The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that, as he breathed his last, Jesus cried out with a loud voice. Yet neither records what he said. John’s Gospel tells us that what Jesus said was, “It is finished.” Often we hear those words as Jesus’ expression that his life was ebbing away: “It is finished.”
Some have heard this statement as a cry of defeat from a disillusioned prophet, as if Jesus were indicating that finally his suffering was over. But several things mitigate against this interpretation. Jesus told his disciples on multiple occasions that he was going to Jerusalem to die. His arrest, torture, and crucifixion were no surprise to him. He had come to Jerusalem for this purpose. This was not a cry of defeat.
Another clue that, when he spoke these words, Jesus did not mean he was defeated is found in the fact that he “shouted” these words. Actually, he shouted just one word in Aramaic, recorded in John’s Gospel by one Greek word: “Finished!” or “Completed!” Will Willimon has described these words of Jesus as something similar to what Michelangelo might have said while looking up at the Sistine Chapel after he had completed the last brushstroke: “It is finished!” Something astounding, amazing, and awesome was finished as Jesus died on the cross—a masterpiece of love and redemption.
But what, exactly, was completed on the cross?
When we talk about the significance of Jesus’ death, we come to one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith— and one of the most confusing: the doctrine of the atonement.
I invite you to consider that Jesus was doing far more on the cross than any one theory or metaphor possibly can contain. Perhaps this is why neither the Gospel writers nor the apostles in their letters give us only one way to understand Jesus’ death on the cross.
John’s Gospel is a great example. John begins his Gospel by calling Jesus “the Word made flesh.” He seems to be saying that in Jesus, God has come to reveal God’s nature and God’s will to the human race. This should clue us in to the fact that Jesus’ death is more like a sermon than a transaction.
A brief survey of John’s Gospel reveals at least seven different ideas about the significance of Jesus’ death. He uses a host of metaphors, including at least five different Old Testament allusions that point toward differing meanings of Jesus’ death.
Jesus is our Redeemer, our Savior, our High Priest, our Paschal and Atoning Lamb. He is our Liberator and the King who is willing to die for his people. Through his death he reveals our sinfulness, the costliness of grace, and the magnitude of God’s mercy. On the cross he shows us what love looks like. In his death and resurrection he identifies with our pain, suffering, and human mortality; and in his resurrection he proves that he has overcome each of these. Jesus was doing all of this on the cross to redeem, save, and draw humanity to himself. This was the “it” that was finished as Jesus shouted his dying words.
The point of recounting this is, in part, to remind you that the language we use to describe what Jesus’ death accomplished and what it means is metaphorical language meant to describe something so profound, so mysterious, so life-giving, and so life-changing that no one explanation or metaphor can do it justice.
I used to get stuck when I would think about the death of Jesus and exactly how it saves us. At some point I came to realize that the cross is not math or science; it is poetry lived out in human flesh. The cross is a divine drama in which God through Jesus is revealing the darkness of the human soul and the relentless grace and love of God for the human race.
John describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” The cross is the climax of the story; John speaks of it as the moment of Jesus’ glorification. He is glorified on the cross because the cross is the moment in which God gives himself, through his Son, to save us, God’s creatures; the moment in which God convicts us of sin, reveals to us the costliness of grace, takes up the sins of the world, and shows us what love looks like so that we might follow in living lives of sacrificial love.
Lord, thank you for the beauty, the majesty, and the wonder of the cross. Thank you that it was for me. In response may my daily prayer be, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Yes, Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit. Amen.
Today's post is an excerpt from Final Words From the Cross.

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