When we think of the cross, we are not immediately to think of a pretty symbol. I think that’s a great danger: to think of it as a glamorized or bejeweled symbol that might adorn a person’s neck or home. Rather, we are to associate it in our mind with torture, with unrelieved thirst, with ridicule and, of course, with blood—much blood. It was never a “pretty” thing. Note how the Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion:
It is the most cruel and shameful of all punishments. Let it never come near the body of a Roman citizen. Indeed, let it never come near his thoughts or eyes or ears or the very word pass from his lips.
To the statesman and philosopher Cicero, talking about crucifixion was rather like mentioning the gas chambers in Germany in the postwar 1950s. It just wasn’t done. This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica in its latest edition describes crucifixion, and I think you’ll agree that even the scholarly detachment of this learned volume can’t conceal the barbarous cruelty that characterized this method of execution:
In the penal systems of the ancient world, it was an important method of capital punishment, particularly among Persians, Seleucids, Jews, Carthaginians and Romans. Usually the condemned man, after being whipped, dragged the crossbeam to the place of punishment where the upright shaft was already fixed in the ground. There he was stripped of his clothing and bound fast with outstretched arms to the crossbeam, or nailed firmly to it through the wrists. The crossbeam was then raised high against the upright shaft and made fast to it about nine to twelve feet above the ground. Next, the feet were tightly bound or nailed to the upright shaft. A ledge, inserted about halfway up the upright shaft, gave some support to the body. Evidence for a similar ledge for the feet is rare. Over the criminal’s head was placed a notice stating his name and crime. Death apparently caused by exhaustion or heart failure could be hastened by battering the legs with an iron club, but the medical reasons for death are not fully understood. It was thought to be a suitable punishment chiefly for political or religious agitators, pirates, slaves, or those who had no civil rights.
There is, of course, another word derived from the Latin word crux (cross): excruciating. Has a more terrible way to die ever been devised by man’s cruel imagination? Yet the early Christians not only admitted that their founder Jesus had died in this contemptible manner; they also boasted about it. The apostle Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, this was the heart of what Paul saw as the Christian message.
How ridiculous that must have seemed—not only to Nero but to the average person in the street in those early days—is rather poignantly illustrated by a little drawing that archaeologists discovered while excavating the Palatine hill in Rome some years ago. Found in the former living quarters of page boys who served the imperial court, the picture depicts in rather crude and amateurish style a youth raising his hand in salute to a figure hanging on a cross. This figure on the cross bears an ass’s head, and underneath in rather poor lettering is scrawled the inscription: “Alexamenos worships his god.” It’s clearly a sarcastic jibe directed at one of the young imperial servants who had become a Christian. This crude picture is the earliest crucifix discovered so far; it is not an object of veneration but a cartoon of contempt. The very idea of a crucified god was a joke in the first century—and a sick and infantile joke at that. Nobody in Jesus’ day would have dreamed of wearing a cross around their neck as a symbol of piety or making the sign of it on their babies as they were baptized. It would have been considered in the worst possible taste.
Yet the early Christians boasted in this symbol. To me, this was not an embarrassing postscript to the life of their religious hero. No, it was the very pivot of their message. They cried, “We preach Christ crucified!” So for them this universal symbol of loathing, this taboo, was somehow transformed into a badge of honor, which in time would shape Christian architecture, inspire Christian hymns, and most of all fire Christian preaching. How can that be? What on earth was achieved at the cross? Why did Jesus submit to such an awful form of death?
It’s clear if you read through the Gospels, particularly John’s Gospel. Here we see that Jesus could have gone another way. He didn’t have to go up to Jerusalem. Although he knew that those who sought his death were waiting for him, he deliberately went there. He didn’t have to tolerate Judas Iscariot in his inner circle of disciples; he knew from the earliest days that this man was a traitor, yet he deliberately kept Judas in his confidence. He didn’t have to expose himself to the risk of easy capture. He knew his enemies would try to arrest him after dark in a secluded place, separated from the crowds who followed him. But he went to the Garden of Gethsemane, having already informed Judas where he was going, and he did all this when it was dark and there were no crowds around him. He didn’t have to remain silent before Pilate. The Gospels make it clear that he could have spoken in his own defense and that Pilate would have been willing to hear him, for Pilate seemed to have real sympathy for him. But Jesus didn’t say a word. So why did he do all this? He who raised others from the dead surrendered himself to death and made no attempt to escape it.
And what a painful, agonizing death he chose. Plainly, he planned it. Definitely, he planned it. In fact, Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Nobody takes my life from me. I give it up of my own free will.” In fact, on a number of occasions, his disciples tried to dissuade him. They could see that he was set in some way upon dying, because he said to them, “I’m going to Jerusalem, and there I must suffer many things and the authorities will kill me.” He made that promise, and then he resolutely set out toward Jerusalem. When Peter, the most impetuous of the disciples, heard him, he insisted that it must not be so. Do you know what Jesus said to him? “Get behind me, Satan! You’re an obstacle in my way.” Jesus was clearly under some inner compulsion to die.
To understand his death, I want to focus on three words here from John 19:30, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” It is finished. Those are the three words, though in the Greek, it’s only one word: tetelestai.
In our day, we like to talk about famous last words. Nineteenth-century British prime minister William Gladstone’s last words supposedly were “I feel a lot better.” The young duke of Wellington, when he was told he was on the verge of death, said, “Die? That’s the last thing I’m going to do.” (He did.) And Oscar Wilde is reported to have said as he lay dying in a Parisian hotel room, “That wallpaper is killing me. One of us will have to go.” For us, however, Jesus’ famous last words were “It is finished!” But this is not a last desperate self-pitying cry of surrender. He doesn’t cry out, “I am finished!” No, he says, “It is finished!”
In excavated ancient marketplaces, archaeologists have found this word stamped across bills that have been paid: tetelestai, contract complete, done. It’s the word a builder might shout when he places the last brick on a building: tetelestai! It’s the word a painter might shout after the last brushstroke, maybe after years of work: tetelestai! It’s the word a general would shout as the last bit of enemy resistance is routed: tetelestai! It is finished!
Here’s the key: This is not a cry of defeat; it is not a confession of failure; it is a statement of completion, of satisfaction; indeed, it’s a statement of triumph. By using this word, tetelestai, Jesus is saying, Yes, my life does have a plan. I came into the world with a mission to fulfill and it’s done. This death of mine, far from being the thwarting of that plan, is actually its climax. Jesus shows us time and again that the Scriptures have been fulfilled and that he is in absolute control.
In this passage, we see that everything happens to Jesus according to plan. Although people think they’re attacking him, he’s actually in control. But if he’s in control, what can he possibly achieve at the cross? We find our answer in John 19:31: “Now, it was the day of preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.” This was Passover week in Jerusalem, a special Jewish holiday, and that night every Jewish family remembered the days of Moses when the people of God, along with the Egyptians among whom they lived, were going to be judged in the most terrifying way. The firstborn child in every family would die that night. God had said so.
Let’s stop and ponder that for a moment. My brother’s firstborn is Dalton, who is seven. My sister’s firstborn, Robby, is five. Had we been in that moment in time, both would be dead by morning. The pain is inconceivable. Our family would never recover if we lost those two little ones. They’re the heartbeat of the family. Likewise, it was a terrible judgment for the Israelites and the Egyptians. But it shows us how seriously God takes sin.
There was, however, a way out. God made provision for the people of Israel so they could escape this terrible judgment. They were to take a lamb—a perfect, unblemished young lamb—and we’re told in the book of Exodus that they were to slaughter it without breaking a bone of its body. Then they were to pour out some of that young lamb’s blood and paint it on their doorposts. After that, as a family, they were to eat the lamb with, among other things, the herb hyssop. In this passage in Exodus, God says, “When I see the blood on the doorposts, when I see the blood, then I will pass over you, and no angel of judgment and death will visit you” (Exod. 12:13).
So what happened that next morning? In every Egyptian home, the firstborn son was dead. In every Israelite home, the firstborn son was alive. This Passover event was then pressed into each Jewish mind for years to come when a lamb had taken the place of a firstborn son. That lamb was slaughtered without a bone broken, had lost its blood as paint on the doorposts, and finally was cooked with hyssop—that lamb had replaced a son. I wonder if you can hear the resonance from Exodus now as I read from verses 28–34.
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I’m thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Now, it was the day of preparation and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
So when John sees the blood of the Lord Jesus running down the cross, what does he think of? He thinks of that doorpost on the night of the first Passover. He remembers this as he tells us that just as the lamb took the place of the Israelite firstborn, so on the cross Jesus—the Lamb of God—is punished in my place. He is slaughtered for me as my substitute.
But why does he have to die like this on the cross? It’s gruesome. Because we owe a moral debt to God (which the Bible calls “sin”) that we could never pay off. We know it’s there, because our conscience senses that debt and makes us feel bad about it. It makes us feel guilty.
Let me ask you: What would it be like never ever to have lied? Never to have drawn anyone else into a deceit from which we benefitted in the short term? What would it be like never to have nurtured bitterness or hatred? What would it be like never to have gossiped, not even once? What would it be like never to have entered into a conversation where the whole purpose was to promote ourselves before others? By contrast, what would it be like to have done always what the Bible commands? To have loved God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves—what would that be like? Instead, we hurt the people we love most.
There is something desperately wrong here. But we don’t just hurt people on this level; we do it to God as well. We push God away—the one whom we know gives us each breath; we push him away and insist that he be a footnote in our lives and we the main character. Although we can never pay off this moral debt, the Bible promises us that there will be a day when we will have to give an account. I don’t say that easily, because many of those I love most ignore this fact. In Hebrews 4:13, we read words that are chilling and make us tremble: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”
But at the cross, Jesus, the Lamb of God, cried tetelestai, “It is finished!” It’s paid. His death has fully discharged our moral debt. We’ve been rescued. This is where Christians rest their souls. There is nothing to condemn us on that Day of Judgment if we trust in this cry. When God asks us, “Why should I let you into my heaven?,” the Christian simply replies, “Because your Son once cried out in agony on the cross, ‘It is finished’; and he, the sacrificial lamb, died in my place.”
Whenever I meet Christians who are resentful about the Christian life—they’re not serving and things are going wrong—I know they have forgotten this phrase: “It is finished.” Incredible joy and gratitude should define the Christian life. That’s what I want you to remember here: the relief and the joy of “It is finished.”
In verse 30 (“with that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit”), the Greek word for bow is not the image of a head collapsing onto the chest; it’s the word for laying your head on a pillow. With Jesus here, we’re not watching him collapse; we’re watching the peace that comes after victory. “It is finished.” He’s done it. He’s laid his life down for us. And now there is peace for him and for us. That’s why the Christian faith is all about gratitude.
I’m sad when I meet people for whom duty is the only reason they do anything “Christian.” I want to say, “Look, have you understood that ‘it is finished’? Do you grasp the wonder of those words? The debt has been canceled, the bankruptcy judge satisfied, the moral mortgage paid. Are you living in the relief and the joy of all this?”
In this Gospel account at the cross, I feel that the most tragic group is the soldiers, the execution squad. In verses 23–24, John swings the camera lens round and looks at them:
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, and the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”
We look at these men who think that this is Jesus’ only legacy—that all he leaves behind are his shoes, turban, girdle, tunic, and outer robe. They are absorbed here at the cross with these trivialities, which will be of no importance to them on the Day of Judgment. I guess they would say, “Well, we’re just doing our job.” But they miss what is really important here and they don’t even look up. They don’t know what’s going on. They are obsessed with the materialism of that moment. They’re a tragic group.
But John warns us. He says, “Look, please don’t be like the soldiers, ignoring the cross.”
Instead, be like the four women in verse 25, the brave women who stayed close to Jesus. Let’s look at them if we can: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene.” And what did those women do? They had their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.
My great longing is that you would do that in the weeks and months ahead. Maybe you’re grappling with all of this. If so, then like John, I say to you: Please don’t miss out on the real legacy of the cross, as the soldiers did. Please don’t do that. I invite you to investigate this great figure, and most of all, I encourage you to build your life on gratitude.
Grateful people are happy people. If you want to know the heart of gratitude as a human being, then understand this phrase: “It is finished!” This means two things. First, there are no masks, because Jesus knows all about our sins; and since there are no masks, we can come to him honestly. Second, he is for us. Though he knows all our wrongdoing, yet he still loved us enough to die for us. In a world that is often confusing, we can bathe in the oasis of that love.
Rico Tice is senior minister of evangelism at All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, which he joined in 1994 during the later years of John Stott’s ministry. His main role is to help the hundreds of enquirers about the Christian faith who come through the doors of the church each year. He has also developed the Christianity Explored course, which introduces people to Jesus through studying the Gospel of Mark. This article appeared in MODERN REFORMATION MAGAZINE.