What does the cross mean? Myriads of books have been written on the topic, and untold numbers of sermons have been preached on it—rightly so. Yet the meaning of the cross is intensely personal, as Christians through the centuries have learned as they took up their own crosses and followed Jesus.
From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. . . . Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. (Matthew 16:21, 24-25 NLT)
Many Christians are familiar with the tradition of remembering Jesus’ Seven Last Words from the Cross during Passion Week. Churches often have Good Friday services centering on the Words. Thinking about the seven Words is a window into what the cross meant for Jesus, and what it meant to him is what it ought to mean for us.
As you can see from the Table below, the “seven last words” aren’t featured in any one Gospel—they’re derived by listing Jesus’ sayings from the cross in all four Gospel’s in chronological order. Matthew 27 and Mark 15 contain only the fourth Word, Jesus’ cry of abandonment, quoted in Aramaic from Psalm 22:1. The first, second, and final Words are found only in Luke 23. The third, fifth and sixth Words are found only in John 19.
• • • • • • •
Additional resources for Passion Week:
• • • • • • •
Pondering the Seven Last Words this Week
Following Jesus through Passion Week might mean prayerful reflection on one of the sayings each day between today (Palm Sunday) and holy Saturday. With that in mind, we provide brief comments on each of the Seven Words, along with a prayer from the 2019 Book of Common Prayer collects for Holy Week.
- 1. Forgiveness: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus were simply obeying orders. They were clueless about Jesus’ identity. Their ignorance was not exactly an excuse, but the responsibility for their actions fell upon their commander Pontius Pilate, and on the authorities who pressured feckless Pilate to authorize an unjust execution. The martyr Stephen and the apostle Paul both prayed similar prayers (Acts 7:60; 2 Tim 4:16). Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness recalls Jesus’ recent words at the Passover Meal (Last Supper), where he spoke of the cup as representing his blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Exod 24:8; Matt 26:27-28). And as Jesus and Paul both taught us, receiving forgiveness enables us to forgive others (Matt 6:12, 14-15; Eph 4:31-5:2)
PALM SUNDAY: Almighty and everlasting God, in your tender love for us you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon himself our nature, and to suffer death upon the Cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and come to share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- 2. Salvation: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). These words to the repentant thief (traditionally known as Saint Dismas) show us that no one alive, even a hardened criminals at execution, is beyond the saving grace of God. However, as Luke makes clear, the other thief crucified with Jesus did not repent, and went so far as to join the crowd in mocking Jesus. This shows us that we should never doubt the power of God to save sinners, but also that we should never presume on God’s grace.
MONDAY OF HOLY WEEK: Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- 3. Family: Woman, behold your son; behold your mother (John 19:26-27). During the ministry of Jesus, there were moments when he experienced alienation from his own family Mark 3:21; John 7:5). His teaching made it clear that his followers should consider their fellow-followers as family, whether they are members of their biological family or not (Matt 12:46-50). It is touching that some of Jesus’ final words model that teaching, telling the blessed virgin Mary to consider the beloved disciple to be her son, and telling the beloved disciple to consider Mary to be his mother.
TUESDAY OF HOLY WEEK: O Lord our God, whose blessed Son gave his back to be whipped and did not hide his face from shame and spitting: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- 4. Abandonment: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). All of us have felt loneliness and abandonment at times—how much more so Jesus! Betrayed by one of his disciples and denied by another, his greatest loneliness was still to come. Echoing the words of the psalmist, Jesus gives voice to what seems unthinkable to us, his abandonment by the Father. We can’t fully know how that happened, but we know full well that we feel the same way at times.
WEDNESDAY OF HOLY WEEK: Assist us mercifully with your grace, Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the meditation of those mighty acts by which you have promised us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- 5. Suffering: I thirst (John 19:28; Ps 22:15). How ironic that the creator of the heavens and the earth, and all the water they contain, became human and experienced thirst. On one occasion, his thirst led him to sweep aside a custom based on sexual and ethnic bias and ask a Samaritan woman for a drink (John 4:6 ff.). In God’s grace this brought the woman and many in her village to faith (John 4:39-42). But that thirst was nothing compared to the extreme dehydration Jesus experienced in his agony on the cross after he had already endured beating and flogging. A further irony is that his thirst came from “drinking the cup” the Father gave him (Matt 26:39-44), and his thirst enabled us to drink deeply of the Holy Spirit after his resurrection (John 7:37-39).
MAUNDY THURSDAY: Almighty Father, whose most dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it in thankful remembrance of Jesus Christ our Savior, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- 6. Victory: It is finished (John 19:30; likely the loud cry mentioned in Matt 27:50 and Mark 15:37). The Fourth Gospel features Jesus’ faithfulness in accomplishing the mission given to him by the Father (4:34; 5:30, 36; 6:38; 8:28-29; 10:18, 32; 12;49-50; 17:4; 19:28). With that in mind, his cry from the cross does not mean that he is finished or defeated but that he has fully obeyed the Father and completed our redemption. Jesus is far from being defeated by death and the devil. Just the opposite is the case—in Jesus’ death, death dies and the devil’s power is stripped away (Col 2:13-15; Heb 2:14-15). Neither death nor anything else can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:35-39)! With Paul, we can joyfully echo the words of Isaiah and Hosea: Death is swallowed up in Jesus’ victory. The deadly sting of death can no longer harm us. Thanks be to God whose grace permits us to share in the victory of the finished work of Jesus (1 Cor 15:54-56)!
GOOD FRIDAY: Almighty God, we beseech you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the Cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- 7. Reunion: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46). We should view Jesus’ cry of abandonment (#4 above) in light of the confidence and intimacy with which he prays to God here. While Matthew and John simply relate that Jesus gave up his spirit, Luke speaks of a prayer of commitment. Jesus addresses God intimately as a Father, as he taught us to do (Matt 6:9; 7:9-11). He simply asks his Father to receive his spirit (compare the martyr Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:59). John’s Gospel made much of Jesus’ glorious return to the Father (John 16:5; 17:1-5; 20:17). The resurrection accounts in the fourfold Gospel tradition show us how God answered this prayer. Jesus was reinstated to his exalted place at the Father’s right hand, and he soon sent the Spirit to the Church on Pentecost. Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, shows us that death was not the end for Jesus. In fact it was the beginning of a new and even more powerful phase of his ministry.
HOLY SATURDAY: O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Experiencing the meaning of the cross this year
The seven last words tell us what the cross meant to Jesus. They also ask us what the cross means to us. Jesus’ last words confront our deepest fears, and call us to face them in the power of his victory. Each of us need to ponder whether we have experienced the forgiveness that comes only from the free grace of Jesus Christ, and whether we share the hope that Jesus’ promise of paradise instilled in Saint Dismas. Do we experience the inevitable suffering and tragedies of life in this broken world alone, or with the empathy and care of a loving family of fellow Jesus-followers? Does Jesus’ example of faithfulness to God all the way to death encourage us to finish the race set before us? As we face the reality of our own mortality, are we confident that at the end we can commit our spirits to a loving and caring Father in heaven?
It’s hard to follow Jesus, and it’s even harder when you’re alone. Are you experiencing Passion Week in relationship with other believers? This year our church is presenting the Seven Last Words from the Cross in seven services on Good Friday from noon to 7PM. You’re more than welcome to join in worship at Chapel Pointe, 3550 Baldwin, Hudsonville MI. These services will be livestreamed for folks who are unable to attend. You can worship online at Chapel Pointe on Good Friday, Easter, and every Sunday through the year.
Paul spoke of the role of music in deepening our walk with God—”Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:19 NLT). Songs that draw us more deeply into the passion of Jesus are a special blessing. Here are a few that minister to me. Add your favorites in the comments!