Surely one of the reasons why we have four Gospels is that together they give us a composite picture of the life, ministry and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this way we are enabled to build up a more complete picture of His actual day-to-day ministry. Put together what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John separately tell us, and we learn that there were seven very significant sayings uttered by Jesus during the climactic event of His crucifixion.
Their probable order was:
1. ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’
2. ‘Woman, behold thy son! … Behold thy mother!’
3. ‘Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise’
4. ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
5. ‘I thirst’
6. ‘It is finished’
7. ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’
All together they give us a wonderful summary of the message of Jesus. Beginning with His amazing love even for those who were nailing him to the cross, He goes on to show tender loving care for His mother. Following words of salvation to a hopeless sinner, He utters perhaps the most profound cry that ever passed His lips. Then come words that speak of His weakness and anguish. Next, a statement that betokens success in the face of apparent failure. Last of all, a prayer proving that in death He was still in full control.
The penultimate saying, however, significantly seems to be described as to its manner of utterance. Whereas the first three evangelists tell us of Jesus crying with a loud voice, it is John who supplies the content of that cry – ‘It is finished’.
A triumphal proclamation
When one considers the situation of Jesus from a merely human point of view, taking into account His dire physical and emotional condition, you could well imagine all of His comments being weakly gasped out by His agonised lips. But this comment is unique. This was a triumphal proclamation.
This fact is hidden to some extent by one of the vagaries of colloquial language. Whatever it meant in 1611 the phrase ‘gave up the ghost’ (AV) no longer conveys the same idea. Nowadays ‘to give up the ghost’ suggest capitulation – giving into something against which you might have fought long and hard but which eventually has proved too much for you. I have certainly witnessed death-bed scenes that come into that category: after a long, hard struggle that the exhausted sufferer now ‘caves in’, all resistance ended.
Emphatically, that was not how Jesus died. As He had been throughout His life He was still in control. Just as He had predicted in John 10:18, He did not just ‘die’: rather He ‘delivered’ or ‘handed over His spirit’. That final act, therefore, appropriately was preceded by a cry – perhaps we should say, ‘a shout’ – of triumph: ‘it is finished’.
Here was no raging against the dying of the light – as Dylan Thomas put it – but the satisfied and triumphant exclamation of One who knew that He had done all that He had come down from heaven to earth to accomplish.
A victory cry
Yes, in the process the Old Testament prophecies and predictions had been fulfilled to the letter. Furthermore, apart from the final indignity of burial and consequent incarceration in a tomb, which in turn were to be trumped by resurrection and ascension, no more humiliation awaited Him. So it was not with the almost inarticulate gasp of a dying man, but with a victorious cry He shouted, ‘it is finished!’
As the hymn writer put it simply and with theological insight: ‘There remains now no more to be done’. And that is so important. It really is what distinguishes the message of Christianity from every other opinion, be it religious or moralistic.
Put quite simply it tells the whole world that what human beings can never do, God, in Christ, has done. Days, even a lifetime, of strenuous effort to lift oneself up to the level that equates with acceptance with God, not only are vain: they are futile. What was necessary has been effectively accomplished by Jesus Christ. His death was not the pathetic, if noble, end of a life of misunderstood martyrdom, as a hostile world finally put down One who for thirty-three years had shown it what God demanded of His creatures.
The message He was passing on to posterity was not to be ‘Do your best in the face of misunderstanding and antagonism and hope that somehow God will overlook your human frailties.’
Instead, He has established a gospel of liberation – again, not that futile imposter that steals his clothes and masquerades under the title of ‘liberation theology’ – a quasi-spiritual message that has a remarkable ability to captivate both well-meaning atheists and religious dupes.
A wonderful invitation
No, Christianity has, or rather is, a gospel to be announced, an invitation to be offered, a command to be declaimed.
It does not exhort us to pull our socks up, or to turn over a new leaf. On the contrary it tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, who came from heaven to earth for the specific purpose of saving sinners who in fact are in a lost and helpless condition, has done just that. His death was the culmination of all that He came to do. What seemed to be defeat was in reality victory. His shame was His glory, whereas Satan’s apparent triumph was actually a humiliating failure.
It follows that the consequent invitation is offered indiscriminately to anybody and to everybody. Jesus and His victory can be yours not by reason of self-effort and future endeavours, but simply by believing in Him and relying on Him. He has done what you and I could never do – made satisfaction to His holy Father for our sins. He can come to the hopeless and the worthless and in a moment transform their eternal destiny. Did you not see Him do it in the most remarkable conversion in the whole of history – that of the thief dying beside Him at Calvary?
The Christian message is not just another interesting philosophical option to be placed on the shelf to be considered should you, even in this rationalistic age, feel the pressure of your mortality. The invitation comes with a heaven-sent authority of a command from the God with whom one day you will have to do.
He has actually done something for people like you and me. Believe Him. Receive His Son as your only hope and Saviour. In a word, be reconciled to Him on the basis of what Jesus once-and-for-all has actually done.
It is finished!
Graham Harrison is a consulting editor of The Evangelical Magazine.