Before we look at one of the final Final Words of Jesus from the Cross, let’s step back a few days. 5 days before Jesus was crucified he entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. As he rode into the city people ran before him and placed their coats on the ground while others waved palm branches in the air, and as Jesus passed by the people shouted, Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. While we call the day Palm Sunday, others call it the triumphal entry of Jesus and if we didn’t know any better it looks to us like a victory parade. This entire scene looks like an ancient version of a New York City ticker tape parade, or the Disney parade for the winning super bowl quarterback. While it’s clear that the people loved Jesus and shouted out his praise and waved palm branches in the air as a sign they would welcome him as their king, there’s a lot more going on here.
That Jesus chose to ride a donkey into the city tells us that he came to bring God’s victory but it was a victory that would come not through earthly strength and power, but through humility and sacrifice. And that Jesus chose this particular day to ride into the city also tells us something. The day Jesus chose for this parade was lamb selection day. It was the day people went out and purchased their lambs for the upcoming Passover sacrifice. So as Jesus entered the city he was coming as the Lamb of God whose blood would take away the sin of the people. So there is a lot more taking place here than a simple parade. This is more than a celebration. This is more than the people saying, hey we love Jesus. This was a religious and political statement by Jesus that upset the established order. In fact, this parade got the people of Jerusalem so worked up on both sides (his supporters and his adversaries) that tensions boiled over which eventually led Jesus to the cross.
While I always loved Palm Sunday as a kid because our church started worship outside and we all got to march into the sanctuary waving palm branches in the air (which really is fun when you are a kid) as I have gotten older I have realize that there is much more going on than what we see here, and the same is true for the cross.
Too many times we try to simplify what happened on the cross and explain it away in a sentence or two, but the reality is that there is a lot going on here. So when Jesus says “It is finished” it leads us to ask exactly what is finished? What has Jesus been doing on the cross? What has been the purpose of his suffering? Is Jesus just saying that his life is finished and that death is now imminent, or is there something more going on here? The truth is that just like there is a lot going on in the Palm Sunday parade, there is a lot going on here, in fact, John’s gospel alone gives us several explanations for what Jesus is accomplishing on the cross.
The first thing we hear about the work of Jesus on the cross is that his death was a sacrifice made as atonement for our sin. Just as a lamb was sacrificed in the Old Testament to make amends for the sins of the people and bring them back into a relationship with God, now Jesus is seen as the Lamb of God and it is his death on the cross that once and for all atones for our sin. Through Jesus we are now able to re-enter into a relationship with God. At the very beginning of John’s gospel it was John the Baptist who said that Jesus was the Lamb of God, and Jesus affirmed that statement when he entered into Jerusalem on lamb selection day before the Passover. John’s gospel made it very clear that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb because the crucifixion of Jesus takes place on the day of Passover. So it is clear that John is saying that Jesus’ death atones for our sin or that through Jesus we are forgiven by God and able to enter into a new and right relationship with God.
There are others who see Jesus’ death as more than a sacrifice of atonement; some see it as an actual substitution for our death. The Bible says that the wages or our sin, or the penalty for our sin, is death and someone has to pay that price, and so on the cross – Jesus paid that price. So we aren’t just forgiven by God, the penalty for our sin has actually been paid so that we don’t have to die. In other words, we have been redeemed. The sacrifice of Jesus buys us back from the grave and actually sets us free.
Jesus death is also seen as the supreme example of God’s love. John 3:16 God loves us so much that he is willing to have his own flesh and blood die in order that we might live. So the work of Jesus on the cross is a sign to us of God’s great love for us. But it is also an example of the kind of love we need to have for one another. Jesus death on the cross is an example for us to follow. Again it was John who said, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another and the example of that love is Jesus himself. Are we will to sacrifice ourselves completely for the sake of others? Are we willing to love others this much?
Still others see in the cross a picture of God that is so inspiring and compelling that people will come and worship him because we see a God here who is humble and willing to walk in our shoes and even take our place. John says that Jesus will be lifted up so that the entire world will see him and when they see his love and sacrifice, they will turn and worship God. Then others see the death of Jesus as a necessary act if God is going to set up the final victory of life over death. In other word, there can be no resurrection without first a crucifixion, so this death is necessary for the ultimate victory of life.
And then finally there are those who see in the death of Jesus a final reversal of what took place in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden sin and death entered the world through one man, Adam, and now sin and death are being destroyed forever through one man, Jesus. So the work that Jesus finished on the cross was a work of redemption that had been set into motion at the dawn of creation.
What all of these ideas tell us is that there is a lot going on here. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God who redeems us. He is the king who brings the victory of life. Jesus is the great high priest who offers us forgiveness and the teacher who shows us the way. Jesus is the great liberator who sets us free from sin and he is the compassionate friend who is willing to love us and experience the fullness of our lives and even our death. There is so much going on here and yet in one word Jesus says that all this work is finished.
It is finished is really just one word in Aramaic. Finished. Completed. Done. Not as in “I’m done and don’t want to do this anymore” but done as in the work is finally over. The purpose of my suffering and death is completed. I have done what I came to do. So when Jesus utters this final word he is saying that his work is done and we are forgiven. With this word we know that the penalty for our sin has been paid and we have been reconciled to God. With this word we have the assurance of salvation and the knowledge that our relationship with God that sin destroyed has been restored. What is different about this word than all the other ones we hear from the cross is that this word comes with actions. When Jesus speaks here there is evidence given that the work he is talking about is actually finished.
Think back for a moment to the creation story. Every time God spoke, something happened. When God said let there be light – there was light. When God spoke – the worlds were created. When God breathed – life was bron. When Jesus spoke – things happened. When Jesus healed people he often spoke that healing into being. For example when Jesus raised a little girl who had died he said, talitha cum, which means little girl, get up and immediately she got up. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb he called him forth by calling his name. When Jesus said silent – the storms were stilled. When he called forth demons, they came out of people. The word of Jesus had power and authority. When Jesus spoke things happened and that is what we see here. When Jesus says finished, his work was finished and the reason we know this is because at that moment the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem was torn into two.
This detail of the curtain being torn in half is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke so we know it has some great significance. Let’s look at Mark 15:37-38. There is no way all three gospel writers would have included this detail if it didn’t have some kind of important meaning. To understand what all this means we need to understand the basic layout of the Temple.
When the priests would atone for the sins of the people they would first go into the inner court and make an offering and then once a year the high priest would enter into the holy of Holies where at one point in time the Ark of the Covenant stood. The ark contained the 10 Commandments, a jar of manna and the rod God gave to Moses and Aaron that budded. All these things were reminders that God was not only with his people but that he would protect and provide for them as well. Once a year the high priest would take the blood of a bull and a goat and sprinkle it on the ark to atone for and ask God to forgive the sins of the people.
The curtain that separated the holy of holies was a very thick and sturdy piece of material that was all one piece of cloth. To tear it at all would have been difficult and to tear it from the top to the bottom would have been next to impossible. There was no way someone could get to the top of the curtain at the middle and tear it into two pieces. So when it was torn, the people could only assume that this was the work of God. When the curtain was torn in two, the holy of holies, this place where God dwelled on earth was now open. So the work of Jesus was to open a door and make a way for us to enter into the presence of God. When Jesus says, finished the curtain is torn in two which tells us for sure that Jesus has completed his job – he has opened a door for us to enter into the presence of God.
The curtain being torn in two means that everyone can now enter into a relationship with God. Instead of God’s presence being separated from everyone, it is now open to everyone. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for sin so that no more sacrifice was needed and the door is open for all of us to be able to enter into the presence of God. The work is finished. The door is opened and God leaves the Temple to come and find us and offer us the fullness of life. Will we accept this gift? Will we accept this sacrifice and work of Jesus on the cross?
Final Words from the Cross ~ It is finished.
Each day during this Holy Week take some time to reflect on the work of Jesus we see on the cross.
Monday: Jesus is the Lamb of God whose death takes away the sin of the world. See John 1:36
Tuesday: Jesus death on the cross is a reflection of God’s great love for us. See 1 John 4:1-21
Wednesday: Jesus death sets an example for his disciples to follow. See 1 John 3:11-24
Thursday: On the cross we see an image of God so inspiring that it draws others to Him. See John 3:13-15, and John12:30-33
Friday: The death of Jesus is necessary if there is to be a resurrection. Death can only be overcome by someone who has the power to die and then rise again. See 1 Corinthians 15:50-58
Saturday: The cross is the final reversal of the curse that came in the Garden of Eden. While sin entered through one man, Adam, it is overcome by one man, Jesus. See Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22
All this work was authenticated by God tearing the Temple curtain in two. How can you act on the truth of God’s love and forgiveness seen in Jesus? In what ways can you sacrifice, forgive and love others this week? How can you help bring light and freedom into the darkness of our world?