When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,”... (John 19:30)
Is there any word in the Gospels that has perplexed the church quite as much as this one, tetelestai, “It is finished”? We get the impression. But we can only speculate on what exactly it means. What, pray tell, is finished? What is accomplished, what is completed, what is brought to its limit or its conclusion or its end?
You ask some readers, you might be told that what's finished is Jesus' mission to conform his life to the pattern of the Hebrew Scriptures, thus fulfilling the age-old prophecies, bringing them to completion. You ask other readers, they'll say that it's Jesus' suffering – his pain and shame have reached their limit. You ask other readers, and they'll say that it's Jesus' work of atonement – that his task of rendering full satisfaction to his Father for our sins has been accomplished, and the debt is paid in full. You ask still other readers, you might hear he's announcing the end of the temple system, hence the rending of the veil. We all get the basic impression, but the details – that's a thorny one.
John the Evangelist probably wouldn't disagree with any of those. But I'd like to suggest that he may have something bigger and broader in mind when he records that concluding word from Jesus' lips, the last one that John includes. The story doesn't quite begin when Jesus is on the cross. It begins last night, Maundy Thursday, when Jesus turns most directly to contemplating his death – what John calls Jesus' departure from the world, his personal exit from human society to rejoin his Father's company.
And listen to how John writes the opening scene of the Last Supper: “When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). To the end – to the finish line, to the goal posts, to the ultimate degree, to the point of total accomplishment, to the conclusion, to perfect completion.
And so he goes ahead and shares a meal with his disciples (John 13:2-4). So he goes ahead and washes their feet – even Judas' (John 13:12). So he teaches them his new commandment of love (John 13:34). So he assures them that he leaves them with many gifts as he departs (John 14:16-17), and tells them he'll come back to them (John 14:3). So he offers himself to them as their Way to the Father, as the Truth of God, as Life with no end – and there can never be any other (John 14:6). So he declares the Eleven “already clean” through hearing these words of his (John 15:3). He promises them joy beyond their coming sorrow (John 16:20-22), declares his victory over sin-bound society and the dark powers that undergird it (John 16:33), and prays his heart out for them (John 17:1-26).
In all these things, he shows them a love beyond their comprehension. But in it all, Jesus says that this is not yet the full completion of his love. It hasn't yet been made manifest in its greatest way. It hasn't yet reached its perfection. Because “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). His love can't be finished until it reaches “the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
And that, I'd suggest, is what's now finished: the full extent of the love of Jesus, his love-unto-death, is presented complete to us in the sight of God. His love is made solid, made tangible, made concrete and real and actual and perfect, to the uttermost degree. That's the accomplishment. That's the fulfillment. Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to answer all the promises of God prophesied for us, even at a cost, because that's the degree of his perfect love.
Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to cover, even dissolve, all our sin. This really does declare his atoning work finished, because his love is finished. And where Paul liked to talk about salvation by grace through faith, John is letting us see the same truth from a different angle: salvation by love, the love of God made fully visible to the full extent as Jesus' love-unto-death. If even our love can “cover a multitude of sins” as the scriptures say (1 Peter 4:8; cf. Proverbs 10:12), how deep can perfect love-unto-death bury the whole range of sin and banish it from our lives? There's no sin that can spread too wide or mount up too high to resist the infinite flood of Christ's love-unto-death – it's complete, and no sin of yours can stand in its way. “It is finished,” so live beyond your sin.
Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to shred any barrier between us and his Father's holy presence. That's why the temple veil was torn in two, from top to bottom – a divine act, announcing that the love of Jesus had prevailed, had ripped asunder the dividing wall through the rending of his own flesh (Ephesians 2:14). What remains is totally reshaped. There are no more partitions in the court of the new temple – no segregation of women from men, no segregation of Gentile from Jew, no separation between slave and free, but all have a home in the same unpartitioned temple, with no veil standing between a purified people and a pure God, who unveils himself as a Father embracing his family. Jesus Christ's love-unto-death is passionate zeal to shred any barrier between his Father and us – and us from each other. Build what walls you may, Jesus' perfect love will dismantle them 'til not one stone stands upon the other. Shield yourself from God however you vainly wish, and Jesus' perfect love will tear that veil, too. “It is finished,” so live beyond your separation.
And what's more, Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to bless us with victorious life. The cross is the ultimate summit of love. It's the cross that makes possible what comes after it. When John talks about the crucifixion, he treats it as an act of glory: this is the paradoxical enthronement of Jesus as the Universe's King. Jesus is the King of Love, glorified on the cross, lifted up high above the earth, winning triumph over all other contenders, even defeating death. And because his love-unto-death is for us, he shares his victory with us – and so we have the promise of life eternal, life abundant, life then and life now, beyond our sin, beyond our separation, beyond even death itself, for the healing of the world. Because “it is finished.” Thanks be to God.