Easter Week Devotional Day 5

Famous Last words
Good Friday
Luke 23:26-48

Roughly two hundred years before Jesus hung dying on a cross, the righteous man Mattathias lay on his deathbed. His dying words were “avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full” (1 Maccabees 2:67–68). These famous last words inspired his son Judas, also known as Maccabeus which means “the hammer,” to take up arms and launch a revolution. This is what many of the people had in mind when they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as their king. They wanted Jesus to bring the hammer crashing down on the evil empire once again. But Jesus proved himself to be a very different kind of king. So different that the people turned on him, and soon the hammer would be brought down on Jesus as he was crucified. In his final agonizing moments Jesus also offers up some famous last words that will spark a wholly different revolution. 

Romans crucifixion was meant to inflict not just death, but public humiliation and excruciating pain (you can hear from the word “excruciating” that it derives from the practice of Roman crucifixion). If I was suffering that terrible ordeal, it’s easy for me to imagine responding with curses, or pleading my innocence; or just crying out in feelings of anger, agony, and abandonment. But how Jesus conducts himself throughout the crucifixion both astonishes and inspires me. In today’s Good Friday devotional we will reflect on the final words that were said to Jesus and said by Jesus on the day of his crucifixion.

As Jesus is being led to where he will be crucified, there are a number of sympathetic women following along who are opening mourning for him. Remarkably, in his most difficult hours, Jesus tells these women not to cry for him but to save their tears to themselves. How selfless and how prophetic! Jesus himself has wept for those in Jerusalem as they have misunderstood the kind of peace that he brings, and he prophetically predicts the bitter fruits they are sowing (Luke 19:41-44). It also makes sense why Jesus would tell the women not to weep for him, as he has also predicted his own death and how it will actually bring glorification (John 12:23-28). 

Jesus has been speaking prophetically about things that will come to pass throughout his passion week and yet he is met with ridicule and violence. When Jesus was arrested, the guards blindfolded and struck him, and then mock him by demanding that he prophesy about who hit him (Matthew 26:67-68, Luke 22:63-65). This scene drips with irony because as they mock him for being a false prophet, Jesus’ prophetic prediction of Peter’s denial comes to pass. 

Jesus’ concern for others, even in the midst of his own acute suffering, is displayed in his words of comfort to the criminal on the cross. Here Jesus is proving himself not only to be innocent but astonishingly righteous and wholly worthy of being glorified. Jesus' immaculate character is brought into even sharper focus by the contrast of those transgressors who he is identified with and crucified alongside of (Luke 22:37, Mark 15:28). One of those criminals crucified beside Jesus recognizes that while their own punishment may be deserved, Jesus is innocent (Luke 23:41) something that even one of his executioners came to recognize: “Surely this was a righteous man!” (Luke 23:47). Even though Jesus did not deserve this death and that criminal did, and the criminal did not earn glory but Jesus did; even still Jesus there on the cross extends to him the same trust in God and promise of glorious reward: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Perhaps the most iconic mockery and violence done to Jesus is the crown of thorns thrust onto his head (John 19:2-5). Matthew and Mark observe the terrible detail that the soldiers used a staff to hammer this crown of thorns into Jesus’ head (Matthew 27:27-31, Mark 15:16-20). Later that day they would hammer nails into Jesus’s body to fasten him to the cross. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ when we see the nail about to be driven into Jesus’ palm, the hand holding that nail is actually the hand of Gibson himself. What the film is trying to convey here, is that we are all culpable for Jesus’ crucifixion as he is dying for our transgression. We wanted Jesus to be another hammer to smash our enemies, but instead Jesus allows us to bring the hammer crashing down on him. And yet here are perhaps the most famous last words Jesus says for all of us at this world-shattering moment:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The world will never be the same ever since these words were spoken.

It’s hard not to be moved by each of these sayings, but it would be easy to dismiss them with the thought: “I could never do such a thing” or “that’s something only Jesus can do.” But remember, by the grace of God, we too can be clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Colossians 3:7-14, Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27, 2 Corinthians 5:21). We see Christ’s righteousness echoed in Stephen’s last words: “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60)

And this righteousness is not just reserved for Bible stories. When I was working as a hospital chaplain I sat with many people as they died. Knowing their life was coming to an end they would muster the strength for some intentional final words. It doesn’t always happen like this, but I have personally witnessed how powerful the last words of some Spirit-filled Jesus followers can be. I was so often amazed by the profound peace they had, their deep trust in soon being received by their Lord in paradise, and yes even the radical forgiveness for those who had wronged them. That’s the righteousness of Christ at work in us.