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New Horizons

Putting Death to Death!

Paul S. MacDonald

Since this is April, we may be hearing some references to Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, which were set in April in medieval England. In connection with this Easter season of the year, I thought about "The Pardoner's Tale." This story is set during the Black Plague, and three roisterers (general mischief makers) have just lost a friend to the pestilence. With less knowledge than enthusiasm, they swear they will hunt down this scoundrel Death and kill him, so that no one else will fall victim to his power. "When we find him," they say, "Death is dead!"

As they begin scouting for Death, they find an old man on the road. Reasoning that, if this frail old man is not Death, he is near enough to it, they attack him and beat him up. To save his life, the old man tells them where they can find Death: "You'll find him up that side road there, beneath an enormous, spreading old tree."

Under that tree, they find not Death, but an enormous heap of gold coins. They dare not leave the gold unguarded for fear someone else will claim it. As time passes and they grow hungry, the two stronger ones decide to send the weaker one to town for food and drink. Only after renewing their pledges of allegiance to one another does he consent to go.

As the third man goes after the food, the other two conspire to kill the courier as soon as he returns and split the gold between them. Meanwhile, the third man poisons the wine so all the gold will be his alone. When he returns with the food, the other two set upon him and kill him before settling down to eat and drink. Of course, as they drink their wine, they are poisoned and die.

The roisterers were too intent on their own preconceptions to recognize what the old man was actually telling them. They found death all right, but they did not slay it. In this respect, the roisterers symbolize all of man's efforts to thwart death on his own terms. However, all human efforts to put death to death will fail.

Jesus on the Cross

There was only one person in all of history who met death and conquered it. It is Jesus' triumph over the forces of evil and darkness that is celebrated at Easter. It can be summed up by the sixth of Jesus' seven words from the cross: "It is finished." What the three roisterers in "The Pardoner's Tale" swore they would do to Death when they caught up with him—"Death is dead"—Jesus accomplished by his own life and death. The words of Christ from the cross—"I thirst" and "It is finished"—are closely related. John 19:30 implies that the drink was to moisten Jesus' throat and enable him to cry out "It is finished" with a loud voice.

John is the only gospel that includes the words "It is finished." Matthew 27:50 says that after Jesus was given cheap wine to drink, he "cried out again with a loud voice," as does Mark 15:37. Luke 23:46 mentions that Jesus called out in a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!"—the final exclamation from the cross. It seems likely that "It is finished" and "Into your hands I commit my spirit" were spoken consecutively.

There is something strange and unusual here. The strange thing is the loud voice. That is so uncharacteristic that all the gospel writers mention it. It was so astonishing that the Roman army officer credited Jesus with supernatural power and ability as the Son of God.

When a person is hanging on a cross by the hands or wrists, with his arms extended, the weight of the sagging body creates severe pressure on the chest and at least partially cuts off the windpipe. There is not the lung capacity for a loud shout, nor the freedom in the throat to emit one. As long as someone can support some of his weight by using his legs, he can get enough little gasps of air to prevent suffocation. But once the legs are broken and can no longer help support the weight, suffocation is greatly hastened. The loud shout of Jesus sets him apart from all other victims of crucifixion. It is one more piece of evidence that Jesus was superhuman.

Now what did Jesus mean when he said, "It is finished"? In the Greek, "It is finished" is expressed by a single word: tetelestai. This verb is in the perfect tense, conveying the sense that an action has concluded, with a lasting effect. On ancient invoices it meant "paid in full." The root of this verb is the noun telos, meaning "end" or "goal." Tetelestai, therefore, means "It is finished" in the sense that an end has been achieved, a goal has been attained.

Now, what was finished? Jesus may have been expressing relief that the horrible ordeal of the crucifixion was about over. That may have been one aspect of what he meant, but he probably had much more in mind. I think his statement means that his redemptive work on earth was completed.

Jesus' Work of Redemption

All during his life, Jesus was determined to accomplish the goal for which he came into the world: to save sinners. The angel declared that goal by telling Joseph: "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). In John 17, Jesus prays his High Priestly Prayer less than twenty-four hours before the Crucifixion. As he begins his prayer, he says, "Father, the hour has come." He goes on to say that he has brought glory to God by accomplishing the work the Father has given him to do. His job was to reveal the Father to his chosen ones, and he has done just that: "I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me" (vs. 6). In verse 11, Jesus is so near to concluding his life in this world that he says he is "no longer in the world." And in verse 13 he says, "Now I am coming to you."

When Jesus cried out with a loud voice "It is finished," one thing he was saying was that the task that he and the Father had agreed upon in eternity, before the world began, was in this sense completed. Nothing more was required for the salvation of believing mankind. The requirement of perfect obedience in order for man to inhabit heaven had been met. The covenant of life broken by the first Adam was "mended"—met—by Christ, the last Adam.

In the beginning, when God created Adam, he entered into a covenant of life with him, promising life if Adam continued in obedience to God, but threatening death in the event of disobedience. You know what followed: sin, condemnation, and death.

When the first Adam failed, God arranged to send later a second or last Adam, that is, Christ. Christ had to do two things. His death on the cross—what we call his passive obedience—pays the penalty for our sins and delivers us from eternal damnation. But the death of Christ on the cross does not give us eternal life. It saves us from eternal death, but it does not gain heaven for us.

What gains heaven for us is that Jesus not only died for us, but also lived for us. He was born a baby, as we are born. He underwent the trials and temptations of growing up. He spent thirty-three years in humiliation. And he did all this in perfect obedience to the will and law of God. He took up the baton where Adam had dropped it, and successfully finished the race. And it was this life of perfect obedience that has earned the eternal bliss of heaven for those who believe in him. This is his active obedience.

It was both the active obedience and the passive obedience of Christ that were completed when he uttered, with supernatural strength, "It is finished!" The betrayal and denial of his disciples were finished. His sentence for your sins was finished. The work the Father had given him to do—the accomplishment of the redemption of his people—was finished. It was all finished!

In John 19:30, after the disciple records that Jesus shouted tetelestai, he writes that Jesus "bowed his head and gave up his spirit." It is interesting that the word for "bowed" means "rested." The words "bowed his head" mean "rested his head." Jesus used the same exact vocabulary on an earlier occasion, when he said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20)—that is, to "rest his head." Do you see the irony? He who found no home on earth where he might rest his head finally found a place to do so—on the cruel cross. And he rested his head there, so that you and I might have rest—not just on earth, but forever.

You have heard here of God's salvation. Reject or ignore it at your peril. Like the roisterers in "The Pardoner's Tale," you will find death. You cannot escape it. You cannot defeat it on your own terms. But for the believer, death has been put to death in the death of Jesus Christ. Confess your guilt, repent of your sins, and believe. Accept the payment of Christ for your sins, so you won't have to pay for them forever yourself. Believe the word of Christ: It is finished! Paid in full!

The author, an elder at Penobscot Bay OPC in Bucksport, Maine, is a member of the Committee on Christian Education. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2010.