READ : John 19:28-30
After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:28-30 rsv
We cherish the last words of our loved ones, don’t we? They are a vital part of the legacy left to us. Sometimes we as family members may remember them years later and talk about them together. They gather up what is memorable about a loved one’s life and perhaps express a parting wish. Sometimes they leave us an example of faith and trust. Sometimes they are the last expression of a love that goes on enriching us.
For Christians, however, there are no last words that compare in power with those of Jesus Christ our Lord. Every year during what we call Holy Week, we rehearse them in our minds. We hear them in sermons, sing of them in the hymns of the church, breathe them in our prayers. They are central to our faith. They shape our lives still today.
Of all the sayings of Jesus from the cross, none has affected me as profoundly as the very last. Some of His words were to individuals nearby. Others were breathed toward God in prayer. But there was one word that He seemed to want everyone around Him to hear. Two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, tell us that Jesus “cried out with a loud voice” just before He died. It’s John, in the nineteenth chapter of his gospel, verse 30, who tells us just what that cry was.
As Jesus knew that His sufferings were about to end, He said, “I thirst.” Earlier He had refused the potion of drugged wine that would have eased His pain. He had wanted to face those sufferings with a clear mind. But now death was very near and there was a final word He wanted to express. Perhaps He craved a drink, something to clear His throat so that He could speak it clearly. At any rate, when the sponge full of vinegar had touched His mouth, He cried out, “It is finished.” Then He dropped His head and breathed His last. These were the last of His last words.
What do you hear in that strange cry of the dying Lord? It’s not a lament, not a prayer, not an instruction. It’s more like a shout of triumph. That’s strange, isn’t it, coming from someone who has just endured a punishment as shameful and cruel as any ever devised? Jesus vents no words of bitterness and malediction as other victims of crucifixion often did. This is no cry of anger, frustration or despair. Jesus seems to be exulting! He sounds more like a conqueror than like the victim He seems to be.
That’s what strikes us about His arrest and trial too, His bearing before accusers, His spirit in the midst of agony. On the one hand, He seems utterly helpless. On the other, He has the calmness of one conscious of being in control.
Soldiers heavily armed come out to arrest Him, carrying their lanterns and torches so that their suspect will not be able to slip away in the darkness. But when they arrive in the garden where Jesus is staying with His disciples, the Lord steps forward unafraid. He startles the leaders of the expedition so much that they fall backward to the ground. They seem far more fearful than He.
Later He’s silent before the high priest and His hired accusers while they seem by their every word to condemn themselves. When Pilate assumes that he has Jesus’ destiny in his hands, the Lord makes it plain that it’s the other way around. By the sheer majesty of His person, Jesus makes words spoken to Him in contempt to gain the ring of truth. “Behold the man! . . . Behold your king! . . . He saved others . . . Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” And now when He comes to die, though He’s been rejected, humiliated, and twisted by pain, He ends His life with this triumphant shout.
Have you ever seen a person face death that way? With that kind of victorious spirit? I’ve seen some, especially believers in this Jesus. They aren’t sad. They’re anything but fearful. We sense a peace in their spirit. More than that, joy, anticipation. They seem deeply sure about what is happening to them and what’s out ahead. They seem to know something that others around them don’t quite grasp. At the moment most human beings dread, they seem to celebrate.
As Dwight L. Moody was growing older, he sometimes spoke in his messages about his own death. “One of these days,” he would say, “you’ll read in the paper that Dwight L. Moody is dead. Don’t you believe it. I’ll be more alive then than I’ve ever been before.” There it is, the note of triumph about dying.
When my mother was lying in a New York hospital, desperately ill with cancer, I was given the difficult task of breaking the news to her about her condition. As we talked, I discovered that she already knew, perhaps had known long before we had known. For several moments she talked quietly about what lay ahead for her. Then she told me about something that had happened the night before in her hospital room. The lights of the city shining in through the window had etched a giant V on the wall opposite her bed. As she lay there half-thinking, half-praying, the gleaming shape on the wall became for her a kind of sign. “It was as though the Lord had said to me that whatever happened, it was going to be victory.”
Do you think it will be that way for you? Something about death like the sound of trumpets, like the hint of a sunrise? Will it be a time, against all odds, to shout and sing? If we can end life that way, we will have learned it from the Lord who shouted aloud with His last breath.
But there’s more than triumph here. There’s also a sense of accomplishment in Jesus’ words. That’s what the cry, “It is finished,” actually means. It’s not so much, “It’s all over” as “It’s completely done.” His ambitions, apparently, were realized. The work of His life had been fulfilled. That’s what He was celebrating.
As I study the life of Jesus, I’m impressed again and again by His overmastering sense of divine destiny. At every step, He was conscious of God’s calling. He always did those things that pleased the Father. And even when He hung in physical helplessness, in dying weakness on a cross, He knew that He was accomplishing something, the very thing, in fact, He had come to do.
The meaning of death for any of us is bound up with a kind of life that has gone before it. It’s possible to look at life, I suppose, simply as something that happens to us. We drift along through it, hoping for a few breaks, avoiding as many troubles as we can and then we die as we live. Our lives come to an end. They trail away into nothing. We finally give in to what we can’t escape.
But there’s another way of looking at life, a way in which we’re gripped by a sense of purpose. We know we’re in this world for something. We have a race to run, a battle to fight, a work to do. We know in our bones that we’re immortal until our work is done. That makes death seem very different, doesn’t it?
From one standpoint, Jesus’ dying seems tragic. He was a man in the very prime of life, with much to live for, so much to give to the world. He was cut off in a brutal, senseless execution. But at the very last, He cried, “It is finished.” Mission accomplished. All that He came for had been determined, dared, and done.
That underlines for us what’s so easy to forget, namely, that our lives are not measured by their length in years or by their apparent success. Christ filled His life full with obedience to God. He was faithful all the way to death. And so when He came to die, it was only the last step on a road He had chosen to walk all His life long. When He bowed His head and gave up His spirit, it was as though He had died by choice and not by chance. It was more an achievement than an accident. He had really lived, fully lived.
That same filling up of life appears in many of the Lord’s followers as well. The apostle Paul, for example, was absorbed by the thought that God had appointed certain tasks for Him to fulfill. Nothing moved Him, nothing swayed Him from completing those, finishing His course, as He said, with joy. Accomplishing the ministry given Him meant more to Paul than personal safety, more than life itself.
Horace Bushnell’s most famous sermon was entitled, “Every Man’s Life a Plan of God.” The preacher’s theme: there is a certain something which God has in mind for each of His children to accomplish in life. For this He is girding and preparing them all the time. It will be the true glory of their lives to have fulfilled it.
Jesus had prayed like this in His last night with the disciples. “I glorified thee,” He prayed, “on earth; having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do” (John 17:4). And how that gives dignity, meaning, grandeur to human life! Jesus’ meat and drink was to do the Father’s will. This was the great aim for which He lived. So death could never rob His life of meaning. His ministry had a marvelous completeness about it.
I hear one more message in that final shout of the Savior from the cross, a note of assurance for His people. The words “It is finished” actually translate a single Greek word tetelestai. That verb is in the perfect tense, describing an action in the past which has continuing effects in the present. It means, in other words, that the work which Jesus accomplished then has significance for us today. His death, though it happened long ago, is not simply a fact of ancient history. The power released in it is still at work.
What Christ accomplished on the cross in obedience to the Father’s will was done for us. The old hymn expresses it simply and well: “He died that we might be forgiven, He died to make us good, That we might go at last to Heaven, Saved by His precious blood.”
It was a saving, redeeming work He did on our behalf. His cry “It is finished” assures us that His deed is sufficient. Its effects continue now and forever. Nothing can or need be added to it. In His obedience unto death, our salvation was fully accomplished.
What does that mean for us now? It means that everything needful for us to be forgiven and accepted by God, everything needed to bring us into a right relationship with the Lord, has already taken place. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to enhance our standing with God or to make ourselves the least bit more acceptable in His sight. That great work has been done, done perfectly, done forever. We can contribute nothing to what Jesus did there. We can only receive it with a grateful, believing heart.
Imagine that a priceless Rembrandt painting hangs before you. You stand there drinking in its beauty, marveling at the artistry that produced it. Would you consider picking up a brush to add a few strokes of your own? Of course not! It’s a finished masterpiece. And so it is with the infinitely greater work of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world. It would be presumption to try to add to it. It’s ours to behold, to appreciate, to receive.
Friends, this is why the authentic Christian faith rings and sings with assurance, because it rests entirely on the finished work of Jesus Christ. If our hope for eternal life depended even in the slightest part on our efforts, we could never be sure of it, could we? We would never know if we had done enough or that what we had done measured up. But if our destiny depends, as it does, 100 percent on the one sacrifice which Christ offered for us on the cross, then we can be joyfully sure that His work will not be found wanting. Grounded on that, trusting in that, I can be free from all forebodings about the future, free to live thankfully here and now.
Has it dawned on you that Christ’s work on your behalf has been perfectly accomplished? That all you need to do is put your trust in Him? That’s what His cry, “It is finished,” means. The victory has been won. The great work has been determined, dared and done. So listen with all your heart to that triumphant shout. Remember it always. Savor it. Celebrate it. His last words are meant for you.