As we approach what many consider to be “Holy Week,” it’s important for us to consider as Christians the moments leading up to Jesus’ wondrous display of humility and God’s love for us in that He would send His only Son to die for our sins. As recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the final moments of Jesus’ life included Him being mocked, scorned, and tortured. He then would carry His cross to Calvary, the same cross that He would be nailed to and hung between two common criminals. Finally, He would come to suffer an indescribable death for our sake.
Before He breathed His last, Jesus uttered seven statements as He hung on the cross. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at each of these sayings. As simple and short as they may seem, they still give an amazing view of God’s love for us, as to what Jesus had to endure for our sake, as well as the great promise provided to us through Christ’s great sacrifice.
Two others – criminals – were also led away to be executed with Him. When they arrived at the place called The Skill, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided His clothes and cast lots.
The people stood watching, and even the leaders kept scoffing: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked Him. They came offering Him sour wine and said, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”
An inscription was above Him:
THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”
But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”
And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.”
So, we have foregone the brutal moments in which Jesus was tortured and put on trial, but now we come to an even more gruesome scene: the cross. Jesus of Nazareth is looking down from the cross after being nailed and hung between two criminals. He sees the soldiers who have mocked, scourged, and tortured Him, and who have just threaded nails through His hands (or wrists).
Jesus could probably make out the voices of those who had sentenced Him – Caiaphas and the high priests of the Sanhedrin. Pilate himself realized that it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18, Mark 15:10). It’s hard to imagine that Jesus isn’t thinking of His Apostle and other companions who had deserted Him – including Peter who had denied Him three times, who only days before had praised Him on His entrance to Jerusalem, and then days later chose him over Barabbas to be crucified (if anything by being silent in the choice of the matter).
But here is another thought: Jesus was probably thinking of us, who daily forget Him in our lives as well. So often we take advantage of God’s love, mercy, and grace. So often we neglect such a great salvation.
But, does Jesus react angrily? No! Even at the height of his physical suffering, His love prevails and He asks His Father to forgive. Could there ever be greater irony? Jesus asks His Father to forgive, but it is by His very sacrifice on the cross that mankind can be forgiven.
Right up to his final hours on earth, Jesus preaches forgiveness. He teaches forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us of our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). When asked by Peter how many times we should be willing to forgive someone, Jesus answers “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).
At the Last Supper, Jesus explains His crucifixion to His Apostles when He tells them to drink of the cup: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). He goes on to forgive the paralytic at Capernaum (Mark 2:5), as well as the adulteress caught in the act and about to be stoned to death (John 8:1-11). Even following His resurrection, His first act is to commission His disciples to forgive: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
Now it was not just the religious leaders or the soldiers that mocked Jesus, but even one of the criminals, a downward progression of mockery. But the criminal on the right speaks up for Jesus, explaining the two criminals are receiving their just due, whereas “This man has done nothing wrong.” Then, turning to Jesus, he asks, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
This repentant sinner has wonderful faith in Jesus – far more than the doubting Thomas, one of Jesus’ own Apostles. Ignoring His own suffering, Jesus responds with love and mercy in His second statement from the cross. It is again about forgiveness, this time directed to a sinner. Just as the first phrase, this Biblical expression is found only in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus shows His divinity by opening heaven for a repentant sinner – such generosity to a man that only asked to be remembered.
This expression offers us hope for salvation, for if we simply turn our hearts and prayers to Him and accept His forgiveness, we will also be with Jesus at the end of our lives.
These are hard sayings when considering the amount of pain and suffering Jesus had endured up to this point, as well as in the moments to come. And even still, despite receiving the very wrath of God Himself, Jesus was not angry or bitter, but lovingly accepted the call and purpose God had placed in His life: to be a ransom for many, the Ultimate Sacrifice.
In the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because of their fear of the Jews. Then Jesus came, stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!”
Having said this, He showed them His hands and His side. So the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Even amid turmoil and strife, Jesus brings about an amazing peace and contentment. In looking at His interaction with His disciples following the crucifixion, Jesus mimicked and alluded to the first creation of man, when God breathed into him the breath of life, and he became a living soul.
It’s also important to fully understand the statement found in verse 23. Only God can forgive sins, and Christ, being God, has the power to do so as well, but He never communicated to His disciples, nor did they ever assume any such power to themselves. The key to understanding the meaning of this verse lies in the previous two verses: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ After saying this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Jesus was leaving the earth physically, but promised God would be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit living in them. As they proclaimed the Gospel, they could honestly tell people who believe that message that their sins were forgiven, and they could honestly tell people that did not believe in the message that their sins were not forgiven and that they stand condemned in God’s eyes.
“The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.”