The Death of Death

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 19:30

“It is finished!” really means “I have finished it!” This sixth word from the cross isn’t a cry of relief. It’s a cry of accomplishment.

In 490 B.C. one of history’s most decisive battles was fought on the plains of Marathon to the east of Athens. Though greatly outnumbered, the Greek defenders attacked the invading Persian army and routed it. The commander of the victorious Greeks chose his fastest soldier, a man called Pheidippedes, to carry the news back to the beleaguered city of Athens. Pheidippedes, though exhausted from fighting in the battle, ran the entire way from Marathon to Athens. The exact distance he raced 26 miles and 300 yards is commemorated in the modern race called the marathon. When Pheidippedes reached Athens he entered the city and managed to gasp out just a single word: “Nikomen!” “We won!” And then he fell dead.

The drama of that brief cry is captivating, isn’t it? Just a single word to announce the saving victory. That’s what makes me think of this story in connection with Jesus’ sixth word from the cross. That too was just a brief cry, only one Greek word in John’s text: “Tetelesthai!” “It is finished!” “It’s done . . . completed . . . finalized!”

After this [writes John in describing Jesus’ very last moments], when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

John 19:28-30

“It is finished.” What is finished? What did Jesus mean by this exclamation? Well, he wasn’t just talking about the ordeal of his suffering. Sometimes, when a person has struggled terribly at the end of his or her life, when death comes at last we say, almost with relief, “It’s over.” When Jesus cried out at the end, that is not what he meant. “It is finished” doesn’t mean “It’s over.” Jesus isn’t talking about his life here. He’s talking about his work, the task that he came into the world to do. “It is finished!” really means “I have finished it!” This sixth word from the cross isn’t a cry of relief. It’s a cry of accomplishment.

A CRY OF ACCOMPLISHMENT

Jesus has accomplished his life’s purpose. He has completed the task for which he took human nature upon himself and entered the world. He has brought his career to a successful conclusion by doing his Father’s will, which was to drink the cup of sacrificial suffering to its bitter dregs. The night before the cross Jesus had prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Now that will has been done. Jesus emptied the cup of judgment, and there is nothing left in it for us to drink. Jesus has finished his work, which was also God’s work, which was to do whatever had to be done in order deal with sin and save sinners.

He finished it by his death. Notice that Jesus uttered this word just before he surrendered his spirit in death. It was mid-afternoon, around three o’clock, when the end came. Jesus spoke his last three words from the cross in rapid succession. He said, “I’m thirsty.” And someone gave him a drink of wine. He raised his head and shouted, “It’s finished!” And then he bowed his head and breathed out his life with a quiet prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” So it was in the act of dying that Jesus actually accomplished his purpose. Somehow it was needed that Christ die in order to complete the loving plan of God to save us. Not just that he be born as a man, or that he teach or heal or work miracles, but that he offer up his life in a bloody death on a cross.

Now that’s a very unusual thought. Jesus’ death actually accomplishes his work. For the rest of us, death interrupts our work and puts an end to it. Martin Luther King was not yet forty when an assassin’s bullet struck him down, and his great work for social justice was cut off. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was just 36 when he died tragically, and the world mourns for all the lost masterpieces he might have written. Jesus was even younger when he died, but we never think of that as a tragic loss to the world. His death was not a tragedy. It didn’t deprive us of anything. Rather, it gained for us an infinite blessing, because Jesus’ death did not interrupt his work; it was his work.

I do not completely understand why Jesus’ death was necessary to deal with sin, or how exactly it accomplishes our salvation. But I do know what it means for all of us who love and trust in him. What Jesus accomplished in his death was symbolized by one of the supernatural signs that took place just as his life ended. Earlier I read John’s description of the moment when Jesus died. This is from Matthew’s Gospel:

“Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

Matthew 27:50-51

The curtain in the temple was the heavy embroidered veil that screened off the inner sanctuary, the “Holy of holies” where the presence of God was represented by the ark of the covenant. Only the high priest could enter this Holy of holies, just once a year on the Day of Atonement, when he brought in the blood of a sacrificed animal to make atonement for the people’s sins. But the New Testament says this was only a ritual foreshadowing of the real sacrifice, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus, in dying, has opened the way for us to enter heaven once for all. The curtain has been torn down, because now anyone may approach the God of heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the message of the whole New Testament, and the book of Hebrews in particular.

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. . . . For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.

Hebrews 9:11ff

That’s it. That’s the work that he has finished. The sacrifice has been completed. Atonement “at-one-ment” between a holy God and sinful people has been made. What had to be done about sin has been done, fully, finally, completely, once for all. Now the way to the Father has been opened for everyone who has faith in Christ’s blood.

You . . . were ransomed [writes the apostle Peter] . . . not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.”

1 Peter 1:18f

“But now in Christ Jesus,” adds Paul, “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Ephesians 2:13

Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:20

Jesus is the Way to God. All that is necessary for salvation has been finished. But you and I must make this our own by putting our total trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son crucified for us. In Romans 3 Paul talks about how we can receive forgiveness and righteousness from God as a free gift. This is

the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

Romans 3:22-25, nrsv

That last phrase is crucial. The death of Christ that brings righteousness and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation with God is made effective for each of us through faith. It doesn’t just happen automatically to everyone. We have to believe in it! You have to accept it for yourself, ask for it, lay hold upon it by faith! You must trust in Christ personally, and entrust yourself your whole life, with all that you are and have to him without reservation. That is how Christ’s finished work of salvation becomes ours.

A CRY OF VICTORY

So “It is finished!” is a cry of accomplishment. And it is also a cry of victory. Remember the story I began with, of Pheidippedes’ marathon run. His cry was one of victory: “We won,” he said, “we have conquered!” So was Jesus’ cry. “It is finished!” means “I have conquered!” It wasn’t just an exclamation. It was an announcement to the whole world that Jesus Christ has triumphed. His death, as the great Puritan John Owen put it, is the death of death. On the cross Jesus conquered sin, death, devil and hell. It is finished means they are finished. In dying for us on the cross, Paul wrote to the Colossians, Jesus was

erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Colossians 2:13-15

All the forces of evil, including the dark, demonic powers of the spiritual world, were overcome by God’s sacrificial love poured out on the cross for a sinful world. Jesus Christ has conquered, and because he has conquered, we have won.

It is finished. The victory has been won, and Easter morning proclaims the triumph with an empty tomb. But though it’s finished, it isn’t over, not yet. Jesus has struck the decisive blow against evil, but evil still lashes out, and we still suffer. There is still pain and trouble in our lives and even death looms ahead for each one of us.

We do not yet experience the final victory, when God will dwell with his people, and “will wipe every tear from their eyes. [And] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). That’s ahead of us according to the book of Revelation. But in the meantime, suffering and death, even though still real, have been transformed for those of us who know Jesus Christ. As someone once said, death’s fiery dart struck Jesus on the cross, but when they came to pull it out, the sting was left behind.

It is finished, and because it is finished, we have won. Know it. Believe it. Embrace it.