"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God..."
1 Peter 3:18
The word difficult doesn't even begin to do justice to the last hours of Jesus' pre-resurrection life. First, there was the shocking (to everyone but Jesus) betrayal by one of his closest followers and subsequent abandonment by the rest, highlighted by Peter (not once, not twice, but three times) denying that he even knew who Jesus was. Then, there was a sham of a midnight trial, complete with trumped-up charges, lying witnesses, and physical abuse. Following that, a back-and-forth parade between Pilate and Herod, interspersed with mostly one-sided conversations and punctuated with a beating so severe that those with the misfortune of experiencing the like often didn’t survive long enough to make it to the main event. Jesus did. That forementioned main event involved a method of execution so agonizing that entire words were birthed to describe the pain endured by those unfortunate enough to experience it.
For Jesus, it was a purple robe, a crown of thorns, mockery, spittle, and finally, a winding procession out of town to the place of death, a walk that had to feel both entirely too long and not nearly long enough all at the same time. But eventually, Jesus, His executioners, His conscripted cross-bearer and their audience reached the intended destination, and then the end began in earnest. Matthew’s Gospel almost seems to gloss over the unimaginable horror of the process that would have been required to secure Jesus to the wooden cross, opting simply for “and when they had crucified Him” instead of something adequately descriptive like
“they held Him down against the wooden beam and pounded metal spikes through each of His wrists and His one-on-top-of-the-other feet before He was hoisted to hang on a pole so He could begin the slow, painful process of suffocation.”
That’s what death by crucifixion entailed. Suffocation combined with loss of bodily fluids and multiple organ failure. That’s just a fancy way of saying that for the crucified, every breath became a mini conundrum of sorts, an impossible decision that had to be made over and over again, milliseconds at a time, somewhere in the deep recesses of the brain where logic and the will to live wrestled furiously against one another. Endure the pain of pushing and pulling against the seven-inch spikes in your hands and feet so that your diaphragm can contract or give up and hang there and beg death to take you. If simply breathing was such a monumental struggle, then surely speaking was worse. Yet speak from the cross Jesus did - a total of seven times according to the combined records of the four Gospel accounts.
To His Father, on behalf of those hating and mocking and beating and nailing and killing Him: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing."
To the thief being executed beside Him: "Today, you will be with me in paradise."
To His mother and John, His disciple: "Woman, behold your son...behold, your mother."
To His Father, for the benefit of those standing around and for posterity, a recitation of the opening line of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"
To His executioners: "I thirst."
To His Father: "Into your hands, I commit my spirit."
And finally, to all humanity, all of creation, everyone, everywhere for all of time: "It is finished!"
It is finished. Three words in English, one word in Greek - "tetelestai." That word was the word of an artist proclaiming a painting perfectly complete. It was the word of a judge declaring justice fully served. It was the word of a merchant announcing a debt fully satisfied, of a master pronouncing his servant's work complete. It was the word of a soldier standing victorious with his foot on the neck of his fallen, defeated foe.
When Jesus declared "It is finished," He wasn't just announcing the end of the agony of His suffering or the cessation of His physical life. With His dying breath, Jesus was declaring that the work given to Him by His Father was complete. Payment for the sins of all who would believe had been made in full. Salvation had been delivered, once and for all, to the glory of God the Father and for the rescue and eternal reconciliation of sinful man.
And so, in our rush to celebrate the empty tomb this Sunday, let’s not forget the cross. There, Jesus suffered in agony, paying the debt that we owed so that all who believe might be declared righteous in the sight of the Father through faith. It really was finished over 2,000 years ago on the cross, and I'm so thankful that it was!