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Vol. 5, Sermon 14 - The Last Utterances of Christ

By Frederick W. Robertson

      Preached Good Friday, 1851

      "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost."-John xix. 30.

      There are seven dying sentences of our Lord's recorded in the Gospels; one recorded conjointly by St. Matthew and St. Mark, three recorded by St. Luke, and three by St. John. That recorded by the first two evangelists is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Those preserved by St. Luke only are, "Verily, I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with me in paradise;" "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do;" and, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit." The three recorded by St. John are these: "I thirst;" "Behold thy mother; behold thy son;" and lastly, "It is finished." And these seven group themselves into two divisions: we perceive that some of them are the utterances of personal feeling, and others are the utterances of sympathy for others.

      These are, therefore, the two divisions of our subject to day-

      I. The natural exclamations of the Man.

      II. The utterances of the Saviour.

      The first of those which we class under the exclamations of the Man, referring to His personal feelings, is, "I thirst;" in answer to which they gave Him vinegar to drink. Now upon first reading this, we are often tempted to suppose, from the unnatural character of the draught, that an insult was intended; and therefore we rank this among the taunts and fearful sufferings which He endured at His crucifixion. But as we become acquainted with Oriental history, we discover that this vinegar was the common drink of the Roman army, their wine, and therefore was the most likely to be at hand when in the company of soldiers, as He then was. Let it be borne in mind that a draught was twice offered to him: once it was accepted, once it was refused. That which was refused was the medicated potion-wine mingled with myrrh-the intention of which was to deaden pain, and therefore when it was presented to the Saviour it was rejected. And the reason commonly assigned for that seems to be the true one: the Son of Man would not meet death in a state of stupefaction, He chose to meet His God awake.

      There are two modes in which pain may be struggled with-through the flesh, and through the spirit; the one is the office of the physician, the other that of the Christian. The physician's care is at once to deaden pain either by insensibility or specifies; the Christian's object is to deaden pain by patience. We dispute not the value of the physician's remedies, in their way they are permissible and valuable; but yet let it be observed that in these there is nothing moral; they may take away the venom of the serpent's sting, but they do not give the courage to plant the foot upon the serpent's head, and to bear the pain without flinching. Therefore the Redeemer refused, because it was not through the flesh, but through the Spirit, that He would conquer; to have accepted the anodyne would have been to escape from suffering, but not to conquer it. But the vinegar or sour wine was accepted as a refreshing draught, for it would seem that He did not look upon the value of the suffering as consisting in this, that He should make it as exquisite as possible, but rather that He should not suffer one drop of the cup of agony which His Father had put into His hand to trickle down the side untasted. Neither would He make to Him. self one drop more of suffering than His Father had given.

      There are books on the value of pain; they tell us that if of two kinds of food the one is pleasant and the other nauseous, we are to choose the nauseous one. Let a lesson on this subject be learnt from the Divine example of our Master.

      To suffer pain for others without flinching, that is our Master's example; but pain for the mere sake of pain, that is not Christian; to accept poverty in order to do good for others, that is our Saviour's principle; but to become poor for the sake and the merit of being poor, is but selfishness after all. Our Lord refused the anodyne that would have made the cup untasted which His Father had put into His hand to drink, but He would not taste one drop more than His Father gave him. Yet He did not refuse the natural solace which His Father's band had placed before Him.

      There are some who urge most erroneously the doctrine of discipline and self-denial. If of two ways one is disagreeable, they will choose it, just because it is disagreeable; because food is pleasant and needful, they will fast. There is in this a great mistake. To deny self for the sake of duty is right-to sacrifice life and interests rather than principle is right; but self-denial for the mere sake of self-denial, torture for torture's sake. is neither good nor Christlike. Remember, He drank the cooling beverage in the very moment of the sacrifice; the value of which did not consist in its being made as intensely painful as possible, but in His not flinching from the pain, when love and duty said, Endure.

      His second exclamation was, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" We will not dive into the deep mysteries of that expression-we will not pretend to be wiser than what is written, endeavoring to comprehend where the human is mingled with the Divine-we will take the matter simply as it stands. It is plain from this expression that the Son of God felt as if He had been deserted by His Father. We know that He was not deserted by Him, or else God had denied Himself, after saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And they who maintain that this was real desertion, attribute that to the Lord of Love which can alone belong to Judas-the desertion of innocence-therefore we conclude that it arose from the infirmities of our Master's innocent human nature. It was the darkening of His human soul, not the hiding of God's countenance. He was worn, faint, and exhausted; His body was hanging from four lacerated wounds; and more than that, there was much to perplex the Redeemer's human feelings, for He was suffering there, the innocent for the guilty. For once God's law seemed reversed; and then came the human cry," My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

      And now, brethren, observe in this, that it arose apparently from the connection of the Redeemer's death with sin. When the death-struggle of the flesh begins, and we first become aware of the frailty of our humanity, then the controversy of God with the soul is felt to be real by reason of our consciousness of sin; then is felt, as it were, the immense gulf that separates between the pure and the impure. In the case of the Son of Man this was, of course, impossible; consciousness of sin He had none, for He had no sin; but there was a connection, so to speak, between the death of Christ and sin, for the apostle says, "In that He died, He died unto sin once." "He died unto sin;" there was a connection between His death and sin, though it was not His own sin, but the sin of the whole world. In that moment of the apparent victory of evil, the Redeemer's spirit, as it would appear, felt a darkness similar to ours when sin has hidden our consciousness of God. When death is merely natural, we can feel that the hand of God is there; but when man interferes, and the band of God is invisible, and that of man is alone seen, when all seems dark and uncertain. The despondency of the Redeemer was not supernatural, but most natural darkness. The words He used were not his own, but David's words; and this proclaims that suffering, such as He was then bearing had been borne before Him-the difference was in degree, not in kind. The idea of piety struggling with, and victorious over evil, had been exhibited on each before. The idea was imperfectly exhibited in the sufferings of Israel regarded as typical of Christ. In Christ alone is it perfectly presented. So also that wondrous chapter, the fifty-third of Isaiah, justly describing both, belongs in its entireness to Christ: He therefore adopted these words as His own.

      The last personal ejaculation of our Redeemer was, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit." We take this in connection with the preceding; for if we do not, the two will be unintelligible, but taking them together, it becomes plain that the darkness of the Redeemer's mind was but momentary. For a moment the Redeemer felt alone and deserted, and then, in the midst of it, He cried out, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit." In that moment He realized His inseparable union with the Father.

      And now I would observe, if I may do it without being misunderstood, that the Redeemer speaks as if not knowing where He was going-"Into Thy hands," that is sufficient. It is as well to look at these things as simply as possible. Do not confuse the mind with attempting to draw the distinction between the human and the Divine. He speaks here as if His human soul, like ours, entered into the dark unknown, not seeing what was to be in the hereafter: and this is faith, or, if it were not so there arises an idea from which we shrink, as if He were speaking words He did not feel. We know nothing, of the world beyond, we are like children; even revelation has told us almost nothing concerning this, and an inspired apostle says, "We know not yet what we shall be." Then rises faith, and dares to say, "My Father, I know nothing, but, be where I may, still I am with Thee;" "Into Thy hands I commend My Spirit." Therefore, and only therefore, do we dare to die.

      We pass on, secondly, to the consideration of those utterances which our Master spake as the Saviour of the world. The first is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." From this expression we infer two things: first, that sin needs forgiveness; and, secondly, that forgiveness can be granted.

      Sin needs forgiveness, or the Redeemer would not have so prayed. That it needs forgiveness we also prove, from the fact that it always connects itself with penalty. Years may separate the present from your past misconduct, but the remembrance of it remembrance of it remains; nay, more than that, even those errors which we did ignorantly carry with them their retribution; and from this we collect the fact that even errors, failures in judgment, need God's forgiveness. Another proof that sin needs pardon is from the testimony of conscience. In all men it speaks, in some in but a feeble whisper, in others with an irregular sound, now a lull, and then a storm of recollection; in others, conscience is as a low perpetual knell, even sounding, telling of the death going on within, proclaiming that the past has been accursed, the present withered, and that the future is one vast terrible blank.

      In these several forms, conscience tells us also that the sin has been committed against our Father. The permanence of all our acts, the eternal consequences of every small thing done by man, all point to God as the One against whom the sin is committed and, therefore, that voice still speaks, though the thing we have done never can be undone. The other thing that we learn from that utterance of Christ is, that the pardon of sin is a thing possible, for the utterance of Christ was the expression of the voice of God-it was but another form of the Father saying, "I can and I will forgive."

      Remark here a condition imposed by Christ on the Divine forgiveness when He taught His disciples to pray: "If ye forgive men from your hearts, your Father will forgive you; but if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive you." It is natural to forgive on a dying bed; yet that forgiveness is only making a merit of necessity, for we can revenge ourselves no more. There is abundance of good-natured charity abroad in the world; that charity which is undiscriminating. It may co-exist with the resentment of personal injury, but the spirit of forgiveness which we must have before we can be forgiven, can be ours only so far as our life is a representative of the life of Christ. Then it is possible for us to realize God's forgiveness.

      The second utterance which our Lord spake for others rather than Himself was, "To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise."

      Now, what we have here to observe on is the law of personal influence: the dying hour of Christ had an influence over one thief he became converted. The first thing we remark is, that indirect influence often succeeds where direct influence has failed. Thus, when the Redeemer selected His disciples, and endeavored to teach them His truth, that was direct influence; but when He prayed for them, and those disciples heard Him, and then came to Him with this petition, "Lord, teach us to pray," that was indirect influence; and so in this instance, while praying for Himself, He did influence the mind of the dying thief, though that influence was indirect. Indirect influence is often far more successful than that which is direct; and for this reason, the direct aims that we make to convert others may be contradicted by our lives, while the indirect influence is our very life. What we really are somehow or other, will ooze out, in tone, in look, in act, and this tells upon those who come in daily contact with us. The law of personal influence is mysterious. The influence of the Son of God told on the one thief, not on the other; it softened and touched the hearts of two of His hearers, but it only hardened others. There is much to be learnt from this, for some are disposed to write bitter things against themselves because their influence on earth has failed. Let all such remember that some are too pure to act universally on others. If our influence has failed, the Redeemer's was not universal.

      The third utterance of our Master on the cross, for others, not for himself, was, "Behold thy mother!" He who was dying on the cross, whose name was Love, was the great philanthropist, whose charity embraced the whole human race. His last dying act was an act of individual attachment-tenderness towards a mother, fidelity towards a friend. Now some well-meaning persons seem to think that the larger charities are incompatible with the indulgence of particular affections; and therefore, all that they do, and aim at, is on a large scale-they occupy themselves with the desire to emancipate the whole mass of mankind. But, brethren, it not unfrequently happens that those who act in this manner are but selfish after all, and are quite inattentive to all the fidelities of friendship and the amenities of social life. It was not so, if we may venture to say it. that the Spirit of the Redeemer grew, for as He progressed in wisdom and knowledge, He progressed also in love. First, we read of His tenderness and obedience to His parents, then the selection of twelve to be near Him from the rest of the disciples, and then the selection of one, more especially, as a friend. It was through this, that, apparently, His human soul grew in grace and in love. And if it were not so with Him, at all events it must be so with us. It is in vain for a man in his dying hour, who has loved no man individually, to attempt to love the human race; every thing here must be done by degrees. Love is a habit. God has given to us the love of relations and friends, the love of father and mother, brother, sister, friend, to prepare us gradually for the love of God; if there be one stone of the foundation not securely laid, the superstructure will be imperfect. The domestic affections are the alphabet of love.

      Lastly, our Master said, "It is finished," partly for others, partly for Himself. In the earliest part of His life, we read that He said, "I have a baptism to be baptized with;" to Him, as to every human soul, this life had its side of darkness and gloom, but all that was now accomplished: He has drunk His last earthly drop of anguish, He has to drink the wine no more till he drink it new in his Father's kingdom. It was finished; all was over; and with, as it were, a burst of subdued joy, He says, "It is finished."

      There is another aspect in which we may regard these words as spoken also for others. The way in which our Redeemer contemplated this life was altogether a peculiar one. He looked upon it, not as a place of rest or pleasure, but simply, solely, as a place of duty. He was here to do his Father's will, not his own; and therefore, now that life was closed,be looked upon it chiefly as a duty that was fulfilled. We have the meaning of this in the seventeenth chapter of this Gospel: "I have glorified Thee on earth, I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do." The duty is done, the work is finished. Let us each apply this to ourselves. That hour is coming to us all; indeed it is, perhaps, now come. The dark night settles down on each day.

      "It is finished." We are ever taking leave of something that will not come back again. We let go, with a pang, portion after portion of our existence. However dreary we may have felt life to be here, yet when that hour comes-the winding up of all things, the last grand rush of darkness on our spirits, the hour of that awful sudden wrench from all we have ever known or loved, the long farewell to sun, moon, stars, and light-brother men, I ask you this day, and I ask myself, humbly and fearfully, What will then be finished? When it is finished,what will it be? Will it be the butterfly existence of pleasure, the mere life of science, a life of uninterrupted sin and selfish gratification; or will it be, "Father, I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do?"

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