“Jesus … said, ‘It is finished,’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).
Both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus cried out in a loud voice just before dying. It’s possible that this is the content of that loud cry. This is not Jesus finally succumbing to all of His pain. It’s not what happens when you’re exhausted and you can’t go on and you simply say, “I’m done.” Jesus isn’t wiped out. This is a joyful exclamation, often called the Word of Victory. With this cry, Jesus declares that He has accomplished everything that the Father sent Him to accomplish. It’s done. It’s really done.
The Bible is not an encyclopedia that answers all our questions about how things work. It is not a collection of different opinions on what God is like. Part of what makes the Bible incredible is that it is a narrative, written over hundreds of years by different human authors, yet it all comes together as one seamless story. On the first page, we see that the Bible opens with the words, “In the beginning.” It tells of a terrible tragedy that marred life as we know it for all time. Then it records God’s steady and intentional plan throughout history to restore what had been lost. That story involves individuals and nations, kings and queens, shepherds and swordsmen. There are some really promising moments and some desperately dark times. People act with incredible courage and unbelievable stupidity. The whole story leads up to this moment. This is what Jesus declared when He said with a victorious cry: “It is finished.”
Now we need to go deeper. What happened at the cross? Atonement is what Christ did on the cross. Atonement is why He died. Atonement may sound like a churchy word, but we’re actually quite familiar with it. This past Christmas holiday I ate a lot. So the first few weeks of January, I tried to eat less than normal to reverse some of that. That’s atonement. A few weeks ago, I got a parking ticket for parking longer than four hours in a four-hour parking zone. That meant I had to write the city a check for $53. That’s atonement.
In the New Testament, the cross is described in relational terms, commercial terms, judicial terms, religious terms, and military terms. When you put all of these metaphors together, you get a way of understanding the atonement, but each individual metaphor sheds a different kind of light on what is meant by the atonement.
One of the main Scriptural themes for atonement is a relational theme. The relationship between God and His people was fractured by their rebellion. That relationship needed to be healed. Jesus died on the cross to bring reconciliation between God and His people. Listen to Colossians 1:19–20, “For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.” We live in a world of relationships, so we understand what it’s like to have a broken relationship and we long for reconciliation. That’s what the cross offers.
But we also live in a world of commerce. We buy things, we sell things, and we trade things. All throughout history, something valuable is redeemed by paying the price for it. This is another way the Scripture describes the cross. Listen to Ephesians 1:7–8, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us.” Christ’s death is a price that was paid to purchase us so that we could belong to God.
We also live in a legal world of laws, courts, and judges. We get in trouble if we steal or hurt someone. In legal terms, we are guilty of crimes against God. Here’s Romans 5:1–2, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” The cross of Christ allows us to be justified. It takes away our guilt. Because of what Jesus has done, we can stand innocent, justified of our wrong-doing.
The Bible also uses religious imagery to describe the atonement. Jesus was a Jew, and most people consider following Jesus to be a religion. So His death on the cross is also described in religious terms that Jews and non-Jews would be familiar with. Hebrews 9:14 describes Him as the perfect sacrifice, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Jesus is completely unblemished, and He cleanses us perfectly because He is perfect. He does what no sacrifice before has been able to do: perfectly please God.
One more primary image the New Testament uses is a military image. Jesus’ death is often pictured as a brilliant military victory. Jesus outsmarted Satan and won the final battle. Listen to Colossians 2:14–15, “This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame.” Jesus went into battle with the most brilliant tactic ever employed. He would defeat death by dying Himself. When He died and rose again, He humiliated death and evil and proclaimed victory. The atonement is a triumph over evil.
Rest in Christ’s Atonement
On the cross, Jesus says that atonement is finished. But so many of us are walking around as if that atonement isn’t complete. We want to pay things back ourselves. We want to earn our way back to God. We want to be worthy of His love.
We can’t experience the freedom of forgiveness if we don’t really believe Jesus’ words on the cross. We walk around feeling abandoned, worthless, guilty, sinful, and defeated. But then we see Jesus on the cross and we hear Him proclaim, “It is finished.”
The amazing message of the gospel is that all of these things are available to us. We can be reconciled with God. We can be reconciled with each other. We can be redeemed from our worthlessness and low self-esteem. We can be justified from the guilt that plagues us and the shame that hangs over our head. We can be sure that God is pleased with us because the perfect sacrifice has been offered on our behalf. And we can go out in victory because of what Jesus has done. We don’t have to live defeated lives. We can be free. Through Christ, we have won! Jesus declared “It is finished.” In that moment everything changed. Can you rest in that?
—Paul Taylor, condensed