Luke 23:46 “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
These are the last words which our Lord spoke from the cross. In all he spoke seven times. They are famously known as the ‘Seven Words of the Cross,’ and the late Paul Tucker points out in his delightful book on those seven sayings Jesus Crucified for Me that those words are his lasting legacy to us, that to Jewish people seven was a number which had a special significance. It was associated with perfection or completion. So to Jewish people the fact that Christ spoke seven times from the cross would imply that his words were in some way complete, they were not lacking, nor were there any superfluous words. Seven was also to Jewish people a number which signified rest, associated with the seventh day of creation when God rested, and with the sabbath day. Chapter 2 of Genesis begins, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.”
It is something so massively unique that this work of the creation of the cosmos can alone be compared to the work of creation’s redemption on Calvary. Redemption, of course, was a far more costly work for God to perform. The creation of the world was by the word of God, “For he spake and it was done, he commanded, and it stood fast” (Psa. 33 : 9). His word had the power of creation, “Let there be … and there was.” But to redeem the cosmos a mere fiat was not enough, it could only be achieved by the blood and the death of the Son of God. Re-creation was costlier and more demanding than the first creation. One writer has said that it would have been cheaper for God to make new creatures than for him to re-make the old ones. There’s truth in this, for he could have wiped out the whole of the groaning creation which had fallen into rebellion against him by a flicker of his will, and he could have begun all over again to make a new race. But no, in spite of our fallenness God loved the creatures he had made and determined to redeem us, “God commends his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
In creation the sixth day was the day on which God finished his work. On the cross the sixth cry was the triumphant cry, “It is finished”, which made heaven rejoice and hell tremble. Now follows the word of restfulness, the labour of redemption all complete. Jesus commended himself into the hands of his God that he might rest there after the three hours of darkness ends. The loud shout, “It is finished” has been cried. The dereliction is over. Redemption has been accomplished and the horrific experience of the loss of his Father has been lifted from Christ never to return. Now the Son is leaving his years of humiliation and he is returning to his Father. Now as he prays it is no longer to address him as, “My God,” but it is again to say “Father!” Now fellowship is being renewed. The sin God imputed to the Lord of glory has all been dealt with by Christ. Consider the biblical pictures that tell man how far our guilt has been taken from us. It is buried in the depth of the sea and remembered no more. It has been removed from us as far as the east is from the west. Again, it has been cast into the bottomless pit. So now there is no barrier between God and his forgiven people. The veil of the Temple has been rent in twain and to the living God all his people can come running with anticipation, assured of an audience and a welcome. All the wrath of a sin-hating God has been exhausted and propitiated. All that had been prophesied of the suffering Servant has been fulfilled. All the types and ceremonies, all the satisfaction, has been accomplished and proclaimed. One thing is left, one last great act of atonement, and that is the tearing apart of body and spirit in death. The warning was given to the first Adam – “the day that thou dost eat of that fruit thou shalt die” – but that death has now been visited upon the second Adam. Jesus will taste death for us, of now leaving the world of the dying and returning to the outstretched arms of a loving Father, and so his final word before his death is this “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” He will soon exchange the crown of thorns for a crown of glory and from conflict he will enter his rest sitting down at the right hand of God.
“Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (v.46). These words declare that Jesus knew who he was. He knew who he was, what was his composition, that he was not merely a body which would soon rot, and stink, to be eaten by worms and turn eventually into dust. He knew that he was body and spirit and that that spirit would survive death, and that it was possible for him to yield that spirit into the hands of the God he knew to be his own Father. He knew the resurrection of his body lay before him. “The third day I will rise again,” he’d often told them. Here we hear him yielding himself to his Father’s care.
1. THE UNIQUENESS OF OUR LORD’S DEATH.
“I commit my spirit into your hands,” he says. His choice of this word ‘commit’ is interesting. It means to ‘lay down.’ In every account of Jesus’ death in the gospels it is made quite clear that our Lord’s death was voluntary. In other words, it was he himself who finally decided the precise moment at which his death should come. When Stephen was stoned to death he echoed these words of the Lord Jesus, but have you noticed that he did not use his exact words. Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). There’s an important difference: Stephen was being killed, he would die at the hands of his enemies, but he had no power to decide the moment when he would actually die. He had no right to choose the moment to terminate his life. He was in effect praying that when the moment of death came to him the Lord would receive his spirit. But our Lord was himself handing over his life and dismissing his spirit into the hands of his Father. It’s true that his death was set in motion by men, wicked hands took him and put him upon the cross. Of course, this was within the context of the direct will of God. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2 : 23).
One authority points out that whereas Jesus bowed his head and gave up the ghost, the final acts of a crucified man desiring to prolong his life would be to lift up his head. That would be the act of self-preservation. He would have to get oxygen into his lungs. Of course as he weakens Jesus would find this more and more difficult to do, until finally his head falls on his chest and he gives up his spirit. But in every action on the cross our Lord was in control – of every part of his dying. He claimed that he had power to lay down his life and here we see this. He voluntarily bowed his head and died, resigning his life to his Father. We can say that it was a supernatural death. Remember how the birth of Jesus was supernatural, how he was born of a virgin-mother without a human father, begotten by the Holy Spirit. No one else has ever come into the world in this way, and no man has ever lived in the way that Jesus lived, holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners. Even the rake, Lord Byron, once said of him, “If ever man were God, and God were man, Jesus Christ was both.” But my point now is that neither has any person died as Jehovah Jesus died. No one else has ever decided the moment at which he should die and dismissed his spirit from his body. Our Lord was unique in birth, in life and in death.
THE JOY OF THE FATHER AT NEWS OF HIS SON’S RETURN.
Think of the delight in the heart of the father of the prodigal son when he saw the dedraggled figure of his son appearing on the horizon walking down the country lane after all his time away. Think of how he didn’t prolong the son’s concerns, waiting for the boy to walk all the way to the farmhouse door, and then maybe not opening it the first time that he knocked. No! Out the father ran along the country lane to meet his son when he was still a distant figure. How he’d missed him, and he wrapped his arms around him, stinking of his pigs, kissing him, as if to say, “I’ll never let you go again.” I’m pointing out to you the delight in the Father of Jesus Christ, even as he heard these words of his Son in our text – the beloved Jesus who had also spent such a horrific time in a ‘distant country’ called Golgotha, not against the will of his Father but there because the Father sent him. Consider what the Father had been seeing in the past hours when there was no light (darkness and light are both alike to him). Nothing of the pain of his Son, physical, emotional social or spiritual had the Father also not known. Jesus’ sufferings were thus communicated into the Godhead. Christ and his Father were one in their joy and grief. Then finally the three hours were over, the darkness lifted and God looked at his own Son seeing so differently the one whom the spectators and the mob saw without faith as mere ugliness and barbarity, as though they were looking at a side of raw meat hanging there. How God loved him! Ted Donnelly accompanied one of his elders to visit his wife, terminally ill with cancer. They went into the ward together and she was thin, jaundiced, and dying, but his elder said to him, “Look at her Ted! Isn’t she lovely?” That is how love speaks, and that is how the Father saw the Son when the darkness lifted, in all his beauty on the cross, the altogether lovely one. For him it was the rose of Sharon hanging there in all its fragrance and beauty. God looked at his Son as Abraham must have looked at his only son Isaac by Sarah, only infinitely more lovingly, because Jesus was a lovelier Son and God was a better Father.
I am saying that as the darkness ended and the Father looked at the Son, here was a scene of love divine all loves excelling, yes, but all of a Father’s pain was there too, and all of a Father’s regret that he hadn’t been able to spare his Son and take the pain himself. There had been all of a Father’s longing to hold his Son’s hand and whisper in his ear that he loved him so much. In the darkness Christ had been the anathema. He had been accursed; he had been made sin; he was one whom the Father could not look upon and could not condone and could not spare. His identity with sin was total. He was the beloved holocaust, and as a holocaust he must burn and burn, consumed by the magnificent rectitude of the God who is light and who is also a consuming fire.
You remember the great words of Romans 8 that God did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all. How God must have longed much earlier to have launched the legion of angels to rescue him and end the pain and heal his wounds and assure him of his love. Christian mothers have longed to spare their sons from the pain of Christian service and heart ache. Christian parents have bled in their hearts when the world has turned on a missionary and scorned him, and tortured him, and finally put him to death cruelly. Parents have longed to relieve their Christian children of their pain. God had been seeing right into the darkness and God knew all that his only begotten Son was enduring.
You know how it is marvelously put in the gospels. One of them describes the soldiers and their dividing of the criminals’ clothes, and gambling over Christ’s robe and then the evangelist tells us what they did next, “Sitting down they watched him there.” Him . . . there!” Again I say, “Him . . . there!” The only begotten Son of the Father . . . crucified! The Son of God . . . anathematized! God the Son . . . a desolate derelict, forsaken by the God who loved him and the God who cared for him, simply longing to comfort him. But the covenant was, “The cup shall not pass.” The cup had to be drunk to its dregs. Every drop drunk. Remember his words to his men as he set his face determinedly to Jerusalem against all their objections: “The Son of Man must suffer many things . . . must . . . must.” That ‘must’ was rooted not in human conventions, not in theological controversy, but in great realities deep in the heart of God. There are realities that say that God can forgive sin, and that God loves to do it, and that God multiplies pardon, but that God can condone nothing. God must deal with sin; he must turn from it; he must remove it; he must bear it; its debt must be cleared; someone must take the guilt that God can forgive. The one who bears it is the one who exacts it.
Here we have the conundrum; God demanded the atonement; God provided the atonement; God became the atonement. Not only is there a lamb of God, but God is the Lamb. Feed the flock of God which God purchased with his own blood. That surely is the greatest reality to the Christian faith. He became the curse for us; he became the sacrifice; he became the scapegoat; he became the temple; he became the priest; he became the scarlet thread outside the house of a prostitute – the sign of her being favoured by Jehovah; he became the ark that saved those inside it; he became the fountain opened up for defiling sin.
I ask you why this cross? This is the eternal Son of the everlasting Father and he is in the darkness in all the anomalousness of the Father not sparing him in all the ugliness and horrendousness and utter indefensibleness of what happened on Golgotha. Here, I say, is the ugliest deed in the history of the cosmos. In its human hatred of gentle Jesus, meek and mild it is ugly. In man’s rejection of the gift of God the Son it is ugly, but as God crucifying his own Son, then that is the ugliest of all. Where is there light on this? “Spare him,” we cry. “Don’t let them do that to beloved Jesus!” we are aching. We need light there, because if I can’t find light my whole universe is a black hole. Rationality won’t exist; there is no logic; there is something there on the hill of Golgotha that is more horrific than Belsen, and more mind-boggling than Aberfan.
Why did God put his Son in the darkness on the cross? And there is an answer. There is! We not left with eternal perplexities. We find our answer in this, that he died for us; he was made a curse for us; in our place condemned he stood; Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. He had no personal connection with sin, but he became connected with us, and that made him a debtor. That made him sin for us. By sin I mean our rebellion against the will of God. I am talking of such things as idolatry. Atheism. Blasphemy. Sabbath breaking. Dishonouring Mam and Dad. Violence. Sexual promiscuity. Deceit. Theft. Covetous greed. And in the darkness he was made all of that. That is why God recoiled, and that is why he sent him into the far country. That is why God wouldn’t listen when he called. That is why he wouldn’t look when the Saviour bled. What a glorious word is this, just three letters long, for! It declares God is for me because he made his Son die for my sins. He became the anathema as my agent. He entered the darkness in my place, and there was no sparing him in that place. If he had been spared than I could not have been spared.
But I have been saying that what the Son endured the Father similarly had to endure. I would say with all reverence that the Father could not wait for his Son to come back home. The hands that had had to be fiercely withheld from helping him while he trod out the winepress of God’s wrath alone are now outstretched in eager anticipation to hold him and hug him again and say, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus knew this. These last words to his father were not a request to, “Please stretch your hand out to receive my Spirit.” No. They were words full of confidence. God the Son saw with the eyes of trust his Father’s hands welcoming him. Christ had no resentment at the way his Father had dealt with him in the last 24 hours, making him drink that cup, not sparing him. There was only one place he wanted to be, and that was in his Father’s arms again. From these words of Jesus’ deliverance a joyful reunion in heaven is anticipated.
3. THE HOPE OF THE SON AS HE CONSIDERS HIS DEATH
I am saying that Jesus’ hope is a pattern for us, because I may not speak of Christ on the cross merely in terms of all that he has saved us from. He has saved us for something; he has saved us also in order that we might receive endless blessings all of which are bought by his blood. He suffered the anathema in order that the blessings God promised to Abraham might come to us Gentiles through Jesus Christ. What blessings? The indwelling Spirit. Faith. Repentance. A new heart. A loving Master. Justification. The righteousness of Christ. Adoption into the family of God. Maturity. Union with Christ. Perseverance. Glorification. Likeness to Jesus. An inheritance incorruptible, undefiled and that fades not away reserved in heaven for us, every spiritual blessing beyond everything that you could ask or even think.
My point is this, that at death, what Jesus was also anticipating those who are joined to him by faith shall also experience. It was for the joy that was set before him that he endured the cross. When he died he knew that he was commending his spirit into the loving, welcoming hands of his Father which grand destination will also be that of every one of the people for whom he died. And for us too there is a Father longing to see us and release us from remaining sin. He has determined to complete the work he has begun in us all. Jesus completed his work. It was finished, and so his work in every single Christian will be finished. Jesus will say to us all, “Enter in the joy of your Lord.” He first entered the joy set before him, and we will share in that glorious joy.
What did Jesus do at the end? He did what every Christian hopes will occur, that we will end our lives with the promises of Scripture on our lips, because these words once again that Jesus spoke are the words of Scripture. They are the words of another psalm, not now Psalm 22 but here is Psalm 31 and verse five, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” What is more they are the words of King David! David the courageous and lovely young king; David the ugly sinner; David who loved God and grieved over his wickedness. Jesus’ last words on earth were a quotation of David the sinner who wrote words inspired by the Spirit of God. What a model this is for us in our dying to hope that some word of Scripture will come to us too, and when we launch into worlds unknown we will be accompanied with Spirit-inspired words.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE SON AT HIS DEPARTURE.
So at the end of his days Jesus commends his spirit into the hands of the Father. He does this, not with the feeble voice of a man who dies exhausted, but with the clear voice of one who is sovereign even in death and over death. The one who raised from the dead the widow of Nain’s son, and Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus now takes control of his own dying, declaring where he is going and to whom he is going. He knows his destination. He knows whom he is to meet. So often you hear men and women rejecting the gospel shrugging and declaring that no one has come back from the dead. So no one knows if there is anything after death. But Jesus did overcome and return. Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. His body did not remain in the guarded grave. He came out of the tomb. He spoke to his disciples. He stayed with them on the earth off and on for 40 days in all manner of locations. He ministered encouragement to them and answered their questions. He was not a ghostly floating figure. He spoke, and he fished, and killed fish, and gathered wood and made a fire, and baked bread, and ate and drank with them. He let himself be touched by them. We know that they believed in ghosts because they thought the knocking on the door of the prayer meeting was by Peter’s ghost, but they never thought for a moment that the risen Jesus was a ghost. That was inconceivable. Mary thought he was a gardener – he was that human and corporeal in his appearance.
I am saying that at the end of his life he knew where he was going – into the arms of his heavenly Father. Do you know that? Do you know that if you contracted an incurable illness and that in three months’ time you would be dead, would you know where you are going? I assure you that though your body is going to decay that your spirit is not going to be annihilated. That is not an option. You just have two options, one of which is indescribably fearful, but the other is that you will go to the very same destination as Jesus went, into a loving Father’s arms of welcome. Do you believe that through the death of Christ this heavenly life of fulfilment and dedication is going to be yours? You can have the same hope as Jesus, but you must first have his Father as your father and the way that that happens is this: you must receive him into your life as your Lord, and as your prophet and priest and king. To as many as received him to them God gave the right to be called the sons of God. Receive him! It is a movement of your heart and soul made effective by the Holy Spirit working in your life.
I speak with the same authority as Jesus spoke to his Father, in other words, with the power that God has given me as a preacher of his word, and that is true authority. Isn’t it here with this affirming, believing Jesus? Millionaire businessman Alan Sugar will dismiss a contestant who wants to be his employee and would work for him. He will be disappointed if he is turned away at Sugar’s words of rejection, but if he should say, “Go!” then that person cannot stay. So it is with Christ when he dismisses his spirit into the hands of God. He tells his spirit to go, and immediately the spirit is gone. It is the thinnest veil separating us from our eternal home. The suffering before may be long. The valley may be dark and shadowy, but when we die then immediately we are with Christ. Reconciliation has been accomplished. We are going home. Nothing can stop us from going home. There can be no delay. On Golgotha incarnation in humiliation is approaching its end, certainly at this stage. The Lord Jesus breathes out his spirit. With divine authority he delivers up his spirit into the keeping of the Father’s hands.
When Jesus approaches the disintegration of body and soul then he is in complete control, and he does so fearlessly. The One who dies on that centre cross at Calvary dies as the Prince of life and Ruler over death. In his dying hour, Jesus spoke in confident assurance of faith, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Let me emphasize this again that we are never to forget that these final words of Jesus on the cross were not spoken in an exhausted whisper, as many mortals have to when they breathe their last. Death didn’t take the initiative. It did not lay its hand on Jesus shoulder and give him the summons to depart. Death did not address him; it was Jesus who spoke to death. He went out to meet death and gave it its duty. The Son of Man bowed his head and willed to die.
It is the heart of the gospel that our Lord came into the world in order to make a gift to us, and that gift is eternal life. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. The price was paid by him; it was his precious blood, “his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). But Jesus laid down his life that he might take it again. His death was followed by his victory over death. There was the note of confidence and triumph in his few words. Having accomplished the Father’s will in obedient service and atoning sacrifice, he takes up his life anew to die no more. Our Lord alone can say with sovereignty, “I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17&18).
5. TO ENJOY THE FATHER’S WELCOME AFTER WE DIE, WE MUST ENJOY HIS MANY WELCOMES WHILE WE LIVE.
Let me close with a word going in two directions.
i] A word of exhortation, to disciples of the Lord Jesus to encourage us to seize any moment to talk to our Father. Our Lord was here in a unique situation. He was still experiencing great suffering; yet now he could turn and say a word to his Father. His example is reminding us that fellowship with God is not dependent upon a time like a Sunday morning, or a place like a church building with candles and statues and special music. It depends on a heart relationship with him. We can be in touch with God, not only in a stated meeting, but at any time and in any place, if our hearts are in the right relationship to him through the Lord Jesus Christ and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Paul could pray in the middle of the ocean in a storm. Daniel, even when in the lions’ den, was in wonderful communion with the living God whom he served continually. The three Hebrew boys, when they were thrown into the fiery furnace, were not only untouched by the flames, but were also seen walking freely about in the flames along with one whom Nebuchadnezzar said was like the Son of God. We shall probably never be thrown into a lions’ den or into a furnace of fire, but if fellowship with God is possible in such fearful places for those who keep in step with the Spirit, surely it’s possible at any place. Paul and Silas in a dungeon sang psalms together to God. Many Christians in our day are called to undergo persecution and endure fiery trials. Their communion with God is often deeper in such experiences than at any other time. Jesus told us that we should always pray and not faint.
ii] A word of inquiry. Jesus said, “Father.” Can we all say ‘Father’ when we address God? The Lord could say it because he was uniquely the Son of God. But because of the cross, if we trust in the redemption which Christ bought for us, we can become sons of God. He died on the cross in order that anybody who sees their need and believes that Jesus Christ alone can meet that need can cry to God to make them his children. Only by trusting in God’s Son can we become sons of God, but if we have received from God’s grace this faith in Jesus his son, if we are putting our trust alone in the merits of the blood of Jesus for our eternal salvation, then wherever we are and whenever we come to God, we can, wondrously, call him Father.
We can experience the security that such a relationship includes of knowing that we are safe as far as our souls are concerned, for time and for eternity. To be, as Jesus was from that moment, in the hands of the Father is to know the greatest security that it is possible for a human being to know, “My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10: 29).
Better education, the best political party and policies, peace conferences, the United Nations’ Organisation – though all necessary and helpful in our needy world – can offer us only limited help or hope. But if we are in the Father’s hands what need have we to fear of anything that might happen to us? There we shall be safe and secure from all alarms. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” This is not wishful thinking or a fairy tale philosophy. It is an eternal glorious fact based upon the revealed Word of God and the Person of His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” He said, “Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.”
24th March 2013 GEOFF THOMAS