Three Prayers from the Cross

Sermon by David Strain on October 23, 2016

Luke 23:26-49

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Well, let me again welcome you, especially if you’re here tonight as a visitor among us. We’re so glad you are here. Particularly we’re glad to have some of our friends from our Internationals Class down here. We’re so glad you’re with us tonight. Thank you for being here. And so please know that I am praying for you. If you have any questions at all, I’ll be down front under the pulpit after the service and I would love to speak with you and assist you if I possibly can. Because we knew we would have some guests with us tonight, I thought it would be prudent to take a break from our regular Sunday evening sermon series in the book of Revelation just for tonight and to look with you at some verses of Scripture that take us right to the very heart of the Christian Gospel. So if you would take a copy of the Bible, which you’ll find in the pockets in the pew in front of you, or if you’re on one of the front rows it may be under your seat, and turn with me in Luke’s gospel to Luke chapter 23. Luke 23; page 844, at verse 44 of Luke 23. Before we read it together, it’s our custom first to pray briefly and ask for God to help us understand the Scriptures. Let’s pray together!


Father, we need Your help to understand the Bible. Would You give us understanding then, and more than that, as we hear Your voice speaking to us, would You work by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts so that Jesus Christ, to whom the Bible points us, might be ours and we might become His? For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Luke chapter 23. And we will read from the forty-fourth verse. Verse 44 of Luke 23:


“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.”


Then turn back to Matthew’s gospel. Matthew chapter 27 at verse 46. Matthew 27. Actually, we’ll read from verse 45; page 834 of the pew Bibles.


“Now from the sixth hour, there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sab ACH Thani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.


Well, tonight we’re going to try to descend down into the depths of a very profound mystery, the central mystery of the Christian faith, as we listen to the Lord Jesus pray from the cross. Actually three times – we only read two of His prayers – but three times He prays. He lifts up His voice in prayer as He hangs in agony between two criminals. Three times He poured out His soul to the Father in prayer and although each prayer comes as only a single short sentence, each prayer expresses an ocean of feeling and purpose and holy desire. Like three landmarks, three monuments that dot the landscape of the accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’ suffering. Each of these three prayers calls attention to three crucial moments in Christ’s suffering and work at the cross. They take us from the very beginning of His ordeal when, as the nails were driven into His hands and He was raised up on the cross, He cried out first, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” And then from there on, down into the deepest abyss of suffering when He cried, “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” And then from there onto the final resolution of His self-giving work when He prays at last, at the end of it all, “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” Each prayer has a different character; they are different kinds of prayers. The first is a prayer of intercession. He’s praying for others. The second we might say is a lamentation, a cry of sorrow and loss. “Why have You forsaken Me?” And the final prayer expresses submission and surrender to the Father as He commits Himself to Him in death.


A Prayer of Intercession


The first prayer. The first prayer teaches us about the purpose of the cross. What is it Jesus came to accomplish? The second prayer takes us into the magnitude of the pain of the cross. What is it that He endured? And the third prayer tells us about the final price of the cross. What is it that He ultimately gave to save us? The purpose and the pain and the price of the cross. So that’s where we’re going. Let’s think about the purpose of the cross first of all in this very first prayer of Jesus. So turn back in your Bibles to Luke chapter 23; Luke 23 – 884, page 884 – and direct your attention to the thirty-second verse. Verse 32 of Luke 23. “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” The very first words of our Savior from the cross do not express concern for Himself nor do they pour out the agony that then had begun to overtake Him. Somehow, through searing bodily pain and agony of mind and of spirit, His very first words give voice to the great burden of His heart, the main goal, the purpose of His suffering. He prays for the forgiveness of His killers.


That is stunning, isn’t it? Stunning! Here’s human depravity at its most barbaric and brutal. The people He came to save, among whom He had lived and ministered, to whom He had preached often, whose children He had healed with a word and a touch, to whose blind He had given sight, whose dead He had raised to life, here they all are now mocking Him, spitting on Him, killing Him. The incarnate Son of God, the Lord of life Himself, impaled on a Roman gibbet. The ultimate demonstration of the perversity of the human heart is right here around the cross, isn’t it? Here we are lost in sin, crucifying the Lord Jesus Christ, the one we were made to worship. And instead, we hang Him on the tree and consider Him accursed, smitten by God and afflicted.


Christ’ Power at the Garden of Gethsemane

You will remember, you may remember how on the night when they came to arrest Him He was with His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. In John 18 verse 4 when the mob arrived to take Him away, He asked them, “Whom do you seek?” They replied, “Jesus of Nazareth.” And when He said, “I am he,” John tells us they all drew back and fell to the ground. Simply by declaring Himself to be the great “I AM;” the Greek words are “Ego Eimi,” “I AM,” the living God of glory and might and He speaks His name, as it were, and His enemies are leveled to the dust. All the prerogatives of deity dwell in Him. And so there is no army that can take Him where He will not go. And with a word, He knocks them to the ground.


And so now here we watch as those captors are allowed to give full vent to their malice and hatred as they crucify Him. And all the while we’re waiting, aren’t we, for some whispered command from our Savior’s lips. All it will take, we know, is a word. He had leveled His enemies with a word. All it will take now is a word. Surely before the hammer falls, surely before the cross is dropped into its stand, surely He’ll simply speak and end it all and vindicate Himself and level His enemies. Surely. And yet He does not open His mouth. “As a sheep before its shearers are silent, he opened not his mouth,” Isaiah said. And when He does at last speak, it is not to pronounce the wrath and curse of God upon His enemies. When He does at last speak, it is to pray, it is to intercede for their forgiveness. In Isaiah 53 at verse 12, the prophet said of Christ He would “bear the sins of many and make intercession for the transgressors.” That’s what’s happening here as we listen in awe, perhaps even in perplexity to this prayer. The prophet reminds us this is His core work, His great business at the cross. He hangs there to secure the forgiveness of sins. That’s what He’s praying for now. Bearing our sin, pleading for our pardon. He is, even here, already our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the propitiation for our sins.


And this great work that He begins here, He never stops doing – pleading with His Father for the forgiveness of His people. Even now He ever lives to make intercession for us. Five bleeding wounds He bears, received on Calvary. “They pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me. ‘Forgive him, O forgive!’ they cry, ‘Forgive him, O forgive!’ they cry, ‘nor let that ransomed sinner die.’” And so as we hear the first prayer of Christ, this great prayer of intercession, we’re made to see the central design and purpose of all that He suffers, in all that He endures, He did it to secure our forgiveness, our pardon.


Is God Willing to Forgive Me?

You may be here this evening wondering if God is willing to forgive you if you might dare to hope that there will be a welcome for you in Jesus Christ. “He’d never receive someone like me, surely, with my past, with my guilt, with my burdens.” But as He looked down on the hateful mob surrounding His cross, as He looked into their faces and saw the derision and mockery in their eyes and heard the contempt in their voices, you remember He pleaded for their forgiveness. He bore the sins of His enemies. Don’t you think if He could look and speak and pray and pour out His life with such love for those who deserve in fact only His rejection, don’t you think, do you think that He will respond to you any differently in your sin and rebellion? No, His stance is always, “Father, forgive.” That’s how He stands toward every sinner that looks to Him.


Christ Bids you to Come to Him

You may feel deeply the shamefulness of your sin. You may have an acute sense that your place is more among the guilty crowds of men and women rejecting Jesus than anywhere else. You catalog all your misdeeds. You relive, perhaps, your stumbling and your straying. You feel yourself worthy of only of the negation and the condemnation of God, not the welcome and pardon of Jesus Christ. But doesn’t this first prayer teach us that the welcome and pardon of Jesus Christ is precisely what He offers us? We may not think ourselves worthy, we may believe we are disqualified, but it’s not the worthy or the qualified for whom Jesus prays here, is it? It’s for the guilty that He prays, the disqualified; precisely for them, He intercedes. Jesus welcomes you to come to Him at His cross and take the forgiveness only He offers. His prayer here reveals His heart. He wants nothing so much as the pardon of His killers. He longs for the salvation of sinners, of hateful, twisted, shameful people. He longs for it! It is His great purpose in going to the cross in the first place. And that means that means there is a welcome for you tonight in Jesus Christ. Jesus bids you come and welcome. There’s pardon for you in Him tonight. So first of all, the purpose of the cross – the forgiveness of our sins.


A Prayer of Lamentation


Then if you’ll turn back to Matthew 27, Mathew 27 at verse 46. Matthew 27 at verse 46. You’ll see the second prayer Jesus uttered from the cross. And this time we’re thinking about the pain that He endured at Calvary. If the first prayer is amazing, contradicting every instinct of our own, wouldn’t we expect a cry for vengeance perhaps or a scream of protest or a pleading whimper for mercy? Instead, He prays for the forgiveness of others. It’s amazing, that first prayer. If it’s amazing, the second prayer takes us all the way down into the deepest abyss of mystery – the unfathomable depths of Christ’s dereliction and abandonment under the curse and wrath of God. It’s not now a prayer for others, neither is it a prayer begging for help for Himself asking, as we no doubt would, to be delivered from the horror of it all. It is instead a cry of lament, a cry of sorrow and loss. “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?”


Notice that Christ no longer comes to God as Father. This is perhaps the only time in the whole of His life that He’s ever turned to God and not been able to come to Him with the familiarity and comfort of a child in the embrace of His Father. Almost certainly, the physical agonies of the cross itself, dreadful though they were, have not particularly increased at this moment. But if the physical pain of the cross has plateaued, it does seem that there’s a different kind of pain that is only deepening as His ordeal progresses. Christ steadily descends down into the darkness of the divine abandonment here. And now we hear Him pray at the very bottom of it all, submerged beneath the condemnation our sins deserve. Here is Christ whom God made to be sin who knew no sin. He’s now the object of the perfect hatred of the Father that burns with incandescent zeal against all that is unholy and wicked. And it’s turned toward His Son.


The Irony of the Cross

That surely is one of the great ironies of Calvary, of the cross. Christ is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and He’s surrounded, isn’t He, by this surging mob spewing out its venom against Him, the embodiment of a world that’s turned its back on God. But it’s on Christ and not on the mob that the Father’s just judgment rolls down. And so now, at last, it seems the smile of Abba Father has been utterly eclipsed in the awareness of Jesus Christ. Like a small flickering candle flame, spluttering and muttering in the dark that, nevertheless up til now, had given some light of hope to the suffering human consciousness of Christ that the Father still smiled upon Him. But now it’s as though that small flame has been extinguished and snuffed out altogether and He is plunged into the outer darkness, into the unrelenting blackness of God-forsakenness.

And amazingly, stunningly, staggeringly He still finds language to pray. That this extremity of need and pain – isn’t it instructive to us if we are Christians tonight to realize that it is the language of holy Scripture drawn here from the twenty-second psalm that fills His mouth? He’s been abandoned! For the first time in His earthly life, all sense and awareness of communion with God is severed and He feels left utterly alone. And still, He prays. Often in our deepest crises, finding the vocabulary to pray at all is hard. Isn’t that so? When things are at their worst for us, opening our mouths to pray at all can be hard. But Jesus here is so acquainted with the Scriptures that when all other words fail He has Bible words to pray. You may not know what to pray for or how to pray in your darkest moments. In such times we should learn from Christ who prays at the most extreme end of suffering. When you don’t have words of your own, you always have Bible words. When lesser words won’t do and other words won’t come, pray God’s words.

And so Christ is crying out here in the words of the twenty-second psalm in abandonment and forsakenness.


The Son is Both Abandoned and Forsaken

And let’s not imagine for a moment that it’s simply abandonment to nothingness that is what calls forth this heart-rending cry of dereliction. No, the Son is being abandoned and forsaken and given over to something. He’s being given over to wrath. Here, Jesus moves from dwelling in the consciousness of the presence of God in favor, all His earthly life, now to dwelling in the presence and the consciousness of the presence of God in wrath and judgment and not in favor as He hangs here on the cross. John Calvin was right to say of that line in the Apostle’s Creed that, “The cross was Christ’s descent into hell, into God-forsakenness.” And there’s no way for us to follow Him there. Our minds rebel at the enormity of it. He loved us and He gave Himself for us. He gave Himself to be forsaken for us, damned for us. And there as the awesome crushing weight of sin’s condemnation overwhelms Him, as the darkness eclipses the light of the Father’s love for Him, as the candle, at last, is snuffed out, there He prays again, “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” Not a prayer of unbelief or doubt, for all that He knows nothing of communion with God, though He’s not able to come to Him as Father, nevertheless He still comes to Him as “My God, My God!” The One whose hand bears the rod that now afflicts Him is the One whose hand He still kisses and owns for His God, even here. His anguished cry is actually a cry of faith when there is no light. This is faith in the dark.


Our Willing Representative

And neither should we read it as a complaint as though Jesus were implying that God is unjust to pour out His judgment on Him here. No, He dies here willingly as the representative of His people. This, after all, is what He came to do. As He Himself once put it, “What shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose, I have come.” This is not protest or doubt or unbelief. God is His God still, even if He has forsaken Him to sins just condemnation for our sake. And it’s right here, I think, that Jesus is at once most like us and least like us. He’s least like us right here in this moment because no one has ever and no one will ever endure what He endured. He bears here the sin of the world, the curse of God for every one of His people. Even sinners in hell endure only the just condemnation they alone deserve. But Christ endures the penalty for the whole Church. Sinners in hell endure a penalty that fits their offenses, but Christ has no offenses of His own. And yet, He was made to bear sin’s curse. Christ here is unique in doing what no one else will and no one else ever has endured.


But isn’t there another sense in which it’s just right here that He’s most like us. If you’ve ever read through the Gospels you would have seen Jesus turn water into wine with a word. He will multiply loaves and fishes to feed 5,000 people with twelve baskets left over. Walked across the waves. Silenced the storm without any effort. He need only speak and it will come to heal like an unruly puppy at its master’s feet. He could tell Lazarus, who had been dead for three days, to “come forth,” and death obediently loosens its grip upon him and Lazarus steps alive from the tomb. Over and over again we see Jesus work in a way that makes it clear He’s not like us. And we find disciples and enemies alike saying in amazement before Him, “Who is this?” He’s a man, clearly, and yet His words and works are redolent of deity. How different from us Jesus is. And yet here at the cross, here in the dark, we hear Him asking our question, don’t we? We hear Him asking our question. Haven’t we found ourselves asking it from time to time? In fact, of the inexplicable suffering of sudden, tragic loss, isn’t this our question as well? “Why? Why? Why?” Jesus has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He’s gone all the way down into the valley of the shadow of death, able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, a perfect High Priest over the house of God. One who knows. Jesus is One who knows.


Faith Seeking Understanding

Isn’t that what this prayer is telling us? That He is the one that maybe sometimes for you at times the only one who really knows. And as He offers His prayer here of lament and cries out to God in dereliction, “Why?” He sanctifies our “Why?” questions. There needn’t be unbelief. There needn’t be dissatisfaction with God’s hard providences. There might simply be what Saint Anselm famously called “faith seeking understanding.” And while we can’t always be sure of an answer to our “Why?” questions, we can always, always, always be sure of a Savior in Jesus Christ who hears our cries with understanding, one who meets our need and saves to the uttermost all who come to God by Him.


The purpose of the cross is our forgiveness. The pain of the cross, not nearly physical but profoundly spiritual as the Son is forsaken to the wrath and curse of God due to our sin. And then finally and briefly, think about the price of the cross. Turn back to Luke 23:44-46. Luke 23:44-46. “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” The temple curtain was torn as Christ declared in victory, “It is finished. The work is done. Sin is paid for in full. The wrath of God, His justice satisfied at last.” And now although darkness covers the earth, did you notice it seems the light of the fellowship of Abba Father returns. Once more He can pray, “Father.” The work is done now, you see. There’s nothing left for Him but the final surrender of His Spirit in death.


A Prayer of Submission and Surrender


And this, Luke says, He did with His final prayer. Once again, adopting the language of Scripture, this time Psalm 31 verse 5. This prayer here, I think, rings with notes of relief and contentment and rest. In John 10:17-18 Jesus told us that He was uniquely authorized to make this His crowning act of obedience. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again,” He said. “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 charge I have received from my Father.” And so now as Christ speaks in supreme command of the moment of His own death. Raymond Brown, one of the commentators is surely right to say, “Death does not come til He signals His readiness.” If they hadn’t been nailed to the cross at this moment we almost expect to see Jesus beckoning with His hand, summoning death and watching, we watch death come meekly and obediently at its Master’s call ready to bring His soul into paradise to hear the, “Well done My beloved Son of Abba Father!” It’s the crowning moment of the atoning work of Christ. The last thing requisite for the price to be paid in full. The only thing left to give. “The wages of sin is death,” the Scriptures say.


And so this final price must be paid and therefore as John puts it in his gospel, “He gave up His Spirit.” He gave it up. It was not taken from Him. Even in death, He remains the Lord of life and the bond of body and soul is not severed until He says so. In complete control, His death comes not as the unwilling theft of life from a helpless, dying victim, but the obedient gift of God’s faithful Son willingly offered. It’s the same obedience that has marked His whole life. “I have kept My Father’s commandments,” He said, “and abide in His love.” It’s the obedience, you will remember, that characterized His prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane as He contemplated the sufferings of the cross, “Not my will but Your will be done,” He prayed! And now it’s the same obedience that marks His very last prayer as our Lord became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” Our whole salvation you know rests on this salvation – the untiring, perfect and complete obedience of Jesus Christ for us.


You may know the story of J. Gresham Machen’s famous telegram to John Murray. Machen was dying and so he wrote to Murray, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” The obedience of Christ. No hope without it. Here in His final prayer, that’s what we’re seeing. A crowning act of obedience to the Father’s command. And in His obedience rests all our hope. We are not obedient. We are wicked rebel sinners without hope save in His sovereign mercy. But Christ the righteous one is obedient for disobedient sinners who trust Him. What a refuge we have in Jesus who is obedient for us all the way to the end. You’re guilty. You’re guilty. Me too. But Jesus has paid. My record condemns me but Christ’s record of righteousness as I trust Him is reckoned to me, counted as though it were mine, that in Him I might be accepted and pardoned and forgiven.


So let me say to you tonight very clearly and plainly, there is no hope for you anywhere else but here in the Man who gave all, the Man, Christ Jesus, the only Redeemer of God’s elect, a perfect Savior of sinners. How thankful our hearts should be, we who know Him, that He should love us like this and go all the way to such depths, into such horror, to make us children of God. And we who do not yet know Him, will you hear Him now plead with you to come, not with the mocking, slanderous venom of the crowds but in a cry of repentance and faith. Come to Him to accept the mercy that He offers you and the forgiveness that He won. Let’s pray together!


Lord Jesus Christ, we stand in amazement, in perplexity at all that You endured, scarcely able to fathom even the edges, the outskirts of the nightmare of judgment that etched itself into Your soul. And yet as we hear again that You did it for us, You did it for us, we bow down asking You please would You forgive us, would You win us, would You save us. For we ask it in Your name, amen.

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