It is finished!
Finished is a bit of a misleading word in English, perhaps. The Greek word means not merely to end, but to come to completion, to the fullness, once for all. Like Jesus’ very words about Himself and the law: “I did not come to abolish [the law], but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) Or like Paul’s echoes: “…that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:4)
The endless sacrifices, the bloody requirements of atonement, it is finished.
The separation of God and man, the need for human mediation, it is finished.
The salvific efforts of works, the requirements of the law, it is finished.
We didn’t live in that time before the cross, that time when the people needed a priest and pigeons and a goat being sent out of the city and an incredibly complex and bloody system to know that their sins had been forgiven. It is difficult for us to imagine the generational longing of an entire people and religion for the Messiah to whom all this pointed, who would come and redeem and free them from all their oppression and sacrifice. Their knowledge of their own unsettledness in life was so deep that the celebration of their most important supper of the year was rich with symbols of their transience; unleavened bread because it didn’t have time to rise, sandals on, staff in hand. Into all this longing, then, Christ spoke at this moment with the authority to fulfill everything towards which they were striving. JRR Tolkien called Christ the great eucatastrophe (literally good-catastrophe) of history. This moment was the sudden shift in the story when the fate of the characters, seeming until now to be certain destruction, is suddenly diverted from it.
I like this metaphor, because what it offers is the remembrance that we can be diverted from certain destruction, the climax of the story, and still have a difficult road ahead of us, an arduous journey home. We may not have lived in those days of the Jewish law before the cross, but in some of the most important ways we have something to learn from them, for the consistent experience of our lives is still incompleteness. Too often, however, we don’t live into the remembrance of this truth, we simply try to distract from it. Christ’s words, though, remind us that we are not home, yet the work in finished. We have been once for all time saved from utter destruction, but we still have a long and hard road ahead of us. The fascinating gift of even the tense in which Christ spoke this word is that it carries the connotation of the ongoing result of a completed action. Not “I have finished it” or “it is being finished,” but this weaving together of the two; the work is ongoing within the context of its completion. The emphasis is on this present nature of the finished work. How do these words, then, stand as not an echo in history, but its very bedrock? How does my life change when I understand its incomplete-feeling present always and only in light of its completed end? This is the heart of pilgrimage and the calling of our lives.
The stunning reality of the fact of these words coming from the cross is that it radically redefines our understanding of authority. Christ didn’t speak this from the Mount of Transformation or even from the empty tomb, He spoke it from the cross. And I don’t think He spoke in resignation, I think He spoke with the confidence that the words themselves carry. I think this was a proclamation of fact for all time to come, not a broken admittance of His life in this moment alone. It was a statement about His eternal purpose, not His temporary reality. I picture His head held high, His eyes clear, His tone weighty, but steady, knowing the ultimate authority He commands at that moment. That authority had nothing to do with calling legions of angels, coming down from the cross, bringing the Kingdom the world was looking for. Even today, that authority still has nothing to do with taking over the systems of the world, establishing a moral reign, and making life as outwardly, socially, politically, or physically comfortable as possible for those of us who follow Him as King. No, authority as Christ demonstrated it was not afraid to be broken for the will of the Father, mocked and misunderstood and proclaimed as a failure in every way. But the foolishness of God is wiser than man, for He has all of eternity in view. The authority of Christ, His ability to complete the work, was demonstrated in the moment of utter self-sacrifice and ultimate vulnerability, bringing about the possibility of ultimate flourishing for the children of God.
It would not be inappropriate, given the weight of their importance for our lives ongoing within their completed salvation, to echo these words in grateful remembrance as we do the proclamation of truth only a few days to come:
It is finished! It is finished indeed.