While driving alone for long distances, I enjoy listening to Handel’s Messiah and other sacred music that uses the scriptures as the text. This music has always brought deep emotions for the Savior to my heart.
Many years ago, a friend presented me with a recording of Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio called The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. This oratorio came to my mind again more recently as I was reading and pondering anew the gospel accounts of the Savior’s Crucifixion, attempting to better understand His death. I gained further appreciation for the final earthly moments of our beloved Redeemer while reading Psalms 115–18, which Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles suggested must have been sung by the Savior in His last Passover. Both Haydn and Elder McConkie organize the last mortal utterings of the Son of God in the same chronological order, which I will follow here. 1
The Painful Prologue
To appreciate our Redeemer’s last precious sayings, one needs to remember that the Crucifixion was the final act in a series of profound and difficult events. First was the Passover meal, followed by the mental, physical, and spiritual agony of Gethsemane. Then came the arrest and subsequent illegal trials. Pilate and Herod questioned Him. He was scourged with leathern thongs weighted with jagged edges of bone and lead. The derision of soldiers rang in His ears as they dressed Him in a purple war robe, crowned Him with thorns, and placed a reed as a scepter in His bound hands. He then bore His cross to Golgotha with the help of Simon of Cyrene. At the third hour, they crucified Him (see Mark 15:25).
Securely fastened to the infamous cross between two crucified thieves, stripped of His outer garments that were parted between the soldiers, tortured by pain with each breath in this unnatural position, the Son of God was publicly and ignominiously exposed before the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the soldiers, passersby, and a handful of friends and relatives. Even then and there, His last words are a reflection of His divine nature.
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The Prophet Joseph Smith provided significant insight by clarifying that them and they in this statement refer to the soldiers who crucified Him (see Joseph Smith Translation, Luke 23:35).
The soldiers who whipped, mocked, and nailed Jesus to the cross were obeying orders. Their choice was to do the will of Pilate or be punished. Jesus’ teachings had likely never come to their ears. To them He was but one more man from a strange and difficult-to-manage nation. Our Savior pled with His Father that their acts not be counted as sins upon their heads. The responsibility for His death rightly rested upon those who had said, “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt. 27:25).
He who taught, “Love your enemies, … do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which … persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) was concerned for the spiritual well-being of the persons who pierced Him. What a lesson for us! Looking beyond their apparent motives, we must show concern for those who do not know what they are doing.
“To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
One thief who was crucified recognized that he was like a sheep who had gone astray and turned to his own way (see Isa. 53:6). His inner light was rekindled in the presence of “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9). He did not join in the mocking. Instead he appealed to the Good Shepherd, seizing upon the tenuous hope that he might be saved: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The Savior graciously answered and gave him hope. This criminal likely did not understand that the gospel would be preached to him in the spirit world or that he would be given an opportunity to live according to God in the spirit (see 1 Pet. 4:6; D&C 138:18–34). Truly the Savior cared for the thief who hung beside Him; surely He cares greatly for those who love Him and strive to keep His commandments!
“Woman, behold thy son!” (John 19:26).
The Savior’s mother, Mary, stood there by the cross. Perhaps at that moment, as she suffered to see the infinite burden placed upon her son, the Son of God, she recalled Simeon’s prophecy: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel. … Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:34–35). Yet in her own pain, she must have sensed He was fulfilling the will of God, His Father, for it was she who had responded to the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
“Behold thy mother!” (John 19:27).
Now as He was about to exit this earthly stage, the Savior’s attention and ministering words turned to His mother, Mary. Joseph, her husband, had passed away. John the Beloved would now see to her needs. These words teach an everlasting lesson from the Firstborn on family responsibilities: honor God’s will from generation to generation, honor parents, and see to each other’s needs.
The preceding words from the cross were uttered between the third and the sixth hour. At the sixth hour, darkness covered the whole land for three hours as the “God of nature” suffered (see 1 Ne. 19:10–12). “It seems, that in addition to the fearful suffering incident to crucifixion, the agony of Gethsemane had recurred, intensified beyond human power to endure.” 2
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
In Gethsemane, an angel had appeared to strengthen the Savior (see Luke 22:43). Now He had to tread the winepress alone. No answer. No angel. Alone. To which hiding pavilion had the Father withdrawn (see D&C 121:1)? It is difficult to consider these words from His dying lips without experiencing deep emotion.
Golgotha’s excruciating public suffering reaffirmed the private agony of Gethsemane, allowing Jesus henceforth and forever to address the Father thus: “Behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed” (D&C 45:4).
Jesus’ loneliness in suffering reminds us that in His infinite love and respect for His children, God our Father may at times be silent so as to allow our meager efforts to gain the humble victory and to represent the “all we can do,” after which He will save us by His almighty grace (see 2 Ne. 25:23).
“I thirst” (John 19:28).
These words confirm in part the awfulness of Jesus’ physical agony on the cross. His bodily needs cried out for relief. His tongue struggled to articulate as it clung to His parched lips. In terms of physical suffering, we have a God who has “descended below them all” (D&C 122:8).
A sponge soaked in vinegar was raised to His mouth. Jesus received it and gave His final statements in mortality.
“It is finished” (John 19:30).
The perfect Atonement had been wrought! His suffering for the sins of the world was completed. Could there be a more glorious moment in all eternity? The Prophet Joseph’s inspired additions to the Bible teach us that before the Son said, “It is finished,” He addressed the Father. He then announced that the will of the Father had been done (see Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 27:54).
From the first words of His prayer in Gethsemane to His last words on the cross, Jesus did the will of His Father. He drank out of the bitter cup that the Father had given Him, bringing glory to the Father and salvation to all humankind (see 3 Ne. 11:11). May we be so submissive, humble, and selfless in our mortal victories and successes!
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
The Son of the Almighty gave His life voluntarily. He had inherited mortality from His mother, Mary, and He had inherited the ability to live forever in a mortal state from God, the Father of His mortal body. He gave His life to bring to pass the Resurrection of all humankind. The righteous spirits in prison “were filled with joy and gladness” (D&C 138:15) at the news of His death, for His death and Resurrection guaranteed their deliverance from the chains of death. And so can we, every day of our lives, be filled with joy and gladness because of the gift of His sacrifice and Resurrection.
The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob expressed a hope “that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death” (Jacob 1:8). The Savior’s atoning sacrifice provides the means for all men to repent and thus obtain eternal life. As we marvel at the events of His death and ponder the depth and fulness of the lessons contained in His words while on the cross, may we exclaim with the centurion, “Truly this man [is] the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).