In Life and Death

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 23:46

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said “Father; into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last!

Luke 23:46 RSV

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the last words that people speak before they die. Those often seem to gather up and bring to expression the deepest meaning of a person’s life. Perhaps that’s why loved ones, when a family member is dying, often gather about and listen intently for what is said. Years afterwards they may call those words to mind and savor them. There’s something memorable, powerful about last words.

Sometimes they express unbelief and despair. Listen to what H.G. Wells wrote shortly before his death: “Homo Sapiens is played out, and a jaded world is devoid of recuperative power. The world is like a convoy lost in darkness, on an unknown rocky coast, with quarreling pirates in the chart room and savages clamoring up the sides of the ship to plunder and do evil as the whim may take them.” That last view of the human scene is gloomy indeed.

Sometimes final words express a kind of trembling hope. The last spoken by Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, were these: “Lord, I believe, I hope . . . I hope God will forgive me my many sins because of the good I have tried to do for my people.” Last utterances sometimes express cynicism, sometimes longing, but they are almost always revealing.

What were the last words Jesus spoke before He died? You may recall them. They were uttered from His cross. Listen. I’m reading from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 23, verse 46: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit,’ and having said this he breathed his last.” As I reflect on those dying words, they seem to spell out the secret of Jesus’ living. In life or in death, He is the same. Maybe it holds true for all of us, at some level. As we live, so we die.

WORDS OF SCRIPTURE

Notice first how Jesus died with the words of the Old Testament Scriptures upon His lips. He was quoting from Psalm 30:6. Jesus had been a lifelong student of God’s Word. Remember when He spent those days in the temple at Jerusalem as a twelve year old boy? His parents found Him sitting among the teachers of the law, listening to them and asking them questions. “And all who heard him,” we read, “were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). Already He had been saturating His mind apparently with the words of the Law, the prophets and the psalms. He had been hiding the Word in His heart, committing the Scriptures to memory, pondering their significance.

At the outset of His public ministry, after He had been baptized in the river Jordan, Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Isn’t it striking to notice that He responded to every one of the enemy’s temptations with a passage of Scripture? “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ It is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matt. 4:4, 7,10). This was Jesus’ strong shield against the fiery darts of the wicked one, His unfailing weapon: “Thus says the Lord.” Further, Jesus’ teaching ministry was an interpretation and application of those ancient scriptures. He understood His mission in their light. He saw His whole career as their fulfillment. He chided religious people who did not understand the Scriptures, and said that those who did were near to the kingdom of God. The ministry of Jesus was a kind of translation of the written Scriptures into human life. He was “the Word made flesh.” And just as the Scriptures had been always in His mind and heart and on His lips during life, so it was when He came to die. His last words were God’s words, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

Do you suppose that will be true of you and me in some way when we come to die? Will the Scriptures so be a part of us, so treasured in our minds and written on our hearts that it will be the most natural thing in the world for us to express ourselves in that language? As Henry Drummond lay dying, he asked George Adam Smith, his friend, to pray and to read the New Testament. “That is the book one always comes back to,” he said. I want that to be true for me. I want to be so coming back to the words of the Bible, all through my life, that they will come back to me as I breathe my last.

WORDS OF PRAYER

The second thing that strikes me about these words of Jesus is simply that they express a prayer. Jesus is addressing God and He uses the word He always used in His prayers, “Father.” If we had overheard that last prayer, we would have heard Him saying in His native language, “Abba.”

Biblical scholars tell us that none of Jesus’ contemporaries and none of the religious teachers before Him had ever used that particular word in prayer. The basic word Abh, meaning “Father,” was familiar enough and had long been used in the liturgies of the Jews. Abba was a diminutive form of that. Why had no one used abba in prayer to God before? Was it unfamiliar, perhaps, a new coinage on Jesus’ part? Quite on the contrary, it was quite familiar. It was, literally, family language. It was what every tiny Jewish boy or girl first called the father in the home. Abba was like “daddy” or like “papa.” It was a child’s language, the speech of the hearth, of the blood.

Perhaps to pious Jews, who held the holy Lord in reverence, abba seemed too familiar, too lacking in reverence. But Jesus used it constantly. It expressed the heart of His relationship to God. It breathed joy, affection, freedom and most of all, trust.

Has it ever impressed you to read of how earnestly Jesus prayed? If anyone feature of His life is luminously plain from the record in the gospels, it’s that. He was praying at the time of His baptism, when the Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form as a dove. Before He chose His twelve disciples, He had prayed all the night through. Jesus prayed before Peter’s great confession. He was praying in the moment He was transfigured there on the mountaintop. He was in prayer just before the disciples asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Many times He would interrupt a busy ministry to the needs of people, with drawing to a desert place for communion with His Father. He went off to pray and then returned again to serve. Prayer preceded, accompanied, consummated everything He did.

So it’s not surprising that in the agony of Gethsemane He prayed earnestly, falling on His face, sweat coming from Him as great drops of blood. As a horror of great darkness descended over Him, He prayed all the more intensely. It’s what we would expect, isn’t it, that when He came to die, His lips would be forming a prayer? For as we live, so we die.

William Tyndale, faithful, fearless translator of the Bible, was burned at the stake by England’s ruling powers. With fervent zeal and a loud voice, Tyndale prayed, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” The prayer he had been praying for years came from his lips again – even amid the flames.

Let me ask you: Are you on speaking terms like that with God? Is prayer for you a part of every day? More than that – every part of every day? Do you know what it is through faith in Jesus to call God Abba, “Father”? To come to Him with liberty, gladness and confidence? Do you live, as it were, “with the roof off,” open to God, welcoming Him into every part of your life? Do you breathe out prayer as naturally as you fill your lungs with air? Is it the habit of your whole life to turn to God and appeal to Him? Then it’s likely that you’ll be doing that from the heart, right up to the very end.

WORDS OF COMMITMENT

Here’s the third thing that grips me about these last words of Jesus. They express commitment. “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” In other words, “I give Myself over entirely to You.”

There’s a kind of majesty expressed here. It’s as though Jesus’ death is a deliberate, conscious act of will. On the one hand, He seems to be dying helplessly, accused by the leadership of His own nation, tried and condemned by the Romans, brutally handled and crucified by the soldiers. They’ve put Him there. They’ve done it to Him. But He doesn’t bear Himself like a man victimized, does He? Even on the cross, Jesus acts like a king. Instead of screaming curses, He prays that His tormentors will be forgiven. He provides for the care of His mother, and pardons a penitent thief at His side. He cries triumphantly, “It is accomplished,” as though He had just fulfilled a lifelong dream. And now He dies like this!

He had talked beforehand about His choice to die. He had said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17 18). That’s what He was doing here, laying down His life. When He had prayed this prayer of commitment, He breathed His last. Literally, He “breathed out,” the Scriptures say. He gave His life up consciously, trustingly. He let it go into the Father’s hands.

And didn’t that kind of commitment characterize Jesus’ whole life? The voice from heaven said of Him by the waters of Jordan, “You are my beloved Son, in you I have been well pleased” (see Matt. 3:17). That was God’s verdict over Jesus’ first thirty years of life. He had lived, day by day, all the way, to please His heavenly Father. During His ministry also, that was the major motif, “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). “I have come down from heaven,” He said, “not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). “I do as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). And in Gethsemane, the commitment with which He had lived throughout His ministry came to focus and expression again, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. . . . My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39,42).

Did you know that this prayer from Psalm 30, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” was often prayed by devout Jews before they went to sleep? It was their commitment to God at the end of a day. It was very much like the prayer our little children say:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Here is the trust of a child, the rest of a child, the commitment of a child to the Father’s arms. As Jesus lived, so He died. His last words expressed His lifelong commitment.

Will that be true, do you think, for us? Are we accustomed in every new day to deny ourselves afresh, take up our cross and follow Jesus? He said that was to be daily, didn’t He? Do we offer each morning a living sacrifice in which we present ourselves, with all we have and are, to the Lord, to belong to Him, to live in fellowship with Him, to serve His purpose in the world? Is that selfoffering renewed again and again all through our days, placing ourselves anew at God’s disposal, choosing again, even amid much stumbling and wandering, to be God’s person? Do we yield up our lives to the Father’s care whenever we go to rest? Why, then, it won’t seem strange or different, will it, to say at the close of life’s day, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”? May our latter end, may your last words and mine, be like His!

Prayer: Father, may it be that we may so live in the Scriptures and in prayer a life of commitment, that we may come to die as we live. In Jesus’ name. Amen.