Cross Words: A Dying Word And A Living Faith
During these weeks leading up to Easter, we have been thinking together about the words Jesus spoke from the cross. We are not the first to do this nor shall we be the last. But why should we spend so much time, energy, and effort on just a handful of words which can be spoken altogether in less than thirty seconds? Why have so many composers labored to set these words to great music? Why have so many artists worked so hard to represent them on canvas? Why have so many authors surrounded His seven words with millions of their own? Why is it that so many people seek to commit the words to memory? After all, they are not the most important words which Jesus ever spoke. I would submit that there are other words of His which are far more profound and sublime. Not only that, but these words of Jesus are not even emphasized in the Bible. In fact, no one of the Gospels contains them all. You must go from one Gospel to another in order to get all seven. Why then do we focus upon these “Cross Words”? It is because of when they were said. These words are the dying words of Jesus, and dying words invariably take upon themselves special meaning, because one’s dying words can be an accurate reflection of what has been true in one’s living.
That is the reason why we have joined the church through the ages in focusing upon these last words of Jesus. For what is revealed on Calvary is that His dying words are testimony to His living faith. In other words, He died as He lived. I think that is no where more clearly revealed than in the very last words He spoke from the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” That is not so much a dying word as it is a living faith. For you see living or dying, that is precisely what Jesus did. He committed His life, His whole life, into the hands of His Father. That’s why He could live and die as He did, and that is why I want us to look closely now at the very last words He spoke from the cross.
Notice first, that Jesus’ dying words speak of His dependence upon Scripture.
The words “into Your hands I commit my spirit” are actually taken directly from Psalm 31. Remember, please, that the Book of Psalms was both the hymnbook and the prayer book for the Jewish people. We can safely assume that Jesus, like every other child in Palestine, had learned the words of the psalms as a small boy in His home. He had memorized them as a class assignment at the synagogue school. In other words, the words of the Bible so saturated Jesus’ mind that when He spoke whether in time of testing or temptation; whether in the act of preaching or praying; whether in living or in dying; the Scriptures were so much the core and center of His experience that the words of Scripture became His words. You see, nothing instills faith and confidence in a life like the study and the mastery of the Word of God.
Back during the Viet Nam War, Naval Commander Howard Rutledge was captured by the Viet Cong and imprisoned for seven years, five of those years spent in solitary confinement. He later wrote a book about his experience. The book is entitled In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Rutledge tells of how, as a young man attending Sunday School, he never made any particular effort to memorize the Scriptures, but some verses managed to find their way into his memory bank. He said that it was those verses which enabled him to remain in touch with reality during the terrible years in prison. He would spend each day repeating the words to himself. There were some verses which he knew only in part, and he would spend hours trying to search his memory to come up with the rest of those verses. One such verse was this: “Thy word have I hid in my heart.” He couldn’t remember the rest of that verse but he kept repeating the words he did remember over and over and over again—and it strengthened him to do that even though he couldn’t remember the rest of it. Well, one of the first things he did upon his release was to look up the rest of that verse: “Thy word have I hid in my heart, O God, that I might not sin against Thee.” He rejoiced in that truth for he had come to discover in a mind-saving, life-saving way that it was as he rested upon the teachings of the Bible that he kept hold of God and of himself. His captors knew only too well how to break a man, but they never were able to break Commander Rutledge. He claims it was his reliance upon the word of God, which he had hidden in his heart, which enabled him to survive.
Of course, in our society today, the Word of God is readily available—so available, in fact, that we take it for granted. I heard about the fellow who was standing at a bus stop in a rainstorm. There was a woman standing beside him. The fellow said to this woman, “If this rain doesn’t stop, we’ll need an ark.” The woman replied, “What’s an ark?” The man said, “Have you never heard of Noah and the flood, and all the animals.” The woman replied, “Look mister, I’ve only been in this town for two days, and I haven’t had time to read the paper!” Well, we laugh at her, I suppose, but I wonder what will happen to her when the inner storms come. You see, I’ve been at this business of the ministry long enough to know—I’ve been in enough hospital rooms, I’ve been in enough broken homes, I’ve been with enough crying children, I’ve been in enough places where the shadow of death has fallen across a human life—yes, I’ve been at this long enough to know that those who handle hardship the best are those who are the most committed to our Lord, and the evidence of their commitment is this: The word of God is at the center of their lives. That was the source of the peace, and the power, and the poise of Jesus Christ on the cross. He could say, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit,” because the words of the Bible were in His heart.
Notice secondly, that Jesus’ dying words speak of His dependence upon prayer.
Four of Jesus’ words from the cross were actually prayers—and this is one of them. However, I find it fascinating to realize that this would not have been the first time that Jesus prayed this particular prayer. We can be sure that He had prayed it hundreds of times as a child. You see, this was the bedtime prayer taught to little children in Biblical times. It was the first century version of “now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” We know that Jesus was reared by God-fearing parents and therefore we can be certain that for all the years of His childhood, His parents saw to it that each night as He climbed into bed, He prayed, “Father into Your hands I commit my spirit.” And isn’t it fascinating to realize that on the cross, just before His eyes closed in death, He prayed a prayer He had prayed as a child, just before His eyes closed in sleep. Yes, for all of His living and even in His dying Jesus was dependent upon prayer.
I remember hearing about a preacher in Texas many, many years ago who was preaching revival services in a little Texas town. One night while he was preaching, some mischievous boys reversed the wheels on his carriage. They put the big wheels on the front, and they put the small wheels on the back. When the preacher came out, it was dark, and he didn’t notice anything amiss. He got in the carriage, and he headed out towards the deacon’s house where he was going to be staying that night. When he got to the deacon’s house, he said, “That sure is a steep hill between the church and your house.” The deacon replied, “I don’t know what you mean. It’s perfectly flat.” The preacher said, “Oh no, it’s very steep. My horse was straining all the way, and my wagon was tilted.” Well, the next morning they had a good laugh when they discovered the joke. But, you know, what’s not funny is that there are some people who go through life with their priorities reversed so that they strain, and stress, and struggle. They think they are too busy to pray when, in fact, they are “too busy not to pray.” So they struggle uphill all the way through life. That’s why it’s worth remembering that the peace, power, and poise of Jesus Christ on Calvary came from His dependence upon prayer. He prayed, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.”
Then notice, thirdly, that Jesus’ dying words speak of His dependence upon God.
I said that He was quoting these words from Psalm 31, but Psalm 31 actually reads “into Your hands, I commit my spirit.” Notice please, that Jesus added the word “Father.” You see, when Jesus thought of God, He thought of the word “Father,” and to Jesus the word “Father” meant “infinite love.” He never thought of God as a giant policeman who comes running when we sound the alarm. He never thought of God as an enforcer striking out in retaliation against wrongdoing. No instead, he thought of God as a Father reaching out with a redeeming love, and He knew that the same loving hands of His Heavenly father which had led Him in life would lead Him through anything, including death.
So the last word from the cross is not a dying man’s philosophy of life, nor is it a mere echo of a childhood prayer. It is instead the secret of victorious living—not just victorious dying, but victorious living. Do we face problems we cannot begin to solve? “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Do we experience sorrow we are not sure we can bear? “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Do we face temptations stronger than we can endure? “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Are we staring out into the future wondering what’s ahead for us? “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” You see, there is nothing in life or in death for which this word of final confidence is not the answer. We cannot always explain our hardships. We cannot always find a reason for our troubles. And we shall never in this life be able to live free of them. However, if we put our lives into the hands of God, we shall always find a way through. I think that’s what Jesus was saying when He said from the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.”
So why are you here today; to mourn the death of one whose life ended so tragically, to express sympathy for this pain-racked Savior on the cross? Oh my dear friends, we ought not to mourn. Instead, we ought to recall His magnificent love; to be what He calls us to be; to follow Him wherever He chooses to lead us; to live like Him in order to live to the fullest every single day; to smile as He smiled; to serve as He served; to say in every moment of our living, so that we can say it also at the moment of our dying,
“Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.”