Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
Not every gospels account records the same last words as being on the lips of Jesus. What do we make of this?
- Matthew: Jesus cried out again in a loud voice. (27:50)
- Mark: with a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. (15:37) (both Matthew and Mark have “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” as the last recorded words)
- Luke: “Father, in your hands I commit my spirit.” (23:46)
- John: “It is finished.” (19:30)
On one level, this is a puzzle. We might wonder ‘what did Jesus really say as his last words? What are the true last words of Jesus? Do these differences undermine our trust in the gospel accounts?”
I don’t think this should diminish our trust in the gospel stories. Each record the same events in the birth, life, ministry, and death of Jesus. None of them records all of the events, because, as John says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I supposed that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Instead, inspired by the Spirit, they told the same story in four different ways. I think it is likely that Jesus said all of these statements from the cross, but each writer only included some of them. It is a blessing to have four gospel accounts and the early church rejected attempts to synthesize them (the Diatessaron, for example) in favor of the particularity of each account.
So we don’t really need to choose. Instead, we can be grateful that we have four gospels and ask ourselves what each gospel writer is try to tell us by the details they chose to include. At the very least, we notice a few things from their differences. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry of lament from Psalm 22 and then a wordless cry as he dies. Both gospels remind us of the terror of the cross. This is truly a horrific death. However much Jesus knew what he was facing, it was still immensely painful on many levels. Luke reminds us that Jesus did this willingly. His life was not taken from him (no matter what it appeared to be). Jesus’ crucifixion was not an act of weakness, but of trust. John reminds us that Jesus had his mission at the forefront of his mind. In dying on the cross, he completed his task and secured our salvation.
The variety of the gospel accounts serves to illumine our picture of Jesus on the cross. It is not a barrier, but a blessing.