The resurrection reveals God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and ministry, including, his work on the cross. The triumph of the Christ is the glory of the cross. It is from the cross – after six hours of public humiliation, mental anguish, emotional turmoil, and excruciating physical pain – that Jesus declares his victory: “It is finished!”
This is certainly a strange victory revealed in a strange place and at a strange time. How could it possibly be that the Crucified One is triumphant – even victorious? Yet, this is exactly what is communicated in Jesus’ saying: “It is finished!”
On the surface, it sounds like a word of defeat – a cry of resignation and despair. It certainly appears that Jesus is finished. Perhaps “It is finished” is nothing more than Jesus’ admission of failure – a desperate surrender to a desperate situation: “It was good while it lasted. I gave it my best shot. All hope is lost.”
We could interpret Jesus’ word in this way. It certainly appears that he is finished. But Jesus did not say, “I am finished.” He said, “It is finished.” What exactly is “it”? And what does he mean that it is “finished”?
Accomplishment, Not Resignation
The saying, “It is finished,” is translated from one Greek word, tetelestai.
The Greek word tetelestai comes from the verb teleo, which means “to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.” It signifies a successful end to a particular course of action. You might have used the word after you had paid your bills or had run a race. A servant who completed his assignment would use the word to report back to his master. In short, it means that you have finished what you have set out to do.
The word speaks of having reached a goal. It draws attention to a final action that brings an assignment to fulfillment. It communicates the moment when an artist finishes her work and declares, “This is just what I had in mind.” Better yet, it describes the end of a mother’s labor as a child is born into the world. The mother’s cry, “It is done,” is both an end and a beginning – the end of childbirth and the beginning of a new life.
“It is finished” is a word of consummation and fulfillment, not resignation or despair. The sense of Jesus’ saying changes when instead of hearing, “I am finished,” or “I am done for” we hear “I have completed my work,” “I have fulfilled my mission,” “I have accomplished what I set out to do.” Put this way, we realize that the sixth word is not a cry of defeat but a declaration of victory – a cry of accomplishment.
The question arises: What exactly did Jesus bring to completion? What was his life-long task that finds its fulfillment in this very moment? The answer according to John’s Gospel: “the work of the Father.”
Put simply: Jesus came to do God’s work, to perform God’s will. In his final prayer with his disciples, Jesus speaks of the work which the Father had given him to do (John 17:4). It is this “work” that drives him throughout John’s story. It is this calling that strengthens him during difficult times. The desire to do God’s will fills his heart with joy. At one point, when his disciples ask him why he hasn’t eaten, Jesus responds, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). It is this passion that finds it completion in the saying, “It is accomplished!”
The Finished Work
What exactly is God’s Work? What was Jesus’ unique vocation from the Father? According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ work can be summarized in the work of atonement – atonement which not only opens the way to God, but also reveals the very heart of God.
John’s Gospel opens with John the Baptist’s declaration the Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In the Jewish religion (as in many ancient religions), ritual animals were sacrificed to atone for human sin. Although ordained in their sacred law, this practice naturally raised questions for its practitioners: How could an animal’s blood atone for human sin? Especially when one considers that animals are unknowing and unwilling participants in such rituals? (No animal ever voluntarily offered to be sacrificed!) And, most importantly, how many sacrifices are enough to cover human sin? Can an individual ever rest in a sacrifice, or must one always experience the uncertainty that something remains undone or unaccounted for?
The sacrificial rituals pointed to the truth but provided only a shadow of good things to come (see Hebrews 10:1-4). Sin separates people from God. Sin must be dealt with in order to experience communion with God. The animal sacrifices provided a way to symbolize the awfulness of human sin and the need for a sacrifice to set things right. But no animal sacrifice was “perfect” or “complete.” The seemingly endless cycle of sacrifice underscored the ineffectiveness of the sacrificial system. It never quite dealt with the real problem. It was never enough – never complete or finished. The sacrificial system had a built-in obsolescence factor. It could only be perceived as temporary, since it never quite adequately dealt with the problem of human sin. Something more was necessary.
According to the Christian tradition, that something more is Jesus. Jesus is the reality of which all the animal sacrifices were only a shadow. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away – once and for all, fully and completely – the sin of the world. Unlike animals, Jesus willingly embraces his self-sacrifice. Even more, as a human he can truly represent humanity. And in this one act, with Israel’s cultic system as a template, Jesus provided the one, eternal sacrifice that forever atones for human sin. There is no longer any need for further sacrifices. Jesus’ atoning work is full and complete – it perfectly satisfies God. The resurrection is proof of this. Sin need never more separate humanity from God. At the cross, in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, God’s love embraces human sin at its most devastating, inhumane, and unholy expressions.
For all that ever was wrong, is wrong, and will be wrong, the price has been paid. Beyond our capacity to understand or explain, justice has been done, and justice was done by love, because the justice of God is love, and that is because God is love. At the foot of the cross, faith discerns, through our tears, that nothing is left unattended. Nothing unknown, nothing unloved, nothing unredeemed.
The sacrificial act not only completely and eternally opens a new a living way to God, it also reveals the deep love of God. Indeed, according to scripture, it is the ultimate expression of God’s love.
Actions reveal something about our heart. Consider the following story: In the days before the existence of blood banks, a small boy whose sister was desperately ill was found to be the only member of his family with the type of blood that might save his sister’s life. When asked if he would be willing to help save his sister, he answered yes without hesitation. When he was placed on the table for the transfusion, looking up at the nurse with eyes filled with wonder and fear, he asked, “Nurse, how soon will I die?”
This boy’s actions revealed his heart. He deeply loved his sister.
Similarly, God’s actions in Christ reveal the depth and extent of God’s love. This is the point of John’s prologue (John 1:16-18). Jesus – the Word-made-flesh – embodies God’s goodness in a way that God’s law never could and performs an act that no other could accomplish. Jesus reveals the very heart of God to us in a way that we can most clearly understand it. In Jesus’ life and ministry – including his self-giving sacrifice – the love of God is expressed to the uttermost (see John 13:1).
This is a love that has its source in the very life of the Triune God. In love, God the Father gives God the Son (John 3:16; cf. Romans 8:32). Jesus willingly gives himself to us (John 10:18) as an embodiment of God’s love: “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you” (John 15:9). Jesus’ love for us reveals the Father’s love. We are loved as Jesus is loved. The self-giving of the cross is thus the ultimate expression of divine love (see 1 John 4:10, 19). The Apostle Paul personalizes God’s love by writing, “he loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Jesus’ cry is a declaration of victory, not an admission of defeat. And yet it is through the perceived defeat of the cross that God’s victory occurs. This paradox is at the heart of the mystery of the cross. It is through self-giving love that evil is overcome. At the precise moment when Jesus seems to be defeated, he is actually the conqueror. He is not the victim, but the victor. The cross takes evil seriously while revealing the divine power of divine love: “evil may seem to be rampant as it certainly appeared to be on Good Friday, but it is only the second strongest power in the universe.” In the words words of Frederick William Faber:
O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried;
And victory remains with love:
For He, our Love, is crucified.
Proof of Jesus’ victory abounds. In fact, it is so obvious, that we often fail to perceive it. Here we are, two thousand years later, remembering and celebrating the cross of Christ. A torture device ingeniously invented to maximize and prolong human misery now stands at the center of a faith community committed to declaring the love and grace of God to all and to patterning its life after the self-giving love of Christ. In the form of a prayer, Pastor Mark Roberts declares the paradoxical truth:
They had no idea, dear Jesus, that Your death would not be the end of your influence, but only the beginning. They never imagined that in a few hours You would be raised triumphant, having defeated sin and death. They would never have believed that before long Your name would be proclaimed throughout the world as Lord and Savior. Those who crucified You would have been astounded to know that someday images of Your cross would be found on every continent, gloriously proclaiming Your victory over the powers of darkness.
Many of us stand as living proof of the power of the love of the crucified, dead, buried, and resurrected Christ. “So great was his influence that it transformed a small band of peasants, fishermen and political radicals into a band of men and women who were willing to die for their master. By the power of their love and courage the followers of the Way even conquered the Roman Empire that had persecuted them. Many people throughout the ages, and still today, testify that this human being, the risen Christ of Nazareth, has touched their lives, lifted them out of darkness and given them new and transformed lives.”
The strange victory is evidenced by Paul’s paradoxical phrase: Jesus “triumphed… by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Gerrit Dawson writes,
One cannot miss Paul’s juxtaposition of the Romans’ most shameful method of demoralizing a population through the gruesome use of the cross with Christ’s victory rally in winning by dying. The cross of defeat is the triumph of God’s love. Yet we know that this metaphor would make little sense if there had been no resurrection in which death’s grip on Jesus was snapped.
God’s verdict reversed the world’s judgment. The humble servant is exalted to the highest place. In the resurrection of Jesus, God puts an exclamation mark on “It is finished.” God vindicates Jesus’ life and ministry, and ultimately, his strange victory cry from the cross.
A New Beginning
It is finished; but it is not over! “It is finished” marks the end of one action, but draws attention to a new beginning. Jesus’ completed work provides a new foundation from which to build anew.
We can now go forward in confidence that we build our lives on the foundation of Jesus’ completed work. The work is finished so “[n]othing can happen now to undo it. Now there is absolutely nothing to fear. The worst has already happened.” The light of God shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:1-5). No power of evil can stand before God’s final “no” to sin, and God’s final “yes” to humanity.
We go forward in confidence knowing that we do not begin where Jesus left off. His work is completed. It cannot be undone. We build upon this finished, completed work. It is the victory from which we stand. It is the reason that we can be assured of victory even in the midst of great darkness.
Strengthened and informed by Jesus’ victory cry, we remember and celebrate the cross of Christ, from which we receive life, grace, and wisdom to move forward.
Christ’s strange victory cry – like everything else Christ did – is for us!
Rest now, Holy Jesus, hero of the Cross.
Your work is done.
The world has done its sinning, and
you have done your loving,
each beyond limit.
And, at the end, limitless love prevails.
Your dying becomes my hope and the hope of the world.
 Erwin W. Lutzer, Cries from the Cross: A Journey into the Heart of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 122.
 Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 227.
 Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2004), 23.
 Pastor Mark Roberts, http://www.markdroberts.com/htmfiles/resources/sevenlastwords.htm
 Andrew Canale, Understanding the Human Jesus: A Journey in Scripture and Imagination (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), vii.
 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2004), 59.
 Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon, 191.
 Storey, Listening at Golgotha, 81.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008