Greg Laurie is the author of 12 inspirational books, which are available online.
For every person, there will come a last meal, a last breath and, of course, a last statement. And in many ways, what we say in the end is a real insight into what we were in life, what we stood for and indeed lived for. Generally, we die as we have lived.
I read about a man who had been very successful in the restaurant business and had established many restaurants around the United States. When his life was almost over, as he was on his deathbed with his family gathered nearby, he gave his last whisper: “Slice the ham thin!”
On Nov. 30, 1900, the last words of the famous writer Oscar Wilde were, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
Sometimes, people know they are giving their last words. Before he was to be hanged for spying on the British, the last words of American patriot Nathan Hale were: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
And at other times, people don’t know when they will be giving their last words, such as John F. Kennedy, who said, “That’s obvious!” This statement was made in response to Nellie Connally, the wife of Texas Governor John Connally, who had remarked to the president as they traveled by motorcade through Dallas, cheered by adoring throngs, “Mr. President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.”
Seconds later his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullets.
Then there were the last words of William “Buckey” O’Neil, an Arizona lawyer, miner, cowboy, gambler, newspaperman, sheriff and congressman. He was also one of the most important members of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Just prior to the famous charge up Kettle Hill, O’Neil was standing up, smoking a cigarette, and joking with his troops while under withering fire from the ridge. One of his sergeants shouted to him above the noise, “Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you!”
O’Neil shouted back his reply: “Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me!” No sooner had O’Neil uttered these words when he was hit and killed by a bullet.
Then there were the last words of U.S. tenor Richard Versalle who was performing one night at the Metropolitan Opera. Versalle had climbed a ladder for his scene, and after singing the words, “Too bad you can only live so long,” immediately had a heart attack and died.
And death is no respecter of persons, even for royalty. On her deathbed, Elizabeth I, Queen of England, said, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” And Princess Diana, following that horrific car accident in a Paris tunnel, was heard to say, “My God, what happened?”
History tells the story of the renowned atheist Voltaire, who was one of the most aggressive antagonists of Christianity. He wrote many things to undermine the church, and once said of Jesus Christ, “Curse the wretch. In 20 years, Christianity will be no more. My single hand will destroy the edifice it took 12 apostles to rear.” Needless to say, Voltaire was less than successful. And on his deathbed, a nurse who attended him was reported to have said, “For all the wealth in Europe, I would not see another atheist die.”
The physician, waiting up with Voltaire at his death, said that he cried out with utter desperation, “I am abandoned by God and man. I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months of life. Then I shall go to hell and you will go with me, oh, Christ, oh, Jesus Christ!”
What a difference faith makes. The last words of Stephen, who was being stoned to death, were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. … Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” (Acts 7:59-60)
The great evangelist D. L. Moody, on his deathbed, said, “I see earth receding and heaven is opening. God is calling me.”
Now let’s consider the most famous and important “last words” ever uttered: the words of Jesus as He hung on the cross. I want to focus on one statement in particular, for in it we see God’s most painful moment.
Jesus had been taken to be crucified on the cross, and death by crucifixion was really death by suffocation. It was extremely hard even to breathe, much less speak. Add to this the fact that He had been brutally scourged. The process of scourging was barbaric. The prisoner was tied to a post with his hands over his head, his body taut. The whip had a short, wooden handle with several leather thongs attached, each tipped with sharp pieces of metal or bone. As the whip was brought down on the prisoner, his muscles would be lacerated, veins and arteries would be torn open, and even the kidneys, spleen, or other organs could be exposed and slashed.
Then there was the crucifixion itself, which would cause you to turn away in revulsion at the sight of it. There has never been a movie or painting I’ve seen that has even come close to depicting what really happened when Jesus died – that is, until Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I don’t know that any artist or filmmaker could ever capture all that happened on that day, but this film gives us a glimpse of the incredible suffering Jesus went through for us. Even Gibson has acknowledged that what actually happened to Jesus in His scourging and crucifixion was probably much worse than depicted in his film.
Next to Jesus as He hung on that cross were two criminals who were there for their personal crimes. Jesus, on the other hand, was there for the crimes of all humanity. They were there against their will. Yet, Jesus was there because He willingly went. They could not have escaped, but He could have – with just one word to heaven. They were held to their crosses by nails. Jesus was held to His cross by love.
It is fascinating to see how these three men reacted as they looked death squarely in the face. Initially as Jesus was nailed to the cross, these two men momentarily forgot their personal pain and joined the chorus of the onlookers’ voices:
“He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing. (Matt. 27:42-44)
How this mockery and unbelief must have pained the tender heart of Jesus. Even there at the cross, they persisted, while He was atoning for the very people who were spewing this venom.
In Matthew’s account of this event we read that both thieves joined the crowd in mockery, yet Luke’s Gospel tells us that one of them did and was rebuked by the other. Is this a contradiction? No, it is a conversion! Something significant happened to change the heart of one of these thieves, bringing him to his spiritual senses. Initially, he joined the chorus of mockery toward Jesus, but then he watched with amazement as Jesus suffered the same crucifixion as he and the other thief had, yet without any complaint, angry protest or cursing. Then came those unbelievable, unexpected, incomprehensible words of Christ, “Father, forgive them. …” (Luke 23:34) These words reverberated through the thief’s hardened heart! His rebellion, bitterness and anger that had no doubt driven him all these years had dissolved. His hardened heart softened.
Jesus gave six other statements as well from the cross that day, but this first statement is so significant.
While the first word Jesus uttered from the cross was a prayer for His enemies, the second was an answer to prayer, an answer addressed to a single individual. Jesus spoke to Him as though he were the only person in the world. Luke’s Gospel tells us the believing thief then said, “‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:42-43)
Can you imagine the joy that must have filled this man’s heart? Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
One day, you and I will give our last words, too.
I hope they, too, are words of prayer, not words of unbelief.