The Lord's Day Morning
November 20, 2011
“Father, Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 23 as we continue to make our way through the gospel of Luke. The last two times before this time we've been together we've been in a passage in which Jesus is on the cross. Luke gives us the first word of the cross in this passage and he gives us the last word of Jesus from the cross in the passage that we're studying. The very first word has to do with forgiveness, and therein Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the cross in order that our sins might be forgiven. That's illustrated, and we saw it last time we were together, in the story of the penitent thief who experiences the assurance of Christ of the forgiveness of his sins and his communion and fellowship with Him in Paradise forever because of what Jesus is doing on the cross. We continue today looking at yet another word of Jesus.
I want you to be on the lookout for several things as we read in this passage. First of all, in verse 44, I want you to be asking yourself the question, “What is the darkness about here?” Jesus is shrouded in darkness from noon until three, from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, Luke says. And you need to be asking yourself the question, “Why is Luke emphasizing this?” It happened; that's one good answer, but what does this point to? Well, as you know, in the Old Testament, darkness, in the prophets and in the story of the exodus, has very significant meaning. And we’ll see that in the background. But ask yourself the question, “What is the darkness about when we read verse 44. And then in verse 45, I want you to think about the rending of the veil in the temple. What's that about? Why does Luke tell you about the rending of the temple veil?
Then in verse 46 he gives you the last word of Christ from the cross. “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Now when Jesus says those words He is quoting in the way of a paraphrase a particular psalm. And Luke wants us to understand that and wants us to understand its significance. And so he gives us the darkness and the rending of the veil of the temple as material, tangible accompaniments to the death of Christ for us to meditate upon, as they’re significant. And then he gives us the words of Christ.
And then in verses 47, 48, and 49 he shows us the reaction, the response of the centurion, the crowd, and even Jesus’ acquaintances and followers to His death. And in this way he points us to the significance of the cross. Throughout this whole section Luke has been explaining to us why Jesus had to die, what the cross accomplished, why Jesus was on the cross, what He was there for, and we see that again in this passage. Jesus, in this passage, shows Christians how to die, but He also, even more importantly, shows what He died for, what He accomplished for you in His death. So be on the lookout for those things as we read.
Before we read, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord, this is Your Word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it. We ask that, by Your Spirit, You would apply them to our hearts so that we would understand the Gospel, so that we would understand the heart of the cross, that we would understand Your saving purposes, and that we would understand how to live and die ourselves in hope, in trust, in faith in Christ. All these things we ask in Jesus' name, amen.
Hear the Word of God beginning in Luke 23 verse 44:
“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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Jesus’ death for us is vital for us to understand if we are going to live the Christian life with confidence and if we are going to enjoy fellowship with God by grace. We must understand why He did what He did and what He did accomplished. And Luke's telling us again here. He started out, remember, if you look back in Luke 23 verse 44, he started out by telling us that the first thing that Jesus did from the cross was pray, “Father, forgive them because they don't know what they’re doing,” indicating to us again that Jesus’ very purpose of being on the cross was to ground the forgiveness of sins by God's mercy to His people in justice. And then we saw that demonstrated in the story of the thief on the cross and here again Luke has lessons for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we might understand the cross. And I want to look at a few of them with you this morning.
JESUS ABSORBS THE JUST JUDGEMENT OF GOD
First of all, if you’d look with me at verse 44 I want you to look at the darkness that is described. “It was now about the sixth hour” — twelve noon — “and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour” — about three in the afternoon — “while the sun's light failed.” What is this darkness? Well, let me tell you ahead of time it's the darkness of the judgment of God and Luke is telling you that Jesus is absorbing the just judgment of God against our sin on the cross. Now you say, “Ligon, that's a lot to deduct from darkness.” Fair enough. Turn with me in your Bibles to Amos chapter 8. I could go to many places. I could go to Exodus chapter 10 verses 22 and 23 where what happened? When God was bringing judgment against the idolatry of Egypt He sent a plague of darkness over the whole land. It was a symbol of His judgment on the pretentions of Pharaoh to be a god, the resistance of Pharaoh to His sovereignty, the idolatry of that land. It was a judgment. It demonstrated God's power and it demonstrated that He had rendered a verdict of guilty on Pharaoh and the wicked Egyptians who were oppressing His people. And throughout the prophetic literature you will hear prophets warning the people of God of God bringing darkness upon them because of their sin and Amos chapter 8 is one of those famous passages.
Look with me at Amos 8 at verses 7 to 10:
“The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.’”
In other words, He's saying, “I know the evil deeds that you've done, My people. I know them. I've seen you do your evil deeds and I'm not going to forget them. They’re going to come back on you.”
“Shall not the land tremble on this account…”
Now by the way, the other gospels describe what's happening at the crucifixion? An earthquake.
“and everyone mourn who dwells in it…”
What does Luke describe in verse 48, just a few verses later? All of the people leaving the cross doing what? Beating their breasts. What is that? That's a Jewish way of publicly mourning.
“and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt.”
Again, it's a picture of upheaval and earthquakes.
“’And on that day,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.’”
You see what Luke is saying? Luke is saying that day of judgment has come, but guess what? It hasn't fallen on God's people; it's fallen on His only Son. The darkness prophesied against the people of God has come against His own. The darkness is the picture of the judgment of God against sin. That judgment has been visited in those dark hours on His only begotten Son. William Hendrickson has these moving words to say about this: “The darkness meant judgment, the judgment of God upon our sin. The punishment though was borne by Jesus so that He, as our substitute, suffered most intense agony, indescribable woe, terrible isolation, and forsakenness.” And then He goes on to say this: “Hell came to Calvary that day. Hell came to Calvary that day, and the Savior bore its horrors in our place.” That's what the darkness is about. And Luke is bringing it to our attention because it happened but also because it meant something. It fulfills the prophesies of the Old Testament and so Jesus absorbs the just judgment of God against our sin on the cross. Luke is again telling you what the cross is for, what the cross does, what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
JESUS OPENS THE WAY INTO THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Second, if you’ll look with me at the end of verse 45, here Luke describes the rending of the temple's inner veil. “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” Now the book of Hebrews makes it clear in Hebrews 6:19, Hebrews 9:3, and also in Hebrews 10:20 that the rending of the veil into the holy of holies symbolized Jesus having opened our way into the presence of God. Turn with me, for instance, to Hebrews 10 verses 19 to 22. Here, the author of Hebrews says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Luke, like the author of Hebrews, is saying that Jesus has opened our way back into fellowship with God. What did Adam and Eve lose in the garden when they rebelled against God? They lost the joy of His nearer presence. They lost the ability to talk with Him face to face. In Genesis 3, we are told that the Lord God came walking in the garden in the cool of the day, ready to experience fellowship with Adam and Eve but they had rebelled against Him and they hid themselves and they were eventually what — cast out of that garden and an angel was placed at the east of the garden to keep them from returning again. But Jesus has provided the way back into the nearer presence of God. It's not a coincidence, is it, that He's just said to the thief who said, “Lord, please remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” He's just said, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Because what is He doing on the cross but accomplishing the way that God's people get back into His presence to enjoy communion with Him, to fellowship with Him, to be near Him, to be with Him. Luke is telling us that's what the cross accomplishes for all who trust in Jesus Christ. And so Jesus opens the way into the presence of God.
But then again, look with me at verse 46. First, Luke has shown you the darkness and the rending of the veil, things that accompanied Jesus’ death on the cross to help you understand what Jesus’ cross accomplished. Now, he's going to point you again to the words of Jesus to help you understand what the cross accomplished. Now, as you know, in this passage, Luke records three of the words of Jesus from the cross. We typically number them as seven, although every once in a while you’ll hear a commentator say there were actually eight. The other gospel writers tell us the other four of the traditional seven last words of Jesus. Luke gives you the first word, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” and then he gives you the word to the thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise,” and then he gives you the last word, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” And you see that recorded in verse 46 but notice three parts to it — how Jesus did it, what Jesus said, and then what Jesus did after He said His last word.
“Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice” — now that's an interesting detail that Luke would draw attention to. He didn't just whisper it, He said it loudly. There's a reason. What did He say? “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” He's quoting Scripture and the scripture is from the Psalms. It's Psalm 31 verse 5. Go ahead and turn there. And then he says, “And having said this, He breathed His last.” Now each of those three things are very significant because what is Jesus doing here? Jesus is saying the words of committal at His own funeral. You know when you go to a graveside service, one of the things that the minister will usually do is give the words of committal — “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. Here, we commit the body of our dear brother or sister, departed to the ground in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It's a standard part of a Christian graveside service, the words of committal. Well Jesus, in this verse, is saying the words of committal at His own graveside service and it's very, very significant because what He is expressing here is that He is willingly and authoritatively laying down His life for us. Nobody's taking His life from Him against His will. He is laying it down of His own will and by His own authority and no power on this earth could take His life from Him if He did not want to give His life! So He says it with how? “A loud voice.” Now if you have been on a cross being crucified for the day, you’re weary. You are in agony. You are more apt to whisper through your parched throat some words. But not Jesus. He speaks loudly. He's in control to the very end.
He quotes Scripture. There's a lesson for us, isn't it, even in the hour of death. He quotes Scripture and He quotes from Psalm 31. I asked you to turn there so look at those words. The psalmist prays, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” Now I want you to notice three things. First of all, the psalmist here speaks in this prayer of the Lord having redeemed him. Jesus doesn't quote that as He says this. Why? Because He's not being redeemed; He's redeeming you. On the cross, that's what He's doing. He's redeeming you. He was the substitute in order that you would be bought back and redeemed.
Notice also that the psalmist does not call God, Father, here. He calls God, what? “O LORD, faithful God.” But Jesus calls Him Father. That is very significant. Notice again, the first word on the cross, “Father, forgive them; they don't know what they’re doing.” The last word on the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Jesus has just said the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” That is what He has been enduring in the three hours of darkness, but at the very end He shows us that He endures to His last breath, entrusting His life to His Father. That too is surely a lesson for us. Even in the darkest of distresses, in the blackest of nights, in the deepest of trials, to entrust ourselves to our heavenly Father.
But then, not only is what He says, “Into Your hand I commit My spirit,” notice it's almost like He decides when He's going to commit His spirit to God. The Romans don't decide when He dies, the Jews don't decide when He dies; He decides when He dies. He decides when He gives His spirit to God. And that's emphasized in the third phrase too. “And having said this, He breathed His last.” It's almost like Luke is saying He decided to stop breathing. It's interesting, Luke could have said, “And after this, He died,” but he says this interesting thing. “He breathed His last.” It's almost like Luke is saying Jesus, at that point, decided to stop breathing. Why? Because He is not a victim of the Romans; He's not a victim of the Jews. His life was not taken from Him against His will. He willingly and authoritatively laid it down, and John records Jesus explaining that to the disciples before He ever went to the cross. Do you remember where it is? It's in John chapter 10. Turn with me there.
Just four verses. John 10 verses 11, 14, 17, and 18. What does He say? “I am the Good Shepherd.” What does the Good Shepherd do? “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down My life for the sheep. I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father.” Jesus is saying to us and Luke is teaching us because of what Jesus has said that Jesus deliberately, willingly, and authoritatively decided to lay His life down for you. He decided when He died. He decided how He would die. He decided to stop breathing and He did it because He was not a victim; He was a willing sacrifice. He was a deliberate sacrifice. He loved you so much that He said, “Father, I will willingly lay down My life for her, for him, for him, for her, for a multitude that no man can number. I’ll do it because I love them.” And Luke again is saying that's what's happening on the cross. Jesus isn't a murder victim. He is a willing sacrifice. He even decides when He's going to die!
JESUS CHANGES THE WAY WE APPROACH DEATH
Now there's another thing that we should learn from this because do you remember when Josh was reading from 1 Peter 2 today and he got to that passage where Peter says that Jesus’ suffering was an example to us? Remember that? That's very true. The cross, Jesus’ suffering and death, is more than an example, but it is not less than an example. Thank God that it's not just an example, but thank God that being more than an example it also gives us an example. Jesus, even on the cross, is actually telling Christians how to die and that's important for us because every single one of us in this room, no matter how young we are or old we are, we're going to die unless the Lord Jesus comes first. And that means that every Christian ought to be thinking, at least once in a while when we're gathered in worship and when you’re reading your Bible at home, “Lord,” not only, “teach me how to live today, teach me how to live my life,” but we ought to every once in a while at least, not infrequently, be saying, “Lord, teach me how to die. I need to know how to die.”
And Jesus is even showing us how we ought to die. What He does here changes the way that we approach death because Jesus wins the victory over death that allows us not to be terrified of death and the grave because He's vanquished it; He's won a victory over it. And so we can say with Paul, “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” because of what Jesus has done on the cross. And as He trusts His Father on the cross in the hour of His death, we can trust the Father in the hour of our death. As He quotes Scripture in the hour of His death, we can quote Scripture in the hour of death. As He is confident in His Father's providence in the hour of His death, we can be confident of our Father's providence in the hour of death. It changes the way that a Christian approaches death.
John Piper recently said three wonderful little sentences and he's writing these sentences as if Jesus is explaining what He's doing here in Luke 23 to you. In just three short sentences, here's what he says: “My dying for your salvation is My design for your imitation. I pay the price for the one. I give the strength for the other.” Did you catch that? “My dying for your salvation is My design for your imitation. I pay the price for the one. I give the strength for the other.” What Piper is saying there is he's summarizing that Jesus, in His death, pays the price for your salvation. You do not add to that, but He's not only paying the price of your salvation, He's also showing you how to live and how to die. And as He pays the price for your salvation, He also gives you the strength to live and die the way that He has given you the example for.
Now J.C. Ryle elaborates on that in a few more words. Let me just share Ryle's great counsel to us. He says this:
“There is a sense in which our Lord's words supply a lesson to all true Christians. They show us the manner in which death should be met by all God's children. They afford an example which every believer should try to follow. Like our Master, we should not be afraid to confront the king of terrors, death. We should regard death as a vanquished enemy whose sting has been taken away by Christ's death. We should think of him as a foe who can hurt our body for a little while, but after that, there's nothing more he can do. We should await his approaches with calmness and patience and believe that when flesh fails our soul will be in good keeping. That was the mind of dying Stephen. ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ That was the mind of the apostle Paul. When the time of his departure was at hand he said, ‘I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I've committed to Him against that day.’”
And then Ryle says this: “Happy indeed are those who have a last end like that.” Happy indeed. And even in this passage Jesus is teaching us how to die.
JESUS DEATH PROFOUNDLY IMPACTS EVERYONE THERE
Well there's one last thing. Look with me at verses 47 to 49 because here Luke records for us three responses to Jesus’ death by those who were present – the centurion in verse 47, the crowd in verse 48, and Jesus’ followers in verse 49. And Luke draws our attention to the response to Jesus’ death by those present because he wants us to see how profoundly what had happened had impacted everyone.
First of all, there's the centurion in verse 47. This is probably the man who was in charge of the crucifixion. This is the Roman officer who was in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus and the two criminals. And what's his response? His response is to declare Jesus’ innocence. Now remember, Luke has told you that Pilate has declared Jesus to be innocent, Herod has declared Jesus to be innocent, for crying out loud, the thief on the cross has declared Jesus to be innocent, and now the centurion in charge of His crucifixion declares Him to be innocent! Do you think Luke has a point there? Jesus is not guilty. Jesus is not on that cross because He deserves to be on that cross. He doesn't deserve to be on that cross because He's righteous. And you know the other gospels, the other gospels tell us that this centurion even said, “Surely this was indeed the Son of God!” And Luke just tells you he was doing what? He didn't just say, “He's innocent,” He was doing what? “He was praising God.” It shouldn't surprise you, should it, that Luke will record other Roman officers coming to faith in Christ in the book of Acts. So this centurion watched Jesus on the cross, watched how He carried Himself, listened to what He said, saw what was happening, and he said, “This Man was innocent and He is who He said He was. He's the Son of God.” A testimony to the truthfulness of Jesus’ person and work, His claims from a Gentile who was assigned to put Jesus to death.
Then, Luke records how the crowds responded. Look at verse 48. “The crowds returned home, beating their breasts.” This is a Jewish way of mourning. Now it is true that it would not have been uncommon for Jewish women to be at a crucifixion of Jewish people and to do acts of mourning because when the criminals were buried, when their bodies were disposed of, there was no longer a possibility to engage in mourning like you would in the normal funeral of a citizen. So if you were going to mourn, you had to do it while they were alive and still on the cross. But Luke is indicating the response of the multitude as one of a recognition that they were guilty and Jesus was not. Almost like saying, “We did this and it was wrong. Surely God's judgment is going to fall. His woes are going to be visited because we did this and it was wrong.” There's a sense, there's a building sense of sin that may well come to fruition just a few weeks later when thousands come to faith in Christ at Pentecost when Peter tells them — what? “This Man, who was attested by God with signs and miracles, you nailed to the cross by the hands of wicked men, but God has raised Him up and vindicated Him.” And what's the response of the thousands of people there at Pentecost? Thousands of them come to faith in Christ. Could it have been that it started right there? That their sense of guilt, “We've done something wrong. This Man shouldn't have been on the cross. We are guilty.” — Could it have been that the Holy Spirit has already started the sense of guilt that led to a godly repentance that led to a faith in Christ?
And then there are the disciples, or actually here they’re simply called “the acquaintances and the women,” and they’re standing afar off. Luke's reminding us that when Jesus saved us He was virtually alone. John stood there for a while and as far as we know John is the only one of His eleven disciples that stood nearby Him at all during that day. The women are there, God bless them, but they’re all standing afar off Luke describes them. No doubt they’re afraid of what the Jews might do, of what the Romans might do, but Jesus is there on the cross alone for the salvation of the world. We’re not saved by the disciples, we're not saved by church leaders, we're saved by Jesus. Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin has made a crimson stain, but He and He alone has washed it white as snow.
And here's where I want to leave you. You know, I think all of us, like the crowd, if we take stock of ourselves, recognize that we deserve God's judgment on us. And even those of us with the most robust conscience, every once in a while recognize that we deserve God's judgment. And Luke is saying, “That's right, you do, I do, but God has dealt with what we deserve in Jesus so the way back into fellowship with Him is not in our trying hard enough, in our trying to be good, in our trying to make up for what we have done, but it is in faith in Him because He is the only way back into fellowship with God because He has taken the judgment of God upon Himself for our sins.” So when that sense of God's just judgment against you speaks in your ear and heart, the only right answer is to run to Jesus and to trust in Him, to come to God through Him who has already absorbed the just judgment of God that we might be with Him forever.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for this word about the cross, this word about Christ, this word about the Gospel. Work it in to our hearts, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to number 465. Luke has displayed for us the marvelous grace of our loving Lord on the cross. Let's sing about it.
Our Savior was doing something that was literally marvelous for us on the cross. Receive it by faith in Him. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.