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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross

By James Stalker


      [1]While all the words of dying persons are full of interest, there is special importance attached to the last of them. This is the Last Word of Jesus; and both for this reason and for others it claims particular attention.

      A noted Englishman is recorded to have said, when on his deathbed, to a nephew, "Come near and see how a Christian can die." Whether or not that was a wise saying, certainly to learn how to die is one of the most indispensable acquirements of mortals; and nowhere can it be learnt so well as by studying the death of Christ. This Last Word especially teaches us how to die. It will, however, teach us far more, if we have the wit to learn: it contains not only the art of dying but also the art of living.

      I.

      The final word of the dying Saviour was a prayer. Not all the words from the cross were prayers. One was addressed to the penitent thief, another to His mother and His favourite disciple, and a third to the soldiers who were crucifying Him; but prayer was distinctly the language of His dying hours. It was not by chance that His very last word was a prayer; for the currents within Him were all flowing Godwards.

      While prayer is appropriate for all times and seasons, there are occasions when it is singularly appropriate. At the close of the day, when we are about to enter into the state of sleep, which is an image of death, the most natural of all states of mind is surely prayer. In moments of mortal peril, as on shipboard when a multitude are suddenly confronted with death, an irresistible impulse presses men to their knees. At the communion table, when the bread and the wine are circulating in silence, every thoughtful person is inevitably occupied with prayer. But on a death-bed it is more in its place than anywhere else. Then we are perforce parting with all that is earthly--with relatives and friends, with business and property, with the comforts of home and the face of the earth. How natural to lay hold of what alone we can keep hold of; and this is what prayer does; for it lays hold of God.

      It is so natural to pray then that prayer might be supposed to be an invariable element of the last scenes. But it is not always. A death-bed without God is an awful sight; yet it does occur. The currents of the mind may be flowing so powerfully earthward that even then they cannot be diverted. There are even death-beds where the thought of God is a terror which the dying man keeps away; and sometimes his friends assist him to keep it away, suffering none to be seen and nothing to be said that could call God to mind. Natural as prayer is, it is only so to those who have learned to pray before. It had long been to Jesus the language of life. He had prayed without ceasing--on the mountain-top and in the busy haunts of men, by Himself and in company with others--and it was only the bias of the life asserting itself in death when, as He breathed His last, He turned to God.

      If, then, we would desire our last words to be words of prayer, we should commence to pray at once. If the face of God is to shine on our death-bed, we must now acquaint ourselves with Him and be at peace. If, as we look upon the dying Christ or on the dying saints, we say, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his," then we must begin now to live the life of the righteous and to practise its gracious habits.

      II.

      The last word of the dying Saviour was a quotation from Scripture.

      This was not the first time our Lord quoted Scripture on the cross: His great cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" was likewise borrowed from the Old Testament, and it is possible that there is Scriptural allusion in others of the Seven Words.

      If prayer is natural to the lips of the dying, so is Scripture. For different seasons and for different uses there is special suitability in different languages and literatures. Latin is the language of law and scholarship, French of conversation and diplomacy, German of philosophy, English of commerce. But in the most sacred moments and transactions of life there is no language like that of the Bible. Especially is this the case in everything connected with death. On a tombstone, for example, how irrelevant, as a rule, seem all other quotations, but how perfect is the fitness of a verse from Scripture. And on a death-bed there are no words which so well become the dying lips.

      This is strikingly illustrated by the following extract, guaranteed as authentic, from a private diary:--"I remember, when I was a student, visiting a dying man. He had been in the university with me, but a few years ahead; and, at the close of a brilliant career in college, he was appointed to a professorship of philosophy in a colonial university. But, after a very few years, he fell into bad health; and he came home to Scotland to die. It was a summer Sunday afternoon when I called to see him, and it happened that I was able to offer him a drive. His great frame was with difficulty got into the open carriage; but then he lay back comfortably and was able to enjoy the fresh air. Two other friends were with him that day--college companions, who had come out from the city to visit him. On the way back they dropped into the rear, and I was alone beside him, when he began to talk with appreciation of their friendship and kindness. 'But,' he said, 'do you know what they have been doing all day?' I could not guess. 'Well,' he said, 'they have been reading to me Sartor Resartus; and oh! I am awfully tired of it.' Then, turning on me his large eyes, he began to repeat, 'This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief;' and then he added with great earnestness, 'There is nothing else of any use to me now.' I had not opened the subject at all: perhaps I was afraid to introduce it to one whom I felt to be so much my superior; but I need not say how overjoyed I was to obtain such a glimpse into the very depths of a great, true mind." Sartor Resartus is one of the best of books; there are few to be so heartily recommended. Yet there are moments in life--and those immediately before death are among them--when even such a book may be felt to be irrelevant, and, indeed, no book is appropriate except the one which contains the words of eternal life.

      It is worth noting from which portion of the Old Testament Jesus fetched the word on which He stayed up His soul in this supreme moment. The quotation is from the thirty-first Psalm. The other great word uttered on the cross to which I have already alluded was also taken from one of the Psalms--the twenty-second. This is undoubtedly the most precious of all the books of the Old Testament. It is a book penned as with the life-blood of its authors; it is the record of humanity's profoundest sorrows and sublimest ecstasies; it is the most perfect expression which has ever been given to experience; it has been the vade-mecum of all the saints; and to know and love it is one of the best signs of spirituality.

      Jesus knew where to go in the Bible for the language that suited Him; for He had been a diligent student of it all His days. He heard it in the home of His childhood; He listened to it in the synagogue; probably He got the use of the synagogue rolls and hung over it in secret. He knew it through and through. Therefore, when He became a preacher, His language was saturated with it, and in controversy, by the apt use of it, He could put to shame those who were its professional students. But in His private life likewise He employed it in every exigency. He fought with it the enemy in the wilderness and overcame him; and now, in the supreme need of a dying hour, it stood Him in good stead. It is to those who, like Jesus, have hidden God's Word in their hearts that it is a present help in every time of need; and, if we wish to stay ourselves upon it in dying, we ought to make it the man of our counsel in living.

      It is worth observing in what manner Jesus made this quotation from the Psalter: He added something at the beginning and He omitted something at the close. At the beginning He added, "Father." This is not in the psalm. It could not have been. In the Old Testament the individual had not begun yet to address God by this name, though God was called the Father of the nation as a whole. The new consciousness of God which Christ introduced into the world is embodied in this word, and, by prefixing it to the citation, He gave the verse a new colouring. We may, then, do this with the Old Testament: we may put New-Testament meaning into it. Indeed, in connection with this very verse we have a still more remarkable illustration of the same treatment. Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, was in many respects very like his Master, and in his martyrdom closely imitated Him. Thus on the field of death he repeated Christ's prayer for His enemies--"Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Also, he imitated this final word, but he put it in a new form, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit;" that is, he addressed to Christ the dying prayer which Christ Himself addressed to the Father.[2] The other alteration which Jesus made was the omission of the words, "for Thou hast redeemed me." It would not have been fitting for Him to employ them. But we will not omit them; and if, like Stephen, we address the prayer to Christ, how much richer and more pathetic are the words to us than they were even to him who first penned them.

      III.

      It was about His spirit that the dying Saviour prayed.

      Dying persons are sometimes much taken up with their bodies. Their pain and trouble may occasion this, and the prescriptions of the physician may require close attention. Some display a peculiar anxiety even about what is to happen to the body after the life has left it, giving the minutest instructions as to their own obsequies. Not infrequently the minds of the dying are painfully occupied with their worldly affairs: they have their property to dispose of, and they are distracted with anxieties about their families. The example of Jesus shows that it is not wrong to bestow attention on these things even on a deathbed; for His fifth word, "I thirst," had reference to His own bodily necessities; and, whilst hanging on the cross, He made provision for His mother's future comfort. But His supreme concern was His spirit; to the interests of which He devoted His final prayer.

      What is the spirit? It is the finest, highest, sacredest part of our being. In modern and ordinary language we call it the soul, when we speak of man as composed of body and soul; but in the language of Scripture it is distinguished even from the soul as the most lofty and exquisite part of the inner man. It is to the rest of our nature what the flower is to the plant or what the pearl is to the shell. It is that within us which is specially allied to God and eternity. It is also, however, that which sin seeks to corrupt and our spiritual enemies seek to destroy. No doubt these are specially active in the article of death; it is their last chance; and fain would they seize the spirit as it parts from the body and, dragging it down, rob it of its destiny. Jesus knew that He was launching out into eternity; and, plucking His spirit away from these hostile hands which were eager to seize it, He placed it in the hands of God. There it was safe. Strong and secure are the hands of the Eternal. They are soft and loving too. With what a passion of tenderness must they have received the spirit of Jesus. "I have covered thee," said God to His servant in an ancient prophecy, "in the shadow of My hand;" and now Jesus, escaping from all the enemies, visible and invisible, by whom He was beset, sought the fulfilment of this prophecy.

      This is the art of dying; but is it not also the art of living? The spirit of every son of Adam is threatened by dangers at death; but it is threatened with them also in life. As has been said, it is our flower and our pearl; but the flower may be crushed and the pearl may be lost long before death arrives. "The flesh lusteth against the spirit." So does the world. Temptation assails it, sin denies it. No better prayer, therefore, could be offered by a living man, morning by morning, than this of the dying Saviour. Happy is he who can say, in reference to his spirit, "I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day."

      IV.

      This last word of the expiring Saviour revealed His view of death.

      The word used by Jesus in commending His spirit to God implies that He was giving it away in the hope of finding it again. He was making a deposit in a safe place, to which, after the crisis of death was over, He would come and recover it. Such is the force of the word, as is easily seen in the quotation just made from St. Paul, where he says that he knows that God will keep that which he has committed to Him--using the same word as Jesus--"against that day." [3] Which day? Obviously some point in the future when he could appear and claim from God that which he had entrusted to Him. Such a date was also in Christ's eye when He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." Death is a disruption of the parts of which human nature is composed. One part--the spirit--was going away to God; another was in the hands of men, who were wreaking on it their wicked will; and it was on its way to the house appointed for all living. But Jesus was looking forward to a reunion of the separated parts, when they would again find each other, and the integrity of the personal life be restored.

      The most momentous question which the dying can ask, or which the living can ask in the prospect of death, is, "If a man die, shall he live again?" does he all die? and does he die forever? There is a terrible doubt in the human heart that it may be so; and there have never been wanting teachers who have turned this doubt into a dogma. They hold that mind is only a form or a function of matter, and that, therefore, in the dissolution of the bodily materials, man dissolves and mixes with the material universe. Others, while holding fast the distinction between mind and matter, have taught that, as the body returns to the dust, the mind returns to the ocean of being, in which its personality is lost, as the drop is in the sea, and there can be no reunion. There is, however, something high and sacred within us that rebels against these doctrines; and the best teachers of the race have encouraged us to hope for something better. Still, their assurances have been hesitating and their own faith obscure. It is to Christ we have to go: He has the words of eternal life. He spoke on this subject without hesitation or obscurity; and His dying word proves that He believed for Himself what He taught to others. Not only, however, has He by His teaching brought life and immortality to light: He is Himself the guarantee of the doctrine; for He is our immortal life. Because we are united to Him we know we can never perish; nothing, not even death, can separate us from His love; "Because I live," He has said, "ye shall live also."

      It may be that in a very literal sense we have in the study of this sentence been learning the art of dying: these may be our own dying words. They have been the dying words of many. When John Huss was being led to execution, there was stuck on his head a paper cap, scrawled over with pictures of devils, to whom the wretched priests by whom he was surrounded consigned his soul; but again and again he cried, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." These were also the last words of Polycarp, of Jerome of Prague, of Luther, of Melanchthon, and of many others. Who could wish his spirit to be carried away to God in a more glorious vehicle? But, whether or not we may use this prayer in death, let us diligently make use of it in life. Close not the book without breathing, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

      [1] "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."

      [2] The first business of the interpreter of Scripture is to find out precisely what every verse or paragraph meant at the time and place where it was written; and there is endless profit in the exact determination of this original application. But, whilst the interpreter's task begins, it does not end with this. The Bible is a book for every generation; and the deduction of the message which it is intended to convey to the present day is as truly the task of the interpreter. There is a species of exegesis, sometimes arrogating to itself the sole title to be considered scientific, by which the garden of Scripture is transmuted into an herbarium of withered specimens.

      [3] Christ's word is paratithemai, and St. Paul's, 2 Tim. i. 12, ten paratheken mou, according to the best reading.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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