By Justin Rossow
The last words of Jesus on the cross hold deep comfort and promise. And Jesus is still at work, for us.
I recently received some concerned feedback from a devotion I wrote in When from Death I’m Free: A Hymn Journal for Holy Week. I love hearing from readers because it makes me think carefully about what I am saying; it also helps me see what’s on the hearts and minds of people I am trying to serve.
The phrase in question came in a devotion on 1 Corinthians 15, where I said, in part: “His [Jesus’] work isn’t fully finished. His victory is not yet completely complete.” My reader put those words next to John 19:30 and Jesus’ cry, “It is finished!” and expressed some concern.
And I think I see where she is coming from. If I thought someone were taking away from the completeness of Jesus’ work on the cross—or if I thought someone were talking about the cross in a way that left something for me to do to be saved, or that diminished the power and comfort of the words, “It is finished,” I’m sure I would feel the need to speak up as well.
In the context of John 19:30, I would never say Jesus’ work isn’t finished. When Jesus says on the cross, “It is finished!” everything necessary for Jesus to suffer is done. Jesus has finished with the role of Suffering Servant. The sacrifice of Jesus and work of forgiveness won by his blood stands forever in a permanent, completed state: you don’t need to (and, in fact, can’t) add to the fulfilled sacrifice of Jesus. You can be confident you are forgiven and take comfort in the fact that you are saved by grace as a free gift, without adding to Jesus’ work on the cross. The sacrifice is complete.
With that sacrificial lens in mind, the author to the Hebrews can even call the death of Jesus a kind of victory:
He [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Hebrews 2:14-15 (NIV)
If you want to know if the price for your sin has been completely paid, or if the debt you owe to God has been completely done away with, or if your sins are completely forgiven, then turn to John 19:30 and trust Jesus when he says, “It is finished!”
The story isn’t over, however, when they put Jesus in the tomb. The sacrifice is complete, and Jesus is still active. Of course, Jesus is going to rise again on the Third Day. The resurrection was not yet complete in John 19:30; but the “IT” in “It is finished” has to do with suffering and sacrifice in a way that the resurrection does not. So in John 19:30, Jesus’ suffering and sacrificial death are complete; in John 20, Jesus rises from the dead. The work of the cross is finished; and Jesus is still at work, for us.
The Bible has more than one faithful way of talking about the work of Jesus for us, and we want to be faithful to the whole of Scripture. The context of Jesus’ words on the cross are important; and we should trust and believe and take comfort in the words, “It is finished.”
We also want to elevate the work of Jesus in his resurrection. In fact, Paul can go so far as to say, if you only believe that Jesus died for you and not that he rose again for you, you don’t actually have the full story:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 17 (ESV)
1 Corinthians 15 would not be the right context to say that everything Jesus did was completed on the cross, because some of the people in Corinth were taking that to mean that Jesus didn’t rise, and the resurrection of the dead is unnecessary. I’m pretty sure Paul believes John 19:30, and yet he can say that the resurrection of Jesus is still important for your salvation. That doesn’t mean that 1 Corinthians 15 is refuting John 19; it just means we want to read any Bible verse in its context.
The Scriptures invite you to take comfort in the fact that the sacrifice of Jesus was complete on the cross and that you don’t have to add to it. The Scriptures also invite you to take comfort in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead for you, and that your victory over death is assured. Finally, the Scriptures invite you to take comfort in the fact that Jesus is coming again for you and the dead will rise, and you also will see that final victory over death with your own resurrection eyes.
That’s the context of my words: “So as long as any human body of someone Jesus loves lies in a grave, Jesus isn’t content. His work isn’t fully finished. His victory is not yet completely complete.” That devotion comes directly after the hymn journal quotes 1 Corinthians 15:24-26:
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he [Jesus] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:24-26 (ESV)
Here, Paul says the final victory is not yet won until the last enemy, death, is destroyed. And from this perspective of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, that ultimate, final, consummate victory doesn’t come at the cross or even at Jesus’ empty tomb, but when death is done away with forever on the Last Day.
Paul is not contradicting Hebrews 2:14-15 that called Jesus’ death a victory over death; nor is the Last Day victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:26) contradicting 1 Corinthians 15:21, where Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus on the Third Day means that the resurrection of the dead has already come to all humanity.
- The death of Jesus on the cross defeated death.
- The resurrection of Jesus on the Third Day defeated death.
- And death is the last enemy to be destroyed on the Last Day, when Jesus returns in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
In other words, Good Friday defeats death; the Third Day defeats death; and the Last Day defeats death once and for all. That’s the ancient creed of the Church: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
The faithful woman who asked about my statement that Jesus’ work isn’t fully finished was reading John 19:30 and was concerned about comfort and confidence. I am, too. If you are suffering from a guilty conscience and you want to know if you can possibly do enough to be worthy of forgiveness, I want you to be confident that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is complete: you don’t have to add anything to it. You can’t add to what Jesus did. Jesus is finished with his work. You are forgiven. You are free.
If you are grieving, if you or someone you know has received a terminal diagnosis, if you are standing at the graveside of someone you love, I want you to be confident in the fact that Jesus is not yet done working. Take comfort in the fact that death isn’t the final word. Jesus loves your body. Jesus died for your body. Your body is going to rise. And Jesus will not stop his work until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed once and for all.
These two things are both true: (1) it is good news that the work of Jesus is finished, and I am forgiven; and (2) it is good news that Jesus is not done working, and death will not be allowed to stand.
If I understood my concerned reader correctly, I think she was trying to say (1); if so, I agree with her. In my devotion, I was trying to say (2). I think Paul agrees with me. I hope you can see how (1) and (2) are not contradictory views: both are true words of comfort for different contexts.
Don’t tell a repentant sinner that the work of Jesus isn’t finished. And don’t tell a grieving widow that Jesus is done working, and there is nothing left for her.
I believe that the sacrifice of Jesus stands completed, once for all; and I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Both bring me immense comfort.