It can travel anywhere in time and space, and it looks much bigger on the inside (or smaller on the outside, depending on where you’re standing). In 1963, it blended in perfectly as a British police box. But now, the intergalactic space cruiser stands out like a sore thumb, whether it’s landed in contemporary London or in the ancient Egyptian Sahara. It is strange, a foreign object that turns up in random places. And despite it being so alien—literally—nobody seems to bat an eyelid at the presence of the TARDIS from the global hit television show Doctor Who.
The cross of Christ is a similar anomaly. Turning up in fashion era after fashion era, displayed in churches and schools and graveyards across the world, and gracing the lyrics of our worship songs and the walls of our art galleries—this ancient instrument of Roman execution has become one of the most recognizable symbols on the planet. And yet it often escapes people’s notice.
Like the TARDIS, the cross is a strange entry point to something much greater than its humble appearance would suggest. Something that seemed so small and insignificant—such as a relatively unknown Jewish man dying an unremarkable death at the hands of the Roman Empire—is, in fact, an invitation into a much larger reality. It opens up something of the cavernous depth of meaning of the love, grace, wrath, and compassion of God. It offers fresh faith for the doubter, new hope for the despondent, belonging for the lonely, and salvation for the lost. The cross is not just a commemoration of death, but an invitation to life.
At the heart of the atonement is divine hospitality, where God invites the undeserving and unexpected to come home with him.
The final words of Jesus on the cross, as recorded in the Gospels, provide us with an entry point to understand that mysterious invitation. Each of the seven sayings crucially invites us to share in God’s revolutionary hospitality, not only being welcomed as the strangers and enemies we once were but also welcoming other strangers and enemies in his name and for his sake.
‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
As Christians, we believe the crucifixion of Jesus marks the darkest moment in human history. But even as it begins, we see the character of Christ shine through. Luke’s gospel records Jesus’ first words from the cross as “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Jesus is pleading for God’s grace both for the Jews who are willfully rejecting him and for the Romans who are brutally executing him. Both for the soldiers who are hammering the nails in his wrists and the crowds who are looking on in approval.
It also has a greater resonance, reaching far beyond those first-century executioners to their accomplices in sin from every century. Jesus’ words are a prayer not for himself but for others. He does not use the last of his energy to call out for personal assistance from his heavenly Father but to plead the case of men who are strangers and enemies to him. His merciful words are a preemptive act of grace ahead of the obscene act that is to come. They are a precedent of grace that blazes a trail for all who seek to follow in his footsteps. They challenge us to put the needs of others—even enemies and strangers—ahead of our own.
‘I am thirsty.’
Jesus’ generous prayer for mercy for his enemies contrasts with what is recognized as his second saying of the cross. With the words “I am thirsty,” he now requests their mercy in the form of a drink to give him relief. This seems puzzling coming from one who revealed himself as the “water of life” in the form of a stranger by a Samaritan well. The man who taught his disciples to quench the thirst of strangers as evidence of their love for God now becomes that thirsty stranger. How ironic that the one who once provided wine at a wedding party is now left with nothing to drink. Or perhaps it is not ironic but poignant that the one who could calm the storms and walk on water now restrains his own power and relies on others to bring him a drink.
In his distress, Jesus is offered wine vinegar on a sponge. He receives it, enabling and accepting an act of hospitality even at this darkest of all moments. He receives it, despite it being little more than a gesture of scorn and hostility. When we are in need ourselves, can we be like Jesus and see it as an opportunity to give others the blessing of hospitality ministry?
‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
In the exchange of words between Jesus and the criminal dying beside him, we are given a significant picture of the welcome God offers to us amid all the trauma and tragedy. Speaking would have been extremely difficult because of the macabre methodology of crucifixion. Jesus chooses to use some of his last painful breaths to speak words of comfort and compassion to a stranger. Again we see at the cross of Christ the story of incredible grace. At the heart of the atonement is divine hospitality, where God invites the undeserving and unexpected to come home with him.
The thief on the cross recognizes Jesus’ solidarity—he knows that Jesus faces the same suffering that he himself is going through. He recognizes Jesus’ sanctity too: While everyone else saw a would-be king, a powerless non-savior, a disappointing quasi-messiah, this criminal alone recognizes his own guilt and Jesus’ innocence of all charges.
And he recognizes Jesus’ sovereignty—that he has a kingdom awaiting him after his death. Pilate had not grasped this, despite the caption he attached to the cross. The religious leaders had not grasped it, despite countless prophetic utterances that pointed to exactly this moment. Not even Jesus’ disciples had grasped it, despite having spent three years listening to Jesus explain it.
Apart from Jesus himself, not one other person had understood that the Crucifixion was not just a terrible miscarriage of justice but was the very means by which Jesus was going to be crowned King. Jesus endorses his neighbor’s take on events, graciously responding with the assurance that has become treasured as the third of Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Jesus wants this self-confessed criminal to be in no doubt that he will shortly be receiving the ultimate VIP welcome into eternal life in God’s presence. Amidst the extreme pain he was suffering, these were words of comfort and privilege to cling to. Just in case we may have missed Jesus’ deliberate preferential treatment of the outcast in his ministry, he makes sure we don’t miss it here. Turning up for his inauguration as King of Heaven, Jesus brings along a convicted criminal as his plus one.
‘Here is your son. . . . Here is your mother.’
As Jesus hangs on the cross, John records his fourth saying. Jesus turns to his mother Mary, standing by his friend John, and says, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, he says, “Here is your mother.” As if dying for the sins of the world and securing our eternal home weren’t a big enough task, Jesus secures temporal hospitality for those closest to him. The highly respected New Testament scholar D. A. Carson recognizes in these words the echo of a legal adoption formula, and John himself tells us that “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
John adopted Mary as his own mother, to care for her needs and to console her in this time of great personal loss. In this simple act, we see Jesus promoting hospitality by practically enabling people to be reconciled to God and to one another.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry of desolation from the cross in the fifth saying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, where King David is facing serious troubles. David’s cry of desperation, his description of the ridicule and insults he received, his heart melting like wax, his thirst, and the gambling for his clothes seem to describe Jesus’ crucifixion with uncanny accuracy. But Jesus’ use of the words expresses a much greater despair at the isolation that he was experiencing as he, God the Son, was alienated from God, his own Father.
In some profound and mysterious way, the Godhead, the one God who is in three persons, was disrupted by the cross. The consequence of Jesus carrying the crushing weight of the world’s sins on his shoulders is that he and his Father are estranged. Somehow, Jesus had to be forsaken by his Father, so that we could be forgiven. He was rejected so that we could be accepted. He was excluded from the mercy of God so that we could be included. Here is the ultimate act of hospitality, that Jesus would be displaced from the presence of God so that we could be welcomed into it.
‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
The final words of Jesus that Luke records come as darkness falls at noon and the curtain in the temple is torn in two, declaring that God is no longer a stranger to his people—all are welcome in his presence, his sanctuary. Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” These words demonstrate that despite the agony of his death, Jesus still has great trust in and affection for his heavenly Father.
The words on Jesus’ lips are borrowed from Psalm 31, which is effectively a plea for asylum. In the middle of great personal distress, David’s cry expresses his trust in God’s protective care, in which he seeks refuge. Despite all appearances, God is his safe place, his panic room, his fortress. Jesus now asks for the same hospitality from God—for sanctuary from the turmoil that he is in.
It is a poignant moment, witnessed by one unexpected person: a Roman centurion, an outsider amidst a crowd of insiders. He declares his praise to God: “Surely he was the Son of God!” This enemy and stranger sees what no one else can. Once again, even in the very moment of his death, Jesus is opening the way for those previously excluded from the kingdom of God to be reconciled and welcomed in.
‘It is finished.’
Now Jesus utters his final words: ‘It is finished.’ There are so many different ways in which those words are true. Jesus’ own suffering is finished—he has identified with the pain of humanity to the utmost extreme. The sacrificial system that sustained Jewish religious practice for so long is finished and done with because the wrath of God is utterly satisfied with the sacrifice of his only Son. The captivity of humanity to sin is finished with the payment of the ransom necessary to liberate us from slavery to sin. The Passover is finished as Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, fulfills all that God’s rescue of his people from Egypt symbolized. The battle with evil is finished as Jesus the conquering King wins victory by dying in our place. Our exclusion from God’s presence is finally over.
These seven sayings from the cross on that strange, terrible, good Friday paint a beautiful multifaceted picture of Jesus as the great host of heaven. They also present us with an urgent challenge this Easter: Will we join with Jesus to invite others—outsiders, enemies, and strangers—into our homes and our hearts in anticipation of our eternal hope?
To be honest, I hadn’t noticed before that hospitality is the golden thread that weaves throughout each of the sayings of the cross. Despite teaching these passages each Good Friday for decades, it took a global refugee crisis to open my eyes to the fact that welcoming the stranger is a dominant theme, not just of the Crucifixion, but of the whole of Scripture. Too often I had interpreted these verses as a form of pietistic therapy—I would only remind my congregation that God loved them so much that Jesus had died for them. This is true, but the cross has so much more to say to us. So much more to challenge us with.
Hearing Christ’s words from the cross again, my prayer is that you would be challenged by the radical hospitality of God and you might consider what it means for you to walk in the way of the cross. To whom might God be calling you to show radical hospitality? To whom is God asking you to open up your home, your family, your church? Christ alone has died for the sins of the world, but his cross must pattern our lives and surely that means we offer Christ’s welcome to the outcast, the refugee, the foster child, and the widow.
Krish Kandiah is the founder of the fostering and adoption charity Home for Good and lectures on justice, hospitality, and mission at Regents Park College, Oxford University, and Regent College Vancouver. This article is adapted from his most recent book, God Is Stranger (IVP, 2017).