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The High Calling

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Linda Roberts

St. Mark
Presbyterian Church,
Boerne, TX

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Irvine Presbyterian Church

The Seven Last Words of Christ; Holy Week; Reflections; Devotions; Devotional Guide; The Sevent Last Words of Jesus; The Seven Last Words from the Cross

The Seven Last Words of Christ:
Reflections for Holy Week

Contains three devotional series,
from 2004, 2006, and 2008

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Note: You may also want to check out my series:

The Stations of the Cross:
A Devotional Guide for Lent and Holy Week

My Various Writings on Jesus

The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?

Was Jesus Divine? The Early Christian Understanding

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence

What Was the Message of Jesus?

How Can We Know Anything about the Real Jesus?

What Languages Did Jesus Speak and Why Does It Matter?

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross?

The Passion of the Christ: An In-Depth Review

Book -- Jesus Revealed: Know Him Better to Love Him Better

2008 Reflections

The First Word Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing.
The Second Word I assure you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
The Third Word Dear woman, here is your son.
The Fourth Word My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
The Fifth Word I am thirsty.
The Sixth Word It is finished.
The Seventh Word Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

The First Word: "Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

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Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2007.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.


It makes sense that the first word of Jesus from the cross is a word of forgiveness. That's the point of the cross, after all. Jesus is dying so that we might be forgiven for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God for eternity.

But the forgiveness of God through Christ doesn't come only to those who don't know what they are doing when they sin. In the mercy of God, we receive his forgiveness even when we do what we know to be wrong. God chooses to wipe away our sins, not because we have some convenient excuse, and not because we have tried hard to make up for them, but because he is a God of amazing grace, with mercies that are new every morning.

As we read the words, "Father, forgive them," may we understand that we too are forgiven through Christ. As John writes in his first letter, "But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness" (1 John 1:9). Because Christ died on the cross for us, we are cleansed from all wickedness, from every last sin. We are united with God the Father as his beloved children. We are free to approach his throne of grace with our needs and concerns. God "has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west" (Ps 103:13). What great news!

Questions for Reflection

Do you really believe God has forgiven your sins? Do you take time on a regular basis to confess your sins so that you might enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? Do you need to experience God's forgiveness in a fresh way today?


Gracious Lord Jesus, it's easy for me to speak of your forgiveness, even to ask for it and to thank you for it. But do I really believe I'm forgiven? Do I experience the freedom that comes from the assurance that you have cleansed me from my sins? Or do I live as if I'm "semi-forgiven"? Even though I've put my faith in you and confessed my sins, do I live as sin still has power over me? Do I try to prove myself to you, as if I might be able to earn more forgiveness?

Dear Lord, though I believe at one level that you have forgiven me, this amazing truth needs to penetrate my heart in new ways. Help me to know with fresh conviction that I am fully and finally forgiven, not because of anything I have done, but because of what you have done for me.

May I live today as a forgiven person, opening my heart to you, choosing not to sin because the power of sin has been broken by your salvation.

All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, for your matchless forgiveness! Amen.


The Second Word: "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

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Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2007.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.


As Jesus hung on the cross, he was mocked by the leaders and the soldiers. One of the criminals being crucified with him added his own measure of scorn. But the other crucified criminal sensed that Jesus was being treated unjustly. After speaking up for Jesus, he cried out, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (v. 42).

Jesus responded to this criminal, "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise" (v. 43). The word paradise, from the Greek word paradeisos, which meant "garden," was used in the Greek Old Testament as a word for the Garden of Eden. In Judaism of the time of Jesus it was associated with heaven, and also with the future when God would restore all things to the perfection of the Garden. Paradise was sometimes thought to be the place where righteous people went after death. This seems to be the way Jesus uses paradise in this passage.

Thus we have encountered one of the most astounding and encouraging verses in all of Scripture. Jesus promised that the criminal would be with him in paradise. Yet the text of Luke gives us no reason to believe this man had been a follower of Jesus, or even a believer in him in any well-developed sense. He might have felt sorry for his sins, but he did not obviously repent. Rather, the criminal's cry to be remembered seems more like a desperate, last-gasp effort.

Though we should make every effort to have right theology, and though we should live our lives each day as disciples of Jesus, in the end, our relationship with him comes down to simple trust. "Jesus, remember me," we cry. And Jesus, embodying the mercy of God, says to us, "You will be with me in paradise." We are welcome there not because we have right theology, and not because we are living rightly, but because God is merciful and we have put our trust in Jesus.

Questions for Reflection

Have you staked your life on Jesus? Have you put your ultimate trust in him? Do you know that, when your time comes, you will be with him in paradise?


Dear Lord Jesus, how I wonder at your grace and mercy! When we cry out to you, you hear us. When we ask you to remember us when you come into your kingdom, you offer the promise of paradise. Your mercy, dear Lord, exceeds anything we might imagine. It embraces us, encourages us, heals us.

O Lord, though my situation is so different from the criminal who cried out to you, I am nevertheless quite like him. Today I live, trusting you and you alone. My life, but now and in the world to come, is in your hands. And so I pray:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom! Jesus, remember me today as I seek to live within your kingdom! Amen.



The Third Word: “Dear woman, here is your son.” (John 19:26)

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Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2007.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.


As Jesus was dying, his mother was among those who had remained with him. Most of the male disciples had fled, with the exception of one whom the Fourth Gospel calls "the disciple he loved." We can't be exactly sure of the identity of this beloved disciple, though many interpreters believe he is John, who is also the one behind the writing of this Gospel.

No matter who the beloved disciple was, it's clear that Jesus was forging a relationship between this disciple and his mother, one in which the disciple would take care of Mary financially and in other ways. Jesus wanted to make sure she would be in good hands after his death.

The presence of Mary at the cross adds both humanity and horror to the scene. We are reminded that Jesus was a real human being, a man who had once been a boy who had once been carried in the womb of his mother. Even as he was dying on the cross as the Savior of the world, Jesus was also a son, a role he didn't neglect in his last moments.

When we think of the crucifixion of Jesus from the perspective of his mother, our horror increases dramatically. The death of a child is one of the most painful of all parental experiences. To watch one's beloved child experience the extreme torture of crucifixion must have been unimaginably terrible. We're reminded of the prophecy of Simeon shortly after Jesus' birth, when he said to Mary: "And a sword will pierce your very soul" (Luke 2:35).

This scene helps us not to glorify or spiritualize the crucifixion of Jesus. He was a real man, true flesh and blood, a son of a mother, dying with unbearable agony. His suffering was altogether real, and he took it on for you and for me.

Questions for Reflection

What does Mary's presence at the cross evoke in you? Why do you think was it necessary for Jesus to suffer physical pain as he died?


Lord Jesus, the presence of your mother at the cross engages my heart. You are no longer only the Savior dying for the sins of the world. You are also a fully human man, a son with a mother.

O Lord, how can I begin to thank you for what you suffered? My words fall short. My thoughts seem superficial and vague. Nevertheless, I offer my sincere gratitude for your suffering. Thank you for bearing my sin on the cross. I give you my praise, my love, my heart . . . all that I am, because you have given me all that you are.

All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, fully God and fully human, Savior of the world . . . my Savior! Amen.


The Fourth Word: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34)

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So-called "God's Tear" from The Passion of the Christ.


As Jesus was dying on the cross, he echoed the beginning of Psalm 22, which reads:

  My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
     Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
  Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
     Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief. (vv. 1-2)

In the words of the psalmist Jesus found a way to express the cry of his heart: Why had God abandoned him? Why did his Father turn his back on Jesus in his moment of greatest agony?

This side of heaven, we will never fully know what Jesus was experiencing in this moment. Was he asking this question because, in the mystery of his incarnational suffering, he didn't know why God had abandoned him? Or was his cry not so much a question as an expression of profound agony? Or was it both?

What we do know is that Jesus entered into the Hell of separation from God. The Father abandoned him because Jesus took upon himself the penalty for our sins. In that excruciating moment, he experienced something far more horrible than physical pain. The beloved Son of God knew what it was like to be rejected by the Father. As we read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (NIV).

I can write these words. I can say, truly, that the Father abandoned the Son for our sake, for the salvation of the world. But can I really grasp the mystery and the majesty of this truth? Hardly. As Martin Luther once said, "God forsaking God. Who can understand it?" Yet even my miniscule grasp of this reality calls me to confession, to humility, to worship, to adoration.

Questions for Reflection

Have you taken time to consider that Jesus was abandoned by the Father so that you might not be? What does this "word" from the cross mean to you?


O Lord Jesus, though I will never fully grasp the wonder and horror of your abandonment by the Father, every time I read this "word," I am overwhelmed with gratitude. How can I ever thank you for what you suffered for me? What can I do but to offer myself to you in gratitude and praise? Thank you, dear Lord, for what you suffered. Thank you for taking my place. Thank you for being forsaken by the Father so that I might never be.

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts (1707)


The Fifth Word: “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

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Painting from a church in Taormina, Sicily


No doubt Jesus experienced extreme thirst while being crucified. He would have lost a substantial quantity of bodily fluid, both blood and sweat, through what he had endured even prior to crucifixion. Thus his statement, "I am thirsty" was, on the most obvious level, a request for something to drink. In response the soldiers gave Jesus "sour wine" (v. 29), a cheap beverage common among lower class people in the time of Jesus.

John notes that Jesus said "I am thirsty," not only as a statement of physical reality, but also in order to fulfill the Scripture. Though there is no specific reference in the text of the Gospel, it's likely that John was thinking of Psalm 69, which includes this passage:

   Their insults have broken my heart,
     and I am in despair.
   If only one person would show some pity;
     if only one would turn and comfort me.
   But instead, they give me poison for food;
     they offer me sour wine for my thirst.
              (vv. 20-21)

As he suffered, Jesus embodied the pain of the people of Israel, that which had been captured in the Psalms. Jesus was suffering for the sin of Israel, even as he was taking upon himself the sin of the world.

As I reflect on Jesus' statement, "I am thirsty," I keep thinking of my own thirst. It's nothing like that of Jesus. Rather, I am thirsty for him. My soul yearns for the living water that Jesus supplies (John 4:10; 7:38-39). I rejoice in the fact that he suffered physical thirst on the cross – and so much more – so that my thirst for the water of life might be quenched.

Questions for Reflection

How do you respond to Jesus' statement "I am thirsty"? What does this statement suggest to you about Jesus? About yourself?


O Lord, once again I thank you for what you suffered on the cross. Besides extraordinary pain, you also experienced extreme thirst. All of this was part and parcel of your taking on our humanity so that you might take away our sin.

Dear Lord, in your words "I am thirsty" I hear the cry of my own heart. I too am thirsty, Lord, not for physical drink. I don't need sour wine. Rather, I need the new wine of your kingdom to flood my soul. I need to be refreshed by your living water. I yearn for your Spirit to fill me once again.

I am thirsty, Lord, for you. Amen.


The Sixth Word: “It is finished!” (John 19:30)

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Statue from The Stations of the Cross, Serra Retreat Center, Malibu, California


I never saw a more difficult film to watch than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. For most of that movie I wanted to avert my eyes. It was horrible to watch even a cinematic version of a crucifixion. And it was beyond comprehension to think that this actually happened to somebody, and not just anybody, but my Lord and Savior. I had studied the crucifixion before, and knew in my head what Jesus experienced. But seeing a visual presentation of his suffering was almost more than I could bear. When The Passion of the Christ was over, I felt palpable relief. Thank goodness it was finished.

When Jesus said "It is finished," surely he was expressing relief that his suffering was over. "It is finished" meant, in part, "This is finally done!" But the Greek verb translated as "It is finished" (tetelestai) means more than just this. Eugene Peterson captures the full sense of the verb in The Message: "It's done . . . complete." Jesus had accomplished his mission. He had announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God. He had revealed the love and grace of God. And he had embodied that love and grace by dying for the sin of the world, thus opening up the way for all to live under the reign of God.

Because Jesus finished his work of salvation, you and I don't need to add to it. In fact, we can't. He accomplished what we never could, taking our sin upon himself and giving us his life in return. Jesus finished that for which he had been sent, and we are the beneficiaries of his unique effort. Because of what he finished, you and I are never "finished." We have hope for this life and for the next. We know that nothing can separate us from God's love. One day what God has begun in us will also be finished, by his grace. Until that day, we live in the confidence of Jesus' cry of victory: "It is finished!"

Questions for Reflection

Do you live as if Jesus finished the work of salvation? To you have confidence that God will finish that which he has begun in you?


How can I ever find words to express my gratitude to you, dear Lord Jesus? You did it. You finished that for which you had been sent, faithful in life, faithful in death. You accomplished that which no other person could do, taking the sin of the world upon your sinless shoulders . . . taking my sin so that I might receive your forgiveness and new life.

All praise be to you, gracious Lord, for finishing the work of salvation. All praise be to you, dear Jesus, for saving me! Alleluia! Amen.


The Seventh Word: “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” (Luke 23:46)

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Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2007.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.


Two of the last seven "words" of Jesus were quotations from the Psalms. Earlier Jesus had Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" to express his anguish. Later he borrowed from Psalm 31, which comes to us from Luke as "Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands."

On an obvious level, Jesus was putting his post mortem future in the hands of his Heavenly Father. It was as if he was saying, "Whatever happens to me after I die is your responsibility, Father."

But when we look carefully at the Psalm Jesus quoted, we see more than what at first meets our eyes. Psalm 31 begins with a cry for divine help:

O LORD, I have come to you for protection;
     don’t let me be disgraced.
     Save me, for you do what is right. (v. 1)

But then it mixes asking for God's deliverance with a confession of God's strength and faithfulness:

I entrust my spirit into your hand.
     Rescue me, LORD, for you are a faithful God. (v. 5)

By the end, Psalm 31 offers praise of God's salvation:

Praise the LORD,
     for he has shown me the wonders of his unfailing love.
     He kept me safe when my city was under attack. (v. 21)

By quoting a portion of Psalm 31, therefore, Jesus not only entrusted his future to his Father, but also implied that he would be delivered and exonerated. No, God would not deliver him from death by crucifixion. But beyond this horrific death lay something marvelous. "I entrust my spirit into your hands" points back to the familiar suffering of David in Psalm 31, and forward to the resurrection.

Questions for Reflection

Have you put your life and, indeed, your life beyond this life, in God's hands? How do you experience God's salvation through Christ in your life today?


Gracious Lord, even as you once entrusted your spirit into the hands of the Father, so I give my life to you. I trust you, and you alone to be my Savior. I submit to your sovereignty over my life, and seek to live for your glory alone. Here I am, Lord, available to you, both now and in the future.

How good it is to know, dear Lord, that the cross was not the end for you. As you entrusted your spirit into the Father's hands, you did so in anticipation of what was to come. So we reflect upon your death, not in despair, but in hope. With Good Friday behind us, Easter Sunday is on the horizon. Amen.




2006 Reflections

The First Word Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
The Second Word Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
The Third Word Woman, here is your son.
The Fourth Word My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The Fifth Word I am thirsty.
The Sixth Word It is finished.
The Seventh Word Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

The First Word
Part 1 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Monday, April 10, 2006

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Luke 23:34

Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2006.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.

A Prayer of Reflection

O Jesus, as I reflect on this first word, I think of those who put You on that cross: Roman soldiers who were simply following orders, Jewish leaders who perceived You as a threat to their power, and most of all, Pontius Pilate, who alone had the authority to order Your crucifixion. None of these realized who You were. None realized what they were doing. They saw You as a pest, a threat, a rabble-rouser. You were someone they needed to get out of the way, once and for all. Yet they had no idea what they were doing.

They had no idea that You were the Lord of Glory, the Word of God Incarnate. They had no idea that Your creative design bound the atoms of Your cross together. They didn't know that You should have been lifted up, not in execution, but in praise. They didn't know that You had the power to snuff them out in a moment, but refrained out of obedience to the Father. They had no idea what they were doing.

The people who crucified You had no idea, Lord Jesus, that Your death on a cross would bring life to the world. They had no idea that your crucifixion would soon be the center of the best news ever proclaimed. They didn't know that as You hung there in front of them, you were bearing, not just the sins of the world, but the sins of the very ones who stood there, jeering and laughing at You. And they never imagined that Your death was God's way of saving the world, including me.

They had no idea, dear Jesus, that Your death would not be the end of your influence, but only the beginning. They never imagined that in a few hours You would be raised triumphant, having defeated sin and death. They would never have believed that before long Your name would be proclaimed throughout the world as Lord and Savior. Those who crucified You would have been astounded to know that someday images of Your cross would be found on every continent, gloriously proclaiming Your victory over the powers of darkness.

As You prayed for their forgiveness, Jesus, those who killed you didn't realize that You were dying so they themselves might be forgiven. And, though I was not there on that day, my sin helped put You on that cross. No doubt I sometimes sin in ignorance, not knowing what I'm doing. Yet all too often I know exactly what I'm doing, and I do it still. How immensely grateful I am that Your forgiveness extends, not only to those who err in ignorance, but to those who knowingly sin. All praise to You, Lord Jesus, for bearing my sin upon the cross, so that I might be forgiven. What can I offer you in response but my gratitude, my worship, my love, and my life in service to you? You deserve it all, Lord, all that I have, all that I am.


The Second Word
Part 2 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Tuesday, April 11, 2006

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise .”

Luke 23:43

Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2006.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.

A Prayer of Reflection

How strange it must have seemed, Jesus, to hear these words coming from You as You hung on the cross. It's hard to imagine a place farther from Paradise than Golgotha, a barren, rocky hillock, a home for suffering and death. What could be farther away from the lush garden of Paradise, an oasis of refreshment and life?

Though the gospels don't record it, I can't help but imagine the sneering laughter that greeted Your promise of Paradise. There You were, horrendously suffering, vulnerably naked, helplessly dying. Yet You promised Paradise? Just who did You think You were, Jesus, to offer such hope to a dying criminal? Who gave you the keys to the Garden? By what authority did you open the gates of heaven?

And what made this crucified criminal so special? Why did You promise Paradise to him? Was it his recognition of Your innocence? Or was it his urgent request, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom"?

Nothing suggests that the man to whom You offered hope had done much to deserve Your favor. He hadn't followed You. He hadn't left everything behind to be Your disciple. He wasn't suffering for the sake of righteousness, but because of his crimes. Even he admitted that he had been justly condemned! Did he know who You really were? Did he even realize what he was asking You? I doubt it. Rather, he was merely a dying man with a desperate plea, "Jesus, remember me!"

Am I really all that different from the crucified criminal? Oh, I expect that I could run theological circles around him. And I have sought to be Your disciple for more than four decades. I believe that You're the Lord and Savior. Indeed, You're my only Lord and Savior. But is this why I have the promise of being with You in Paradise? Is it mostly about me, Lord, or mostly about You?

Indeed, for all of my pretense, in the end I'm not much different from the one who cried out to You in desperation. I might not realize my sorry state. I might live as if I'm in control. But, in truth, I have nothing to offer You except my simple, childlike faith, my trust that You can save me, my fervent hope that Your mercy outweighs my sin.

Jesus, remember me! Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!


The Third Word
Part 3 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Wednesday, April 12, 2006

“Woman, here is your son.”

John 19:26

Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2006.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.

A Prayer of Reflection

Jesus, here at the foot of your cross, in the midst of injustice, inhumanity, and incomprehensible brutality, is a moment of tenderness: a mother remaining near her beloved son even when what she was seeing must have pummeled her heart with unspeakable grief . . . a son caring for his mother in his last minutes of life, making sure she'll be in good hands after his death. The contrast between the horror of the context and the kindness of the communication couldn't be more stark.

For years, dear Jesus, I didn't know what do with Your mother. As a good Protestant, I kept her at a safe, respectful distance, much as I would a valuable antique that was dangerously fragile. Mary's presence at Your cross was touching, but mostly as a way for me to note Your care for her.

Yet now, as a parent, I find myself drawn into Mary's perspective, and this is at first horrendous. If I think of how I would feel watching my own son die as you died, I can't imagine a more agonizing moment. I must quickly put that thought away because it's more than I can bear. And even if Mary somehow understood that this was part of God's plan, her anguish in watching You suffer must have been unbearable.

But she remained there with You because she loved You. And in ways I cannot fully understand, Mary's love for You stirs up my passion for You. I find it natural to stand back and watch Your death from a dispassionate distance, to think about what's happening, to analyze and to examine. Partly that's my nature. And partly I'm afraid to let my heart feel the pain of my beloved Savior's crucifixion. But Mary draws me in. She engages my heart. Seeing through her eyes, I realize how much I am horrorstruck by what You experienced on the cross, how much I am awestruck by the majesty of Your sacrifice, and how much I love You, plain and simple.

So, my Lord, though I cannot literally come before Your cross, nevertheless I stand before You now, utterly horrified, utterly grieved, utterly humbled, utterly grateful, utterly filled with love for You.


The Fourth Word
Part 4 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Thursday, April 13, 2006

“My God,
  my God,
why have
  forsaken me

Mark 15:34

So-called "God's Tear" from The Passion of the Christ.

Prayer of Reflection

Lord Jesus, there may be no other verse in all of Scripture that perplexes and moves me more than this one. By Your prayerful use of the first verse of Psalm 22, You invite us into the Holy of holies, into the mystery of the Trinity, into the immensity of divine grace.

I used to be confused by Your use of this question. Surely, I thought, You knew the answer. God the Father had forsaken You because You were bearing the sin of the world. That's why You were be crucified, after all. As Paul puts it, You became our sin so that we might become Your righteousness. That's why You were forsaken, Jesus, and surely You knew that. Right?

Or did You? How can I know what You surrendered in becoming human? How can I be sure what You knew and did not know as You hung on the cross? There's no question You knew You were doing the Father's will. Yet what else You understood at the moment, I can't be sure. Was part of your bearing our sin taking on our ignorance of the Father? Was this part of our punishment that You took on out of love? (Forgive me, Lord, if I'm toying with heresy here. There's so much I don't understand.)

Or was Your cry, "Why have you forsaken me?" less a question that required a theological answer and more a cry of anguish, the deepest anguish of all time and history. You were, after all, the Word Incarnate, God the Son, the One who had perfect relationship with the Father. Before You took our sin upon Yourself, you'd never known what separation from God was like. Yet on the cross, You suffered far worse than unbearable physical pain. You received what sin deserves. You chose to be rejected by the Father, so that we might be accepted.

This miracle escapes my understanding. How can God forsake God? How can the sinless Son truly bear the sin of the world? Though I confess these to be true, I'll never fully know what my confessions means, at least in this world. Yet here is the core of the gospel. Here is the wonder of grace revealed: the sinless Son of God becoming as if He were sin, being forsaken by the Father. All I can do is stand back and marvel, and then fall on my knees in awestruck worship.

Dear Lord, you didn't deserve what you experienced on the cross. You didn't . . . but I did. I deserved the cross. I earned the rejection You received. But in Your unfathomable love, You took my place and gave me Your place.

All praise, glory, and honor be to You, Lamb of God. You took away the sin of the world. You took away my sin, taking it upon Yourself, and breaking its power. Hallelujah! All praise be to You!


The Fifth Word
Part 5 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Friday, April 14, 2006

“I am    

John 19:28

Bernardo Strozzi, "Christ and the Samaritan Woman," c. 1600

Prayer of Reflection

Lord Jesus, on a literal level this request makes perfect sense. Given all You had endured, no doubt Your thirst was burning bitterly. And, as John points out in His gospel, Your request enabled the fulfillment of the psalm that spoke of vinegar being offered to the one drowning in troubles (Psalm 69).

Yet I marvel at the irony of Your asking for something to drink. After all, Your first miracle in the Gospel of John involved turning water into wine, providing liquid refreshment at a wedding (John 2). And then You had a conversation with a Samaritan woman after You had asked her for a drink. You told her that You offered living water that quenches all thirst (John 4). Not long thereafter, You invited all who are thirsty to come to You and drink (John 7).

Now, on the cross, You are thirsty, Lord. You who had the power to turn water into wine have chosen not to quench Your own thirst. You who offered fresh, living water chose to drink the rancid vinegar of death. You who invited the thirsty to come now suffer severe dehydration.


So that, through Your deprivation, we might enjoy the new wine of the kingdom.

So that, through Your death, we might drink of eternal life.

So that, through Your thirst, our parched souls might be quenched.

Not only do You offer living water, but also the cup of the new covenant in Your blood. From this cup we drink deeply of Your forgiveness. Through this cup we are drawn into intimate, everlasting relationship with God.

Thank You, dear Jesus, for being thirsty, so that I might be satisfied. Thank You for being empty, so that I might be filled. Thank You for dying, so that I might live through You.


The Sixth Word
Part 6 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Friday afternoon, April 14, 2006


John 19:30

Statue from The Stations of the Cross, Serra Retreat Center

Prayer of Reflection

I wonder, Lord Jesus, how you said these words, "It is finished."

I expect that, in part, You spoke in exhausted relief, sensing that Your body was about to expire. Your time of torture had almost ended. In moments Your pain would be over, finished.

Yet, I expect You also spoke with the same resolution that carried You from the Garden to the cross. You knew what the Father had called You to do, and You did it in obedience to Him. Now You had finished Your task.

But did You also realize what You had accomplished? In Your devastated physical state, even being forsaken by the Father, did You understand that You had born the guilt of humankind, that You had erased the stain of sin, that You had crushed the head of the Serpent? You said, not, "I am finished," but "It is finished." It, the grand work of redemption, the master plan established before the creation of the world, this was completed. You, and You alone had the ability to break the power of sin, and You did it. This work, God's amazing work of salvation, was finished.

There is no way I can fully grasp what "It is finished" meant to You, Lord. But I can feel relieved for You that Your suffering is over. And I can be astounded by Your faithful obedience. Most of all, I can marvel with gratitude over what You did on the cross. Because You finished that work, dear Jesus, my life has begun.


The Seventh Word
Part 7 of The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week (2006)
Posted for Saturday, April 15, 2006

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

Luke 23:46

Copyright © Linda Roberts, 2006.
For permission to use this picture, please contact Mark D. Roberts.

Prayer of Reflection

As I reflect upon this final word of Jesus from the cross, I am struck, Gracious Father, by the fact that this is my prayer too. To be sure, my situation is far from that of Your Son. And I'm hopeful that I still have many more days before my life's end. But, even still, at the end of all my striving, all my thinking, all my efforts, all my attempts to figure everything out, all my deeds, both good and bad, what do I have left but to trust You?

I think of the moving words of the hymn "Rock of Ages":

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

Thou must save, dear God, and Thou alone. I have nothing to offer You but my trust in You to save me. So, like Jesus, I commend my spirit to You today, to rely on You, to believe in You, to live for You, until that day when I stand before You, with nothing in my hand but the cross.








2004 Devotional Study

The First Word Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
The Second Word Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
The Third Word Woman, here is your son.
The Fourth Word My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The Fifth Word I am thirsty.
The Sixth Word It is finished.
The Seventh Word Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

The First Word
Posted at 11:08 p.m. on Saturday, April 3, 2004

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
(Luke 23:34)

How striking that the first “word” of Jesus from the cross is a word of forgiveness! The Peruvian Christians who first established the order for the “Seven Last Words” surely knew what they were doing.

Jesus asks his Heavenly Father to forgive “them.” But whom does he mean? The immediate context doesn’t completely answer this question: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right hand and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them . . .” (Luke 23:33-34). Grammatically, “them” refers to the criminals, or perhaps to the Roman soldiers. But does Jesus mean to include others within “them”?
This is a picture of Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified. You can see why it was called "The Place of the Skull." Picture from

A parallel passage in Acts, also written by Luke, helps to answer this question. Here, after speaking about the death of Jesus to a crowd of Jews in the temple, Peter says: “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:17-18). In other words, the rulers of the Jews – including both Jewish and Roman leaders – did not realize who Jesus really was. They did not intend to kill God’s Messiah. Moreover, Peter explains, what happened to Jesus was really part of God’s plan in the first place. This passage from Acts helps us to understand that Jesus intended for his Father to forgive, not just the Roman soldiers, but all who participated in his crucifixion, including Pilate and Caiaphas.

Of course when we consider the whole ministry of Jesus, would we expect any less from him than forgiveness of those who mistreated and ultimately killed him? Isn’t that what, in the end, his cross is really all about? Furthermore, if we take seriously the theological truth that our own sin put Jesus on the cross every bit as much as Pilate who condemned him or the solidiers who actually crucified him, then we can rightly hear this prayer of Jesus as including us too.

Many English Bibles indicate that this verse does not appear in some of the oldest texts of the Gospel of Luke. Yet most scholars believe that these words are, nevertheless, genuine words of Christ. Some have argued that early Christian copyists, not wanting the perpetrators of Jesus’ crucifixion to be forgiven, removed the verse. If this is true, it’s a sad commentary on the inability of Christians to follow their Lord by forgiving others. Of course whether this explanation of the textual oddity of Luke 23:34 is true or not, it is surely and sadly true that many Christians throughout the ages have been unwilling to forgive, not only the Jews who actually killed Jesus, but all Jews everywhere. How inconsistent anti-Semitism is with the calling of Jesus to love others, even our enemies, not to mention his first word from the cross, the word of forgiveness.

As we take time this week to reflect upon the forgiveness Christ offers to each and every one of us through his sacrifice, may we not forget the call to imitate his forgiveness in our own lives. If Jesus was willing to forgive those who crucified him, if Jesus was willing to die for us so that we might be forgiven, then shouldn’t we do as Scripture says, and forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). Are there people in your life whom you need to forgive? Are you living with tense or broken relationships because of unforgiveness? As we seek to imitate Christ, may we be like Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose final words before dying were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

A Suggestion for a Rich Experience of Holy Week

When I was younger, I had little appreciation for Holy Week. It was my spring break from school, a time to have fun, but not a time to go deeper with the Lord. As I’ve grown, both in age and in Christ, I’ve learned to set aside the week before Easter as a truly “holy” week. The result has been both a more vital faith in Christ and a much more joyful celebration of Easter.

One way to make Holy Week special is to listen to music that helps us focus on the meaning of Christ’s passion. It’s rather like how Christmas carols enrich our celebration of Christ’s birth. There is a difference, of course, in that most carols are exuberant while most of the music for Holy Week is somber. Nevertheless, I’d urge you to take time during Holy Week to listen to music that will expand your experience of Christ’s loving sacrifice.

During the next week I’ll offer several musical recommendations. I realize that, in many cases, you won’t be able to enjoy this music this year, but it’s well worth buying for the future. If you act quickly, you can order the first CD I’m recommending online and have it delivered prior to Good Friday.

“The Seven Last Words of Christ” (Music for the Lenten Season) features a performance in English of Les Sept paroles du Christ by Théodore Dubois. This is a moving setting of the final sayings of Jesus, with a narrator, soloist, choral ensemble, and small orchestra. This is one of my favorite pieces of Holy Week music. I highly recommend it.

The Second Word
Posted at 10:45 p.m. on Sunday, April 4, 2004

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:43)

Like the first word from the cross – “Father, forgive them” – the second word is also filled with grace. Jesus addressed this word to one of the “criminals” being crucified next to him. Because this man was being crucified, and not merely executed, it’s likely that he was not just a lawbreaker, but one of the “robbers” who plotted to rid Judea of Roman rule. He was more of a first-century revolutionary than a mere thief.

According to Luke, one of the rebels next to Jesus derided him. But the other saw Jesus with clear and compassionate eyes: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To this man Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).

The word “paradise” derives originally from Persian, where it meant “garden.” Among Jews, it came to refer both to the garden of Eden, the place of divine perfection, and to a region of heaven where the righteous experience blessing after death. In a first-century Jewish writing known as 4 Ezra, the Lord describes the future glory of “Ezra” and those like him in this way:

But think of your own case, and inquire concerning the glory of those who are like yourself, because it is for you that paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared, plenty is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established and wisdom perfected beforehand. (4 Ezra 8:51-52)

We don’t know exactly what Jesus envisioned when he promised to the criminal: Today you will be with me in Paradise. But, without the slightest doubt, Paradise would be an infinitely better place than Golgotha. In fact, it would be the place where God’s shalom reigns, a place of beauty and peace. Picture the most gorgeous, serene place on earth, and you get a tiny peak of ultimate Paradise.

We can’t be sure of most of the details concerning life after death, but this much we know: it will be glorious and gorgeous. Most importantly, we will be with Christ. He did not promise only that the crucified man would be in Paradise, but that he would be with Jesus in Paradise. If we know that, beyond this life, we’ll be with Christ, then we don’t have to fret the details.

Ke'e Beach on the island of Kaua'i - about as close as you can get to paradise on earth.

Jesus’ promise to the robber is troubling to those who want to limit God’s grace in some way. There is nothing in the gospels that tells us what the thief believed about Jesus. It’s highly unlikely that he “accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior” in a manner common among today’s Christians. His request that Jesus remember him wasn’t so much a profession of faith as a cry of desperation. It’s faith the size of a mustard seed, if that. Yet Jesus’ response suggests that this was enough. I’m not arguing for some sort of universalism here, but only pointing out the wideness of God’s mercy in Jesus’ response to the thief.

As a pastor, I marvel sadly at how readily people limit God’s grace. Christians who have been forgiven everything can be harsh and unforgiving with others. Moreover, we are often hardest on ourselves. Even after putting our faith in Christ and confessing our sin, we continue to condemn ourselves mercilessly. We can be our own worst judge. How much we need to hear the word Jesus once spoke to a man who had no hope and no reason to expect mercy. The grace of Christ cannot be earned. It’s greater than our limitations. It’s greater than all our sin.

Music for Holy Week

You won’t be able to find most of the best music for Holy Week in your local record store. But the album I’m suggesting today is an exception. You can find it just about everywhere, even at Target, Costco, and Wal-Mart.

John Debney’s soundtrack from The Passion of the Christ is an eerie, evocative collection of music from the film. It mixes world instruments, voices, synthesizers and unusual percussion. If you’ve seen the Passion, and if this movie has helped you to grow in your devotion to Christ, then this album will fertilize further growth. If you haven’t seen the movie, the album’s haunting tones will nevertheless provide an occasion for quiet reflection on the sacrifice of Christ. I have found certain tracks, such as “Mary Goes to Jesus,” to be especially moving.

The Third Word
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, April 5, 2004

“Woman, here is your son.”
(John 19:26)

Though most of the men who followed Jesus deserted him at the cross, his female followers remained to observe his death. All four New Testament gospels mention this striking fact (Matt 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). John alone specifies that Mary the mother of Jesus was among the women who remained near him until the end.

In the Gospel of John, Mary was standing next to “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved,” believed traditionally to be John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples and the source of the gospel that bears his name. Observing these two, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the beloved disciple, “Here is your mother” (19:26-27). The writer of the gospel adds, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (19:27). The basic meaning of Jesus’ statement is clear. He was entrusting care of his mother to one of his most intimate friends and followers. He was making sure that she would be loved and cared for after Jesus’ death. Jesus knew he could trust his beloved follower with an extremely important responsibility. (We don’t know much about the relationship of Jesus and his natural siblings at this point. Earlier in his ministry they seemed to have been less than fully supportive of his ministry [see Mark 3:21]. Later, Jesus’ brother James became one of the main leaders of the Christian church.)

Commentators throughout the ages have rightly noticed Jesus’ attention to the needs of others, in this case his mother, even in his hour of excruciating suffering. This is a fine observation and surely fits with everything else we know about Jesus.

But for many years I have been struck by the thought of what Jesus’ mother must have experienced as she watched her son being crucified. I can only begin to imagine her pain. When my father was dying slowly from cancer, his mother (my grandmother) was still alive. Her anguish over her son was palpable. At one point she said to me, “I’d give anything to change places with Dave. No mother should ever have to see her son suffer like this.” I expect Mary could have said similar words as she stood near the cross of Jesus.

Yet Mary might have understood that the death of her son was part of God’s mysterious plan. The gospels don’t tell us too much about her experience or faith at this time. She surely knew from the very beginning that Jesus was extraordinary and that God had something very special in store for him. And there were moments when she probably understood that Jesus’ destiny would not be an easy one, for him or for her. For example, in Luke 2 when Simeon praised God upon seeing the baby Jesus, he delivered a chilling prophecy to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel . . . and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:34-35).

I found Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Mary in The Passion of the Christ to extremely moving, partly because he didn’t overplay his hand in depicting Mary’s grief. Though her loving sorrow for her son is obvious, Mary doesn’t weep and wail and carry on. She seems to know that something like this was coming, that Jesus is doing that for which he was born. As a mother, she wants to run to him, and at one point she is able to do so. But she also understands that she cannot rescue Jesus from his fate and that, in a profound sense, she must not even if she could. Jesus is choosing to lay down his life of his own accord, believing that this is the cup his Heavenly Father has given him to drink (John 10:18; Mark 14:32-42). Mary’s strength and reserve seems to respect what her son and, indeed, what his Heavenly Father, have chosen.
Mary the Mother of Jesus from The Passion of the Christ, played by Maia Morgenstern

As we reflect upon the meaning of Christ’s death this week, Mary’s presence at the cross reminds us of the deeply human drama that is occurring, while it points beyond to the majesty and mystery of God’s plan for salvation.

Music for Holy Week

Joseph Haydn, the great 18th century composer, was also a devout Catholic Christian. In 1785 he wrote a series of choral interludes for a Holy Week service focusing on the seven last words of Christ. Later, he adapted the work for a string quartet. Later still, he made a choral version of The Seven Last Words. I am not familiar with the choral piece, but the string quartet version is a deeply moving collection of seven meditative pieces, along with introductory material. Lasting 69 minutes, the entire piece encourages quiet reflection on the meaning of the cross.

The Fourth Word
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 6, 2004

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Mark 15:34)

In times of unbearable suffering, Christians and Jews throughout the ages have turned to the Psalms. In these classic Hebrew prayers we find comfort for our troubled souls. Yet we also find words to express our longing, our desperation, even our doubt. By praying the Psalms we discover that the same Spirit who once inspired the psalm writers touches our hearts and helps us to connect to the heart of the living God.

Given the experience of God’s people for centuries, it isn’t surprising that Jesus quotes from a Psalm as he is being crucified. (Actually, he does so twice. See “The Seventh Word” later this week.) The question of the fourth word, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1. Jesus, in his moment of greatest anguish, prayed in words that had been etched upon his soul through years of synagogue worship and personal reflection.

Yet, in this new context, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” takes on startling new dimensions. Jesus isn’t simply a man crying out to God as he is being abused by others, he is also the divine Son of God crying out to God the Father. Through the fourth word from the cross we enter into the essence of Christ’s sacrifice. God is forsaking his Son in that he is allowing Jesus to bear the sin of the world. He’s regarding his Son as if he were sin itself. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This still from The Passion of the Christ demonstrates the physical suffering of Jesus. His spiritual suffering on the cross was unspeakably more horrible even than this.

This is one of the greatest mysteries of the Bible, indeed, of the universe. God is not merely forsaking a man named Jesus. God is forsaking, well, God. How is this possible? I can’t begin to fathom it, let alone explain it. And I’m not the first to hit the limits of human comprehension here. Martin Luther himself once said, “God forsaking God! Who can understand it?” Indeed! Here is the core of God’s marvelous, matchless, and mysterious grace.

The fact that Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 offers a hint of hope in what is otherwise a discouraging scene. This Psalm contains some of the most desperate cries in all of the Psalter, including lines that foreshadow the crucifixion itself:

But I am a worm, and not human;
     scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
     they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver --
     let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” (22:6-8)

I am poured out like water,
     and all my bones are out of joint. (22:14)

I can count all my bones.
     They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
     and for my clothing they cast lots (22:18; see John 19:24)

Yet, interwoven within this psalm are strong affirmations of confidence in God:

In you our ancestors trusted;
     they trusted, and you delivered them. (22:4)

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
     you kept me safe on my mother’s breast (22:9)

In fact, Psalm 22 ends with divine deliverance and dominion:

For he did not despise or abhor
     the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
     but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation . . .
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
     and he rules over the nations. (22:24-25, 28)

Though I would not pretend truly to know what Christ was thinking while he was dying on the cross, I wonder if his quotation of Psalm 22 meant to signal something beyond despair. He knew this psalm spoke of the vindication of the one who suffered and ended with a strong statement of God’s kingdom. In the fourth word, could Jesus have been confessing, not only his desperation, but also his unbroken faith in his Heavenly Father? Did his use of Psalm 22 show his conviction that, in due time, he would be vindicated and God’s rule established over all creation? Does the fourth word, the word of deepest agony, contain within it a tiny seed of Easter faith?

No matter how we might answer this question, what we can know for sure is this: Jesus was forsaken by his Father so that you and I might not be forsaken. He takes our sin; we get his righteousness. He takes the divine rejection we deserved; we get the divine acceptance he deserved. This reveals, not only the love of the man Jesus, but also the love of God who was incarnate in Jesus. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Music for Holy Week

Perhaps one of the greatest pieces of music for Holy Week is J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For many years it has been part of my own Holy Week tradition to listen to this deeply moving piece of music. It’s one of the most auspicious of all of Bach’s compositions, involving two choirs and almost three hours of music. The lyrics are in German, of course. Bach takes Matthew’s text of Jesus’ passion and sets it to music, adding choral pieces that include theological and emotional responses to the narrative. If you can set aside three hours this week, I’d urge you to take the libretto (lyric booklet, with translation) of Bach’s masterpiece and allow the St. Matthew Passion to bring you to the foot of the cross.

The Fifth Word
Posted at 10:10 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7, 2004

“I am thirsty.”
(John 19:28)

At first glance this is one of the least profound of Jesus’ last “words” from the cross. After losing a large quantity of blood through his flogging and crucifixion, Jesus experienced extraordinary thirst. John records his implicit request for liquid: “I am thirsty.” Matthew and Mark record, along with John, that somebody offered Jesus some sour wine in a sponge, but they don’t mention Jesus’ simple statement of need “I am thirsty” (see Matt 27:48; Mark 15:34).

The thirst of Jesus reminds us that he was really experiencing the horrors of the cross, including extreme thirst. Moreover, it reminds us that Jesus was fully human, the sort of being who could be thirsty. This fact isn’t incidental, but absolutely essential to the saving work of Christ. The Letter to the Hebrews expands upon this point:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb 2:14-17)

In a nutshell, Jesus had to be fully human in order to save humans from sin and death.

The humanity of Jesus is hard to reconcile with his deity. In fact, throughout history Christians have often chosen one over the other. One of the earliest Christian heresies, called “Docetism” (from the Greek verb dokein, “to seem”), embraced the deity of Jesus (or Christ, as they would often say) while denying his humanity. The divine Christ only “seemed” to be human. This led Docetists to deny, among other things, the reality of Christ’s suffering on the cross. In one ancient Docetic document, the real, non-physical Jesus is actually “glad and laughing” while on the cross. According to this view, his apparent crucifixion was taken seriously only by the unenlightened, who mistake the physical body for the genuine, spiritual Jesus (see The Apocalypse of Peter, 81:3-25).
Salvador Dali, Christ of St. John of the Cross, 1951. No blood, no wounds. A Docetic Christ.

Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, have steadfastly refused to deny the full humanity of Jesus, even as they have confessed his full deity. Yes, this is a paradox and a mystery. But it’s part and parcel of our faith. If we deny the true humanity of Jesus, then, as Hebrews instructs us, we don’t have one who can truly save us.

Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. His incarnation not only allows him to reveal God to us, but also allows him to die in our place. Moreover, it enables him to understand what it’s like to be human. The passage from Hebrews that I cited above concludes with this encouraging insight:

Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (2:18).

Later, Hebrews adds a similar thought:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (4:15)

Jesus who felt genuine thirst while on the cross understands what it means to be human. Thus he can sympathize with our weaknesses. When we are weak, when we struggle, when we feel pain, we cry out to One who knows what it’s like to be human. Thus Hebrews 4, after noting that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, concludes:

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (4:16)

Because of Jesus, we come before God freely, boldly, crying out, “I am needy. I am afraid. I need forgiveness. I need your help. I am thirsty – in body and soul.”

Music for Holy Week

Recently I purchased an album called Miserere: Music for the Holy Week Liturgy. It includes a collection of Passion and Holy Week themed music, featuring two different versions of the “Miserere mei, Deus” (“Have mercy on me, O God” – the complete Latin text of Psalm 51). The seventeen pieces, written in the 16th and 17th centuries, are songs chanted by the outstanding Westminster Abbey Choir. I’m no expert on the music of this period, but I find the tracks to be hauntingly beautiful and spiritually focusing.

The Sixth Word
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 8, 2004

“It is finished.”
(John 19:30)

In John’s telling of the passion, Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (19:28). Somebody standing nearby took a wine-drenched sponge and put it to Jesus’ lips. After drinking a bit of the wine, he said, “It is finished” (19:30), and then he died.

What is finished? On a most obvious level, Jesus’ passion is over. He has suffered extreme physical horrors, not to mention the unimaginable horror of bearing human sin. Now, on the verge of death, Jesus’ suffering is finished.

But there are other levels of meaning in the phrase “It is finished” besides the most obvious one. Throughout the Gospel of John Jesus mentions his calling to finish or complete the works his Father has given him:

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (4:34)

“But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” (5:36)

What are the works Jesus was sent to complete? As the Word of God Incarnate, he was the unique revealer, the one who perfectly revealed the glory of the Father (1:14, 18). He taught the truth of God and, indeed, embodied that truth (1:14; 8:31-32; 14:6). He did works of power, signs that revealed his glory and led people to believe his teaching (John 2:11). He loved his followers and gave them the commandment to love each other (13:34-35; 15:12-13) His greatest work of all was being crucified for the sake of the world, that which Jesus described as “being lifted up.” For example, consider these verses from John 3:

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:14-17)

This painting, "Father Forgive Us," is by the contemporary artist, James Janknegt. He paints biblical themes with striking, contemporary images. For more information about this artist, see his website.

In Daniel’s vision, the Son of Man is lifted up to share the glory of God (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus used this language paradoxically to describe his being lifted up on the cross – about as far from obvious glory as a person could ever be (see 12:33). Through this action, Jesus said that he “will draw all people to [himself]” (12:32). So when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” he meant, not only that his passion was over, but that he had completed everything the Father had given him to do.

As we hear the words, “It is finished,” we realize that God’s great plan for salvation has come to fruition. The penalty for human sin has been paid. The gap between sinful humanity and a holy God has been bridged by the sinless Son of God who was fully God and fully human. Now, because of what Jesus has completed, we can be completely whole.

The paradoxical truth of the cross is captured wonderfully in a song by Michael Card, “Cross of Glory.” Here is the chorus:

Upon the cross of glory,
His death was life to me,
A sacrifice of love’s most sacred mystery.
And death rejoiced to hold Him,
For soon He would be free,
For love must always have the victory.

Music for Holy Week

Michael Card’s 2-CD album The Life tells the whole story of Jesus in 29 songs. Many of these are perfect for Holy Week reflection, including: “Scandalon,” “God’s Own Fool,” “Why,” “Known by the Scars,” “Ride on to Die,” “Come to the Table,” “In the Garden,” “Traitor’s Look,” “Cross of Glory,” and “He Was Heard.” Like some of the classic songs I’ve recommended this week, Michael Card’s compositions probe the mystery of the Jesus’ passion, but in a popular idiom.

The Seventh Word
Posted at 9:35 p.m. on Friday, April 9, 2004

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
(Luke 23:46)

In Luke’s Gospel, the last thing Jesus says before dying is: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” On the most obvious level Jesus is simply entrusting himself to God as he dies. He’s saying, “My life and my death are in your hands.”

Yet more is happening in this “word” than appears on the surface because, once again, Jesus is quoting from the Psalms, as he did with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This time Jesus prays the words of Psalm 31. Let me put this quotation in context:

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
     do not let me ever be put to shame;
     in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
     rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
     a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
     for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
     for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
     you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. (Ps 31:1-5)

The original context for Jesus’ simple prayer “Into your hands I commend my spirit” was a strong affirmation of God’s faithfulness and redemption. By quoting from Psalm 31, Jesus is not only entrusting his spirit to God, but also affirming his ultimate trust in God, even the God who has laid upon him the sin of the world. Moreover, the fact that Jesus continues to address God as “Father” indicates his unwavering confidence in the One he has known so intimately and served so faithfully.

Throughout our lives we rely on all sorts of things. We begin life fully dependent on our parents. Along the way we trust teachers, doctors, lawyers, pilots, engineers, spouses, presidents, police officers, friends, pastors, and, of course, ourselves. But, in the end, we put our ultimate trust in God, and in God alone. We realize we can’t save ourselves. We can’t make eternal life happen. We can’t defeat death. We can’t earn our redemption. So, like David in Psalm 31, and like Jesus in Luke 23, we put our lives into the hands of God.

Yet we do so with a peculiar confidence. We know that, in the mystery of the Trinity, God’s hands are not only strong, but vulnerable. They’re not only healing, but wounded. The hands of Jesus, pierced on the cross, are the very hands of God. Into these hands we can trust ourselves completely, knowing that they’ll always be there to catch us, both in life and in death.

Music for Holy Week

My final suggestion for Holy Week music is an album that actually is appropriate for the whole season of Lent and even Easter. Passiontide at St. Paul’s features the heavenly choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, singing four Lenten songs, five songs that focus on the actual passion of Christ, and four celebrative Easter anthems. I’ve owned this CD for several years and have enjoyed it thoroughly, though I almost never listen to the whole album at once. Prior to Easter I focus on the first nine tracks. Thereafter I enjoy the four others, including “This joyful Eastertide” by Charles Wood, one of my favorite Easter pieces.