Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross

Shakespeare in Richard II, the dying Duke of Lancaster tells the Duke of York:

“O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breath truth that breathe their words in pain.”

– Thomas D. Bedell, “The Tongues of Dying Men,” Readers’ Digest, Date Unknown, p. 122.

Jesus’ dying words were significant. To speak while being crucified would require great effort as the victim would have to pull Himself up by the nails in the wrists in order to expand the diaphragm to speak. So, Jesus went to some effort and bore great pain to speak. Jesus was only able to speak short sentences on the cross. He had to choose His words wisely. He made the effort to speak a total of seven sayings on the cross. They are:

▸ “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)
▸ “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)
▸ “Woman, behold, thy son! Behold, thy mother!” (John 19:26-27)
▸ “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
▸ “I thirst” (John 19:28)
▸ “It is finished” (John 19:30)
▸ “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)

Why are these seven sayings so significant? First, Jesus came to reveal God’s will by becoming the “Word made flesh.” God wants man to know that Jesus is the hope of their salvation. His words on the cross are also focused on the future each statement laden with hope. These sayings also fulfill prophecy showing Jesus to be the Savior on the cross (cf. Ps. 69:21). Each of these taken together help to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Yet the number “seven” is often reoccurring in the Bible. It is a number of significance in the book of Revelation with the seven churches, angels, lampstands, bowls of wrath, etc. It symbolizes completeness. What makes it more interesting and significant is that these sayings are not found listed in a single Gospel. They must be compiled from all four Gospels. The Holy Spirit is thus tying all the Gospels accounts together with these seven sayings.

The context of the first sayings reads: “There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do’” (Luke 23:32-34).

Forgiveness By Deity

Notice that Jesus mentions God the “Father” when requesting forgiveness for those crucifying Him. Forgiveness of sin is a Divine prerogative. Only God could forgive sins. Jesus had the credentials of deity. In fact, He told a paralytic man “Son, your sins are forgiven,” (Mark 2:5). The Jews present asked, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Why didn’t Jesus directly pronounce forgiveness Himself? Later He would draw attention to Himself as one who could forgive sins when He told the thief on the cross he would be with Jesus in Paradise.

Forgiveness Prophesied

Jesus came to fulfill prophecy, such as, “and He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). That day on the cross many prophecies would come to fruition. The fulfillment of these proved that Jesus was indeed the Messiah of promise and that this event was from God and not just the actions of wicked men.

Forgiveness Prayed For

Jesus’ public ministry had opened with prayer (Luke 3:21), and here we see it closing in prayer. Perhaps the greatest injustice and crime was the execution of the innocent Son of God. And yet, Jesus prayed that one day they would be forgiven. Even on the cross Jesus strives to intercede for the lost world. Today, He continues to intercede. “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

Forgiveness Realized

There would be those whose lives would be touched by seeing the events and hearing the sayings of the cross. “So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matt. 27:54). Luke’s account reads: “So when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, ‘Certainly this was a righteous Man!’ (Luke 23:47). In addition to this the centurion would witness the forgiveness of the penitent thief on the cross.

Jesus was not asking for God to forgive His murderer immediately and unconditionally. The answer is seen in the conversion of the three thousand souls on the Day of Pentecost. After all, it was only the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus which made the answer to this prayer a possibility. Later, some five thousand were forgiven (Acts4:4). Before Stephen was martyred, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Forgiveness Not Revenge

Jesus took a great deal of abuse from the mocking of those who stood by and watched Him tortured with crucifixion on the cross. These words were used to wound Him just as the spikes in His hands and feet were meant to give Him pain. They said, “Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God…He saved others but he can’t save himself…If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

If ever a person deserved a shot at revenge, Jesus did. He did not threaten “I’ll get you all for this!” He did not revile with “Come on up here and say that to my face!” Jesus did not promise revenge: “Just wait until after the resurrection, buddy!”

He chose to respond instead of just react. Peter pointed out that “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus knew the purpose of His suffering on the cross. “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). He was betrayed. He was beaten and spit upon. The Roman Guards gambled for His belongings as He suffered. And the all-powerful Son of God who had legions of angels at His command – did nothing but love and forgive. In contrast, when Samson’s time to die came, he called for great strength to avenge the loss of his eyes.

How was Jesus able to keep control of His anger and temptation for retaliation? He knew they were ignorant. He often viewed the masses with compassion. He saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.” He knew the plan and was willing to stick with the plan to save man.

Forgiveness & Ignorance

Jesus was not the only one who would point out the ignorance manifested by Jesus’ murderers. Peter said, “Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). Paul wrote, “none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).

Despite this there was no excuse for them not knowing who Jesus was. Most had heard Jesus’ preach and teach and perform many signs, wonders and miracles. They knew He was a man who did many good deeds. They may have heard Pilate more than once declare Jesus’ innocence.

The Jews were not unaware of what they were doing. “And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). They would bear the guilt of Jesus’ death in future generations. Judas knew he had betrayed a friend; Pilate three times declared him innocent (Lk. 23:1-22). The Sanhedrin bribed a false witness. None of this suggests that they were unaware that they were sinning.

Be careful not to confuse ignorance with being innocent. Jesus did not say, “they don’t know what they were doing, so let them go free.” God is Holy, and He will not lower His standard of righteousness to the level of our ignorance.

They were indeed ignorant of the extent of their sins. They did not know all they had done. Adam Clarke wrote, “If ignorance does not excuse a crime, it at least diminishes the atrocity of it” (Adam Clarke). Many have driven through a red light “ignorantly.” They may have been also ignorant of any accident that may have occurred due to their traffic infraction.

Forgiveness is Conditional

Jesus was not asking for an unconditional pardon. He was not requesting of God to overlook the need for Divine justice. A just punishment is due for every sin. Jesus’ blood was the justice for sin. The Hebrew writer asks and answers a question concerning sin and justice. “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Heb. 2:2-4). The crucifixion of Jesus was the greatest travesty of justice that was ever perpetrated. Forgiveness is not God just saying, “let’s just let bygones be bygones”. God was not about to extend His grace toward sinners until His holy justice is satisfied.

Forgiveness is conditioned on Jesus’ sacrifice. “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). “Jesus was building a bridge of forgiveness over which his tormentors could come in penitence to the Father” (Lutzer 7). All sins are unpardonable without the blood of Christ.

Jesus’ prayers were not for those who did not want to be forgiven, but for those who would seek it. Forgiveness of sin comes after repentance of sins. Jesus said, “except you repent you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:30). If all Christ had to do for man’s forgiveness was to make this request of God, why did God have Him suffer on the cross?

Forgiveness for All

Who was the “them” Jesus was asking God to forgive? There are four groups at the cross: 1) the two thieves crucified with Him; 2) the common people, the rulers, and the soldiers. All of them needed forgiveness of sins. All four had one thing in common: they attacked Jesus. Peter explained weeks later, “all the house of Israel” crucified Christ (Acts 2:36). Additionally, all were the objects of this prayer. Peter told everyone in the temple that they “killed the Prince of life” (Acts 3:15). If forgiveness is extended to those who put Jesus on the cross, it is available for anyone.

Forgiveness Modeled

Jesus taught and modeled forgiveness in life and in death. In His sermon on the mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you (Matt. 6:14). When Peter suggested that one could forgive a brother of sin up to seven times in a day, “Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). The cross of Jesus gives the clearest picture of what forgiveness costs God.

Can you be like Jesus in the way you forgive others? When some mock you and hurt you can you pray, “Father forgive…” Could we forgo revenge? Would we hold an unforgiving grudge against our enemy? Marianne Williamsen said, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.”

The end result of forgiveness is to be reconciled to the offender. You show me a good strong marriage and I will show you two people who have learned how to forgive one another.

When we forgive others, it is not exactly like God’s forgiveness. After all, we are not perfectly Holy and Just like God. He is the one who Judges mankind and has set forth a plan of salvation for the forgiveness of sins based on the blood of His Son. But we can see God’s forgiveness of our sins as a motivation for forgiving others. Paul said, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32).

To forgive and let go is to let God deal with the injustices. This leaves you free to not be permanently victimized by your enemies. Consider Stephen who was able to model the forgiveness of Jesus in his dying breaths. As the Pharisees were stoning him to death “he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). Those who are forgiven by God find it easier to forgive others. Those who forgive others will also find God willing to forgive them.

Jesus has prayed for your forgiveness. What have you done to see to it that His prayers have been answered? Are you still in your sins? Those who were condemned by Peter for crucifying Christ asked what they must do about this grave crime against God. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’” (Acts 2:38, ESV).

– Daniel R. Vess

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Categories: The Forum