‘It is finished’ is the sixth of the seven words of Christ on the cross. From the late eighteenth century, meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross became a very popular form of devotion. In some churches today, the last words of Jesus are heard in the liturgy of Holy Week, when the passion narrative is read in its entirety. Reflection on the last words of our Lord can be a deeply rewarding experience, for they are pregnant with spiritual and theological meaning.
‘It is finished’ is the cry of our Saviour just before he commends his spirit to the Father. These words must not be understood merely to mean ‘It is over’. They must be taken in the sense of consummatum est – it is consummated, fulfilled and brought to perfection. These words, then, should not be understood as the final cry of someone who has come to the end of a terrible ordeal. Rather it is the assertion that the task that Jesus came to perform is now completed. The work that Jesus set out to do has been accomplished, and brought to perfection. His goal is achieved, and there is nothing else left for him to do!
What was this work that Jesus came to do? He came to offer himself as a complete and perfect sacrifice in order to atone the sins of humanity and make available the salvation of God. The theme of sacrifice and atonement is replete in the New Testament. Paul in Ephesians tells us that ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the high priests of Israel, the writer of Hebrews asserts: ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Heb 7:27). And John in his first letter maintains that Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).
To skeptics the death of Jesus does not signal victory. To them, ‘It is finished’ simply means ‘He is finished’! But for the Christian, ‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is the cry of victory! As Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘It is finished’ means that ‘God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit’. Far from being a sign of defeat, the cross points to victory! In this sense, ‘It is finished!’ points beyond the cross to the Resurrection. It brings together Good Friday and Easter.
Nicholas Lash has summed this up eloquently in his book Believing Three Ways in the One God:
Out of the virgin’s womb, Christ is conceived. Out of that world threatening death on Calvary, life is new-born from an empty tomb. Christ’s terror is God’s Word’s human vulnerability. But, it is just this vulnerability, this surrender, absolute relationship, which draws out of darkness finished life, forgiveness of sins.
More, however, must be said. It is finished. But it is not over! It is finished. But time marches on! It is finished. But evil and suffering persist! How are we to make sense of this?
This situation is perhaps best described by the use of an analogy. The victory over sin and death by the death and Resurrection of Christ is like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule towards the end of World War II. To understand the excitement of the liberation, we must imagine what it must be like to live under the shadow of Nazi presence. We must appreciate something of the utter hopelessness of the situation in order to sense its true poignancy. Many in that situation had resigned themselves to the thought that nothing could be done to turn things around.
Then, suddenly, news of a battle fought somewhere far away came to them. Some call it D-Day. And this battle is turning the tide of the war. The war seems to be brought to a new stage, and the enemy is now in disarray. Its back has been broken. Before long the Nazis will be driven out, and occupied Europe will be liberated. This is exhilarating news indeed!
But the Nazis are still present in that occupied country. Thus, in a sense, the situation has not changed at all. But in another sense, the situation has totally changed! The Nazis are defeated, and they will be driven out of that occupied country. The sweet scent of liberation and victory is in the air. This brings about a dramatic change in the psychological climate to the citizens of that occupied country. The whole atmosphere is changed. The gloom is lifted and the citizens of that country could rejoice as if they were free, even though freedom still lies in the future.
It is finished! But it is not over. Evil, suffering and pain still persist in our sin-scarred world. But the horror does not have the last word! At the heart of this horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ who has declared, ‘It is finished!’
In addition, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate. At the foot of the cross we realize that we are participants of the drama of salvation, for our stories have become part of the story of the One who was crucified. Here at the cross the suffering of all time, the suffering of every human being is gathered to his suffering. The out-stretched arms of Jesus on the cross reach out to embrace, complete and make whole every human moment of horror. All the victims of evil, those who suffer in hospitals and at home, the victims of genocide, rape and murder, the innocent victims of war, and those who are crushed by injustice– their suffering need not be ‘senseless’ if they are caught up by faith in that once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross for which it is said ‘It is finished’.
The cross of Christ does not give us all the answers to the world’s troubles and to ours. But the cross of Christ enables us to face these troubles without any answers because through it God has opened up a way for us to live without answers. In a statement that must surely be enigmatic to some Paul asserts ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Paul is surely not saying that the suffering of Christ on the cross was insufficient. Rather Paul is saying that he is able to suffer because the work of the cross is finished.
It is finished! But it is not over.
We live in a time between the times. The kingdom of God has begun in Christ, but it will not be consummated and perfected until the end of the world. But the Good News is our Saviour has won that decisive far-off battle on Golgotha. The enemy is defeated! Its back has been broken! Although everything looks pretty much the same, the situation has totally changed. That is why the church throughout the ages could echo the words of Venantius Fortunatius, who in the sixth century wrote:
Sing my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the cross, the victor’s trophy, Sound the high triumphal lay:
How, the pains of death enduring, Earth’s Redeemer won the day.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).