Good Friday Meditation: What Does Christ Mean When He Says, “It Is Finished”?

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. —John 19:30 (NIV)

In this scripture from the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus’ final words on the cross: “It is finished.”

What does Jesus mean when he says, “It is finished”?

We could give an easy answer to that question and say that what is finished is Jesus’ mission to save us from our sins.

That would be a true statement. But it would not be a very deep one. It does not capture the full meaning of what is revealed in the Gospel of John and in the scriptures overall. And it does not capture the full meaning of what the early church fathers shared about Jesus’ crucifixion.

To understand Jesus’ final words on the cross, it will be helpful for us to go back to the very first words of the Gospel of John. The very first words of that Gospel say: “In the beginning…” That should remind us of the very first words of the Bible. By starting his Gospel this way, John gives us a clue that the work Jesus finishes on the Cross begins all the way back in Genesis, at the very beginning of creation—even before Adam and Eve had fallen into sin.

Throughout the whole Gospel of John, John gives us other clues, or signs, about the work that Jesus is finishing on the cross. In John 5:17, Jesus says, “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I too am working.” That means that what Jesus finishes on the cross is a project on which the Father and the Son have always been working together, from the beginning of creation all the way through Jesus’ crucifixion. That means it must be even bigger than Jesus’ mission to save us from our sins.

In John 19:5 we receive perhaps the biggest clue of all about this eternal “work project” of the Father and the Son. After Pilate has Jesus beaten, after the soldiers mock Jesus and hail him as king of the Jews, Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd. Then Pilate says:

“Behold the man!”

There is a contemporary theologian named John Behr. He focuses on the writings of the early church fathers, which, unfortunately, don’t get read much these days.[1] Behr points out that the Greek word that Pilate uses for “man” is Anthropos. The word doesn’t just mean “man,” like “Here is a male person.” It means “human being.” Pilate is saying, “Behold the human being.”

That word is the same word that is used in Genesis 1:26-27 in the Greek Old Testament, when God creates human beings. It says:

Then God said, “Let Us make man [Anthropos] in Our image, according to Our likeness… God created man [Anthropos] in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Pilate uses the title “King of the Jews” when he talks to Jesus. But in the Gospel of John, Pilate gives Jesus an even higher title: Anthropos. And Pilate doesn’t even realize the importance of what he is saying! But through this title, we can come to understand what Jesus means when on the cross he says, “It is finished.”

What is finished? The creation of the world.

The great church father Athanasius said that the creation of the world was not actually completed until Good Friday afternoon. That’s because it was on Good Friday that the first human being was revealed to the world.[2] Jesus was that human being. In other words, from the sixth day of creation until Jesus’ death on the cross, God was bringing the human being into existence. The crucifixion is the completion of creation.

We usually think of creation as ending in Genesis chapter 2. And we usually think of Adam, not Jesus, as the first human being. But as John Behr notes, the early church fathers call us to read Genesis more carefully. When God creates the world, God creates everything through his speaking. He says things like, Let there be light! And there was light! And God says it is good!

God creates everything this way—except for human beings. When God creates human beings, God does not say, “Let there be human beings! And there were human beings! And it was good.” Instead, God says, “Let us make human beings.” Human beings are not just spoken into being. That is because human beings have a special role in creation and a special relationship to God. Making human beings is an ongoing project for God, not a one-time event.

After God creates Adam, God does not say, “It is good.” There is something about Adam’s creation which is still an unfinished project. Instead of saying, “It is good,” God says, farm the garden. Take care of it. “But don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die.” And then God puts Adam to sleep and draws Eve from Adam’s side.

So Adam is in the garden. Eve is in the garden. The tree of life is in the garden. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is in the garden.

And the serpent is in the garden.

Many of the early church fathers teach that we should not think that Adam and Eve lived a long and happy and obedient life in the garden before they sinned. The Bible does not show that. Instead, as Thomas Hopko said, “The first act of humanity is to commit suicide, by breaking communion with God.”[3]

The first thing that Adam and Eve do after they are both present is to eat of the tree God had forbidden. The serpent tempts them to hear God’s commandments as death—death to their needs, interests, desires, and goals.

We might think of this act as simply a sin that needs forgiveness. But that is a very small understanding of sin. God’s commandments are his communion with us. As Jesus says in John 6:63, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” He says in John 8:51, “Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.” So, to break the commandments of God is to break communion with God, and to break communion with God is to die. That is why Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin.”

So, sin is not just disobedience that needs to be forgiven. It is a cutting off of the source of life. It is exchanging life for death.

But the worst part is, we children of Adam cannot tell the difference. We are born dead but do not even notice. God says that life is to live according to his commandments, and death is to live outside of his commandments. But for the children of Adam, life is to live according to only our own desires, to be our own masters. Death is to live according to the commandments of others, even God. What God calls death is what we children of Adam call freedom., and what God calls freedom is what we children of Adam call death.

So, we like to say that we are created in the image of God, and that we sinned and need to be forgiven and restored. But in fact we are not created in the image of God. We have not read the Bible carefully enough. Thomas Hopko directs our attention to Genesis 5. There in verses 1 and 2 it says:

On the day God created humanity, he made them to resemble God and created them male and female.

That sounds good. But then in verse 3 it says:

When Adam was 130 years old, he became the father of a son in his image, resembling him, and named him Seth.

We, the children of Adam, are not created in the image of God. We are created in the image of Adam.

This means that we aren’t human beings who sinned and who need to be restored. We children of Adam are not yet human beings at all! Human beings are creatures who bear the image of God. But the children of Adam bear the image of fallen Adam, not God. We are under the dominion of Adam, who is under the dominion of Satan.

This means our situation is far worse than we could have imagined! As Jesus says in John 8, we are “children of [our] father the devil.” The great church father Augustine said that the children of Adam are simply one giant “mass of sin”.[4] As Jesus says in John 8, we want to carry out the desires of our father the devil. In the words of church father Nikolas Cabasilas, we are “so corrupt that [we do not] even desire to free [ourselves] from the tyranny of sin.”[5] Cabasilas says what made the saints of the Old Testament different from the rest of the children of Adam was that the children of Adam “felt comfortable and happy with their sinfulness,” but the Old Testament saints “were sighing and desired to see the destruction of their bondage to sin.”[6]

For children of Adam, to create our own lives and identities and rules does not feel like tyranny to us; it feels like freedom. That is why the Bible can describe sin as being “in Adam.” Sin is not just a breaking of the law that needs forgiveness. It is a complete and total descent into death.

And because of that, said Athanasius, we are quite literally nothing. That is because, says Athanasius, “If you choose yourself, you are choosing nothing.” Cabasilas says we are “non-existent”. We are “darkness.”[7]

We sometimes wrongly think that Christ dies for us because we are valuable. But that is incorrect. We are valuable because Christ dies for us. The highest status we have as children of Adam is not that we have some value in ourselves. We do not. We are nothing—a mass of sin, reveling in sin, desiring only sin. Our highest status as children of Adam is not that we were created in the image of God but fell. Our highest status is that we are at least enemies of God, and God loves his enemies. That’s what Romans 5:10 says: It is because we are enemies of God that we are saved.

So, we need more than forgiveness from God. We need existence! We need to become human! We need the image of God imprinted on us at last!

Who bears the image of God? Only Jesus.

That’s what Paul writes in Colossians 1:15. He says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” He adds in that same verse that Christ, not Adam, is “the firstborn over all creation.” Christ is the only one who can say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” which is what he says in John 14:9.

Whereas we children of Adam identify themselves completely with our needs, desires, and goals, Jesus identifies himself completely with God’s commands. Jesus is the one who says, “Look, I have come to do Your will’” (in Hebrews 10:9). He is the one who knows that God’s commands are not restrictions on freedom but communion and life. “My food,” said Jesus (in John 4:34), “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

And what is that work?

It is the work of completing creation through the revealing of the first human being—the one created in the image of God.

Shortly before the crucifixion, we see man back in the garden again. In this case, it is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, rather than Adam in the Garden of Eden. But the test is the same. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is set before him, along with the tree of life. Like Adam, Jesus can reject God’s commandment and take what has been forbidden him—his freedom. Or he can partake of the tree of life.

But what is the tree of life?

According to Augustine, the tree of life is the cross.[8] With that knowledge, we can understand why Adam and Eve did not want that tree. To partake of that tree meant to willingly die to everything in this world. It meant to take care of the garden by pouring out one’s own body and blood on that tree, as “an act of self-giving love and mercy,” in the words of one commentator.[9] It meant giving up the life you can see and holding on only to the command of God. Adam and Eve looked at that tree and said no. Jesus looked at that tree and said yes.

You may say, “But Adam and Eve didn’t need to partake of the tree of life because there was not yet sin.” But laying down one’s life is not just God’s response to sin. It is God’s essential character. And because human beings were created to bear the image of God, then laying down one’s life is also the essential character of what it means to be a human being.

So Jesus partook of the tree of life by hanging on it. His body and blood—the Lord’s Supper—is the fruit of that tree. Revelation 22:1-2 says that fruit is what brings healing to the nations.

That is why creation was completed on Good Friday afternoon: God’s crowning work, the human being created in the image of God, was revealed that day.  Thomas Hopko says it like this:

Jesus is the real Adam, because He is the One who really obeys God. [He is] the man who was literally, totally, and completely dedicated to God, His Father. His word was the word of the Father, His will was the will of the Father, His work was the work of the Father, everything He did was the Father, and when you saw Him you saw the Father.[10]

That’s not just what it means to be God. It’s what it means to be a human being. Cabasilas says that on the cross, Jesus “manifests the true nature of the human person…restored to its original beauty.”[11]

That is why Pilate says, “Behold the man!”

That is the eternal work that Father and Son bring to completion on Good Friday.

That is why Jesus’ last words on the cross are, “It is finished.”

After Jesus partook of that tree, he laid down in death, and his perfect companion was drawn out from his side. Genesis 3:20 says, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” But the great church father Tertullian tells us that this companion who was drawn from the side of Christ is the church, and she is the true “mother of all the living”.[12]

How can one be born of that mother? That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

But first, we most pause in a moment of worship, for the completed work of the Lord of creation. As he is laid in the tomb, it is at this moment the words of Genesis 2 are fulfilled:

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.

 

[1] Let me recommend especially Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (2006; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) for a book-length theological and historical treatment on several of the themes noted here. As Behr explains in the book, the ideas are blessedly un-original with him and represent the early church theological “streams” that came together at Nicea.

[2] Hopko, T. 2012. “The Death of Christ and our Death in Him Parts 3 and 4,” YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTYHnMWcbg.

[3] Hopko, T. 2012.

[4] J. Behr. 2006. The Mystery of Christ. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. pp. 84-85.

[5] D. Bathrellos. n.d. “Understanding of Christian life by St. Nicholas Cabasilas and its contemporary significance.” Bogoslav. http://www.bogoslov.ru/en/text/1243132.html.

[6] D. Bathrellos. n.d.

[7] D Bathrellos. n.d.

[8] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, VIII, 4, 8 (On Genesis, New City Press, pp. 351-353).

[9] Castruccio of Lucca. 2016. “Jesus said: ’It is finished’, what does that mean?” Christianity. https://www.reddit.com/r/Christianity/comments/3v3h6y/jesus_saidit_is_finished_what_does_that_mean/.

[10] Hopko, T. 1999. “Life after death… Mysteries beyond the grave.” Orthodox Christian Info. http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/afterdeath.htm.

[11] V.M. 2012. “St. Nicholas Cabasilas and the Life in Christ.” Mode of Life. http://modeoflife.org/st-nicholas-cabasilas-and-the-life-in-christ/.

[12] J. Behr. 2006. The Mystery of Christ. p. 125.

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What Is Living Water and How Can I Get Some (Er, Him)?

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John 4:7-26

What is the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman in this passage?

Sometimes when we are reading a book, if we come to a new vocabulary word in the book, we will either look back through the pages we have already read to find the definition, or we expect the author to tell us right away.

But the Bible—especially the Gospel of John—doesn’t work that way at all.

In the case of “living water”, for example, Jesus first mentions the term in John 4. But he takes his time in telling us what he means. In fact, the definition of the term only appears several chapters later, in John 7, long after the Samaritan women has left the well and Jesus and his disciples have left Samaria. Long after everyone else has forgotten about living water (including many readers of the Gospel of John), Jesus is in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. He suddenly stands up and cries to the crowd, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

John adds—finally–“Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water, unbeknownst to her, he is actually offering her the Holy Spirit.

Now that John has finally given us the definition of living water, we are left with a new mystery: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does he do?

The Nicene Creed tells us that the Holy Spirit is, with the Father and the Son, worshiped and glorified. The Creed also says he is the Lord and the giver of life. It says, further, that he has spoken through the prophets. That means that the Holy Spirit is a person and not a force, and that is exactly how Scripture presents him. We learn in Genesis 1:2 that the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at the creation of the world.  At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit is again hovering over the waters as he descends upon the newly baptized Jesus.

As Christians, we believe in one God that is three persons, not three separate gods or one God appearing in three modes. We believe that all three persons within this Trinity are to be worshiped and glorified. The scriptures frequently show all three persons in the Trinity at work jointly.

Scripture also shows us that the persons of the Trinity are united in love. This is reflected in their speech. The Bible opens with the Father, and yet the Father does not only speak about the Father. The Father speaks about the Son, through the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets. Then in the New Testament, when the Son talks, he does not only speak about the Son but also about the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as the Nicene Creed says, proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Father and Son to us, guiding us into all truth.

When in our Bible study method we ask, “What is God’s action in this passage?”, we would reply that Jesus, who is God the Son, (1) talks about the Holy Spirit, who is God, and (2) offers the Holy Spirit to people through the Son’s glorification. Because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, we could say that God (1) talks about God, and (2) joyfully offers God to all.

So what does John 4 specifically command us to do in response? Nothing–yet. We must keep reading further into the gospel of John. Why? Because in John 7 we learn, “the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” We should rightly ask: If Jesus was not yet glorified in John 7, then when was he glorified?

As with the “living water” of John 4 that we only come to understand in John 7, we must keep reading and awaiting God’s revelation, which comes later in John.

While I won’t give you a specific answer—as it is a golden opportunity to practice prayerfully seeking God through the scriptures—I will tell you that Jesus has most certainly been glorified, and in a way that only God could have imagined. Because he has been glorified, he can now offer us the “living water”—the Holy Spirit.

But this raises another question:

Is all of this just religious language, or does it really make any difference?

To understand what it means to receive the Holy Spirit, let’s look at verse 14.

“…But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Never being thirsty again sounds useful, but this examination of verse 14 has given us more questions than answers. And this is intentional. It is part of God’s character. He does not seek to quickly resolve our questions with clear and easy answers. He speaks always to increase our thirst—intellectually, spiritually, relationally. His speech leads us to ask: What is eternal life?

As you might have guessed, God calls us to keep reading, seeking, and thirsting for the answer.

As we keep reading in John—way ahead to John 17:3—we learn that eternal life means something far greater and more grand than living forever. Jesus says, Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. Eternal life, in other words, means being drawn up into the Trinity itself. It means sharing in the knowledge—the love-defining relationship—that is shared between the Father and the Son. That love is so real, so deep, so completely God that the love is a person: The Holy Spirit.

This is why Jesus says in John 4 that a time is coming when people will not worship on mountains or in temples, but in the Spirit.

The Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life. When we are baptized and are born into the Spirit, we receive life—spiritual birth—from the Holy Spirit. Through that life, we are drawn up into the fellowship of the Trinity. It is a fellowship where the Father is always loving the Son and the Son is always loving the Father. Because in baptism we are born into the Spirit, we are located where the Spirit is: proceeding between the Father and the Son.

When we are first born into the world, we have our physical being in God—as Paul says in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” But because we are born as fallen beings into a fallen world due to the sin of our first parents, we are born physically alive but spiritually dead. Our spirits not only cannot fellowship with God, we cannot even understand him. Only through the gift of the Holy Spirit can we have the spiritual life that makes knowledge of God and fellowship with the Trinity possible.

But how do we know if we have the Holy Spirit?

Some say that speaking in tongues is the litmus test: If you can’t speak in tongues, they say, then you do not have the Holy Spirit. However, speaking in tongues is a gift that comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is one of many. We should not confuse gifts given by the Holy Spirit with the gift of the Holy Spirit himself.

Instead, the Bible is very clear that the Holy Spirit is received through baptism. When Christ was baptized, the Holy Spirit came to rest upon him. When we confess Christ as Lord and are baptized into the death of Christ and raised into the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to live in us. More correctly, we come to live in the Spirit, and because we are in the Spirit we can come to know God and live within the personal love that is shared between the Father and the Son. You can’t get that no matter what church building or mountain you go to. You can only get the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, as a result of the Son’s glorification.

So, when and how is the Son glorified?

Ask the Holy Spirit, and keep reading in John!

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Christianity As Putting On and Throwing Off

The Christian life can be defined by what we put on and what we throw off.

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” commands Paul, “and make no provision for the flesh.” And, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” writes the author of Hebrews, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

Putting on and throwing off is not only a spiritual matter, because what is in our spirits and in our minds is exactly what shows up on our bodies. What’s in our spirits and our minds impacts what we wear, what we show to other people about ourselves, what we seek to throw off from ourselves.

40 minutes north of here is the border between North and South Korea. On that border every day, there is a clash between two very different ideas of what you should put on and what you should put off. And it’s easy to hear, because they broadcast to each other over giant loudspeakers.

North Korea calls for people to put off any foreign influence and to put on Kim Il Sung. And North Korea is quite serious about that. It spends 40% of its national budget on all the ways people are to put on Kim Il Sung. There are 40,000 statues of Kim Il Sung. It’s impossible to walk from your home to school or your office without passing by these statues. But you must do more than pass by these statues. North Koreans must wear Kim Il Sung buttons, so that every time you see another human being, you are reminded of Kim Il Sung. You are created in the image of Kim Il Sung.

It’s a bizarre situation, and it affects the people of North Korea deeply. They look different than South Korean people. Not just because of the buttons, but because putting on Kim Il Sung shapes them in every way.

But is it really so different on the south side of the border?

South Korean society also answers the question of what we should throw off and what we should put on. And you can hear the South Korean answer to that question at the border also. Because at the border, what is broadcast into North Korea is KPOP. What is launched by balloon and drone and smuggled into North Korea is Korean dramas. And KPOP and Korean dramas have a very clear answer to the question of what you should throw off and what you should put on. The putting on part is easy: We should put on whatever the stars wear. Whatever clothing, whatever hairstyles, whatever words they use.

But there is also a throwing off. First of all, we are to throw off the clothing, hairstyles, and words that were used in last week’s popular drama, popular KPOP song, because those things are now out of date, out of style. And we also are to throw off all of the other things that are out of date and that don’t make us happy any more. Relationships, even marriages that have lasted 40 years. Now in Korean society we are told to throw these off. We throw off limitations on our morality because they make us unhappy. So we throw off the idea that we should not live together unless we are married. We throw off the idea that we should not have sex until we are married.

Now today there are new things coming to Korean society that we are going to be encouraged to put on and throw off. We are to throw off the limitations that sex should be between men and women and put on the idea that sex should be with whoever makes you happy. Put on whatever makes you happy, and put off whatever makes you sad. And then next week, when you are taught through Korean dramas and KPOP to be happy about something different and sad about something different, then throw off everything from last week and put on everything from this week.

It turns out that what happens on the north side of the border and what happens on the south side of the border are both problematic. In fact, they share a common root. The common root is that we are to throw off the glorious image of God in which we are created, and put on the tattered uniform of the human imagination, whatever it dreams up and idolizes that week.

And that is why, in truth, God is not welcome on either side of the border. On either side of the border he is thrown off, and you are urged to put something else on.

As Christians living in South Korea, we should not pretend that South Korean culture does not affect us. Of course it does. It affects us deeply. If you look at Christians, we look no different than others in South Korea. If you listen to us, we sound the same as others in South Korea. We are putting on what South Korean culture encourages us to put on, and throwing off what South Korean culture encourages us to throw off.

And very soon we will see the church struggle in South Korea. Because South Korean culture moves further and further away from any kind of biblical root. South Koreans are being urged to put on more and more things that are hostile to God and throw off more and more things that reflect his image. The South Korean church is both asleep and silent as more and more of these things slip into the church. And soon the South Korean church will have to face to question of homosexuality as a lifestyle and gay marriage as an acceptable form of marriage. The churches in America and Europe had put on so much of their culture and thrown off so much of God’s that when homosexuality and gay marriage came, they meekly put those on, too.

What about you?

What are you throwing off, and what are you putting on? Whose directions are you following in making that decision? If you think you can put on both the things of Christ and the things of popular Korean culture, you are lying to yourself. You know that when you get up in the morning you can only put on one outfit. What some of us do is to put on the things of Korean culture six days a week and then put them off one day a week so that we can put on Christ when we come to church.

But the thing that we must remember about putting on and throwing off is that the Bible teaches us that putting on anything other than Christ will ultimately make us miserable. It may make us happy in the short term, but that will never last. And we certainly see that in Korea. Worldwide surveys say that this is one of the least happy countries in the world to live in. Because we are always dissatisfied with what we have put on, so we throw it off and put something else on, and it doesn’t make us any happier.

But to put on Christ will bring you permanent joy. Yes, it will make you look and sound different in South Korean society. You will look and sound more out of place here than a North Korean would. But that is what you are called to do: Not to put on KPOP stars and Korean drama actors and actresses, but to put on Christ. It is a costly thing to put on. It will cost you more than designer clothing. Those who bear that image north of the border, it costs them their life. But the time is soon coming when those who put on Christ south of the border will suffer serious consequences for that, too.

Are you ready?

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