“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
Have you ever left a project unfinished? Our lives are filled with projects that we have never quite managed to finish. We have half-read books on our shelves, half-eaten meals in our refrigerators, and half-finished laundry on the floor in our bedrooms. Most of us still have a pile of junk left from hobbies that we picked up for a while and then abandoned—half-built model airplanes, half-sewn quilts, or half-used exercise equipment gathering dust in the basement. There is probably an unfinished project waiting somewhere for you right now.
Jesus Christ did not leave the great project of his life unfinished. He finished it. He got the job done. He accomplished his mission. As he came to the end of his life, Jesus received a drink of cheap wine and said, “It is finished.” Then he died.
That sentence, “It is finished,” is actually just one word in the Greek of the New Testament. The great nineteenth-century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon observed that it “would need all the other words that ever were spoken, or ever can be spoken, to explain this one word. It is altogether immeasurable. It is high; I cannot attain to it. It is deep; I cannot fathom it.”
What did Jesus mean when he said, “It is finished”? One thing he meant was that he was through with his earthly suffering. From beginning to end, Jesus Christ lived a life of suffering. From the moment he left the heavenly palaces of light to the moment darkness descended upon him on the cross, he suffered.
Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). He was born into a poor family, born in a smelly cave of a stable, for there was no room for him at the inn. His crib was a feeding trough, his pillow straw, his nursery mates some cows and donkeys. But all that is finished now.
Jesus “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” ( John 1:11). When he began preaching in his hometown, his neighbors threatened to stone him, and they drove him out of town. Even his own brothers did not believe that he was the Son of God. He became homeless, a wanderer, for there was nowhere for him to lay his head. His miracles were not always believed, his teachings were not always obeyed, and his claims were not always accepted. But all that is finished now.
Jesus was “despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3). He was opposed by the priests and politicians of this world. The King of Judea pursued him with a sword, forcing him to become an exile and a refugee in Egypt. The religious leaders sought to trap him in a falsehood so they could kill him. Even his own friends betrayed him. Simon Peter, the best and truest of his disciples, denied Jesus three times and called down curses from heaven to disown him. Judas Iscariot, the close companion who reclined with Jesus at the table, greeted him with a kiss and betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. But all that is finished now.
Jesus was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isa. 53:3). He was mocked by soldiers and criminals. They put a crown of thorns on his brow, stripped him, abused him, and crucified him. And then they ridiculed him some more. He was thirsty. He was in agony. He was forsaken by his Father on the cross. But all that is finished now. No one will give Jesus the thorny crown or the rugged cross ever again, for he has finished his sufferings.
That is not all Jesus finished. If the only thing that Jesus finished on the cross was earthly suffering, then his life was nothing more than a tragic waste. And if that is all Jesus finished, then his death was no different from any other death.
Consider the tragic death of Saladin. Saladin was the Egyptian sultan and great military leader of the twelfth century (1137–1193) who defeated the Crusaders of the Third Crusade. When he realized that he was about to die, the sultan called for his standard-bearer and ordered him to lift his burial shroud on a pike and parade it around the camp. The standard-bearer was ordered to say that after all Saladin’s conquests, victories, and triumphs, he had nothing left but a white sheet in which to wrap his body for burial. When Saladin finished his life he had nothing to show for it but a winding-sheet.
Jesus Christ did have something to show for his life and death. His death was not just the end of his life but the accomplishment of his mission. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was announcing that he had done his job, that he had completed his task and finished his project. What he had finished was suffering for sin. The suffering of Jesus Christ was not tragic suffering. It was saving suffering.
Before Jesus died on the cross, humanity was in bondage to sin. We were sold as slaves to sin, and we deserved to die in captivity. A price needed to be paid to redeem us, to buy us back from sin and death. But the price of redemption was a perfect sacrifice, a price we could not pay. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was announcing that he was paying that price in full. Christ died for us, offering himself as a sinless sacrifice, buying back our freedom by paying sin’s price.
The word that Jesus spoke (“It is finished”) was used by the Greeks for financial transactions. A sales clerk would write it on a sales receipt. What it meant was “paid in full.” It meant that the purchase had been made, that no debts were outstanding, that no further payments were required.
“Finished” is just the word to describe what Jesus did on the cross. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the full price for sin. His work of redeeming us from sin was perfect and final. Jesus did all, finished all, suffered all. He made full atonement. Those who trust in Jesus have been purchased back from sin. They have no outstanding debts. They do not need to make any further payments for their salvation.
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was not uttering a sigh of relief or a moan of resignation. Jesus was announcing and proclaiming victory. He was giving a shout of joy and triumph, a shout of jubilation and exultation, the shout of a victor and a champion. “I did it!” Jesus was saying. The cross was Jesus Christ’s job well done. It was his lifetime achievement. It was his mission accomplished.
There were one or two things Jesus still had to do, of course. He had to die, be buried, rise again, and ascend to heaven. And there is one more thing he still has to do: return to judge this world and take his people home to be with him forever. But when Jesus Christ hung on the cross and said, “It is finished,” and gave up his spirit, his work was as good as done. He was finished paying the price for sin.
The Bible says that Jesus did not die until he was sure he had accomplished his mission. John writes that Jesus “bowed his head.” (That is the kind of detail, by the way, that you only get from an eyewitness.) Then John writes that Jesus “gave up his spirit.” That phrase is not used anywhere else in the Bible or in other Greek literature. It is only used here because only Jesus could give up his spirit. For every other human being, death is inevitable. Humans are mortal. But Jesus is the eternal Son of God, God as well as man. His death had to be voluntary, a willing offering. Jesus’s life was not taken from him. He gave it up. “The reason my Father loves me,” Jesus said on another occasion, “is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” ( John 10:17–18). Jesus could have saved himself, but he did not, choosing to save us instead.
Is Jesus finished with you, or do you have some unfinished business to take care of? If it is true that Jesus Christ is finished suffering for sin, then you cannot add anything to what he has already done. If Jesus paid it all, then you do not have any more payments to make. You cannot refinish the finished work of Jesus Christ.
There are some things in life that improve when you add to them—adding a couple of zeroes to your paycheck, just to name one. But some things are destroyed when you try to add to them. You might call this subtraction by addition.
Consider the human face in all its beauty and symmetry. The human face is not improved by the addition of a second nose to the middle of the forehead or by the placement of a third ear in the middle of the cheek. The human face is complete just the way it is. To add to it would be to disfigure it.
Or consider Robert Indiana’s sculpture, “Philadelphia LOVE,” which stands to the west of the Philadelphia City Hall. “Philadelphia LOVE” is a square steel sculpture built from the letters L-O-V-E to signify that Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. You cannot enhance the beauty of that sculpture or deepen its message by adding more letters to it. If you added a G, for example, to spell GLOVE, that would not be an improvement. “Philadelphia LOVE” is complete just the way it is.
Or consider building a tower out of blocks for your favorite toddler. When she comes along to add a block to your architectural masterpiece, she will knock the whole thing over. The tower is complete just the way it is. For her to add to it would be to destroy it.
The finished work of Jesus Christ is like that. To add to it is to disfigure it, mar it, and destroy it altogether. There is nothing you can contribute to the payment that Jesus made on the cross for sin. There is no penance you can undergo, no good work you can perform, no pilgrimage upon which you can embark, no punish-ment you can endure to clear your guilt before God. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant it. He meant that he had completely paid the price to release his people from their bondage to sin. So for you to try to pay for your own sins is to deny that Jesus really did finish paying for sin. For you to try to do something to earn your own salvation is to make Jesus Christ out to be a liar.
If you have never asked God to let the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ count for you, then you have some unfinished business to take care of. If you try to pay for your own sins, you will never be finished making the payments. But if you come and meet Jesus at the cross, you can be finished with the debt that you owe to God once and for all. All you need to do is tell God that you are sorry for your sins and that you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross so your sins would be completely forgiven. If you do that, then Jesus’s mission will be accomplished in your life, and what he said on the cross will be true about the price he paid for your sins: “It is finished.”
Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the president of Wheaton College and the Bible teacher of Every Last Word radio and internet broadcasts. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Dr. Ryken has published many books, including The Message of Salvation, Art for God’s Sake, When Trouble Comes, and a number of expository commentaries.
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Atonement, edited by Gabriel Fluhrer