Jesus’ third ‘word’ from the cross recorded by Luke is ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23: 46), following which He ‘breathed His last’. For Luke, this is not only Jesus’ final word from the cross; it is also the last clue he gives us to the inner significance of what is happening at The Skull.
On the road to Jerusalem we have eavesdropped on many of Jesus’ encounters with others. But only one of them parallels this moment. Here we have the consummation of what took place in Gethsemane. Here – as there – it is His own Father whom Jesus ‘encounters’. While He refers to Him frequently in this Gospel, there are only three places where He addresses Him directly (Luke 10:21-22; 22:42 and 23:46).
In Gethsemane our Lord’s human will had struggled to submit to the will of His Father – for His holy soul necessarily shrank from the implications of drinking the cup the Father was giving Him. There He was being asked to be willing to do what He could not desire to do – namely, to drink the cup of the wrath of God and experience the terrible sense of abandonment that would result. But here the same holy Saviour is confidently committing His spirit into His Father’s care.
What has happened? What has changed between the desperate plea in Gethsemane and this confident declaration at The Skull? Luke gives us two clues:
Clue 1: In the Roman Empire the day began at 6.00am. It was now ‘about the sixth hour’, noon – the time of day when the sun was ordinarily at its zenith. But not that day. For the next three hours the land was shrouded in darkness. Luke records this as a fact, but there can be no doubt that he also sees it as a sign – an event with deep significance. The heavens became opaque and impenetrable. For a brief season, creation itself seemed to be thrown into reverse gear and God said: Let there not be light (in contrast to Genesis 1:3). His face no longer shone on the earth. More to the point, the Aaronic benediction (‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you … the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace’, Num.6:24-26) had ceased to function. Jesus’ experience was the reverse of that of David, who was able to say: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … you are with me’ (Ps. 23:4). Nature itself put on the dark clothes of mourning as Christ the Creator was put to death by sinful men, and on the cross came under the curse of God (Gal. 3:13).
Clue 2: Luke records another event. The massive curtain of the temple was torn in two (Luke 23:45). Rending a garment was a sign of grief, of death and of mourning. Was God rending his ‘temple garments’ at the death of His beloved Son? Perhaps. But more than that, He was deconsecrating the Jerusalem temple. The temple curtain was now no longer the barrier between God and man. Not only the temple veil but the flesh of Christ had been torn to create the new and living way into His presence (Heb. 10:20).
Jesus’ work was completed; so now He called out ‘with a loud voice’ of triumph and joy: ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23:46). Was He still meditating on the Psalms? If so, he was now well past Psalm 22:1 (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) and had reached Psalm 31:5 (‘Into your hand I commit my spirit’). But more than that, He was now calling God ‘Father’ again. Luke adds simply: ‘And having said this He breathed his last’.
Jesus’ obedience to His Father, and His suffering, had a passive dimension; He was crucified by the hands of wicked and cruel men. But He had also been actively obedient: ‘obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). His work was finished now. It was time to go home to the Father. He breathed a sigh of relief and committed himself into His hands.
At the foot of the cross, the soldiers in His execution squad did not notice that Jesus had died (John 19:33)—they had been too interested in casting lots to see who would win His clothes, and joining in the general abuse of Him, to care about what He said. But not so the centurion who commanded them. He observed what had happened and said: ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ And his response? ‘He praised God’ (v.47).
So should we.
My song is love unknown, my Saviour’s love to me; Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. Oh who am I, that for my sake My Lord should take frail flesh and die?
He came from His blest throne salvation to bestow, But men made strange, and none the longed-for Christ would know: But oh, my Friend, my Friend indeed, Who at my need His life did spend. Sometimes they strew His way, and His sweet praises sing, Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King: Then ‘Crucify!’ is all their breath, And for His death they thirst and cry. They rise and needs will have my dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save, the Prince of life they slay. Yet faithful He to suffering goes, That He His foes from thence might free. In life no house, no home, my Lord on earth might have; In death no friendly tomb but what a stranger gave. What may I say? Heav’n was His home, But mine the tomb wherein He lay. Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine; Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine. This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend. (Samuel Crossman, 1624–1683, alt.)
This article is an extract from To Seek and To Save by Sinclair B. Ferguson, recently published by The Good Book Company.