“It Is Finished”: The Cross as our Cosmic Axis – Brad Jersak
“Tetelestai,” cried Jesus, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).
God’s redemptive plan, which began its arc in ages past, comes to its telos—its end-goal, its climax, it fulfillment—on the Cross. The “Lamb slaughtered from the foundation of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8), now dying in space-time history under Pontius Pilate, calls out, “It is finished! Accomplished!” Christ knows this by revelation—Abba’s sure response to the cry of dereliction (Matthew 27:46), for God heard and answered him (Hebrews 5:7).
“Tetelestai,” whispered Abba to his beloved Son, “It is finished! Accomplished!”
And thus, the Cross became the axis around which world history and the entire cosmos revolve. All that came before and all that ensues thereafter proceed in joyful revolution (in every sense) around this Word, this event, this Man. Christ is himself the telos of humanity restored.
The “Cross” is much more than the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a New Testament metonym for all that Christ accomplished in his cruciform birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. The Cross as such fills and encompasses the whole cosmos in God’s loving embrace. The timeline of human history is laid out in the span between those two nail-pierced hands and all passes through the Savior’s sacred heart.
Thus, there is chicanery afoot when rather than subsuming all of redemption history into that phrase—“It is finished”—instead, the words are reduced to a narrow (and shallow) slogan that negates all that came before or all that proceeds thereafter. Specifically, some imagine “the finished work” of grace beginning and ending on Good Friday and collapse it into that solitary cry.
Occasionally, factions in the “grace movement” relegate all the works and words of Christ prior to “It is finished” to the Old Covenant. That is, they hold that nothing Christ taught during his earthly ministry, prior to the crucifixion, is meant for believers today, including and especially the Lord’s Prayer.
Others claim that after “It is finished,” virtually any response to the Cross—any active, willing obedience to Christ’s commands (even loving one another?)—impinges on grace as a compromise to “works.” Some even charge that you are not only unable to obey Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—but even attempting to do so is a repudiation of the gospel. On the day I wrote this article, I was even informed that “Pentecost is non-existent” because after all, “It is finished.” Thus, the life of Christ before “It is finished” and the work of the Spirit after “It is finished” are swept away as anti-gospel.
Brothers and sisters, such thinking is a silly novelty. Far from exalting the grace of God fulfilled, it diminishes and impugns it. Let us therefore turn to higher thoughts of a far wider grace.
First, let’s think of the Cross as the “fulfillment” or “accomplishment” of all that came before. The “finished work” did not begin on Good Friday morning, but in the heart of God at the foundation of the cosmos. It proceeded through the plan of God “in the beginning,” when Yahweh says to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The redemption narrative continues through God’s covenants with Abram, Moses and David—that a Seed, a Prophet, an anointed King would come to bless all the nations of the world, deliver those in captivity to death and establish an everlasting kingdom.
All this is “completed” or “fulfilled” on the Cross, but it did not begin there.
Earlier, with the Incarnation of God in the Virgin’s womb, the divine nature assumes and thus renews human nature. The great restoration is ignited by the spark of Jesus Christ’s conception—that nanosecond when the incorruptible logos united himself to corruptible human flesh, thereby healing it. Christ becomes the Second Adam, not on the cross but already in his mother’s belly.
So, too, at the inauguration of his ministry in Luke 4, Christ announces the Jubilee “year of the Lord’s favor”—redemption for every type of captive. He lays the foundation for the New Covenant kingdom when he says, “Today [now, not in 3+ years] this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). This is hardly “Old Covenant,” but rather, the unveiling and unfolding of the New Earth Isaiah foresaw in Isaiah 61.
From his heavenly throne to the Virgin’s womb, from his birth to the cross, from the tomb back to his Father’s right hand—the whole narrative matters and is gathered in that decisive word, tetelestai—it is “accomplished.”
Thus, in the prayers of the Eastern Church, we “glorify Christ our God” for:
- In the womb, he wholly unites himself to the entire human nature and renews
- In his crucifixion, he releases or redeems human nature from the curse of death.
- And in the resurrection, he raises up “Adam” (humanity) and enlightens “the whole universe”!
This work is indeed “finished” by grace alone, in Christ alone. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul summons us to active participation in the grace of God—a specific, ongoing, willing response. He calls us to “put to death” the old self (headed by Adam) and its works, and put on or “clothe yourselves” with the new self (re-headed by Christ) and his life:
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature . . . 9 . . . since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:5, 9-14).
Note that “clothing ourselves” here is not about our identity in Christ. That’s already been “accomplished” by Christ in his Incarnation. “Clothes” or “robes” in the New Testament are the “good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). The Book of Revelation is explicit: “[The Bride] was given clothing of fine linen, linen bright and pure. For the fine linen she wears is the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8).
Of course, none of these righteous acts are “accomplished” by self-will, but by yielding to “Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). But they are still real and actual “acts,” the “fruit” of God’s indwelling and empowering grace. Nor does this preclude the real struggle often involved in yielding! Self-will is a white-knuckled beast that does not let go readily to unselfish love. Our biggest struggle is that we struggle. “Let go and let God” is much more than a pithy motto—it’s a daily call to surrender to the impulses of “Christ who lives in me.”
So Christ’s work did not technically end with Good Friday’s “It is finished.” “Finished” means both “completes” (redemption from) and “establishes” (redemption for). Or to be faithful to the word telos (the root of tetelestai), it is the fulfillment of the seed that has grown into a mighty tree. Now, that mature tree will fill the earth and bear an abundant harvest of fruit.
The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed (Daniel 4:11-12).
The kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed that a man tossed into his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches” (Luke 13:19).
The Cross—the Tree of Life—having come to its fullness (“It is fulfilled!”) on Calvary now begins to “fulfill” its great, global fruit-bearing work!
What are the acts of Christ after he cries out tetelestai? The planting of the Tree is “accomplished,” but it is hardly “done.”
- He descends into hades and conquers death.
- He rises from the dead on the third day—his resurrection.
- He ascends into heaven and seats himself at the right hand of the Father.
- He pours out his Spirit on all flesh—Pentecost.
- His kingdom expands across the globe: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters coverthe sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
- He comes again (and again!) with glory, until one day, every eye shall see him, and every knee shall bow, and every enemy vanquished, and the kingdom of Christ will be handed over to his Father, and God will be all in all.
With all this ahead, how is it that Christ proclaims, “It is finished”?
Allow me an analogy. For over 20 years, I served in inner healing ministry. It can be a long and painful journey, sometimes lasting many years or even decades. But there is this strong sense that once the “client” sees the light of Christ in their darkness—to behold his face and hear his voice—it’s a “done deal.” We can stop holding our breath and get down to whatever arduous path lies ahead.
After the Cross, there is yet much to be done in the grand narrative of redemption. But at the Cross, something epic occurred and decisively established salvation history as a We can stop holding our breath. Whatever deep and shadowy valleys await, the outcome is “established,” restoration “accomplished,” and redemption “fulfilled.” The Cross settled the matter once and for all.
And so the Cross—the Tree of Life—became the axis of God’s cosmic kingdom.