Publication: Pastoral Letter, March 2003
Dear Friend in Christ:
Greetings in the Name of our Risen Lord! It’s an honor for me to have the opportunity to write to you this month. I appreciate my father’s willingness to allow me to share something with you that has been on my heart. I pray it will be as fresh and encouraging to you as it has been to me.
As I was going through a difficult season a couple of years ago, the Lord led me to Psalm 31:5, and I read these words: “Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.” While I had read Psalm 31 many times in the past, this time, something clicked in my fuzzy brain – These are the same words Jesus said while He was on the Cross!
Realizing this, I went back and read the entire Psalm with new appreciation, and as I did, I was overcome with waves of worship. My anxiety, frustration, and hardness of heart melted away in the light of God’s goodness and mercy. Let me explain….
To understand the glory of Jesus’ final statements on the cross, we must first examine the severity of His suffering. In April of 1982, New Wine Magazine printed an outstanding article by Dr. C. Truman Davis (which had originally appeared in Arizona Medicine, a journal of the Arizona Medical Association) entitled, “The Crucifixion: A Medical Point of View.” Dr. Davis conducted extensive research on the crucifixion of Jesus, and what happened to Jesus physically_medically_during each phase of His suffering. It is a graphic and unsettling account of the utter brutality visited upon Jesus’ body during those final hours.
Some of what I say in the following paragraphs concerning Jesus’ physical suffering is based upon Dr. Davis’ studies. The book of Luke (himself a physician) paints the scene vividly in chapter 23 as Jesus is hanging, nailed on the cross, between two criminals who were also being crucified that day. Crucifixion was not the “standard” execution. In addition to being unusually cruel and tortuous, it was a shameful form of execution reserved for only the vilest criminals.
Recorded in Luke, and in the other Gospels, are a number of short statements that Jesus made on the cross in the hours before He died. In Luke 23:46, we read His final statement that day: “Father, into Your hands, I commit my spirit.” Such a statement may seem to be merely the words of a tired, discouraged man who, after a long struggle, was now giving up…quitting. Perhaps this statement could sound like an admission of failure. But nothing could be further from the truth.
BETRAYAL AND TORTURE
On the night Jesus was betrayed, He was arrested and taken to a rigged trial, where soldiers blindfolded Him and punched Him repeatedly in the face. Later, after being sentenced to be scourged and crucified, He was stripped of all of His clothing and His hands were tied to a post above His head. The Roman legionnaire took a whip and brought it down repeatedly, at least 39 times, across Jesus’ shoulders, back, and legs. At first, the whips only broke the skin, but as the blows continued, the whip began to cut and tear the muscle tissue and veins
The Roman soldiers gathered around Him to mock Him. As a “crown,” they gathered flexible branches covered with long sharp thorns. These branches were fashioned into a round shape and then jammed onto His head; the thorns dug deeply into His scalp. Onto His torn, bleeding back, the rough, rugged, cross was tied so that He could carry it several hundred yards to the hill of His execution (according to custom, it was probably not the whole cross that we picture, but only the heavy horizontal beam that He had to carry at this point). As the beatings and loss of blood were taking their toll, Jesus became unable to carry the cross up the hill, and so a man named Simon was pulled from the crowd to carry it. Finally, upon reaching Calvary, Simon was ordered to set the cross-piece on the ground. Jesus was pushed backward onto the wood; His arms stretched out.
The soldiers drove spikes into Jesus’ hands…just above the palm at the wrists. (Roman historical accounts indicate that a person being crucified had a spike driven between the small bones of the wrist.) The horizontal cross-piece, with Jesus nailed to it, was hoisted into place atop a vertical post. Then, his left foot was pressed backward against the right foot, and both feet were extended downward. A spike was driven through Jesus’ feet into the cross.
A mocking pronouncement, “THE KING OF THE JEWS,” was inscribed on a small sign and nailed above His head. It is at some point during this time…perhaps even as the nails were being driven into Him, Jesus prayed aloud and said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
As He hung on the cross, the full weight of His body rested on the nails in His wrists. Incredible pain passed like lightning bolts through His fingers and arms. The only relief He could get for His wrists and arms was to push up on the spike going through His feet. Very soon, cramps began to grip the muscles in His arms. As He hung longer, the large muscles in His chest became increasingly paralyzed, as did the smaller muscles around His ribs. Breathing became an excruciating process…air could be inhaled, but Jesus had to somehow raise Himself on His nailed feet in order to exhale.
IT IS FINISHED
As He struggled to breathe, He felt something far sharper than the nails or the thorns…it was the most excruciating pain yet. He was now feeling the crushing weight of the sins of the world…all the sin that had ever been committed from Adam and Eve in the Garden, all the way to Jesus’ day…and beyond, through the centuries of the future, right up until today.
He Who knew no sin – the only truly innocent person to ever walk the face of the earth_was now feeling the awfulness of all our sins. And even worse, He was feeling the separation from the presence of His Father. Holiness and sin cannot endure together; the Father had to look away as the Son hung there on the cross.
It is this realization that sparks Jesus to struggle upwards on that spike in His foot and cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” His great heart struggled to pump the blood throughout His broken and bleeding body. He gasped out, “I thirst.” The end was near.
Realizing that the hour had come, Jesus said, “It is finished.” What does He mean by that? Is this a pitiful end to a horrific story? Is this an admission of defeat? Jesus’ final statement reveals everything.
THE KING OF GLORY
Jesus was hanging, not only on a cross, but on the very crossroads of human history. After this moment, nothing would ever be the same. With one final, agonizing effort, He pushed Himself up, allowing sweet oxygen to flow through His lungs once more, and He said to the Father, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” And then, at last, the King of Glory rested His head and died.
What were His final thoughts? What light flickered in His mind and heart during those moments? His final words direct us to Psalm 31…a familiar Psalm to all Jews in that day. The entire Psalm was a favorite prayer during times of adversity. It was this Psalm that passed through Jesus’ mind like a cooling fountain in those moments at the end.
Oh, how great is Your goodness, which you have laid up for those who fear You, which you have prepared for those who trust in You….
Blessed be the Lord, for He has shown me His marvelous kindness in a strong city! For I said in my haste, ‘I am cut off before Your eyes’; nevertheless, You heard the voice of my supplications when I called out to You.
Oh, love the Lord, all you His saints! For the Lord preserves the faithful, and fully repays the proud person. Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all you who hope in the Lord (Psalm 31:19, 21-24).
On the cross, at the end, Jesus was not admitting defeat at all! Though He was battered and bloody…falsely accused…dying a tortuous death, His confession – His response – was to worship the Father and to declare, “We’ve won! Redemption is a done deal!” His eyes weren’t on the cross but on the joy that was set before Him. He was caught up in the Spirit as He meditated on and confessed the faithfulness of God.
No purer worship has ever been offered up before the Lord; no greater statement of faith has ever been declared. When there could be no darker hour in human history – when circumstances could not possibly be any worse – Jesus had His eyes fixed on the prize.
In the Spirit, He saw beyond the cross and beyond the tomb. He knew that “Sunday was coming!” He knew that what seemed like a victory for Satan was about to become the once and for all total victory over Satan. He knew that millions of people in bondage to sin and death were about to be set free. Luke records that Jesus’ final words were shouted. No, this was not the pitiful end of a sad saga; this was the victory cry of the all-time Champion!
I pray that as we consider the Cross during this season, the Lord will give all of us a fresh understanding of His great love for us – and for the world. In light of all of this, the apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, says:
Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking around life – and place it before God as an offering. (Romans 12:1, taken from The Message by Eugene Peterson).
True belief transforms. As we behold Him, we are changed. I pray we can be changed in such a powerful way that we not only say “Glory to God,” but the world around us will say, “Glory to God.” The message of the Cross must be personalized. How will you respond to it? How will I? May we respond in such a way that it touches those around us. This is truly the Gospel of the Kingdom.
I wish I had more space in this letter to more fully share this message. If you would like to receive a “live” audio recording of the message, “The Confession of the Cross,” please see the card enclosed. I have not often released my messages on CD or cassette, but I have been so encouraged by the Good News lately that I had to share it with you. I pray it will bless you.
Please continue to remember CSM in your prayers and in your giving this month. The story of the Cross may seem familiar to many of us, but how many billions of people have not yet heard it? Help us to tell this story to someone who needs to hear it today.
May the Lord continue to bless and strengthen you in these days and always!
Scripture References: Psalm 31:5; Luke 23; Psalm 31:19, 21-24; Romans 12:1