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. 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. 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.”
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”. 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.” 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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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.
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.”
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”.
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.
 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.
 Hopko, T. 2012. “The Death of Christ and our Death in Him Parts 3 and 4,” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTYHnMWcbg.
 Hopko, T. 2012.
 J. Behr. 2006. The Mystery of Christ. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. pp. 84-85.
 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.
 D. Bathrellos. n.d.
 D Bathrellos. n.d.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, VIII, 4, 8 (On Genesis, New City Press, pp. 351-353).
 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/.
 Hopko, T. 1999. “Life after death… Mysteries beyond the grave.” Orthodox Christian Info. http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/afterdeath.htm.
 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/.
 J. Behr. 2006. The Mystery of Christ. p. 125.