“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Luke 23: 44 – 46
Perhaps it is no surprise that I love Easter Sunday. As a Christian, I love Easter, because this is our most important Holy Day…Easter is more important than Mothers’ Day, more important than Thanksgiving Day, and more important than Christmas Day. As a pastor, I love Easter, because I have the privilege and responsibility to preach about the single greatest event in human history…The Resurrection of Jesus.
As Christians, we confess that Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is a real, literal and historical event. In one important sense, belief in Jesus’ Crucifixion Resurrection is an act of faith…Because we have never seen anything like that before.. In another sense, belief in Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is like belief in any other historical event. We can read and trust the historical documents.
Some people like to say that the books of the New Testament are religious writings and therefore cannot be trusted as historical documents. However, these books are actually MORE reliable than any other form of ancient history. (1) The New Testament was written by eyewitnesses. (2) It was written within one generation of Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection—the earliest book written around 50 AD and the last book written around 95 AD. (3) The history recorded in the New Testament was not contradicted by any other contemporary historical accounts—in many cases, secular history actually verifies the historical facts recorded in the New Testament.
Consider these words from Tacitus, the most respected ancient Roman historian:
“Christus, from whom the name (Christian) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”
-Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals (Book XV, Chapter 44), 115 AD (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44)
Tacitus was a Roman and was not a Christian. He wrote a history of the Roman Empire. He was not fulfilling some kind of Christian / religious agenda. This passage acknowledged that there was a man named Christ who was executed by Pontius Pilate, and this executed Christ is the namesake of the religious movement known as Christianity.
Another example is the political correspondence between Pliny, the Younger and Trajan, the Roman Emperor:
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
-Pliny the Younger, Letter to the Emperor Trajan, 112 AD (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/pliny1.asp)
Pliny was a governor over one of the districts within the Roman Empire. During his reign, Christianity was considered an illicit religion / superstition. Pliny arrested a group of Christians and told them they were facing execution unless they renounced their faith and worshipped the Roman gods. In his letter to the Emperor, we discover that (as early as 112 AD) Christians worshipped Jesus as God and committed themselves to a countercultural form of morality.
A third example comes from Josephus, the Jewish historian:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
-Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVIII, Chapter III, Paragraph 3), 93 AD (http://www.josephus.org/testimonium.htm)
This is the most controversial non-Christian reference to Jesus. If Josephus truly believed what he wrote here, he would no longer be a Jew—he would be a Christian! Also, many people today deny the authenticity of this quote. However, recent scholarship has discovered a secondary source with a very similar quotation. This leads to the interpretation that Josephus is not expressing his views about Jesus. He is quoting another source. Even though these words do not reflect Josephus’ personal beliefs about Jesus, they do reflect an existing First Century understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, who was crucified and rose again on the third day as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose again by Sunday morning. Jesus hung on the cross for six hours from 9:00 AM until 3:00 PM. During these six hours, Jesus spoke seven times: (1) Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing; (2) Today you will be with me in Paradise; (3) Woman, this is your son, and this is your mother; (4) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?; (5) I am thirsty; (6) It is finished; (7) Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
Luke 23: 44 – 46… 44 It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour,45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Death on a Roman cross was the most painful and the most humiliating way to die in the ancient world. The physical pain of the cross was so bad, there were no words to describe it. The Romans had to invent a new word. It was not brutal. It was not gruesome. It was excruciating—ex is the Latin word for “from” or “out of” and crus is the Latin word for “cross.” Excruciating pain is pain from the cross.
Of course, physical pain is only part of what Jesus experienced on the cross. Jesus was abandoned by most of his family and disciples. Jesus was mocked and ridiculed by his tormentors. This mockery was an intentional part of a Roman crucifixion.
The Romans made sure that the person who died on a cross died without any dignity. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst kind of criminals…usually men who were revolutionaries, trying to rebel against or even to overthrow the Roman government. That is what Jesus was accused of doing. When he preached about the Kingdom of God and claimed to be the divine Son of Man, the Romans felt threatened…Jesus was trying to establish a rival Kingdom.
If Jesus was gathering followers around him and promising a rival Kingdom, then the last thing the Romans wanted to do was to make Jesus a martyr. They did not want Jesus to die as a hero…To die with dignity…To die as a respected religious / political leader.
And the Romans knew how to do this. They had done this thousands of times before. They had crucified thousands revolutionaries and rebels and Jewish men who claimed to be the Messiah. They had stolen their dignity and stolen their lives. Yet, this is not the case with Jesus…No one could take away Jesus’ dignity…No one could take away Jesus’ life…
John 10: 14 – 18… 14 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 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."
As long as Jesus was on the cross, his life was in the hands of the Roman soldiers. Ironically, they did not have the power to take Jesus’ life from him. Instead, Jesus was in control of his own life. Jesus reclaimed his own life from the Roman soldiers and placed his life in God’s hands.
This is an important part of the Christian message. Jesus died on the cross to offer us forgiveness of sin. Jesus died as a willing and voluntary sacrifice. Jesus was not murdered by the Romans (or the Jews). Jesus’ life was not taken away from him. Jesus did not die a tragic death. Instead, Jesus gave his life willingly and voluntarily. Jesus gave his life as an expression of God’s love for sinners.
Jesus’ death on the cross expressed God’s love, because God (in Christ) provided the way for us to be saved—for our sins to be forgiven and for the division between God and humanity to be torn away. That was what Luke was describing when he told us that the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple was torn when Jesus died on the cross.
The curtain was a visual symbol and reminder that human beings are separated from God. The curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple complex. Only the high priest could enter behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies—and he could only do this one day a year on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifices for all the sins of all the people of Israel.
The Romans did not take Jesus’ life from him. Jesus willingly gave his life to forgive your sins and to make relationship with God possible...An expression of God’s love.
Jesus’ last words on the cross—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”—tell us something important about the way Jesus died. But, they also set an example for the way Christian people are supposed to live.
Luke 9: 23 – 25… 23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?
Jesus willingly gave his life for you. Will you give your life for Jesus? Will you commit your life into God’s hands?
There are two words we can use to describe what it means to give your life to Jesus.
On one hand, this is “discipleship.” We give our lives to Jesus to follow Jesus as the Lord / King of our lives. When Jesus is my Lord / King, my life is not my own.
On the other hand, this is “stewardship.” Ultimately, life is a gift from God. I did not create myself. I did not choose to be born / to live / to exist. God gave me this life. My life is my most precious possession, but it doesn’t really belong to me. We give our lives to Jesus, because it belongs to him anyway!
Ironically, most of us spend our lives wrestling with God. We wrestle and struggle against God, hoping to get our lives OUT of God’s hands. We think we can save ourselves / establish a good life for ourselves / find our own security.
The only true salvation…The only good life…The only ultimate security…is found by giving our lives away in faith…Wholly trusting our lives into God’s hands. Whoever loses his / her life will save it…What good is it for someone to gain the whole world and forfeit his / her own soul.
I think it is important to note that Jesus died just like he lived. Jesus was able to trust his death into God’s hands, because Jesus trusted his life into God’s hands. He died faithfully, because he lived faithfully.
We can compare Jesus’ last words on the cross to other famous last words:
Circus entertainer P.T. Barnum asked on his deathbed, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” He lived chasing a dollar and died the same way.
On his deathbed, hotel founder Conrad Hilton was asked for words of wisdom. He replied, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.” He died the same way he lived.
In 1776, Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for spying and stealing military secrets. His famous last words were: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” He died the same way he lived.
Will Jesus’ words on the cross be the defining words of your life? Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Jesus, I give my life to you.
These are the last words of a faithful life and the first words of a life of discipleship.
 For more examples of what ancient, non-Christian sources said about Jesus of Nazareth, see http://lovegod.denisonforum.org/heart/377-did-jesus-exist