…how gentle and calm and uncomplaining he was, what placidity and cheerfulness he maintained amidst his discomfort, and what serene resignation he manifested in view of the end, of whose approach he was perfectly conscious.” (ibid, p. 675).
His biographer, Professor Pendleton, said of the last day (and, therefore, his last words) “It seemed that the ideas of immortality were struggling with the agonies of death. Relaxing from the struggle of physical pain, a placid smile would play over his countenance, and then he would murmur, as in soliloquy, ‘I will ransom them from the hand of the grave; I will redeem them from death; 0 death, I will be thy plague! 0 grave, I will be thy destruction! Repentance shall be hid from mine eyes’ ... His mind delighted to dwell upon the glorious character of Christ. He would look around upon the friends about his bedside and ask, ‘What think ye of Christ? — his divine nature, his glorious mission, his kingly office - the Sovereign Ruler?’” (Ibid, pp 675-676).
On the Wednesday (February 28) before he died, his daughter-in-law, Mary Ann Campbell, who ministered to him (and kept a journal regarding his last days), said: “Mother came in (Mrs. Campbell) and told me how beautifully father had just been talking to her about heavenly things.” (ibid, p. 678).
The account of Alexander’s death, given by Robert Richardson, is quite revealing. Richardson says of Campbell: “Not only the laborious life, but the closing days, of Alexander Campbell bear a struggling resemblance to those of Wesley. There was the same conscientious economy of time, the same extended journeys and the same earnest desire to labor to the last; and at the same time that same gradual wearing out of the system under a slow and settled fever, and the same unaffected and simple trust in God.” (ibid, pp. 678,679).
One could recite the final words of many of those other Christian leaders of the nineteenth century, but the words of these two giants of the faith are sufficient to demonstrate that biographers were just as interested in how their subject died as how they lived. In one sense, they saw this deportment as not only capping off a full life but also as indicative of the hope they had in Christ for the future.
But all these “famous last words” have their origin in the words of Jesus as He expired. The Gospels are certain that the death of Jesus was so important to salvation that they give much attention to that final week that centered in Christ’s death and resurrection. The Gospel writers not only reveal much of those relations between Jesus (the victim) and His victors (the religious leaders of Judaism and the Romans, who crucified Him), most of these related relationships produce the context for Jesus’ “famous last words.”
However ingenious we may be in interpreting “Paradise” in this passage, there is no question that this word acknowledges faith, and promises salvation. To be with Jesus in Paradise after death (however, we may understand this term Paradise) is the hope of every Christian. Though Jesus Himself faced imminent death, His concern for a sinner is compassionate and loving.
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me?”
While on the Cross Jesus endured not only human suffering but the spiritual pain of bearing the sins of many. Sometimes we speculate on what kind of suffering this involves. The fact is He “bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). The next of those famous last words (which we often designate as a “cry of desolation” or “dereliction”) may express Jesus’ own experience as sin-bearer. Though these words are the first verse of the twenty-second Psalm and may be interpreted as Jesus quoting an apt Scripture, they may have more impact than that. Many believe that Jesus, momentarily, is accepting the full consequence of sin--separation from God-upon Himself. As Paul says: “Him Who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ).
So both in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:40) and in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 15:34), this famous last word is recorded. It is recorded by both evangelists in both the Aramaic and Greek: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtania” which is translated, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). In those three or four short hours Jesus speaks to His Father of forgive-ness and commends His Spirit to Him. In both instances, the familiar and experiential word, Abba, Father, is used. Here He speaks of the Father as the God Who can no longer be with Him because He is the sin offering and the blessed Father is holy, set apart from sin. Quoting from Scripture? Perhaps, but there seems to be more significance than that!
“Woman, behold Your son!”
In the fourth Gospel (which is different from the Synoptics) there is that final word denoting love for physical family. Seeing His mother, Mary, at the foot of the Cross weeping profusely, He also saw John, that beloved disciple. “Woman, behold Your son!,” He said through cracked lips and in croaking voice. To John, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19, 26, 27). “From that hour,” John testified, this “disciple took her into his own household” (John 19:27).
How important it is to remember friends and family. They have been with us, stood behind us, and encouraged us. Even in this moment of distress, Jesus showed how important that one was who brought Him into the world and nurtured Him. She may not have known God’s eternal plan, but she was a part of it, and her words at the beginning - ”Behold, the bond-slave of the Lord; be it done to me according to Your word” (Luke 2:38) - are words of obedience as well.
In John’s Gospel, there is one clear acknowledgment of Jesus’ physical suffering. “I thirst,” Jesus says (John 19:28). Those who were in the crucifixion detail put a sponge full of sour wine (the soldier’s drink) upon a branch of hyssop and brought it to His mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, He acknowledged that it was finished (John 19: 29,30).
One expects crucifixion to bring excruciating pain. Death comes from exposure and eventually asphyxiation. Sometimes, a culprit would remain on the cross for days before expiring. Jesus’ death--as seen by the soldiers who were given the task of breaking legs of the crucified ones to hasten death--was quick. The spear thrust by the soldier was to make sure He was dead (see John 19:31-37). Yet, during that brief time upon the Cross, Jesus knew both physical and spiritual suffering. His words, “I am thirsty,” indicate this deprivation of a physical need. They are words of pain!
“It is finished.”
This is also one of the final words of Jesus. In the fourth Gospel it is associated with Jesus endurance of pain and the realization that His obedient life has come to an end. In that sense, anyone of us could make a similar statement as we come to the end of life. Jesus may have been speaking only of his earthly existence, but John seems to suggest that there is more than this in His last words. In fact, John is indicating that Jesus has finished all that the Father had given Him to do. At twelve, He had said to His mother, “Did you not know that I had to be about My Father’s business” (Luke 2:49, KJV). That “business” was now completed; the Divine Son had become the Sacrifice (“Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world,” John 1:29); His death ended an obedient life.
The theologians have taken the word, “finished”, and applied it to Christ’s work. The “finished work” of Christ indicates that the Cross and its atoning, substitutionary nature completes all that the Son was to do to make possible the salvation of all repentant sinners. The problem with this theological concept (as with many others scattered throughout a myriad of systematic theological tomes) is that Christ’s work was not finished, for what He is doing now at God’s right hand ( often referred to as His “session” by theologians) is just as important. He continues to forgive sinners and sins (I John 1:9; 2:1-2; etc.), and, as He is Lord of the Church, what He does through that body (through the Holy Spirit) is a continuation of His work.
“Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.”
The final words of Jesus that these evangelists give us are those words of dependence and faith, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.” “Having said this He breathed His last”, Luke tells us (Luke 23:46). Lt was upon hearing these words of joyful recognition and upon seeing how the sinless Son of God died, that the centurion praised God and exclaimed, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:43), or, as seen in Mark and Matthew, “Truly this was the Son of God,” (Mark 15:39; Mt. 27:54).
These are famous last words. When one combines the Gospel accounts together and lifts up the last words of Jesus from the Cross, he finds that the number is seven, the divine or perfect number. Whether this was designed by the revealing God Who guides the minds and pens of those testifying about Jesus or not, it is interesting to note the kind of perfection that is revealed. There are words of forgiveness, redemption, filial concerns, and physical pain; but most of all there are words that speak to what Jesus is doing on the Cross for others. “It is finished” may well be Jesus’ last words, and they may express His complete obedience, but the task is just beginning for His faithful followers.
Those other words of Jesus--given after His resurrection--are shattering. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 19-20). It may be good to bask in the warmth of famous last words, but can we respond to these famous last words and bring Jesus’ other words to fruition?
Originally published in the March, 2000, edition of The Restoration Herald. Dr. Charles R. Gresham served on the faculty of Kentucky Christian College in Grayson, KY. Dr. Gresham went to be with the Lord in November 2002.