Dying words, especially when spoken in the throes of persecution or great suffering, are significant. They often reveal a man’s true values. Some of my favorite last words came from the English martyr Hugh Latimer. He was tied back to back with Nicolas Ridley as the two were burned at the stake. He called out as the flames were lit, “Be of good comfort, brother Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” As the fire was kindled, Ridley cried out, “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit: Lord, receive my spirit!” He repeated the latter phrase often. Latimer cried out, “Father of heaven, receive my soul!” (J. C. Ryle, Light from Old Times [Evangelical Press], p. 163.)
Another English martyr, John Bradford, turned to a young man who suffered with him and said, “Be of good comfort, brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night.” His final words as the flames licked around him were, “Strait is the way, and narrow is the gate, that leadeth to eternal salvation, and few there be that find it” (Ryle, p. 197).
Shortly before he died, John Calvin dictated a letter to his friend, William Farel, in which he said, “I have great difficulty in breathing and expect at any time to breathe my last. It is enough for me to live and to die in Christ, who is gain to those who belong to him, whether in life or in death.” Calvin’s friend and successor, Theodore Beza, who was with him at his death, wrote, “We can truly say that in this one man God has been pleased to demonstrate to us in our day the way to live well and to die well” (Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin [Evangelical Press], pp. 116, 118).
As Christians, we all desire, in Paul’s words, that “Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). We want not only to live to His glory, but also to die to His glory. We want to die well.
Our greatest example of dying well is the Lord Jesus Christ. From the cross, as His life was ebbing out of Him, Jesus uttered seven recorded cries. The first was the cry of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). It shows us His forgiving spirit and teaches us how we should forgive those who have wronged us.
His second utterance was the word of salvation, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It shows us His great mercy toward sinners, and that the salvation He is both able and willing to confer on every repentant sinner is by grace alone, apart from human works.
Jesus’ third cry was the word of love towards His mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and then to the apostle John, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27), showing us the importance of loving and caring for our parents.
His fourth cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34) shows us His agony in bearing our sins. We learn of His great love in being willing to be cursed of God on our behalf.
His fifth cry, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28), shows us His physical suffering, that He who died in our place was fully human. John records that Jesus uttered it “in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled,” thus teaching us that whether in the throes of suffering or death, our lives should be in accord with God’s Word.
Jesus’ sixth cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30) proclaims the great fact that Jesus accomplished the work for which the Father sent Him into this world. His death secured our redemption, so that we cannot add anything to it. Rather than trusting in our own good works, we must trust in Christ alone and Him crucified.
Jesus’ final cry is the one we come to in our study of Luke, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” With these words, Jesus breathed His last. With many dying men, you must bend down near them and listen carefully as they are barely able to whisper their final words. But Jesus cried out His final words with a loud voice. His enemies had accused Him of calling God His Father, thus equating Himself with God (John 5:18). They mocked Him on the cross, saying that God no longer delighted in Him or else He would rescue Him. But Jesus here shows that God was even in this moment still His Father and that He trusted the Father to receive His spirit. We see Jesus dying even as He lived, in total dependence upon the Father, submissive to His will. With these final words, Jesus shows us how to die well:
To die well, you must live and die by trusting in God.
The words are a quotation from Psalm 31:5, where David expresses his trust in God. But Jesus makes two changes: He adds the word “Father”; and, He omits the phrase, “You have ransomed me, O Lord, God of truth.” Jesus knew God intimately as Father in a way that even David could not. And, unlike David, Jesus did not need to be ransomed or redeemed, since He had no sin. But even though Jesus prayed this Psalm uniquely as the Son of God, we can learn from His example how to trust in God each day so that we are prepared, when the time comes, to die well. I’ll focus on four lessons:
In the first recorded words of Jesus, He called God His Father: “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Three of Jesus’ final seven cries from the cross were prayers. In the first and the last, Jesus addressed God as Father. Only in the second, as He was bearing our sin, did He cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” During that horrible time, the greatest mystery in all of history took place as God the Father turned His back on God the Son as He bore our sins. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). The fact that just before He died, Jesus again comes back to the more intimate address, “Father,” shows that the worst agony of the cross, the bearing of our sins, was over. Jesus had drunk the cup of God’s wrath against sin. God was appeased and now fellowship was eternally restored, never to be broken again.
The only agony yet to be endured was to go through physical death, God’s curse on the fallen human race. As Jesus faced this final trial, suffering the horrible torture of the cross, He calls out, “Father,” and He entrusts Himself again to the Father’s keeping. In so doing, Jesus gives us an example of how we are to trust in God as our loving Father, even when we face the most difficult and horrible trials imaginable.
J. I. Packer, in his classic, Knowing God ([IVP], p. 182) writes,
If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.
Packer goes on to show that God has not left us to guess what the term “father” means by our drawing analogies from human fatherhood. Rather, in His Word He revealed the meaning of the word through Jesus’ relationship with His Heavenly Father. Packer (pp. 185-186) draws out four implications of this:
First, it implied authority. The Father commands and the Son obeys. Jesus came to do the will of the Father. Second, it implied affection. The Father loves the Son and the Son abides in the Father’s love. Third, it implied fellowship. Jesus was not alone, because the Father was with Him. Fourth, it implied honor. The Father willed to honor the Son. All of this applies to us as God’s adopted children. We must obey God as His children. God loves us as His children. We walk in fellowship with Him. Jesus’ prayer is that we may someday share the glory which Jesus enjoys (John 12:32; 17:24). Packer argues that this father-child relationship is the highest privilege that the gospel offers, even higher than justification, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves.
We are not looking here at the universal Fatherhood of God. There is a limited sense in which He is the Father of all by virtue of His being their Creator (Acts 17:28). But here we are looking at the fact that we are “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). We have been adopted into God’s family, and we share in all the blessings that God has prepared for His children. Indeed, as Packer asserts, “the entire Christian life has to be understood in terms of it [adoption]” (p. 190, italics his).
Ask yourself: Do I know God in that way, intimately as my Father, even when He puts me in a severe trial? C. H. Spurgeon pointed out that “we only trust what we know” (Christ’s Words from the Cross [Zondervan], p. 109). He also wrote, “in this fact lies our chief comfort. In our hour of trouble, in our time of warfare, let us say, ‘Father.’ … To help you in sore suffering and death, cry, ‘Father.’ Your main strength lies in your being truly a child of God” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 39, “Our Lord’s Last Cry From the Cross,” [Ages Software], 1998). If you cultivate that intimate relationship with God as your Father every day, when the ultimate crisis of death comes, you can call out to Him as Jesus did.
As we have seen throughout Luke, Jesus was a man of prayer. If there were ever a man who did not need to pray, you would think that Jesus would be that man. And yet as a man who showed us what it means to walk in perfect dependence on God, He was our example in prayer. Prayer is the language of dependence. It is safe to say that if we have not prayed, we are not trusting God as we should. In prayer, we submit our will to God. We make our needs known, casting ourselves on His fatherly kindness.
You might say, “Everyone is going to pray when death is staring them in the face.” But that is not so. The unrepentant thief on the cross did not pray as his life ebbed away. He railed at Jesus. He blamed everyone else for his troubles. He was filled with anger and frustration, but he didn’t pray. Some may be too terrified of God to pray on their deathbeds, although this seems to be rare in our day of irreverence and flippant pride. Others may be oblivious to the impending danger of judgment that they will shortly face. They die with outward peace, but not in dependent prayer because they do not sense their peril.
But Christians should die with their thoughts and words God-ward. If prayer has been our immediate response to every need or crisis throughout life, then when the final crisis comes, we will pray. Are you cultivating the habit of making prayer your first resort, not your last resort? Vance Havner told a story about an elderly lady who was greatly disturbed by her many trials—both real and imaginary. Finally, someone in her family tactfully told her, “Grandma, we’ve done all we can for you. You’ll just have to trust God for the rest.” A look of absolute despair spread over her face as she replied, “Oh, dear, has it come to that?” Havner commented, “It always comes to that, so we might as well begin with that! God’s Word tells us to bring every concern once and for all to the Lord. Since He offers to handle our problems, why not let Him?”
Jesus’ prayer was a quotation from Psalm 31:5, where David expresses his trust in God as his refuge and deliverer in a time of great peril. From His battle with Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry to His final breath on the cross, Jesus lived in dependence on and in obedience to Scripture. Three times with Satan, Jesus replied, “It is written,” and cited Scripture (Luke 4:4, 8, 12). On the cross, His second prayer was a quotation of Psalm 22:1. He didn’t say, “I know that there is a verse somewhere that relates to my current situation, but I just can’t remember what it says!” He didn’t say, “Someone bring me a concordance and I’ll find that verse!” He had saturated His mind so thoroughly with Scripture that it oozed out of Him. It controlled His every thought.
The fact that Jesus prayed Scripture back to God is a good model for us. We cannot pray better than when we pray the words of Scripture. When we read the Psalms, we should let the psalmist’s expression of praise be ours. His cries for help in his crisis should be our cry. When you read the prayers of Paul, make them your prayer for those on your prayer list. When he prays (Eph. 1:17-19) that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him,” and that you might know “the hope of His calling and the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the surpassing greatness of His power toward us,” make that your prayer for yourself and others.
Prayer is the way that we bring God’s promises down into shoe leather so that we can lean upon them and obey them. But you can’t lean on and obey God’s promises if you don’t even know them! So you must begin by saturating your mind with Scripture, reading it over and over so that it begins to shape your very thought processes. Write down and commit to memory certain verses that relate to problems that you are facing. Are you struggling with temptation? Memorize 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.”
Do you struggle with anger? James 1:19-20 says, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Is your problem a sharp tongue? Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome [lit., rotten] word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
The story is told of Crowfoot, the chief of the Blackfoot confederacy in southern Alberta, that when he granted permission to the Canadian Pacific Railway to cross Blackfoot land, the railway gave him a lifetime pass to ride the train. Crowfoot put it in a leather case and wore it around his neck for the rest of his life. But he never used it to ride the train!
Many Christians are like that with God’s promises. They put them on plaques on the wall. They sing songs about them on Sunday. But they never actually use them. A major reason they don’t use them is that they don’t even know them. I have never had God miraculously put into my mind a verse that I haven’t read or worked at memorizing. But He often brings to my mind, right at the moment of temptation or crisis, a verse that I have worked at memorizing. Jesus could pray and lean on God’s promises at the moment of death because He had saturated His mind with God’s Word. Let us do likewise!
Jesus commits His spirit to the Father, meaning the part of Him that exists beyond physical death. The Bible teaches that people are made up of the material body and of the immaterial soul and spirit. Sometimes the New Testament seems to use the terms soul and spirit somewhat synonymously (Luke 1:46-47). At other times, it seems to distinguish them (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12). When a distinction is made, soul refers to the whole inner life of the person, whereas spirit refers to the inner life that is most sensitive to God and where we relate to God (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], ed. by Colin Brown, 3:682-687, 693-694). At death, the spirit, which is eternal, is separated from the physical body, which ceases to live. For example, when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, it says that her spirit returned (Luke 8:55). When Christ returns, believers will receive new spiritual bodies, similar to Jesus’ resurrection body, not subject to disease and death.
By entrusting His spirit to the Father, Jesus was entrusting His life beyond physical death to God. He was trusting God to raise Him from the dead and give Him a new, resurrection body. Stephen did the same thing toward Jesus when he prayed at the point of death, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Paul used a related Greek word for “commit” when he said, “for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). Paul had entrusted his eternal destiny to Christ and he knew that it was safe because it was in Christ’s mighty hands.
Becoming a Christian means that rather than trusting in yourself or your good works for eternal life with God, you trust in what Jesus did in dying on the cross as the just penalty for your sins. If God holds our eternity, it is secure, not because of anything in us, but because it rests in God’s hands, and He has promised to guard it (John 10:28-30). John Calvin writes, “Every one who, when he comes to die, following [Stephen’s] example, shall believe in Christ, will not breathe his soul at random into the air, but will resort to a faithful guardian, who keeps in safety whatever has been delivered to him by the Father” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], “Harmony of the Gospels,” 3:322).
I read of a young woman who was about to be operated on for throat cancer. Her chance of survival was not great. At best, she would probably lose the ability to speak for the rest of her life. The surgeon said, “We’re about to begin, so if you have anything you’d like to say …” After a moment of reflection, she finally said in a calm, clear voice, “Blessed be the name of Jesus.” I don’t know the outcome of her surgery, but if those were the last words she ever voiced in this world, they were the best.
Spurgeon told his students that his brother, who worked with him at the church, had said to him what Charles Wesley had said to his brother, John, “Brother, our people die well.” Spurgeon replied, “Assuredly, they do!” He said that he had never been to the deathbed of any of his people without feeling strengthened in faith. He had just seen a woman with cancer under her eye. “Was she lamenting her hard fate? By no means; she was happy, calm, joyful, in bright expectation of seeing the face of the King in His beauty.” He spoke with another, a dying tradesman, who had no fear of death. He said that he knew whom he had believed. Spurgeon said, “I had a heavenly time with him. I cannot use a lower word. He exhibited a holy mirth in the expectation of a speedy removal to the better world” (An All Round Ministry [Banner of Truth], pp. 361-362).
To die well, you must live and die trusting in God through Jesus Christ. All who die will fall into God’s hands. Some will find it a terrifying experience, because they trusted in themselves. But those who know Him as Father and Jesus as Savior will find comfort and a welcome rest. Commit your spirit to the Father now and every day. When the time comes, you will die well.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation