

‘Behold I freely give

The living water, thirsty one;

Stoop down, and drink and live:’

I came to Jesus and I drank

Of that life-giving stream;

My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,

And now I live in him.

 6 His Shout of Triumph

When Jesus had received the drink, he said: ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30)

In the last two cries Jesus appears as the conqueror, for they express the victory which he won for us.

It is finished!

Perhaps these are the most momentous words ever spoken in the history of the world.

Already in anticipation Jesus has claimed that he has completed the work he came into the world to do (John 19:18).

Now he makes a public declaration of it.

But his cry is not the despairing groan of one who is dying in resignation and defeat.

It is a shout uttered ‘in a loud voice’, proclaiming a resounding victory.

Christ has made what the Letter to the Hebrews calls ‘one single sacrifice for sins’ (Heb.12:14).

Because Christ has finished the work of sin-bearing, there is nothing left for us to do, or even to contribute.

And to demonstrate the dramatic nature of what Christ has done, the veil of the temple is torn down ‘from top to bottom’.

The curtain has hung for centuries between the outer and the inner sanctuaries as an emblem of the inaccessibility of God to sinners, for no-one might penetrate beyond the veil into the presence of God except the high priest on the Day of Atonement.

But now the veil is torn in half and discarded. It is needed no longer.

The worshippers in the temple courts, gathered that afternoon for the evening sacrifice, are dramatically informed of another and a better sacrifice by which they can draw near to God.

 7 His Final Surrender

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)

Death doesn’t claim Jesus as its victim; he seizes it as its victor.

Between them the gospel writers use four different expressions, each of which puts the initiative in the process of dying in Jesus’s own hands.

Mark says he ‘breathed out his spirit’, Matthew that he ‘dismissed his spirit’, while Luke records his words ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’.

John’s expression is the most striking: ‘he bowed his head and gave up his spirit’ (19:30).

It is not that he first dies followed by his head falling forward onto his chest. It is the other way round. The bowing of the head is his final act of surrender to the will of his Father.

By word and deed Jesus indicates that his death is his own voluntary act.

Jesus could have escaped death right up to the last minute.

As he said in the garden, he could have summoned more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him.

He could have come down from the cross, as his mockers challenged him to do.

But he doesn’t.  Of his own free will and deliberate choice he gives himself up to death.

It is he who determines the time, the place and the manner of his dying.

The last two sayings from the cross proclaim Jesus as the conqueror of sin and death.

When we come humbly to the cross, deserving nothing but judgment, pleading nothing but mercy, Christ delivers us from both the guilt of sin and the fear of death.

 We sing the hymn ‘When I survey’

 We end this afternoon’s reflections with a prayer written by Frederick Temple, who was Bishop of Exeter, before going on to become Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury. His son William, who was born in Exeter and also went on to be become Archbishop of Canterbury, said that his father couldn’t preach on Good Friday about the cross without tears on his cheeks:

 O Lord Jesus Christ, take us to yourself, draw us with cords to the foot of the cross; for we have no strength to come, and we know not the way. You are mighty to save, and none can separate us from your love. Bring us home to yourself, for we are gone astray. We have wandered; do you seek us. Under the shadow of your cross let us live all the rest of our lives, and there we shall be safe through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen