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Seven Last Words from the Cross

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Seven Last Words from the Cross

The Sayings of Jesus on the cross (also called the Seven Last Words from the Cross) are seven expressions traditionally attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion, gathered from the four Canonical Gospels.[1][2] Three of the sayings appear exclusively in the Gospel of Luke and three appear exclusively in the Gospel of John. The other saying appears both in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew.[3] In Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out to God. In Luke, he forgives his killers, reassures the good thief, and commends his spirit to the Father. In John, he speaks to his mother, says he thirsts, and declares the end of his earthly life.

The Bible says he hung there for six hours and probably said far more than this, and these were the words remembered. They each have special meaning.[4] Since the 16th century these sayings have been widely used in the preachings on Good Friday and entire books have been written on the theological analysis, and the devotional elements of the seven sayings.[3][5][6][7] The Seven Last Words from the Cross are an integral part of the liturgy in the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and other Christian traditions.[8][9]

Physicians and scientists who have studied the medical aspects of the crucifixion concluded that the sayings had to be short because crucifixion causes asphyxia. This makes inhaling air to speak difficult and painful, especially as death approaches.[10][11][12][13]

The seven sayings tradition is an example of the Christian approach to the construction of a Gospel harmony in which material from different Gospels is combined, producing an account that goes beyond each Gospel.[3][14] Theologian James Dunn considers the sayings part of the elaborations of the diverse retellings of Jesus' final hours.[15]

Seven sayings

The seven sayings form part of a Christian meditation that is often used during Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday. The traditional order of the sayings is:[16]

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
  4. Matthew 27:46: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. John 19:28: I thirst.
  6. John 19:30: It is finished.
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Traditionally, these seven sayings are called words of 1. Forgiveness, 2. Salvation, 3. Relationship, 4. Abandonment, 5. Distress, 6. Triumph and 7. Reunion.[17]

As can be seen from the above list, not all seven sayings can be found in any one account of Jesus' crucifixion. The ordering is a harmonisation of the texts from each of the four canonical gospels. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is quoted in Aramaic, shouting the fourth phrase only, and cries out wordlessly before dying. In Luke's Gospel, the first, second, and seventh sayings occur. The third, fifth and sixth sayings can only be found in John's Gospel. In other words:

  • In Matthew and Mark :
    • My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  • In Luke:
    • Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do
    • Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (in response to one of the two thieves crucified next to him)
    • Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (last words)
  • In John:
    • Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (directed at Mary, the mother of Jesus, either as a self-reference, or as a reference to the beloved disciple and an instruction to the disciple himself)
    • I thirst (just before a wetted sponge, mentioned by all the Canonical Gospels, is offered)
    • It is finished (last words)

1. Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do

Luke 23:34

Then Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do".

This first saying of Jesus on the cross is traditionally called "The Word of Forgiveness".[17] It is theologically interpreted as Jesus' prayer for forgiveness for those who were crucifying him: the Roman soldiers, and apparently for all others who were involved in his crucifixion.[18][19][20][21]

From the cross Jesus looked at the soldiers casting lots for his clothing, at the priests pointing to him derisively, at the crowd yelling their insults. The evil in humanity was at its greatest height. While Jesus could have summoned legions of angels to bring vengeance on all of them, instead he pulled himself up and, with all his strength, offered a prayer on behalf of those who mocked and crucified him.[4]

Some early manuscripts omit Luke 23:34.[22]

2. Today you will be with me in paradise

Luke 23:43

And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you today you will be with me in paradise".

This saying is traditionally called "The Word of Salvation".[17] According to Luke's Gospel, Jesus was crucified between two thieves (Dismas and Gestas), one of whom supports Jesus' innocence and asks him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus replies, "Truly, I say to you..." (ἀμήν λέγω σοί, amēn legō soi), followed with the only appearance of the word "Paradise" in the Gospels (παραδείσω, paradeisō, from the Persian pairidaeza "paradise garden").

Jesus, hanging on the cross, was still seeking to save those who were lost. This confessed thief did not know Scripture or understand theology, had not recited a creed nor joined a church or been baptized. He was in no position to do anything redemptive or to clean up his life. He simply turned to Jesus and asked, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom".[4]

A seemingly simple change in punctuation in this saying has been the subject of doctrinal differences among Christian groups, given the lack of punctuation in the original Greek texts.[23] Protestant Christians usually use a version which reads "today you will be with me in Paradise".[23] This reading assumes a direct voyage to Heaven and has no implications of purgatory.[23] On the other hand, Catholics have used a reading which emphasizes "I say to you today", leaving open the possibility that the statement was made today, but arrival in Heaven may be later.[23]

3. Behold your son: behold your mother

John 19:26-27

Jesus saw his own mother, and the disciple standing near whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son". Then he said to the disciple, "Behold your mother". And from that hour, he took his mother into his family.

This statement is traditionally called "The Word of Relationship" and in it Jesus entrusts Mary, his mother, into the care of "the disciple whom Jesus loved".[17]

Jesus looked down from the cross to see his mother standing nearby. As far as we know, only one of the twelve apostles was there at the foot of the cross: "the disciple whom Jesus loved," usually identified as John. Naked and in horrible pain, he thought not of himself but was concerned for the well-being of his mother after his death. This shows Jesus' humanity and the depth of love he had for his mother and the disciple into whose care he entrusted her.[4]

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Matthew 27:46

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" which is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Mark 15:34

And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

It is the only saying that appears in more than one Gospel,[17] and is a quote from King David in Psalm 22:1. This saying is taken by some as an abandonment of the Son by the Father. Other theologians understand the cry as that of one who was truly human and who felt forsaken. Put to death by his foes, very largely deserted by his friends, he may have felt also deserted by God.[24] The mystery of incarnation, "far beyond our power to fathom", is that "he who died at Golgotha (Calvary) is one with the Father, that God was in Christ, and that at the same time he cried out to the Father".[25]

5. I thirst

John 19:28

He said, "I thirst".

This statement is traditionally called "The Word of Distress" and is compared and contrasted with the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan Woman at the Well in

Jesus became dehydrated by the loss of blood and sweat. Having had nothing to eat or drink since the Last Supper the night before, he was painfully thirsty. John, like the other Gospels, says someone offered Jesus a drink of sour wine. Only John says this person placed a sponge dipped in wine on a hyssop branch and held it to Jesus' lips. Hyssop branches had figured significantly in the Old Testament and in the Book of Hebrews.[26]

This statement of Jesus is in fulfilment of the prophecy given in Psalm 22:15).

6. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit

Luke 23:46

And speaking in a loud voice, Jesus said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit".


When darkness seem to prevail in life, it takes faith even to talk to God, even if it is to complain to him. These last words of Jesus from the cross show his absolute trust in God: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit". This has been termed a model of prayer for everyone when afraid, sick, or facing one's own death. It says in effect:

I commit myself to you, O God. In my living and in my dying, in the good times and in the bad, whatever I am and have, I place in your hands, O God, for your safekeeping.[4]:p.112

7. It is finished

John 19:30

Jesus said, "It is finished".

This statement is traditionally called "The Word of Triumph" and is theologically interpreted as the announcement of the end of the earthly life of Jesus, in anticipation for the Resurrection.[17]

These last words are seen as a cry of victory, not of dereliction. Jesus had now completed what he came to do. "A plan was fulfilled; a salvation was made possible; a love shown. He had taken our place. He had demonstrated both humanity's brokenness and God's love. He had offered himself fully to God as a sacrifice on behalf of humanity. As he died, it was finished. With these words, the noblest person who ever walked the face of this planet, God in the flesh, breathed his last".[4]:p.112

Theological interpretations

The last words of Jesus have been the subject of a wide range of Christian teachings and sermons, and a number of authors have written books specifically devoted to the last sayings of Christ.[27][28][29]

Priest and author Timothy Radcliffe states that in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection, and he views the seven last words as God's completion of the circle of creation and performs analysis of the structure of the seven last words to obtain further insight.[30]

Other interpretations and translations

The saying "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" is generally given in transliterated Hebrew, whereas Mark's is perhaps more colloquial.

The phrase could be either:

  • אלי אלי למה עזבתני [ēlî ēlî lamâ azavtanî]; or
  • אלי אלי למא שבקתני [ēlî ēlî lamâ šabaqtanî]; or
  • אלהי אלהי למא שבקתני [ēlâhî ēlâhî lamâ šabaqtanî]

The Aramaic word šabaqtanî is based on the verb šabaq, 'to allow, to permit, to forgive, and to forsake', with the perfect tense ending -t (2nd person singular: 'you'), and the object suffix -anî (1st person singular: 'me').[31]

Historicity of the sayings

James Dunn considers the seven sayings weakly rooted in tradition and sees them as a part of the elaborations in the diverse retellings of Jesus' final hours.[15] Dunn, however, argues in favour of the authenticity of the Mark/Matthew saying in that by presenting Jesus as seeing himself 'forsaken' it would have been an embarrassment to the early Church, and hence would not have been invented.[15] Geza Vermes, states that the first saying from (Mark and Matthew) is a quotation from Psalm 22, and is therefore occasionally seen as a theological and literary device employed by the writers.[33] According to Vermes, attempts to interpret the expression as a hopeful reference to scripture provide indirect evidence of its authenticity.[34] Leslie Houlden, on the other hand, states that Luke may have deliberately excluded the Mark/Matthew saying from his Gospel because it did not fit in the model of Jesus he was presenting.[3][6]

See also



  • The Reader's Encyclopedia, Second Edition 1965, publisher Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, editions 1948, 1955. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 65-12510, pp. 917–918

External links

  • The Seven Last Words of Christ Bethany Christian Church, Easter 1974, Pastor: Ben H. Swett.
  • The Seven Last Words of Christ: free scores in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
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