How Jesus Dies: Gospel Portraits
By Dr. Paul Knudtson
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Mark 15:34
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” – Luke 23:46
The four gospels present us with the same Jesus, but do so by presenting Jesus in four distinctive ways. The gospel writers are like four artists who paint unique portraits of the same person. It is easy to see that they are describing the same man, yet they emphasize differing aspects of his personality and ministry. These differences can be seen in how the gospels describe how Jesus dies. Here we will illustrate this difference by comparing how Mark and Luke describe Jesus’s death. A consideration of such differences should help us to appreciate unique aspects of what it means to follow Jesus.
In Mark the last words on Jesus’s lips are the ones quoted above: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke presents Jesus’s death differently. Here his last words are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Immediately following this, Luke writes, “Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). The picture in Mark, then, is of a man dying as one who feels abandoned by God at the moment of his death, while in Luke Jesus dies relatively peacefully, praying to be received into the welcoming arms of his Father. When in Mark (but not in Luke) Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” one is led to consider that Jesus’s own flesh is weak. He meets his moment of trial feeling weak and needing to stay awake and pray. What really distinguishes Jesus from the disciples at this point is not that he is strong while they are weak, but that they sleep while he stays awake and prays.
Mark, then, presents a fully human Jesus. (Though, elsewhere Mark also draws attention to Jesus’s divinity, as when he stills a storm in 4:35-41, or forgives sin in 2:1-12). Jesus was not a man of steel who could not be touched by the pains and fears that afflict ordinary humans. As Hebrews tells us, he was “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2:17) and was “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). It is clear from Mark that Jesus understands what it is to be human, even the horror of feeling godforsaken.
Meditation on Mark’s passion narrative leads us to consider God’s Son Jesus as one who identifies with all those who feel abandoned by God. It is also important to realize that although it seemed to Jesus that he had been forsaken by God, he was not. The gospel ends with a surprising message to some women at Jesus’s tomb on the first day of the week: “He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6). Evidently God has not abandoned Jesus after all. Similarly, just as Psalm 22 begins with an expression of abandonment by God, it goes on to testify, “[God] did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (22:24). Therefore, “you who fear the LORD, praise him!” (22:23). Though as human beings we, like Jesus, sometimes feel forsaken by God, Mark and the other gospels testify that no danger, not even death itself, can keep us from God’s love. When a man named Jairus hears that his daughter has just died, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). Then the one who will himself be raised from the dead at the end of the gospel goes to the girl, takes her by the hand and tells her, “Little girl, get up!” (5:41). And she does just that!
Luke, on the other hand, describes how Jesus ultimately dies with confidence and in peace, trusting that at the moment of his death he is passing into the loving embrace of God. It used to be common for Christians to give more consideration to the day of their own deaths than we do today, and to pray that God would grant them “a good death.” Luke describes Jesus’s death as “a good death.” In his second New Testament writing, the book of Acts, Luke describes how the first Christian martyr, Stephen, also dies a good death, one resembling that of Jesus. As Stephen is about to be put to death, he has a vision of God and Jesus in heaven, and prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Meditation on Luke’s passion narrative, therefore, leads us to consider how Jesus may also grant to each of us the gift of a good death, one in which we die at peace and with the confidence that we are about to pass into the arms of God.
Meditation: Both Mark and Luke illustrate how Jesus met the challenges of his life by means of prayer, and that he found the language for such prayer in the Psalms. In Mark Jesus prays with the words of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”); in Luke Jesus prays the words of Psalm 31 (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”). Following the example of Jesus, the Church throughout its history has considered the book of Psalms to be its prayer book. The passion narratives in Mark and Luke, therefore, may help us consider how we can make better use of the Psalms in our own prayer lives. Perhaps we can adopt the habit of reading and praying a particular Psalm each morning and evening. In both gospels, Mark and Luke, Jesus faces his death by means of prayer, prayer that has been infused with the language of the Psalms. The gospel accounts of Jesus’s death teach us about praying. Jesus instructs us as he did his disciples: “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).
Prayer: Lord Jesus, as we today consider your own passion and death, we also think about the day that we will die. Help us to prepare for that day and to be ready for it. We ask, too, that you may give us the gift of a good death, one in which we enjoy the confidence that nothing can separate us from your love. In the meantime, help us to pray and to learn the language of prayer from the book of Psalms. Amen.
The Old Rugged Cross
On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross
The emblem of suff’ring and shame
And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain
Oh, that old rugged Cross so despised by the world
Has a wondrous attraction for me
For the dear Lamb of God, left his Glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary
In the old rugged Cross, stain’d with blood so divine
A wondrous beauty I see
For the dear Lamb of God, left his Glory above
To pardon and sanctify me
To the old rugged Cross, I will ever be true
Its shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away
Where his glory forever I’ll share
So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown