“It is finished.” They’re the last three words of Jesus before he takes his final dying breath on the cross. I’ve read them before, as I’m sure many of you have too, which creates a challenge in reading John’s account of Jesus’s passion.
Familiarity breeds complacency, so we’re told. And so it becomes easy to read this passage of scripture from the Gospel of John and not be shocked by these words of Jesus. But let’s try for a moment pretending as though we are one of the bystanders watching as Jesus slowly dies hanging on this Roman cross.
Here we stand, witnessing a man already bloodied and bruised from the beatings he has received. A sign above him, with the inscription in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, reads “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Yet the only crown this man on the cross has adorned was one made of thorns, bashed into his skull. And now the guards have taken his clothes; they’re casting lots to see who gets them as though his clothes are a prize.
Then after mumbling a few words to some other bystanders, he says “It is finished.”
It’s almost inconceivable. Crucified on a Roman cross, now this man heralded as King of the Jews is a spectacle of humiliation and a symbol of Roman power. And his last words are “It is finished.”
What could Jesus possibly be talking about? The obvious answer seems to be that he’s done fighting and now ready to die, that he’s accepting his fate. But that’s rather obvious even if he says nothing. After all, he’s already nailed to this cross and his fate seems sealed. There isn’t any fight left even if he still wanted to fight.
But step back for a moment. We know what the cross symbolizes: Power. The cross is Rome’s authoritarian statement of rule and control but it is exactly what neither Pilate nor the Jewish authorities have.
What little control the Jewish authorities had over the Jewish people, they’ve lost. Jesus is the one who has amassed a following. So their only recourse is to have Jesus killed. Of course, seemingly powerless to do so themselves, they can only demand, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” to pressure Pilate into having Jesus put to death.
Pilate thinks he has the power and authority but in reality, he’s afraid. The last thing he needs is an uprising on—of all Jewish holidays—the Passover. So Pilate tries reasoning with Jesus, explaining how he has authority to release him or crucify him. But Jesus only responds saying, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…”
Now Pilate is in a jam. He wants to release Jesus and has the authority to do so but his fear of losing what little control he has makes for a conundrum. Though for different reasons, that fear is the same existential crisis that consumes the Jewish authorities. Listen to them as they shout again, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”
Authoritarians love to believe they’re in control. History is full of such examples, including Pilate and the Jewish authorities. They believe they’re in charge but what really has control over them is the existential threat to their own fickle power.
The story brings to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor Has No Clothes. Both Pilate and the Jewish authorities think they are in control but fear actually has control of them. Fear is the impetus for conspiring to crucify Jesus. It’s the grand illusion here. They think they have power but instead they operate under the power of fear. Fear has control of them. They’re like an escaped inmate from prison who thinks he’s free. But he’s really still bound by the fear of being captured again and so everything he does is determined by the fear of going back to prison.
It’s the tyranny of fear that has the power over everyone in this story, except for Jesus.
Jesus has already told Pilate that the only power he has is given to him from above. Jesus knows that it’s his Heavenly Father who’s in charge. God has the power here. So Jesus says nothing more to Pilate, not a word of rebuttal to the accusations made against him. Instead, having been turned over for crucifixion, Jesus carries his own cross.
So here at the place called Golgotha we stand, watching as the guards crucify Jesus with two other insurrectionists beside him. Just as the accusations made against him claimed, Jesus is crucified as the King of the Jews. He says very few words but what does happen, the casting of lots over his cloths and the drink of wine from a sponge, fulfills scripture (cf. Ps 22:18; 69:21).
Jesus knows “that all was now finished.” So after taking a drink from the sponge, he says “It is finished.” Everything the Father sent the Son to do was finished — “completed” (CEB) and thus fulfilled. Jesus once said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32). And now, both Pilate and the Jewish authorities have played right into his hands. What Pilate and the Jewish authorities saw as the most expedient action to assuage their fears, Jesus claimed as the victory.
That’s the irony of the cross and the crucified Christ. What Pilate and the Jewish authorities see as their win, is God’s plan. It’s victory. Beginning with Abraham, God made a promise to bless all nations. And now God has sent Jesus, fulfilling his promise. The day of salvation the prophets of Israel spoke of is being inaugurated there upon the cross by Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
The irony though is that in the midst of utter darkness, in the shroud of evil and death, God is at work. It’s called eternal life. Not in the sense of pie in the sky, sweet bye and bye, come get our ticket to heaven so that we can bide our time until we can finally escape the world. No, that’s not the eternal life that Jesus has embodied in his own life.
Yes, we believe that Jesus has not only died on the cross but has also been raised from death and therefore, just as he has promised, we believe he will come again. So we rightfully believe we will live in eternity with him in the new heaven and new earth (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). But the eternal life Jesus makes possible is an abundant life we can live right now (cf. Jn 10:10). It’s a life of faith rather than fear, a life animated by the Spirit of God rather than the tyranny of fear. So by faith we know that even in the midst of what seems like utter darkness, God is present. Even in what seems like a shroud of evil and death, God is leading us from death to resurrection in the Crucified Christ whom God has raised from death.
That’s a message we desperately need to hear again these days. I recently read an article on CNN titled Coronavirus Preys on What Terrifies Us: Dying Alone. The author Daniel Burke wrote how “As the coronavirus stalks victims around the world, one of its scariest aspects is how it seems to feed on our deepest fears and prey on our primal instincts, like the impulse to be close to people we love when they are suffering and near death. …In painful irony, the very thing we need in moments of fear and anxiety could also kill us.”
People are suffering, people are scared, and sadly, some are dying. But we cannot give into fear or any of the pernicious behaviors that fear breeds, because we are not left without hope. Instead we must live in the awareness of our faith. It’s to live knowing that in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, God is still the one who came in the person of Jesus, turning the cross into victory, so that we may carry forth living by faith this eternal life in abundance.
May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of our God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all! (cf. 2 Cor 13:13).