the Second Week of Advent
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Seven Words, the
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
SEVEN WORDS, THE.—These words, spoken by our Lord from the cross, are recorded by the different Evangelists, one by St. Matthew and St. Mark conjointly, three by St. Luke, and three by St. John. The progressive stages by which they are characterized may be taken to show a gradual unfolding of the will and purpose of God for the redemption of mankind. They seem to sum up in themselves the whole of the gospel. The first three words, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34), ‘Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43), and ‘Woman, behold thy son … behold thy mother’ (John 19:26-27), were spoken between the third and the sixth hour, and they reveal to us the great High Priest, in His life of ministry, interceding for the transgressors, proclaiming pardon to the penitent, and blessing His own. The two next words, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34), and ‘I thirst’ (John 19:28), were spoken in the darkness; nature is wrapped in gloom as the God-man, bearing the burden and the curse of sin that is not His own, reveals to us something of the mystery of suffering. The two last words, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), and ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46), were spoken in the restored light. They reveal to us the victory, the completed work, and the entering into rest. All seven words are words of love. It was love that animated Him from the time when ‘for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man’ (Nicene Creed). It was love that entered into the whole of His life on earth, but that love shines with its brightest lustre in the cross. His ministry of intercession, of reconciliation, of blessing, His suffering, His thirsting, His triumph, all reach their climax in the cross. They are the outcome of the great love wherewith He so loved us that He gave Himself for us.
1. ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’—This first word was probably spoken when the soldiers were driving the nails into His hands and feet, and were about to lift up the cross with its sacred burden and plant it in the ground. From His hard bed, the cross, while suffering untold agony, He intercedes for them, and adds to His intercession an excuse for their deed, ‘They know not what they do.’ In one sense they did know, they must have known, even those rough Roman soldiers, that they were perpetrating an act of gross cruelty; but familiarity with suffering had made them callous. It was part of their work; they were paid to do it, and they did it. But they did not Know all, they did not know that they were crucifying the Lord of glory, they were but unconscious instruments doing what they were bidden; and so the Saviour prayed for them and made excuse for them, and not for them only, but for all who had taken part in that deed of violence, for all who, during all the ages that have since elapsed, have been crucifying the Son of God afresh.
2. ‘To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’—Having interceded for the transgressors, Christ from His cross proclaims pardon to the penitent robber on his cross. This man had been one of a band of robbers, perhaps the same band to which Barabbas belonged, a band of men living wild and reckless lives; and now both he and his fellow, having fallen victims to the power against which they have been in revolt, are suffering the extreme penalty of the law. Crucified with them, in the same condemnation, is the pure and holy Jesus, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth. He was numbered with the transgressors. He descended to the lowest depth of human degradation that He might lift humanity to the height of holiness and heaven. From His cross He will exert a world-wide attraction: ‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me’ (John 12:32); and now this attraction is beginning. Both these robbers had at first reviled the Holy Sufferer; one remained hardened and impenitent to the end, but the other was brought to a better mind. Perhaps this was not the first time that this man had seen the Christ; he may have been among those who listened to His words on some previous occasion, he may have seen some of His miracles; now, however, he is brought face to face with the power of His love, conviction dawns within him, he sees himself in his true light; turning to his fellow, he says, ‘Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss’ (Luke 23:40-41). He confesses his sins, and not only is there a confession of sins but a wonderful faith, and this faith is manifested, not when Christ is at the height of His popularity, but in the depth of His humiliation. He sees in the cross a throne, and in the thorn-crowned sufferer a king seated upon it, and he prefers his request, ‘Lord, remember me, when thou comest in thy kingdom.’ And Jesus turns to this penitent robber and proclaims the gospel of forgiveness, ‘To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’
3. ‘Woman, behold thy son … behold thy mother.’—Christ from His cross has interceded for the sinful world, He has proclaimed the gospel of forgiveness to the penitent robber; but He has yet, in the progressive stages of His ministry of love, another blessing to bestow. In this word our Lord comes near His own. His first word was for His enemies; His second for one who had been His enemy, but was no longer one; His third was for those who had never been His enemies—for His mother and the disciple whom He loved. ‘There stood by the cross of Jesus his mother’ (John 19:25). For this the aged Simeon had prepared her, when, taking the infant Jesus in his arms, he had told her that a sword should pierce through her own soul (Luke 2:35); and now these words were being fulfilled. Jesus from His cross beholds His mother, and is mindful of the years which He had spent under her tender care in the quiet home of Nazareth. He had told her, both when she found Him in the Temple and also at the marriage feast in Cana (Luke 2:49, John 2:4), that there was a higher duty than that which He owed to her, a higher relationship than that between mother and son,—He was not only her son, He was also her Lord,—yet the earthly relationship is not forgotten. He will not depart before He has provided a home for her; with His parting breath He commits her to the care of the disciple whom He loved: ‘Woman, behold thy son … behold thy mother.’
4. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’—A long space of time intervenes between the third and fourth words. ‘From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour’ (Matthew 27:45). The first three words were spoken before the darkness, but now a change has come—darkness reigns on Calvary, as if God had drawn a veil over the scene. Three hours of silence and darkness. It is the climax of the sufferings of our Lord, the hour and power of darkness; what takes place we know not; He trod the winepress alone (Isaiah 63:3). He is alone in His conflict with the powers of evil, dark without, dark within,—how dark we may gather from the awful cry that escaped from His lips at the end of those long hours, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
What did it mean? It did not mean that He was forsaken by His Father. Had not the Father Said, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17)? Had not He Himself said, ‘Behold the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me’ (John 16:32)? But there was a connexion between the death of Christ and sin; it was an atonement for sin: ‘The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:6). And the misery of sin is that it hides the face of God. It is the loss of God’s presence; and Christ, as our representative, in bearing our sins, entered into our condition, involving the consciousness of the loss of God’s presence. He felt as though God had hidden His face. He descended with us into the depth of our degradation, made like unto us in all things, yet without sin. But the mystery of this bitter cry we, with our finite understandings, can never fathom: ‘I and the Father are one,’ and yet ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ This the early Christians fully realized, for in their oft-repeated litanies they used to say, ‘By Thy sufferings known and unknown, good Lord deliver us.’ See also art. Dereliction.
5. ‘I thirst.’—‘The last word,’ it has been said, ‘was the cry of the human soul in separation; this is the cry of the human body in its weakness.’ The darkness is now passing away, and as, at the Temptation, He suffered hunger when the crisis was over, so now He gives expression to the thirst that is parching Him. Intense thirst was usually the most intolerable part of the suffering of those who were crucified, and He had been hanging there for six long hours, His open wounds scorched by the blazing sun. Two draughts were offered to our Lord: the one He refused, the other He accepted; the one which He refused was the ‘vinegar mingled with gall’ (Matthew 27:34) or the ‘wine mingled with myrrh’ (Mark 15:23). It was a cup of wine drugged with bitter herbs of a narcotic tendency, and it was given in kindness to condemned malefactors to deaden pain. Our Lord refused the soporific; He would not meet death with His senses stupefied; but the undrugged wine which was offered to Him when He said ‘I thirst,’ He accepted. He would not add to His sufferings by refusing the cooling draught.
6. ‘It is finished.’—The conflict is over and the victory won. Christ from His cross announces to the world that all is finished. Τετέλεσται. In one word He sums up the whole of man’s redemption. Finished was all that prophecy had foretold and type foreshadowed. Finished was the work which His Father had given Him to do. He looks back on His life from the time when He said, ‘Lo, I come to do thy will, O God’ (Hebrews 10:9), and is able to say with regard to every jot and tittle of His life’s work, ‘It is finished.’ He has made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. We enter into no theory of the Atonement, we accept it as a fact; we know that the chasm between God and man, formed by the sin of man, has been bridged over, and that the way to the Father is open, for ‘when He had overcome the sharpness of death, He opened the Kingdom of heaven to all believers’ (Te Deum).
7. ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’—The two last words were spoken in rapid succession. The word of victory is followed by the word of rest—rest after the burden and heat of the day. It is a word of calm, beautiful trust, of perfect sympathy between the Father and Son, revealing to us what death was to Christ and what it is to all those who are united to Christ by a living faith; that it is not a leap in the dark, not a plunge into an unknown void, but a going home. ‘Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening’ (Psalms 104:23), and then cometh rest—rest with Christ in Paradise. Death is the summing up of the life; repeated acts form habits, habits form character, and character is the sumtotal of the life, which we carry with us into the unseen world. To live the forgiven life, the life that is being formed and fashioned after the life of Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost—this is the true preparation for death. This alone can rob death of its sting; one with Christ in our life, we shall be one with Him in our death. ‘To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’
Literature.—The Lives of Christ, esp. Edersheim, Life and Times, ii. 593–610; Stier, Words of the Lord Jesus, in loc.; Tholuck, Light from the Cross; Stalker, Trial and Death of Jesus Christ; F. W. Robertson, Sermons, iv. 307; Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ, 324; C. Stanford, Voices from Calvary (1893); W. R. Nicoll, Seven Words from the Cross (1895); M. Creighton, Lessons from the Cross (1898), 75–132; W. Lowrie, Gaudium Crucis (1905).
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Seven Words, the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/seven-words-the.html. 1906-1918.