When did the ‘Finished Work’ start? Brad Jersak
One of the beautiful catchphrases in the Christian tradition is “the finished work of Christ.” We typically associated the phrase with Christ’s decisive declaration from the Cross, “It is finished!” In this post, I’d like to ask what is finished and when it started.
The words, “It is finished,” in Gospel context are found only in John 19:30. The full verse says, “When Jesus had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
What was finished?
First, the word we usually translate “finished” (Τετέλεσται) is rich in meaning. It could be accurately rendered completed, accomplished or even consummated.
Having received the drink, Christ says, “It is finished.” To know what is finished or consummated, we might think about the drink he receives: a draught of sour wine offered on a sponge on the stalk of hyssop. In Matthew’s account, Christ actually refuses to drink it (Matt. 27:34). But John has him receive it. Why the difference? Here are some hints:
But in John’s Gospel, Christ is crucified on Passover as the Lamb slain for our Exodus from bondage. That’s why in John’s version of the Last Supper, no mention of the Passover meal comes up (in five chapters!). There’s a footwashing, a conversation and a High Priestly prayer, but no wine or bread. For John, Christ receives the wine of the New Covenant on the cross–he IS the Passover meal, broken and bloodied for us.
So, in John, the act of receiving the wine and announcing, “It is finished,” indicates that the establishment of the New Covenant is now complete. The wine of his blood has been spilled and God’s forgiveness for all is secured for all people, for all time. Hence, “the finished work.”
When did it start?
This is where some folks experience confusion on two fronts. (1) Some believe that the New Covenant is established at the Cross. It was not. Rather, the establishment of the New Covenant is completed at the Cross. Not the same thing. (2) Second, others believe that if the establishment of the New Kingdom is completed, all the work is done. Not so. The establishment or foundations of Christ’s kingdom are finished, and now he begins to build. Let’s look at these in turn:
1.The Establishment of the New Covenant is completed on the Cross.
In SOME WAYS, Christ completes his work on Good Friday. But that’s not when he inaugurated the New Covenant. We might say it began in eternity with the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the earth.” Or we might say it began in Mary’s womb on the day God became human. Or we might say it began on the day of Jesus’ birth. Or couldn’t we also identify the beginning with his baptism in the Jordan. Yes, a case could be made for any of these, but Christ makes an explicit claim concerning the establishment of his kingdom in Luke 4, while preaching at a synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
At the very outset of Christ’s preaching ministry, he announces that the kingdom of God has been established to preach, to heal and to free those who need forgiveness, healing
Jesus does not say, “This will happen in three and a half years when I die on a cross at the Place of the Skull.” No! He says, “Today this promise is fulfilled.” He establishes God’s reign at that point (at the very latest) and launches his program, laying the foundations for Abba’s kingdom. In Christ, the kingdom had come, his will done on earth as in heaven.
Then, three Passovers later, Christ announces the completion of what he had inaugurated at the outset of his ministry. What he did in villages and synagogues throughout Galilee and Judea was now accomplished fully, made universal through his death on the Cross.
2. The establishment of Christ’s kingdom were finished, and now he begins to build.
Although Christ cries out, “It is finished,” it’s also pretty clear that he’s only just begun. That is, the foundations of the Kingdom of God now extend across the heavens, earth and even into the grave. It is done and cannot be undone. Said another way, “It’s a DONE DEAL!”
And yet he’s only getting started. Next comes his conquest of death and his glorious resurrection, followed by his ascension and Pentecost. All of this comes after “It is finished.” Indeed, what is finished sets the stage for Easter Sunday morning, when his apostles wake up in a New Heavens and New Earth (at least poetically speaking). The “finished work of Christ” is the beginning of his New Creation and the unfolding of his promise, “Behold, I make all things new!”
To summarize, “the finished work of Christ” started well before Good Friday and continues long after. But that declaration, “It is finished,” establishes the center and apex of Christ’s work. Everything before and everything since points to Christ crucified and risen, such that Paul will say, “I glory in nothing, save the Cross of Jesus Christ” … not only a one-day or one-weekend event but the axis of a new creation and his eternal kingdom!