Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week, Day Seven: The Last Words of Jesus

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

It has been said that Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” Other famous people have uttered final words that were profound, desperate, or just plain crazy. People will say all kinds of things at the point of death.

Jesus had every right for any of the above, given his circumstances. We would understand his final cries to be of incomprehensible anguish or utterances coming from hallucinatory pain. Instead, he offers the words from the prayer book of his people—the Psalms.

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 hand I commit my spirit;
 you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:3-5)

People often think of death as a giving up of all that is valuable and precious to us—human life. In crying out in the words of the Psalm, Jesus brings to the minds of the witnesses to his death something very different. This time of suffering will end, not in the obliteration of life, but instead in Jesus’ entrance into the refuge of his Father.

In both the Hebrew and the Greek of the Bible, the same word is frequently used for spirit, breath, and wind. As Jesus offers his spirit—the breath of God that brings about all of life on earth—he breathes out, offering back to God the life that was his in the first place.

Even as people speak, breath is at work. Our words are formed by teeth and tongue, breath and mind. As God speaks, word becomes flesh; breath becomes life.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

It is intriguing to note that much of the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross were words of prayer. His prayers were not simply the isolated, painful cries of a dying man, but rather the corporate prayers of the people of Israel, gathered into the slowly diminishing life of Jesus, who had come for the sake of his own people and the sake of the world. Jesus cried not only for himself, but also on behalf of Israel, bringing the pain of their exile into his own time of agony.

All the witnesses to Jesus’ death could understandably assume that sin and death had won the day. Rome and Jerusalem conspired in deceit to do away with Jesus; their success was realized when Jesus breathed his final breath. The claws of death would surely wrap around one who died as a criminal and a failed Messiah.

Jesus, however, did not fear such a destiny. As his life dwindled to a dull glow, he laid his spirit into the hands of his Father. Death would not enjoy a victory over Jesus; he belonged to God, and would be received home. Death would have to look around twice to figure out what had just happened.

The confidence that Jesus had in his Father’s desire to receive him gives us hope for ourselves. The same Father who embraced the spirit of Jesus upon his death will one day receive us as well. When Resurrection comes, spirit and body will reunite in God’s new heaven and new earth. There is no shortage of hope for the people of God.

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