28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Jesus' sixth word on the cross marks the end of his ministerial work on earth. This is the end. Not only that his life on earth is ending, but also that one giant task is done. The greatest task ever in the history of humankind. Jesus was carrying out his duty as the Messiah and the Redeemer of the world. His coming has been proclaimed since the fall of man and continuously proclaimed throughout history through God's prophets. Now the time has come for him to say the conclusion. And his claim was: "It is finished!" or in Greek: “Tetelestai!”
What is finished? And why is his claim important? When we say it is finished, sometimes we mean that our life has faced an unfavorable end. So we say it is finished. I am finished. We are finished. Or sometimes we mean that I am relieved it is finished, I can't bear it anymore. Or sometimes what we mean is after a tremendous work, finally the work is completed. This tetelestai is the latter. It is like an athlete who finishes the greatest race in the olympics, and he comes out the winner, exclaiming: tetelestai! An athlete works very hard for years to shape his/her body in order to win in the Olympics. The discipline, the time, the energy that an athlete puts in in order to be the champion is a lot. Thus, when an athlete wins the race of the lifetime, he shouts "tetelestai!"
But … Why is Jesus' tetelestai important? He is not "winning" a race. He is dying. He is not receiving the honor, he is receiving the wrath of both God and man. So why Jesus' tetelestai is important?
This is why. Since the fall of Adam in Eden, man has been doomed to eternal death. They longed for a salvation, a redemption of their lost soul, but found none. Some do whatever they want as God doesn't exist for them, whereas in fact they are dead in front of God. Some cried out to God groaning in pain. God pointed them to the coming Messiah in the future. And they believed. So these people have been waiting for the Messiah, who would redeem their lives, all their life. God prepared the coming of the Messiah. He took Abraham and through him Israel was formed. Through Israel, God sent out his prophets to prophesy about the redemptive plan of God in the Messiah. Hundreds of years passed, then come Jesus. An ordinary man from Galilee, doing all the jaw dropping miracles, calming the storm, raising the dead, feeding the thousands, teaching in authority, and proclaiming the fulfillment of God's promise of his salvation. Jesus went through each and every one of the prophecy. The cross was also in the prophecy. He had to go through it. Jesus was fully aware of his trial, so he told his disciples four times about it. Jesus, the only man on earth who never sinned, now had to be judged by sinful people, who wanted him dead. The fact is, Jesus was looking forward to that event. He had to. That's what God wanted. But the dread he felt was not the earthly judgment. The heavenly judgment was the one that made him dropped blood like sweat. But people did not understand. Even his own disciples, those closest to him, did not understand. So he went to the cross, alone.
Peter did not want him to die, but Jesus called him Satan, and ordered him to get behind him. The night Jesus was arrested, all left him, even though they already vowed to stand by him until death. The religious leaders, those who were supposed to know that all the prophecies of the Messiah pointing to Jesus, accused him of blaspheming God. And so they condemned him to die. They became the agents of the murder of the Messiah, rather than siding with him and believing. So Jesus was handed over to the people who knew nothing about the prophecies, who did not care about the existence of the Messiah of God, and sent him to the cross.
One day, Sophie, my 3 year old daughter asked me a question: “Papa, why did Jesus die on the cross?” That question is not an easy one to explain to a 3 year old. I delayed answering her, because I had to spin my head to figure out how to answer that question, THE question, to a 3 year old. She kept asking: “Papa, why did Jesus die on the cross?” After awhile, I opened my mouth to answer her. In a split second, I was kind of hoping that she were 9 year old. For a split second I thought it would be easier to explain my answer to a 9 year old than to a 3 year old. To a 9 year old I could explain longer, deeper, and being understood better. But no, that’s just my wishful thinking. Sophie is 3 year old. She is not 9 year old. And so I answered her with the plainest answer: “Jesus died on the cross because we sinned. He had to die on the cross to save us. Because he loved us very much. Because he loved you Sophie.” There I gave her the simplest answer I could think about. And Sophie just stared at me. She did not contest my answer. So I felt relieved. Sophie then said: “Jesus died on the cross because of me?” I said to her: “Yes he did. Sophie, I’d like to think like this when I think of Jesus on the cross. That when he was on the cross he thought of you. He remembered Sophie who would be born 2000 years later. Jesus remembered you Sophie, when he was dying on the cross. Because he loved you and he wanted to save you.” “Oh,” Sophie replied.
Easter begins with the cross narrative. Easter begins with the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. All of us at some point ask the same question Sophie asked: “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” And the answer to that question cannot be more complicated than my answer to Sophie. For that answer is the answer the Bible gives us. It is not a fancy answer. But it is the truth. It is the simple truth. Jesus died on the cross to save us, because he loved us.
But then, we, who are more complicated than Sophie, ask further: “But why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”
On the cross, the very thing that made him in agony the night before, happened. Thus the fourth words of the cross were uttered: Eli, Eli, lama azavtani? The true death, the separation between him and God, he experienced. The penalty of Adam's sin, which was passed on to all his descendants, death, the true death, Jesus now must bear for the world. The very thing he was, a savior, a redeemer, was being put to the test. People who were watching him mocked him, even those crucified together with him mocked him. Jesus, which means Savior, was left powerless on the cross. The powers and authorities of the world crushed him, and God left him alone. He went through hell. The mystery of the separation of God is never fathomed by human mind. How could the eternal God, the giver of life, the source of all goodness, the pattern of unity, the holy Trinity who are forever in perfect love and shalom must now be broken up, and the Son must be left alone? The separation was eternal in quality, for the persons are all eternal. Our human mind can't comprehend. But this separation happened. It was real. The sky went dark and in the midst of darkness, the Son of God, Jesus the savior of the world, the Messiah, cried out the most painful words of the cross: "Eli, Eli, lama azavtani? My God, My God, why do you forsake me?" He went through hell.
Jesus had to die on the cross and experienced hell for the salvation to be effective. As Adam represented us and brought in sin into our life, Jesus represented us and brought salvation and eternal life to us. Jesus did not come down from the cross even when the people shouted at him to come down from the cross. He could. But he did not. He bore that hell for us. He bore that separation with the Father because he loved us. I’d like to think that when people shouted at him to come down from the cross, he focused his mind on us. He remembered each one of us and he remembered each of our names. In the midst of his agony being left by the Father that prompted him to cry out: “Eli, Eli, lama azavtani? My God, My God, why do you forsake me?”, he remembered our names. It’s like, “Sophie is going to be born in 2009, I cannot go down, I have to save her, I have to bear this for her, for she cannot bear it herself and live.” Imagine Jesus remembering your name when he was dying on the cross, and he held on, he bore for us what we won’t be able to bear, and the rewards of eternal life and glory were then bestowed upon us. Easter began with that.
Jesus’ love is so great that he dies for us. Let me tell you an ancient story about a great King of the Vikings. This story went back to when Vikings were masters of the seas. A great king arose to lead the Vikings. He was wise, strong, just and cared for his people. There came a time during his reign that someone began stealing from the treasury. To put this theft to a stop, the King made a decree throughout the nation that the punishment for the thief would be ten lashes. Over time the King increased the punishment, twenty lashes, thirty, forty, and finally fifty. After careful investigation, the thief was caught and was brought to the court where the King presided. But to the surprise of the king, the thief was his own mother! She was old. Estimating her endurance, she would not be able to endure 50 lashes. In other words, she would die in the process. Now the King loved his mother very much. But, he was also a just King who knew that justice must stand. The King was faced with a dilemma: would he let his mother to go free or toughen his heart to let the lashes execute justice and kill his aged mother? The people were gathered and came to see what the King would do. The King ordered the court to tie his mother to the tree—ready to receive the fifty lashes. But before the first lash was given, the king took off his own robe and crown, and then came to the tree. He hugged his mother from behind and ordered the fifty lashes to be executed. And when the fiftieth lash, the last lash, was blown to his body, he said: “It is finished!” The king bore the punishment for his mother on him. Justice stood that day and also love! That story illustrates the love of God for us, for you and me.