This saying is the last of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross and was said immediately after the sixth saying, ‘It is finished.’ Indeed, the final three sayings follow rapidly one another.
1. The importance of final words
The final words of dying people are of interest to their families, and if they were famous people they are of interest to others. In the New Testament we have recorded the dying words of Stephen: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60). Martin Luther, the great Reformer, died repeating the words of John 3:16. Samuel Rutherford’s dying words are famous: ‘Glory, glory, dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.’ Of course, not all of God’s people die so triumphantly. Many died repeating the prayer of the tax-collector, ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.’ And some go to sleep in the dark.
This saying of Christ, or the psalm from which it was quoted seemed to have been valued highly by the Reformers. Philip Melanchthon, the companion of Luther in years of labour, looked forward to beholding the Son of God and discovering the meaning of the divine and human natures in Christ. As he lay on his deathbed he was asked if he required anything, and he replied, ‘Nothing else but heaven.’ His last words were an hearty assent to the prayer of the Psalmist which had been read to him: ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.’
John Knox on his deathbed, on the day before he died, urged his friends to ‘Live in Christ, and then flesh need not fear death’. He was in great pain, and stretched out his hands to heaven and said, ‘Lord, I commend my spirit, soul and body, and all, into thy hands. Thou knowest, O Lord, my troubles: I do not murmur against thee.’ On the day of his death, he asked his wife to read 1 Corinthians 15, and said that he had received sweet and salutary consolation from it. After a short time he said, ‘Now, for the last time, I commend my soul, spirit and body.’ touching three of his fingers, ‘into thy hand, O Lord.’ Later he asked his wife to read from John 17 because that was where he had first cast his anchor.
We have heard, I am sure, of the famous words of Hugh Latimer to Nicolas Ridley as they were burned at the stake in Oxford. Latimer encouraged Ridley by saying, ‘Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’ That was a significant word. It is interesting that Ridley repeated several times this prayer, ‘Lord, into they hands I commend my spirit. Lord, receive my spirit.’
In the century before the Reformation, John Huss was sentenced to death for his faith. On his way to the place of execution, a hat was put on his head on which were drawings of leering demons. In response, Huss as he was being burned in the flames lifted up his voice and cried, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
What is the point of rehearsing these various sayings? If I was going to travel to an unknown place I would like to know how others fared when they reached it. We are travelling to the end of our lives, to our demise, and it is in our interests to know how others got on when they reached it. John Wesley could say of his followers, ‘Our people die well.’
2. Jesus’ use of the Bible
Jesus’ final saying was a quotation from scripture, from Psalm 31:5. We have already noted, in thinking about his previous sayings on the cross, how crucial was the role that Scripture played in the outlook of Jesus when he was there. Not only were several prophecies fulfilled, but also the scriptures gave direction and comfort to Jesus as he suffered on the cross. He was helped especially by the words of Psalm 22 as he endured the great spiritual darkness that his atoning death brought into his experience.
Jesus was familiar with the scriptures from his childhood. He quoted Deuteronomy to defeat the devil during the temptation in the desert. Words from Isaiah helped describe his calling as the Messiah. In general, the scriptures assisted him to have fellowship with God. And here in his dying moments he turns again to the scriptures.
Yet in this quotation from Psalm 31:5, there are two differences. First, Jesus changes the name by which he addresses God to ‘Father’. This is a reminder of how Jesus revolutionised the conception that his people had of God. It is not entirely clear why Old Testament believers did not address God as Father because they did know that they were his people. They called their children Abijah, which means ‘my Father is Yahweh’, or Abiel, which means ‘my Father is God’. In several texts reference is made to God as the Father of his people. In Psalm 68:5, the psalmist says of God that ‘Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation’. Isaiah says of God in 63:16: ‘For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.’ And in 64:8 the same prophet describes the relationship of Israel as follows: ‘But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ God complains of Israel in Jeremiah 3:19: ‘I said how I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beautiful of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.’ In Malachi 2:10, the prophet argues, ‘Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’
Despite these evidences, the practice of addressing God as Father was rare in Israel. Some scholars suggest that the reason was the pagan practice of addressing false gods by this term. But that argument would rule out most divine titles. It is the case that Jesus’ practice of prayer, in which he called on God as Father, struck his disciples as both unusual and attractive that they asked to be taught how to pray.
‘Father. How often this word was upon the Saviour’s lips! His first recorded utterance was, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” In what was probably his first formal discourse - the “sermon on the mount” - he speaks of the “Father” seventeen times. While in his final discourse to the disciples, the “paschal discourse” found in John 14-16, the word “Father” is found no less than forty-five times! In the next chapter, John 17, which contains what is known as Christ’s great high-priestly prayer, he speaks to and of the Father six times more. And now the last time he speaks ere he lays down his life, he says again, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” ’ (A. W. Pink).
Second, Jesus omits the second clause about the need for redemption because he was not bound to sin. Throughout his life, including the awful sufferings of his death, he had remained sinless and had no need to pray for redemption. But these additions and omissions are a reminder that he is the author of scripture and possessed the authority to change it.
3. Jesus and the importance of prayer
We have already commented on Jesus and his prayers and that his final saying was a prayer. He died as he lived, praying to his Father. ‘The Saviour committed his spirit into the hands of his Father in death, because it had been in the Father’s hands all through his life!’ (A. W. Pink). Luke is the only Gospel writer who records this final saying and it is of interest to note that Luke’s account presents Jesus as praying at crucial moments in his life, for example, at his baptism or at his transfiguration.
The words that Jesus said were a common prayer of a Jewish child. It was one they were taught in infancy and it is likely that Mary taught it to Jesus when he was a child. No doubt she had various reasons for doing so, but I suspect that she never imagined it would be his final saying. This is an encouragement to parents to teach the Bible to children because they do not know in what situations it will be needed. One day, it may be all that they can remember.
In adding the word, ‘Father,’ to the prayer, Jesus was indicating that his death was like a child falling asleep in the arms of its Father.
4. The humanity of Jesus
In this saying of Jesus, we again see the reality of his humanity. We have to remember that Jesus was also a man as well as God. The reality of his humanity is seen in the fact that he died.
In this saying we see the representative nature of his humanity. We see this in several ways. Firstly, as he dies, he is completing the life of obedience that he lived on behalf of his people. Second, he is going into death as a warrior, to take on and destroy the devil who had the power of death, because it was through dying that Jesus achieved this victory on behalf of his people.
The saying also shows the religious outlook of Jesus. Religion is not merely outward behaviour, rather it is a life of faith. And here Jesus shows that religion should be lived in the face, the presence, of the Father. True, his experience on the cross had caused him an immense amount of distress because it involved the sense of fatherlessness. But now his human nature senses restoration to this intimate relationship.
These words indicate his love for his Father as well as his trust in his Father: ‘but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me’ (John 14:31). Although he has come to the point where his soul and body will be separated, which was unnatural for Jesus as for any other human, he still loves the One who required this action.
They also reveal his delight in obeying the Father: ‘The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father’ (John 10:17-18). This was a voluntary act on the part of Jesus, for no-one could take his life from him; he was sovereign of his destiny, even as he prepared to obey his Father even unto death. Not only was there delight, but there was also dignity, which is seen in the majestic manner in which he died, by bowing his head in submission.
His faith is also expressed in hope, not in the sense of wishful thinking, but in the sense of realistic expectation after death. He showed this outlook in two ways. First, Jesus trusted the Father that he would take his human soul to Paradise. Second, Jesus trusted the Father that he would re-united his soul and body on the third day.
5. Jesus and the hope of heaven
The saying also shows the priority that Jesus had as he thought of heaven. When he would reach there, he would see all the Old Testament believers who had looked forward to his coming; later he would welcome the penitent criminal into glory. But his most ardent desire was to be with the Father. Jesus looked forward to returning the family home. Heaven was his Father’s house, the place where his presence is known and enjoyed.
6. Jesus, an example to believers
I would mention briefly several ways in which Jesus is an example to unbelievers. Firstly, he is our example in an intelligent use of the contents of the Bible. No doubt the Holy Spirit brought these passages to the mind of Jesus, but his usual method is to bring to the memory passages that we stored in our minds by meditation. That is the usual way it is with us.
Secondly, he is our example in getting assurance from the Father’s capabilities. In John 10:27-30, he had taught: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.’ The Father’s hand there speaks of power, protection and tenderness. These details were in his own mind as he thought 0f his own departure from the world, and we can use the same insights into the Father’s capabilities whenever we need to do so.
Thirdly, we can learn from Jesus that it is always appropriate to pray. But he also tells us that certain prayers are appropriate for particular occasions.
Fourthly, we see the Saviour’s view of death. He faced death as a man, and he faced it in a similar way as to how each of his people should face it. We should die leaning on the promises of God as Jesus did. We should die with a religion that makes us like little children, content to enter into our Father’s arms.
7. Jesus and unbelievers
Sometimes we imagine that we will pray when we come to die and repent then. But one man died at Calvary without praying. This is a reminder that we can enter death without having asked for Christ’s help. We may say that man was a fool for refusing to ask for help, for wasting those precious hours that divine providence had given him, to spend his last hours dying beside Jesus Christ. But what are you doing with the privileges God has given you.
But a man was changed by the way in which Jesus died, and he was the Roman centurion; ‘And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” ’ (Mark 15:39). The foot of the cross was where he found mercy. Take a place beside him and you too will find it a place of safety.