Dying, He Saved Me image

Dying, He Saved Me

One of the problems of growing up in the faith is that you know the stories so well, have heard them and sung them and made egg-shell-and-lollipop-stick models out of them so many times, there’s a danger that you stop hearing them, and stop thinking about them.

I was recently asked to write a short reflection on some of Jesus’ last words from the cross for this series posted by the Evangelical Alliance (EA) during Holy Week. To my shame, it made me realise that I don’t actually understand the gospel.

I’m sure you all do. I’m sure you’re going to read this and roll your eyes and wonder what kind of whacky church I’ve been hiding in, but bear with me, not least because there’s a chance some of the people you’re going to be preaching to over the next couple of weeks have missed this, too.

“It is finished,” Jesus said. His enemies must have rejoiced. His friends must have felt that last flicker of hope finally be extinguished. This really was it. It was over. He said so himself.

But we happen to know it wasn’t really finished. Not in the sense that he had been defeated. It wasn’t time for the disciples to go home, pick up their nets and try to remember how to catch fish.

So…(and this is the bit that has never occurred to me to question before)...what did he mean by ‘It is finished’? The work of salvation? Does that mean he could have stayed dead and my salvation would still be assured? As I’ve written in my EA piece, the Greek phrase used by John to bring Jesus’ words to us had the connotation of a debt being ‘paid in full’. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death, signifying that the separation between us and God was over.

But where does that leave the resurrection? Surely the work of salvation wasn’t completed until Jesus had risen again, and returned to the Father?

My understanding, as taught in Sunday School, preached in sermons, and sung in more hymns than I can remember, is that our salvation was made possible by the fact that he conquered death. If he had remained in the grave, our hope would be worthless. As Paul puts it “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).

Peter, however, quoting Isaiah, asserts that it is by Christ’s wounds that we are healed (1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53:5), not by his resurrection. Yet in Romans we learn that “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

Of course, being timeless, omniscient etc, Jesus knew that his resurrection was inevitable and was in a sense all part of his ‘death event’. Like a Weeble’s, his tumble downwards would inevitably be followed by a spring upwards, the one was incomplete without the other, and a physical impossibility. Thus, in his death, Christ’s resurrection was assured and could already be said to have happened.

Calvin, apparently, argued much the same thing (though without the reference to Weebles). It seems to me a somewhat cheeky, metaphysical explanation, though. An evasion rather than a solution.

So what could Jesus have meant by those final words before he gave up his spirit?

As I’ve discussed this with friends and family over the past few days, trying to get my head around it, where we’ve come to is this: Jesus was saying that the task given to him by the Father was finished. He had done all he had been called to do, the prophecies about his birth, life and death had been fulfilled – or would be in the next few seconds. The resurrection was God’s to bring about – it was part of the justification process, but it was not within the remit of Christ himself. His task was finished. His work on earth, as the God-man, was done.

There would be more later. He would be back – twice – but those things were in the hands of God.

Or as one of my favourite hymns puts it:

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
  Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever:
  One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

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