Luke 23:44-56a, The Completion of the Savior's Work

[March 29, 2009] We come now to the death and burial of Jesus. For most people, this would be where the story ends, but we know that Jesus’ story continues with His resurrection. For Luke, however, even that is only the beginning. The story continues in the Acts of the Apostles. Nothing is smooth about the transition: from Palm Sunday to Pentecost, unique and momentous things happen; but the threads that are picked up in the Acts of the Apostles all began in the gospel that Luke wrote.

For Luke Jesus is the exemplar, the model and pattern, of the church and its apostolate, even in His death. Matthew shows us the uniqueness of the Savior’s death and the burden that He bore alone, that He alone could bear and did bear. The decisive moment took place in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus wrestled with the weight of it. Luke considered it from a different angle and through his eyes we see another aspect. We see Jesus acting boldly to the end, and acting on the basis of an assured redemption, with absolute confidence in the Father.

For example, in Matthew the only words that Jesus speak from the cross are the awful and appalling words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” and He dies crying out with a loud voice. He is bearing God’s judgment for our redemption. But in Luke Jesus says these three things: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise,” and the words that He says when He cries out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Notice the difference. In Matthew “God” abandons Him. In Luke the Father is always before Him and Jesus speaks with confidence of salvation.

Long ago the church decided that we must not choose between these versions, as if one is right and one wrong. Rather, we must accept both as the Gospel, as well as the versions in Mark and John.

The Unrepentant Nation (Luke 23:44-45)

At noon the light of the sun fails and darkness covers the land for three hours. At three o’clock the veil of the temple is torn from the top to the bottom. These things are connected. (Matthew adds earthquakes and dead people rising, giving these an apocalyptic meaning as Messianic signs that Israel might recognize.) In 19:42-44; 21:20-24; and 23:28-31, Jesus spoke of the impending destruction of the city, and in 21:6 He spoke of the destruction of the Temple. These things would happen not only because they refused to recognize Him as the Messiah, but because they refused to repent of their nationalistic fantasies. Israel was still under the conditions of the exile as described by the prophets. Most Jews—who were in the Diaspora—understood this. In Palestine, however, troubles were already brewing.

The rending of the veil in the Temple desecrated the Holy Place, removing the barrier between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the common. It was believed a similar miracle occurred before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians.

In Favor with the People (23:48)

There was another side to the people. In 23:28 the crowds who watched the spectacle of Jesus’ execution were horrified, as were the crowds who mourned for Him on His way to Golgotha (23:27). The Gospel according to Luke begins with the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and Mary and Joseph, representing the faithful of Israel, and from childhood Jesus found favor with the people. Luke does not present Jesus as an outcast, but as one whom even the Pharisees wanted to dine with, yet who embraced the outcasts and despised of Israel and thus riled their ire. He was indeed misunderstood, and in Nazareth they tried to kill Him. But He suffered innocently on the cross at the hands of unpopular leaders. The people were confused, but they did not despise Jesus.

Faithfulness: The Death of the Savior (23:46)

Consider the significance of Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” As we saw throughout, Jesus is not a passive victim but shows Himself in control at all points—not to the extent that we see in the Gospel of John, but more so than in Matthew. Even in dying, He does not just suffer it. He deliberately and intentionally releases His spirit, His life-breath, back to the Father. At the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus was born of a virgin, without a male, meaning that the initiative of His life came directly from God. It was His own, not another’s. So now, no one takes His soul from Him (John 10:18) but He lays it down on His own—His soul dies—and He commits His spirit back to the Father. He commits His human spirit to the safekeeping of the Father, for His Sabbath rest in Paradise and for the resurrection on Easter morning.

Two things seem important for us to understand. We are used to the translation in the epistles that tells us that we are saved by “faith in Jesus Christ.” We are saved by believing into Christ and by faith in Him. But we may not know that the word “faith” in Greek (pistis) means both “faith” and “faithfulness.” Faithfulness has the sense of loyalty, commitment, allegiance, fidelity, and so on. There are places where the Greek literally says “the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ” with an article (“the”) before “faith” and the indirect object (Jesus) in the genitive (“of” not “in”). For example: Galatians 2:16, 20; Philippians 3:9; Romans 3:22, 26; and Ephesians 3:12. In other words, we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, by His devout obedience to the Father, and not merely by His suffering.

From the beginning, Jesus was perfectly devoted to the Father’s will. He even denied His own soul, His own will, though it was sinless, in preference for the Father’s will. When He was baptized, the Father’s will began to take on another quality. This will did not only concern Himself, but Jesus began to be obedient on behalf of others. He began to live the life of repentance that was required of others but was not required of Him. In this way, He bore our sin. This was not obvious until He turned His face to go to Jerusalem for the last time (9:22, 31, 51). He submitted to the judgment of God without any resistance—rather He glorified God in it—but it was the judgment that would have fallen on us. He bore it for our sake because in order for our repentance to be complete, we would need to do it. Only we cannot. Even if we could, we would be consumed by it.

By attaching ourselves to Him, we do undergo God’s judgment IN Him. He becomes the vehicle of our full repentance. The weight of God’s judgment that He bore is what Matthew’s gospel brings out.

But in Luke, what we see is this faithfulness. It is not the fact that He suffered God’s judgment that saves us, but the fact that He suffered it in faithfulness to God—this is what Luke shows us. Jesus is bold to do God’s will, and is faithful and obedient to the end—when He finally surrenders the gift of His life (the vehicle) to the Father. His spirit, in a way, is the container for our salvation.

This, then, is the second point. The spirit that He commits to the Father is the spirit that has fulfilled God’s righteousness completely in faithful and devoted obedience to the Father. His life, and the manner of His death, is enough to save us. He commits it to the Father for the Father to protect and keep it while He rests during the Sabbath. He can at last rest because He has finished His work, the work which the Father has given Him to do. When He arises on Easter, it will be with this life that the Father has preserved—the life that is the vehicle of our salvation.

The Gospel according to John shows Jesus breathing His spirit, this spirit, into His disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are receiving the whole life of Jesus (because the Son and the Holy Spirit dwell in each other—coinhere—in the unity of the Trinity). Luke does not go this far, but he prepares us for it. His concern is with the Holy Spirit that empowers the church for its mission on the Day of Pentecost.

When Jesus commits His spirit to the Father, He is committing His faithful life to the Father so that it can be available for our salvation. In those words of His, we see that our life in Christ—we ourselves as redeemed by Him—is also kept by the Father. We do not have to fear death, for the Father keeps us as He kept Jesus. Because Jesus paved the way, death is no longer a curse. It is a Sabbath rest because the work of Jesus is completed.

While Matthew depicts Jesus as all alone, Luke shows us that He goes before us to clear the way. In His footsteps we can be faithful like Him, laying down our soul in death and committing our spirit to the Father’s keeping.

Repentance (23:47, 50-53)

Immediately we see the fruit of Jesus’ death in the repentance of two individuals. The first is the Roman centurion, a Gentile. He not only recognizes that Jesus is innocent. Luke says that this pagan sees the manner of Jesus’ death and glorifies God. He calls Jesus “righteous” which in Luke has a deeper connotation than simply innocent. It is a Messianic title. In the Acts of the Apostles (3:14; 7:52; 22:14) and elsewhere (1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 2:1), Jesus is the “Righteous/Just One.” The centurion’s believing (to whatever extent) is a prelude of what is to come in the salvation of many Gentiles.

Then we see Joseph of Arimathea. He was a wealthy and influential man who was a member of the Sanhedrin. He was a good and righteous man—faithful to the Torah—and secretly believed in Jesus. He did not go along with the high priests and their men when they tried to frame Jesus and when they handed Him over to the governor. Others who stood with Joseph were Nicodemus and perhaps Gamaliel.

Joseph now goes to Pilate and asks for the body of a criminal who was crucified—a dishonorable form of execution used only for traitors and slaves; the bodies were usually thrown in a ditch. It was at risk to himself that he did this, honoring someone who was executed for treason, and it defied the other members of the Sanhedrin, especially the high priest. He honored Jesus with an unused tomb and fine linen, when the male disciples were hiding in fear.

Here we see Joseph (the Jew) turn around—when all hopes seemed dashed—and come out boldly for Jesus, risking his safety and reputation on Jesus and His kingdom. Like in the centurion’s case, Joseph’s faith was the fruit of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death.

The Women, the Eyewitnesses (23:49, 54-56a)

Luke pays a lot of attention to women. While the eleven apostles are in hiding, the women disciples who had accompanied Jesus stay with Jesus during the execution.  After His body is taken down, they observe the burial. Then they rush to prepare the spices and ointments they will need to embalm His body. The Sabbath would begin at sundown when they can do nothing more until Sunday.

These women were the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death and burial, the most important events in the Bible, apart from the resurrection. It is on their testimony that we rely when we “remember” Jesus in His death and burial, which is why Luke mentions them specifically. Will we now “remember” Jesus here among us through the Word and Spirit?

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