Goodnight, my kitten,” Ernest Hemingway told his wife, Mary, the night before he committed suicide. Emily Dickinson, on her deathbed, said, “I must go in, for the fog is rising.” Surgeon Joseph Henry Green was checking his own pulse when he died. His last word: “Stopped.”1
In scrolling through the 64 examples of “famous last words” listed on the Mental Floss website, I noticed that most of them aren’t earthshakingly profound. Like Hemingway, several people mentioned their spouses, especially if they were present at the deathbed. Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, turned to his wife and said, “You are wonderful,” just before he clutched his chest and died. “You’re my girl,” actor John Wayne said to his wife. “I love you.”
Some of the final utterances were humorous. Alcoa Aluminum president Richard Mellon and his brother Andrew had kept up a game of “tag” for many years. On his deathbed, Richard called his brother over and whispered, “Last tag.” Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s last words were, “I knew it! Born in a hotel room, and [expletive] dying in a hotel room!”
meaningful final words
One Friday afternoon, from about noon to around three o’clock, Jesus hung on a Roman cross just outside Jerusalem. Because He was suspended by driven nails from His hands and feet, His rib cage was distended, which made it almost impossible to breathe, let alone speak.
Yet He spoke. And unlike those who murmured the deathbed comments quoted above, Jesus had known for years, centuries, millennia not only that He would die but also how and why and when.
Each of Jesus’ last sentences was spoken for His friends and anyone else who was listening and for all those who would read His words clear down to the present.
His last words are important because of why He hung on that cross. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” He told His disciples, “and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; emphasis added). That good news has given courage, comfort, and perspective to millions of people. So let’s listen to the final words spoken for us by our Creator and Savior.
“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Both Matthew 27 and Mark 15 contain this heartbreakingly vulnerable cry. Both chapters first give the Aramaic version (Jesus’ first language): “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34). This explains what some people standing around the cross said when they heard it: “He’s calling Elijah” (Matthew 27:47). In Mark 15, they add brutal sarcasm. After a man said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah,” another said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down” (verses 35, 36).
But Jesus was speaking directly to God (El basically means “God” in Hebrew and Aramaic, and Eloi is “my God.” “Elijah” means “Yahweh is my God”). The people who heard Jesus say this didn’t know their Bibles as well as He did, or they would have recalled that He was quoting the first verse of Psalm 22, where a frightened and despondent David asks, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
Why did the Son of God gasp these specific words from His cross? After all, He knew that a sacrificial death was His destiny. He had specifically told His disciples that He would die and then come to life after three days (Mark 9:31).
The first reason was that Jesus knew Scripture. He had stored the entire Old Testament in His mind, and He knew how to use it when He needed it. Second, Jesus was indeed facing total separation from God—something every human would have had to face if the Savior hadn’t died for us. Third, He was loaded down with the sins of the world—including yours and mine—and the weight was unbearable.
And fourth, these words—quoted from His own Bible by His own lips—give us permission to sob out our own discouragement into the ears of our heavenly Father. David sounded mournfully alone when he wrote Psalm 22, and Jesus certainly felt more alone than any human ever has. Whatever you’re going through, however how dark or discouraging, however deserted you feel, follow Jesus’ example and talk to God about it.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”
According to Luke 23:33, 34, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” when He was being crucified—nailed to a cross that was then raised to a vertical position and slammed down into the hole that would keep it upright. Jesus said this as He felt the first intensity of that awful agony, as He pressed His feet downward to raise His body to draw air into His lungs, an action He would need to repeat over and over as long as His strength held out.
These words tell me that Jesus doesn’t hold grudges. They also tell me that Jesus understands the motivations of my heart. The priests and rulers had been given truckloads of evidence that Jesus had the direct connection with God that only the Messiah could have, but they sentenced Him to death anyway. They knew exactly what they were doing. But the Roman soldiers in charge of the crucifixion were simply going through the execution routine they’d been trained to do. “Robber? Put him on that cross. Thief? That other cross. This Man? Not sure what He’s done, but put Him in the middle.”
Are you worried that you’ve been too evil for Jesus to save you? First, read Luke 15 (that’s the chapter with the three “losts”—the sheep, the coin, and the son). As you read, carefully note the zeal of the shepherd, the woman, and the farmer-father. Then turn back to the cross and trust that Jesus’ death for you will reconcile you to God if you accept Him as your Lord and Savior.
“it is finished!”
The phrase “It is finished” from John 19:30 is just one word in the Greek—tetelestai. That word means far more than simply “the job is done.” Here are its other definitions: “make perfect, make complete, finish, accomplish, reach one’s goal, finish one’s work, make mature, fulfill.”2
In other words, Jesus’ salvation is perfect. He did what He needed to so that everyone who wants salvation could have it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17). John the Baptist pointed at Jesus and shouted, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, ESV).3 Not just the sin of the Jews, or the Americans, or the Western Hemisphere, but the sin of the whole world.
Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for your sins and mine. What should we do in response? John, the disciple who heard Jesus shout, “It is finished!” tells us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
To illustrate further, allow me to tell you about something strange and emotional that happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was driving along a city street, about six blocks east of a large middle school. I had the car radio on, and suddenly I heard the squeals and beeps you hear when the government’s emergency broadcast system is being tested. Where I live, those sounds usually don’t last more than a few seconds, and then a reassuring voice comes on to say, “This is only a test.”
But this time, those squeals and beeps kept going, and I was getting concerned. Suddenly a voice said that this was an earthquake drill and that I should drop, cover, and hold. And then the regular radio programming started up again.
A couple of blocks later, I’d forgotten the whole incident. But as I curved around past the middle school, I saw children on the playground. At first, I thought it was recess time. But then I discovered that there were hundreds of students, all of them in long rows, with a teacher standing at the head of each line.
And suddenly, it clicked. There had been an earthquake drill at the school, and the teachers were training the kids to respond to it in a way that could save their lives. And as I saw those hundreds of kids wearing all sorts of colors, standing there waiting for instructions, it just hit my heart how precious those children were. My eyes filled with tears as I watched them.
Now, can you imagine God, looking down on that playground, and long ago looking down on the crucifixion scene with the frowning priests and the jeering soldiers and the few faithful men and women who dared to come as close as they could to their Friend? To God, they were all His children, some who knew Him and others who didn’t. Yet He loved them all.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”
The words “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46), along with “it is finished,” seem to be the very last Jesus uttered before He expired. Here is Luke’s account: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (verses 44, 45). Matthew 27:51 adds the detail that an earthquake happened. The tearing of the temple curtain meant that the Most Holy Place of the earthly sanctuary was no longer sacred. A new and living way had been opened into the heavenly sanctuary. Jesus, our High Priest and Sacrifice, has cleared our path to His Father. (See Hebrews 10:20.)
Luke continues (Luke 23:46): “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” Earlier, He had felt forsaken by God, and in a way, He had been. He was made “to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21), and sin cannot exist in the presence of God.
But Jesus trusted His Father. He knew in His heart that no matter how bleak and desperate and horrifying things seemed on that Friday afternoon, God would bring His Son through to victory.
How about you? Are you at the end of your resources right now? Do you feel forsaken by God and persecuted by others? Open your heart to Jesus, your Savior, who also suffered and yet trusted because He had devoted His life to God. Ask for forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit to renew you, and God will answer your prayer.
1. All of the “famous last words” quoted in this article are from the book Last Words of Notable People: Final Words of More than 3500 Noteworthy People Throughout History, cited by Chris Higgins, “64 People and Their Famous Last Words,” Mental Floss, February 12, 2016, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/58534/64-people-and-their-famous-last-words.
2. Definitions from Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 2010), s.v. “tetelestai.”
3. Bible verses marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Maylan Schurch is a pastor in Washington State and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.