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Seven sayings from the cross

March 2003 | by John Keddie

6. It is finished

T

he last three sayings from the cross must have occurred one after another in quick succession. ‘I thirst’, cried Jesus, ‘knowing that all things were now accomplished’ (John 19:28). Then immediately comes the sixth word from the cross: ‘It is finished!’ (John 19:30).

In the Greek this is one word (tetelestai). Was this the cry of a despairing martyr? Surely not. Rather we must take this as a cry of triumph.

In Luke’s passion narrative we find a clause which must refer to this saying. We read: ‘And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice’, he then uttered his final word (23:46).

He does not say ‘I am finished’, but ‘it is finished’. What is that ‘it’ but the work the Father gave him to do (see John 17:4-5)? Tetelestai was a commonly used word. It means: ‘It stands finished’ or ‘It will always be finished’.

A servant would use it when the Master’s work was completed. It would be used of an artist completing a canvas and standing back to admire the result. It would be used of a tradesman on clinching a deal.

But what, exactly, was ‘finished’ on the cross?

Prophecies

Firstly, Jesus fulfilled prophecies concerning the Messiah’s death. At the very dawn of history, after the fall of man into sin in the Garden of Eden, the promise of a Saviour was given (Genesis 3:15).

What would he do? He would bruise Satan’s head. He would inflict a fatal blow upon the deceiver. But in the process, his own heel would be bruised. This bruising is now fulfilled. In his death upon the cross, Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecies concerning the Redeemer.

In Luke 22 :37 the Lord himself quotes Isaiah 53:12 (‘he was numbered with the transgressors’) in relation to his own end.

In relation to the events surrounding his death, he fulfilled the triumphal entry (Zechariah 9:9) and the death of the Servant of Jehovah (Isaiah 53).

In John’s account of the passion he quotes Psalm 22:18, Psalm 34:20, Psalm 69:21, and Zechariah 12:10, (see John 19:24, 28-29, 36, 37).

Fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy was taking place there at the cross in the death of the Son of God. But he fulfilled more.

Symbols

Secondly, Christ fulfilled the types and symbols of the Old Testament. It was not only direct prophecies of his death that Jesus fulfilled — there was also the matter of certain types and symbols of Old Testament religion.

The Old Testament was ‘shadowy’. Fulfilment was awaited, as Simeon recognised in relation to the coming of the promised Saviour (Luke 2:32). But what in particular can we see fulfilled in the death of Christ?

a. There was the fulfilment of the sacrificial system. What was the idea behind the sacrifices? Atonement. Paying the penalty for sin.

But these sacrifices of bulls and goats and sheep could not take away sin. They pointed forward to the once-for-all sacrifice awaited by the Old Testament saints, which lay in the future with the coming of the Messiah and his sacrifice for sin.

This is the burden of much of the letter to the Hebrews. These blood sacrifices pointed to the blood sacrifice of Golgotha.

b. There was fulfilment, too, of aspects of the temple and its services. The veil of the temple would be rent from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). That symbolised the passing of that old order associated with the temple. Not just the sacrifices, but also the priesthood and other rituals which were typical of the Old Testament era.

There are shadows of such fulfilment in other Old Testament events, such as Abraham’s ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, the Exodus from Egypt and Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. The Passover and its ritual pointed to ‘Christ our Passover [who] was sacrificed for us’ (1 Corinthians 5:7), for he is the Lamb slain for his people (1 Peter 1:19).

Even the Kingship of the Old Testament pointed to a greater King than David or Solomon, and to an endless Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14).

Christ’s death is the fulfilment of Old Testament types and symbols. Thus he cries: ‘It is finished!’

Law

Thirdly, Jesus fulfils the law in his death. The Old Testament contains codified moral laws, such as those we find summarised in the Ten Commandments. In their nature, these are of perpetual relevance as a standard for godly living. They were never intended as a legalistic means of getting right with or being accepted by God.

But they cannot be abrogated because, for one thing, they reflect the character of the law-giver himself. It is unthinkable that any of the first three commandments could ever change — and therefore it cannot be that the other seven could change in their essence either.

Christ ‘fulfilled’ this law in the sense that in his life he perfectly kept the whole law — all its moral requirements — for his people.

(There are also ceremonial or civil laws in the Old Testament. These do not have perpetual obligation, except in the case of civil laws, as general wisdom and equity may demand. Obviously the ceremonial law is fulfilled in Christ’s death.)

Since the fall into sin, man stands condemned before God. The soul that sins must die. Unless a perfect sacrifice for sin is made — unless all the law’s demands are ‘fulfilled’ on man’s behalf — he must be condemned.

That indeed is what happened in the life and death of Jesus, and it is confirmed in this saying: ‘It is finished!’

Pardon

We said earlier that a merchant might use this word tetelestai in relation to the payment of a debt. Through the cross, the debt of sin is cancelled for all Christ’s people. He overcame sin. He fulfilled the law — perfectly and vicariously.

He paid the penalty for a broken law, so that the believer can say:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!’

So, it is finished. The price has been paid. The law has been satisfied. Everything has been accomplished that is required to save men and present them as accepted before God.

It is noticeable how one great error persists in the history of the church. It is this — that men think themselves fit to earn salvation by some work or obedience or sufficient goodness of their own, or by some performance of ritual.

Are our best efforts good enough? The cross gives a resounding negative to any such notion. If man could fulfil the law sufficiently, or if he could make acceptable offerings to God, then why should Jesus come to earth? Why should he die upon a cross of pain and shame?

Triumph

Paul was right to call all his own works and supposed advantages ‘rubbish’ (Philippians 3:8). If anything were left to man in the accomplishment of salvation, that would strike at the very heart of this sixth saying from the cross.

How thankful we are, and how thankful we should be, for that one word, tetelestai,it is finished! It is a cry of triumph. It is the culmination of Christ’s earthly work in establishing the basis of acceptance with God for poor sinners.

Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy laws demands.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and thou alone.