Preachers of the gospel sometimes refer to “the finished work of Christ.” People who are unfamiliar with the Christian message may wonder what exactly is meant by this expression. It is possible to fall into the trap of using jargon in preaching, assuming that others will understand the things we easily take for granted. Where did this expression originate? The key to unlocking the meaning of this expression is found in John 19:30. After experiencing six hours of agony upon the cross – the last three hours being spent in total darkness – Jesus uttered a loud cry before dismissing His spirit. Most English Bible translations render His exclamation as a phrase: “It is finished.” In the Greek text, however, only one word is used – tetelestai, meaning “paid in full.” This particular word has an interesting background. It was written on Roman tax receipts when a bill had been paid. The expression uttered by Christ was one of triumph, for Luke 23:46 tells us that He “cried with a loud voice.” Listeners standing near the cross would have understood something from the everyday use of that expression that we may not appreciate today. What did Jesus mean? What had been paid in full?
Finished In The New Testament
Work is not always finished. Many ambitious projects are commenced enthusiastically and then for one reason or another abandoned. During His earthly ministry Jesus spoke of a man who started a building project and was not able to finish it (Lk. 14:28-30). How he would be ridiculed for starting something he could not complete! Human history is littered with such failures.
The opening verses of the Bible, by contrast, describe a work that was finished. We are told clearly in Genesis 2:1-2 that “the heavens and the earth were finished” and that “God ended His work which He had made; and He rested.” (These words do not allow much room for the theory of evolution!)
In John 19:30 another work was finished, and Jesus in one sense rested – for we are told that “He bowed His head” after uttering His loud triumphant cry. People often picture a scarred and disfigured head dropping forward as if weary, but the expression used suggests otherwise. ActualIy Jesus reclined His head, deliberately placing it in a position of rest, as on a pillow, with His face looking upward. Like the work of creation, another great work had been finished, and the One who had completed it could rest. What was this work?
Unfinished In The Old Testament
The Book of Hebrews presents a contrast. The priests of the Old Testament were constantly busy in their work, and hardly able to rest. They are pictured as standing, not sitting, and “offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11 NKJV). They adhered to strict regulations in the daily routine of offering sacrifices upon the altar at the tabernacle or in the temple at Jerusalem. The annual Day of Atonement, in particular, served as a reminder of sins because the blood of bulls and goats could never deal with the root problem. Sin required sacrifice, and although animal sacrifices were made, a “consciousness of sins” remained, and worshipers were not made completely what God wanted them to be (Heb. 10:1-4).
God had all the time been planning something far better. The sacrificial system practiced before Christ’s death served as an illustration of an eternal truth that God was waiting to reveal. Those animal sacrifices did not really bring Him pleasure, but something else did. In obedience to that eternal plan, Christ willingly came into the world and offered Himself as the ultimate and final sacrifice for sin upon the cross at Calvary (Heb. 10:5-10). Unlike the work of those priests of old, His sacrificial work has been finished. “One sacrifice for sins forever” has been offered, and following that finished work He “sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12). The work He finished never needs repeating.
This emphatic message of the Epistle to the Hebrews throws light upon the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament by showing how it has all been fulfilled and abolished in Christ. In his hymn which begins with the words “Hark! the voice of love and mercy sounds aloud from Calvary,” Jonathan Evans (1748-1809) summarized the truth so well with these words:
|“Finished all the types and shadows
Of the ceremonial law,
Finished what our God had promised;
Death and hell no more shall awe.
‘It is finished! It is finished!’
Saints, from hence your comfort draw.”
Christ’s work of atonement at the cross will never be repeated.
The message of Christ’s finished work is one of comfort and assurance. If we were not certain that the work had been finished, how could we be sure of our own salvation? If the Lord Jesus had not completed the work, then we might need to make our own contribution in order to complete it. But how much might we have to do in order to be sure of our salvation? Is there anything we can do? Can we add anything to the work of Christ?
The answer to that question is a simple and straightforward “No!” We can add nothing to that finished work. We need to appreciate the Person who uttered that loud triumphant cry from the cross – the second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word, the Son of the Living God. He alone is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). He needed no sacrifice for His own sins for He was sinless. His work was a “once for all” forever act that, unlike the work of the priests of old, needs no repeating (Heb. 7:27).
When we consider His Person and His work, how could we possibly add to what He has done? Our part is simpIy to accept what He has done and rest upon that finished work. Salvation is not deserved and cannot be earned. It is by God’s grace that we are saved, through faith, and it is “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) in his well-loved hymn “Rock of Ages” wrote the lines:
|“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”
This must be our attitude. We come as needy, guilty sinners, empty-handed to a holy God. Conscious of our sin and unholiness, and aware that we deserve to be cast into hell and separated from God forever, we recognize that Another has taken our place. Christ died under the righteous judgment of God. He gave Himself as the one sacrifice for sinners and “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). We must cling, by faith, to that work, believing that He did it for us.
Remember the expression tetelestai means “paid in full.” Each of us is in debt. We have sinned against God and are guilty. Sin must be dealt with, for God is righteous. The Lord Jesus bore our punishment so that we might have our debt cancelled. Are you trusting Him? Can you say this with Frances Ridley Havergal?
|“I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
Trusting only Thee!
Trusting Thee for full salvation,
Great and free.”
We need no other, for only Jesus can save lost sinners. In Hebrews we read these wonderful words: “Once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). The debt has been paid! How can we, poor finite sinners, add anything to the work of God’s own Son? It is impossible! Our part is simply to accept what He has done, praise and thank Him for it, and then tell others the good news.
Still today this incomparable message is proclaimed: “He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). His redeemed people will praise Him eternally for that perfect and finished work at Calvary, but we can begin the song of heartfelt worship now: “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”
By Martin Girard
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org