Too good to be true
A reflection on Jesus’ dying word on the cross: “It is finished.”
By Colin Sedgwick
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30.
Buying carpets can be an expensive business, so we had put down a deposit in advance, with the remainder due on completion of the job. Once the fitter had done his work we produced what we owed, he processed the money and handed us back our bill. The words “Paid in full” were written across it.
It was a nice feeling, to know that everything was in order, the work was satisfactorily done, and - most of all - we didn’t owe any money.
In the world in which Jesus lived, the Greek word for “paid in full” was tetelestai, which literally means “completed”, “finished”, “done”, “over”. And this is the word John uses to tell us about Jesus’ dying word on the cross: “It is finished”.
So what was going on? What was “finished”? Just this: Jesus was declaring in the most public way possible that he had completed the work his Father had sent him to do - the work of paying, once and for all, for human sin by his death on the cross.
The theme appears earlier in John’s Gospel. In 4:34 Jesus speaks of how God sent him “to finish his work”; and in 5:36, of “the works that the Father has given me to finish”. At those points Jesus is looking to the future. But now, in 19.30, he is talking of the present.
Of course, because we weren’t there we can never know exactly how Jesus uttered that word. But Matthew, in his Gospel, mentions him speaking “with a loud voice”, and very likely that was it. One thing we can be certain of is that it was a cry of triumph rather than a whimper of defeat. Jesus wasn’t saying “It’s all over, I’ve had enough, I can’t take any more”. No, he was celebrating a victory that had at that moment been achieved.
This is massively important.
The human mind seems to be hard-wired to think that, if we are to be right with God (“saved”, to use another Bible word), then we must try very hard to make ourselves right. The “work” belongs to us. And how do we do it? Well, obviously, by doing good deeds, by living a good life, by going regularly to church, by giving to charity. If we try really hard to do these things we might just do enough to squeeze into God’s favour – the credit side of the balance sheet will outweigh the debit side.
Completely obvious! And completely wrong.
If this is the way you instinctively think, can I ask you to really take on board that single word tetelestai? And can I urge you as a result to reboot your thinking on this vital subject?
When Jesus cried “It is finished” that meant that he had done it all; and if he had done it all, that can only mean that there is, quite literally, nothing left for us to do.
Put it another way: being right with God is a gift from Jesus to us. All we need to do – all we can do – is reach out the hand of faith and make it our own.
You might be tempted to reply “But that’s just too good to be true!” Certainly, it seems like that, I must agree. But if Christianity is true, then it is plain fact – why else is the Christian message called “good news” (which is what “gospel” means)?
After all, it’s hardly good news to be told that you must work with all your might and main to earn forgiveness and salvation – but that even after you’ve done that there’s no guarantee of success; you still might not “make the cut”.
No; to be offered salvation as a free gift from God purely on the basis of what Jesus did on the cross – well, that really is good news.
Does this mean that we needn’t bother with all that “good living” I mentioned earlier? – the going to church, the giving to charity, the showing love, forgiveness and generosity? No, it doesn’t. But there’s a big difference: we do these things as a response to God’s love, not as a way of hoping to earn it. This isn’t about becoming “religious”; it’s about becoming a new man or woman because Jesus has lifted the weight of your sin and washed you clean.
There’s a song, by Graham Kendrick, that sums up perfectly the invitation that we are offered: “The price is paid,/ Come let us enter in/ To all that Jesus died/ To make our own./ For every sin/ More than enough he gave,/ And bought our freedom/ From each guilty stain...”
Yes, it is finished! Is that word – tetelestai, spoken from the cross on the first Good Friday - the greatest word ever spoken?
More to the point, is it a word you still need to respond to? If it is, why not do so right now? Here’s a prayer you might like to pray in your heart…
Father God, thank you for opening my eyes to the meaning of the cross.
Thank you for showing me that, though I am sinful and separated from you, Jesus has paid the price once for all on my behalf.
Help me, right now, to reach out the hand of faith and to receive this wonderful gift.
Image | Francesco Paggiaro | Pixels
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com, where this reflection originally appeared.
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