Jesus’s words in Scripture capture who he was and what he was about. His last words spoken on the cross, in the midst of immense suffering, were full of forgiveness, hope, and compassion—perhaps even more so than any other words he spoke on Earth. In Last Words: Seven Sayings from the Heart of Christ on the Cross, Robert J. Nash offers a fresh perspective on the obedience of the cross, revealing the heart of God who sent his Son to die.
“The last words of a hero or heroine in a story pack a punch. The final chapter of a book ties up loose ends. Epitaphs and eulogies have a summarizing power. Phone calls, visits, and whispers of those on hospice become riches locked away in the fading memories of those left behind,” Nash writes. “The last words of Christ are some of the most important words a person could ever read. I want the readers to feel the weight of his words in their gut as he died. These words contain a wealth of meaning we should not forget or neglect. This book seeks to mine those words to challenge the soul.”
In the interview that follows, Nash shares more about how Last Words came to be and the lasting impact of Jesus’s final words.
Q: What inspired you to write your first book, a book about the last words of Christ on the cross?
Back in 2003, I was attending a small church that had a Good Friday service, which was new to me. My wife and I walked into the old stone church. It was dark outside and in. Taking our seat in the sanctuary, everyone on stage wore black. The songs were set to a somber tune. Hymns such as “Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” filled the air. Then, the pastor preached a fantastic message on the death of Christ. He brought us into Holy Week. Year after year, he would revisit this message in much the same manner. The effect was always the same. Powerfully solemn as it reminded listeners of the extent of Christ’s suffering.
I began to think the church needs more of this. I read John Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ. I read more books about the cross by other authors (e.g., Bridges, Vincent, Piper, and Lucado). The more I read, the more I saw the church had not spent enough time talking about Christ’s words. The books that did talk about his words seemed too academic and esoteric. The thought of writing a book grew in my mind. Over a decade later, in 2014, I began a series of messages annually on Good Friday covering one saying of Christ on the cross at a time. People responded positively. Some thought I should publish these reflections.
I went to work in the mornings, vacations, and spare time in 2017 to put these messages and ideas down on paper in a way that is absent in the church today.
Q: Each of the seven sayings you focus on in Last Words has one key word. What are those seven words?
The seven words I highlight as chapter headings are: forgive, today, behold, why, thirst, finished, and Father. They flow from the subsequent sentences Jesus spoke as he hung on the cross two-thousand years ago. They capture a bit of what we gain from these crucial words.
Mark tells us that the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus at 9:00 AM, Friday morning. Jesus hung there till 3:00 PM (Mark 15:33). That meant he hung there for six hours. He died not of blood loss, but asphyxiation. Each breath was painful and costly. That makes anything he said, in my mind, even more vital for us to notice. The Gospel writers and Jesus thought what he said was important enough for them to write these words down.
Q: Today, we see the cross as a beautiful symbol of what Jesus did for us and our hope of salvation, but what did the cross mean in Jesus’s day?
The cross had a very different feel for the ancient than it does for us. We often miss the original meaning. It was a vehicle of torture, not decoration. The Romans meant the cross to be humiliating, painful, and prolonged. I have heard it was the worst way to kill a person.
In Galatians 3:13, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 21:23, reminding the church that being strung up on a tree made into a cross was a curse. You would never see people wearing a cross necklace in Jesus’s day. It would be offensive and out of place. Jesus took that curse on the cross. He wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Jesus took that curse for us. I hope that good news drips from every page of Last Words.
Q: Looking at the first phrase you explore, why did Jesus ask his Father to forgive his executioners?
I would argue he asked it to demonstrate his heart. Ironically, he was willing and desirous to extend mercy to his captors and killers. They, on the other hand, had shown no mercy. They didn’t even have a case against him. They had to set him up and try him at night. His conviction was a farce. He had no defense attorney nor a formal hearing.
So, for Jesus to ask the Father to forgive his murders shows that he is so far above them morally. This first word gives us a framework to approach those who have wronged us. Jesus blazed a way of forgiveness and mercy. He was living out his teaching. Can you imagine? If we are honest, as witnesses, would we have been any better? Would we have stood by and let this happen? Christ sought forgiveness not only for those who actively took part in his execution, but to all who lent their support by being passive. To pursue forgiveness in these circumstances was not only a model but, most importantly, an expression of love and mercy as well.
Jesus seeks us at the cross.
Q: The second chapter focuses on “today.” How does Jesus talking about “today” then apply to us today?
The focus word of this saying could also be “Paradise” or “with me.” I like the word “today” because of its immediacy. In the next few minutes, possibly hours, Jesus would be in Paradise with this thief. There will be relief from this horrible reality they were suffering together.
What do we know about this criminal? Nothing. He was a convicted robber. That is it. I suppose we know one other thing; he had enough faith to rebuke the mockery of Jesus and ask Jesus to remember him.
Here is a man who never experienced a believer’s baptism. He never went to confirmation. He never walked an aisle, signed a card, or raised his hand to accept Christ as his Savior. He didn’t speak in tongues, nor was he baptized in the Spirit. He was not a member of a local church. Now, don’t get me wrong. Those are good things. However, if what he had was faith in Jesus, that was what he needed, and it was enough. His faith was not in himself, but Jesus, who remembered him that day. In those moments, Jesus offered him a gift, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That is encouraging to me. Counter to the DIY (do it yourself) culture, the thief made it to Paradise solely by relying on the man they called the King of the Jews. Paul teaches that this is true for us as well. He wrote to the Ephesian church that it is by grace we have been saved through faith, not works (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Q: What is the greater significance behind John 19:26–27 when Jesus says, “Woman, behold, your son!” then, “Behold, your mother!”?
In John 19, I think we get to see another side of Jesus. He was a son, as well as the Son. Mary was his mother. He loved her. He cared for her. He wanted her cared for. Consequently, he asked his friend and follower, John, to take care of her.
Jesus was also a friend and a teacher. Although John bailed on Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, he was still someone Jesus cared about. Jesus was a friend too. He gave his friend a task to do, to watch over his mother. Jesus, in return, gave Mary as his surrogate and spiritual mother to John. There is something powerful about moms. This act of giving Mary to John was an act of a good shepherd taking care of his disciple. This parallels the care God has for us followers as well.
Amid tragic injustice and pain, Jesus was thinking of others. That can be an encouragement to us today.
Q: Jesus knew what was going to happen and why it needed to happen. Why did he ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
First of all, Jesus’s word about forsaking was a quote from Psalm 22. I think Jesus was quoting the whole Psalm in his head. We think more than we speak. Psalm 22 was messianic from beginning to the end. It predicted so much of what was happening to Christ in those moments. Verse 8 described Jesus’s persecutors mocking him. Verse 15 described his dry mouth—verse 16 talked about them piercing him. Verse 18 says they gambled for his clothes. The end of the Psalm is victorious, looking forward to his resurrection. It even describes rescue, and the earth and future generations acknowledging and worshiping. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface was a heart that genuinely was wrestling with this work. We get Jesus’s battle the day before in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed there for God to remove this cup. The cup is God’s wrath.
Some of what happens at the moment Jesus asked why God had forsaken him was a mystery. How was the one God three? How did the Father forsake the Son? What was happening? We know that those who sin die. The scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23). We know God took on his own wrath in this one death for all who would believe. In this forsaking, Jesus took on something far worse than nerve endings exploding in pain and choking. The spiritual suffering must have been unimaginable.
We come away from this even more comforted that Jesus did what we will never have to do. He bore God’s just fury for our redemption. We will never be forsaken. We will never face God’s wrath. God will never punish us for something Jesus has paid.
Q: How did saying, “I thirst,” express Jesus’s humanity?
Remember, the last time we know Jesus had a drink was the night before. It was a Passover meal. He had sweet wine. He must have been thirsty. As humans, 60% of our bodies are made of water. Without water, we die. Jesus knew this need. His thirst flowed from what we know about Jesus from other passages: he was fully human.
He was one of us. He relates. Another thing to remember in Jesus’s thirst is its prophetic connection. The Messiah needed to be fully human to take our place and pay the price for our sins. The exchange rate was a human for a human. Jesus redeemed us by taking our place.
When it comes to connecting with Christ, we all have longings. We crave, desire, wish for things. Jesus thirsted for water. His thirst gives us not only a theological reality to ponder but a connection with him as savior.
Q: What exactly was finished at the cross?
When I originally wrote this, I found some thirty different implications of the cross. They can overlap, so I boiled them down to seven: Jesus taking our sin, forgiving us, redeeming us, cleansing us, bringing us near, delivering us, and giving us a mission.
I found it so worshipful to read through scripture and see what Jesus accomplished at the cross. I sifted through scriptural descriptions of what Jesus did and mulled that over and over in my head. God has a “crazy love,” as Francis Chan has said.
We live such transactional lives. God offered a radically different love with the cross. At the cross, he took our sin. It is gone. He paid the consequence for our sins. It is paid for. He owns us. We are his. We have become sons and daughters of the King of Kings. With that change in status, we have an inheritance and present power.
Q: What were Christ’s very last words on the cross?
Jesus says a prayer to God his Father, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.” So, Jesus begins how he ends. He talks to God as the Father. He no longer is calling him God, who forsook him. Those words are intimate. He goes back to God.
I took this chapter to explore what the rest of the Bible talks about the Fatherhood of God. Jesus has a closeness to the Father that we dare not have. He is looking forward to meeting God. He calls him “Abba.” We, too, can be close to God because of what Jesus did there at the cross.
Not everyone is close to their biological dad. Some don’t have a living dad, and some don’t have a loving dad. God is eternal and loving. That is encouraging no matter who your father was or is.
Q: In the final pages of Last Words, you challenge your readers by asking them, “How do you sum up Jesus’s last words on the cross?” How do you answer that question?
The last words are about the gospel. In the end, I summarize it poetically with eight syllables and couplets rhyming without repeating a rhyme. It was enjoyable and worshipful.
I think you can summarize the event of that Friday with many mediums—music, art, or my daughter likes to dance. You could dance it out. (You don’t want me to do that. I dance like Will Ferrell. That wouldn’t be pretty or reverent.) Find a way to express your thoughts that works for you. In this chapter, I challenge the reader to take time to follow suit.
LAST WORDS: SEVEN SAYINGS FROM THE HEART OF CHRIST ON THE CROSS
In this powerful book, author Robert J. Nash explores a fresh perspective on a familiar event, guiding readers into the forgiveness, hope, comfort, and compassion of Christ’s words in his final moments on earth.