Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.

There was never a preacher like the dying Christ. There was never a congregation like the one gathered about the pulpit of the cross. And there was never a sermon like the Seven Last Words. As to their structure, these seven words may be divided into two groups. In the first three, Jesus was dealing with the interests of others; in the last four, He was absorbed in His own concerns.

Jesus’ Seven Last Words will be individually developed into a seven-part sermon series which, like a mirror, will enable us to see the crucifixion in the mind of Jesus Himself and reveal its true meaning. In the words of the poet George Herbert:

“O, all ye who pass by, behold and see: Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree — / The tree of life to all but only Me: / Was ever grief like Mine?”


“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Jesus used many pulpits during His public life, such as Peter’s boat pushed into the sea, the mountaintop of Tabor, the streets of Tyre and Sidon, the temple in Jerusalem, the country road near a cemetery, and a banquet hall. But all faded into insignificance compared to the pulpit which He mounted on the cross. It was lifted slowly off the ground and wavered in midair for a moment, tearing and lacerating His flesh. Suddenly, with a deep thud that seemed to shake the earth, it sank into the pit prepared for it. Jesus had mounted His pulpit for the last time.

Jesus spoke seven times from the cross; these are called His Seven Last Words. In the Scriptures, the dying words of only three other people are recorded: Israel (Jacob), Moses, and Stephen. The reason, perhaps, is that no others are found so significant and representative as these three.

In His goodness, Jesus left His thoughts on dying, for He—more than Moses, more than Stephen—was representative of all humanity. In this sublime hour, He called all His children to the pulpit of the cross, and every word He said to them was set down for the purpose of an eternal publication and an undying consolation. “These,” writes James Stalker, “are like windows through which we can see what was passing in His mind.”1

In analyzing the structure of this First Word from the cross, three things are noticeable: the invocation, the petition, and the argument.


Seneca, a fourth-century Roman moralist, wrote that those who were crucified cursed the day of their birth, their executioners, and their mothers, and they even spat on those who looked at them. Cicero recorded that it was sometimes necessary to cut out the tongues of those who were crucified to stop their terrible blasphemies. Hence, at Jesus’ crucifixion, the executioners expected a word but not the kind of word that they heard from Him.

When Jesus had recovered from the swooning shock occasioned by the driving of the nails into His hands and feet, and before His senses were stifled by the mists of death, His first word was “Father.” Inasmuch as Jesus’ natural language was prayer, even at this moment it leapt to His lips. When wrong is triumphant and prosperity is suddenly turned into adversity, even devout Christians have been driven by the pressure of pain and disappointment to question God. But this invocation proved that Jesus’ faith was unshaken even when He was sinking into the abysses of pain and desertion.


The word “Father” was followed by an utterance of pardon. The Scribes and Pharisees were quite sure that He who had preached to “love your enemies” and “do good to them that hate you” would now forget that message with the piercing of His hands and feet. They felt that the excruciating and agonizing pains would scatter to the winds His ethical teachings. But, what He had preached on the sunny hills of the Sermon on the Mount, He practiced on the grim hill of Calvary. No observer of that horrific scene expected a prayer of pardon. People who are dying either proclaim their own innocence, condemn the judge who sentenced them to death, or ask forgiveness for their sins. But Jesus, who was perfect innocence, asked no pardon; as Mediator between God and man, He extended pardon. As High Priest who offered Himself in sacrifice, He pleaded for sinners. In a certain sense, the words of forgiveness were spoken twice: once in Eden, as God promised redemption through the “seed of the woman” who would crush the serpent of evil; now as God in the form of the suffering servant who fulfilled the promise. So great was Jesus’ love manifested in this word of pardon that echoes were caught later when Stephen asked the Lord not to punish those who stoned him. It echoed again when Paul wrote: “At my defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them” (2 Tim. 4:16). But the prayers of Stephen and Paul were not like the prayer of Jesus, in which forgiveness was identified with His sacrifice, prostrate as a victim. Thus He interceded and offered Himself for the guilty. By His sacrifice, “Jesus was earning the right to become the advocate of men in the Father’s presence.”2


But, forgive whom? Forgive the soldier in the courtroom of Caiaphas who struck Him with a mailed fist? Forgive Pilate, who condemned God to retain the friendship of Caesar? Forgive Herod, who robed wisdom in the garment of a fool? Forgive the soldiers who swung the King of kings on a tree between heaven and earth? Forgive them? Why? Because they know what they do? No, because they know not what they do. If they had known what a terrible crime they were committing by sentencing Jesus to death; if they had known what a perversion of justice it was to prefer Barabbas to Christ; if they had known what cruelty it was to take the feet that trod the everlasting hills and nail them to the limbs of a tree; if they had known what they were doing and had kept on doing it, unmindful of the fact that the very blood which they had shed was capable of redeeming them, they would never be saved. It was only the ignorance of their great sin that brought them within the pale of the hearing of that cry from the cross. So, Jesus was saying that, in this instance, their ignorance was their salvation.


What lessons, then, emerge from this First Word? First, “upon all rests the guilt of crucifying the Son of God. To all, forgiveness is freely offered.”3 There is no limit to divine mercy. Secondly, ignorance does not remove guilt; only true repentance can bring the consolation of pardon. Paul was comforted with it when he said, “God had mercy on me, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Lastly, like Jesus, who practiced what He preached, we must “walk the talk” and be an example of those in whom “sentiment and act completely coincide.”

1 James M. Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ (Michigan: Zondervan, 1984), 112.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, 745.
3 Ibid.

Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.