What Is Finished?
I was living the dream--my dream, anyway. I had finished my bachelor’s degree at the school of my choice, married the ideal woman, and I was now pursuing studies for ministry in the Presbyterian Church.
Once again, I was at the school I had carefully chosen: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. My wife, Kimberly, and I had grand expectations, and the school lived up to them. We were living in a community where ordinary conversation centered on Scripture. I had classmates who shared my interests and my fervor. On the faculty were scholars of the first rank, and many were outstanding preachers as well.
My Christianity was evangelical in style, Calvinist in substance. I was aware of the religious marketplace in the Protestant world, and I chose my denomination as carefully as I chose my college and seminary. At Gordon-Conwell--unlike most other places on earth--I found myself among people I could call like-minded. Together we started a weekly breakfast group and called it the Geneva Academy, after the school founded by our Reformation hero, John Calvin, back in the sixteenth century.
I was on a roll with the choices I’d made. I could not have designed an environment better suited to the development of the intellectual life I wanted. Don’t get me wrong: there were students and faculty who disagreed with my friends and me, but we genuinely welcomed their best arguments. “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).
So the next decision that faced me was where to go to church. Well-chosen Sunday worship would round out the experience. At the time I thought of worship as a mostly intellectual exercise, a concentrated Bible study ornamented with hymns and prayers. Any hint of ritual--liturgy--I dismissed as vain repetition, a dead work, and precisely the sort of abomination from which the Reformers had freed Christianity. Liturgy was for the lost: Catholics and Orthodox and their Episcopalian fellow travelers.
I looked around for a while before I found the ideal church. It was in a little town about a half hour’s ride from where we were living. The pastor was my Hebrew professor. Harvard educated and on his way to an Oxford doctorate, he would become a hero to me, a friend, a model, and a mentor. He later went on to well-deserved fame--but all his great gifts were evident to me the first time I heard him preach.
The man made Scripture come alive. His erudition was vast. His mastery of the ancient languages was complete. He held degrees in physics, engineering, and divinity. It was evident. Yet he wore it lightly and delivered it with memorable humor. He labored at his sermons and always strove to find the offbeat detail--something that would arrive as a novelty and seize the congregation’s attention. Then, once he had us, he kept us spellbound.
I vividly remember a sermon he preached on the Sunday preceding Easter Sunday. People who went to liturgical churches were waving fronds and calling it “Palm Sunday.” We were having none of that. But even in an evangelical church we could not ignore the nearness of Easter, and the time between, so our pastor preached that palmless Sunday about the events of Good Friday.
He was always good, but he was never so good as at that hour, when he seized our attention and fixed it on the cross by which we had been saved. He was working with the richest material, more precious than gold or silver, and he didn’t waste the opportunity.
He was a master preacher who calibrated his delivery with precision. But he was also open to the Holy Spirit, and so he would also speak as he was led--even if he might break his spell by doing so.
He was narrating the Passion for us, synthesizing material from all four Gospels; and as he went along he provided theological commentary between the lines of the sacred text. At every point, his explication arose as part of the drama, part of the narrative--never extraneous, always moving it forward.
Then he arrived at John 19:30, where Jesus said, “It is finished.” And all of a sudden he just stopped. I thought it was for dramatic effect. And I’d wager that everyone else thought so, too.
When he resumed, however, he digressed from the homily he had been delivering. He asked us if we had ever wondered what Jesus meant by “it.” What indeed was finished?
Okay, I had been studying homiletics. I saw what he was doing. He was asking a question of the congregation in order to set us up for the answer he would now deliver with a wallop. I was all ready. This was going to be good.
But the wallop didn’t arrive. He admitted that he didn’t have an answer. It was clear that this digression had not been part of his scripted sermon. It was a thought that had momentarily seized his attention.
I sat there squirming, thinking: Of course we know what it is! It is our redemption. It is finished. Our redemption is finished.
As if he could read my mind, however, he continued: “If you’re sitting there thinking that what Jesus meant is our redemption, you’d better think again.” He pointed out that, in Romans 4:25, Paul said that Jesus was raised for our justification. Thus, the job was “finished” not on Calvary that Friday but at the garden tomb the following Sunday.
The pastor admitted that he didn’t know the answer.
He just moved on.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I don’t think I heard another word of his sermon.
I was sitting there, turning the pages of my Bible and wondering: Okay, then, what is it? What’s finished?
Did I sing our closing hymn? I have no idea.
Kimberly and I exited the church to a bright spring day. The pastor was standing outside, shaking hands as congregants went by.
I took his hand and said, “Don’t do that!”
He was taken aback. So I explained what I meant.
He said he hadn’t prepared or intended to ask that rhetorical question. He repeated his assurance that he couldn’t answer it--but then he assured me that I would.
“Dive into it, Scott. Research it, and come back with an answer!”
I spent the rest of Sunday afternoon and evening diving into the text and its context. I wasn’t finished by that night. I went on to study it for days, for weeks, several months, in fact. You might say that I’m still researching it today.
Search and Research
My first round of research was to return to the text and fixate on it--to read the verse in its original Greek and then in different translations, to check the classic commentaries and then the more recent interpretations. I examined the text in context. I considered the small details of the larger passage: the sponge filled with sour wine, the careful notation of the calendar date, the decision not to break the dead man’s legs, and the repeated mention of the fulfillment of “Scripture.”
All the footnotes and all the commentators kept directing me back to a single common theme, a story behind--or within, but certainly inseparable from--the story John was telling in his Gospel. The common theme was the Jewish festival of Passover. All the surrounding details were related to the traditional observance of the feast. I had a hunch that the key to the meaning of “It is finished” was also to be found in Passover. Jesus’ death occurred during Passover, and all the eyewitnesses were eager to find significance in the providential timing of the event. The day was in the details--seemingly all the details.
The scholarly literature on Passover could fill libraries, but I entered it with abandon. The commentators, one and all, noted that Passover was the yearly feast when the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God. And there the commentaries rang the bell for me. Covenant was a central theme in the theology of my hero, the Reformer John Calvin--and so, indeed, in the theology of my mentor and pastor. Calvin believed that covenant was the interpretive key to the whole Bible. Covenant described the legal bond that had formed and governed humanity’s relationship with God since the dawn of creation.
Whatever “it” might be that was finished, “it” was bound up in the renewal of the Old Covenant with Israel--and the sealing of the New Covenant with the Church. “It” was, moreover, something central, not peripheral, to salvation. “It” was not something I could set aside.
In time, “it” would test my connection with the life and the dream I had formed with such deliberation.
But all that came much later. The quest that began in church that Sunday was simply for a pronoun’s referent. The answer, I was convinced, would be found in the Passover, the feast that became the subject of my research--and then the subject of this book.
Passover and Covenant
Passover was the kind of topic that threatened to overwhelm a student like me. I was, of course, not the first person to recognize its supreme importance. Nor was I the first to fall into the deep well of research on the subject. Nor am I the first to feel the urgent need to set my thoughts about Passover down in a book. The volumes I found in Gordon-Conwell’s library were many and well worn. I lugged them home. I read them hunched over my desk late into my nights. Then they were waiting for me when I rose from sleep early in the morning. In one of those books--or in all of them--I was convinced I would find the answer to the question of what was finished with Jesus’ cry on the cross.
More than a century ago, the Jewish scholar Hayyim Schauss observed that Passover was, for first-century Jews as for Jews today, “more than a holiday; it has been the holiday, the festival of redemption.”1 Indeed, in the ancient Jewish sources and the modern, the language of redemption and salvation was everywhere.
To me as a Christian, that seemed providentially appropriate. If Passover is the festival of redemption for Jews, then Jesus, who was a Jew among Jews, would find it a fitting time to complete his redeeming work.
Jesus did not regard all elements of his heritage as equally important. He easily dispensed with some customs, while he ardently observed others. He was willing to heal on the Sabbath, for example, though the Pharisees forbade labor on that day. He was willing also to keep company with foreigners--and even foreign women--which was also forbidden by the Pharisees. Yet the Gospels show that he was regular in his Passover observance, during his childhood and during his public ministry. What, I wanted to know, did Passover mean to him, and to his neighbors, and to the eyewitnesses who testified in the Gospels?
What we now call Passover the ancients called Pesach, and that Hebrew root means “a passing over” or “skipping” or “sparing.” The feast commemorates the most dramatic of the many miracles God wrought as he liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The Egyptian ruler, the Pharaoh, refused repeatedly to let his slaves practice their religion. God met his refusal with a series of plagues visited upon the Egyptian people; but Pharaoh remained obstinate. Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus tells the story of the final plague, which claimed the life of every firstborn male, human and animal, in the land of Egypt.
But God gave Moses and Aaron detailed instructions about a sacrifice the Hebrews should make--the offering of a lamb, whose blood should be painted on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. As the angel of death went from one residence to the next, he “passed over” the families of the Hebrews. Their firstborn sons were spared. They were saved. They were redeemed. Their lives were bought with the blood of the Passover lamb.
It was not the end of the drama, of course. Everyone knows the rest of the story--if not from the Bible, then from Hollywood’s renderings. Pharaoh let the Israelites leave his land, but then regretted his decision and pursued them. The Red Sea parted for the Israelites to pass through, and then the waters closed upon Pharaoh’s army. Afterward, the Chosen People wandered for forty years, fed miraculously by God. They received the Law from him. Finally, they entered the Promised Land.
The events were unforgettable. Even so, the Chosen People were prone to forgetfulness, so God made sure that they would have a fixed means of remembrance. According to the Book of Exodus, the Lord established Passover as a festival even before the events were consummated. He said to Moses and Aaron: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2).
Moses then relayed the Lord God’s detailed instructions for a ritual meal, to be celebrated every year on the anniversary of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The main course would always be the lamb whose blood was smeared by the door. God specified the age and condition of the lamb. He prescribed the method of preparation and cooking. He indicated also what the side dishes should be: bitter herbs and unleavened bread.
Every ingredient in the meal was a mnemonic device. The herbs were to remind the people of the bitterness of their life in slavery. The unleavened bread recalled the hurried preparation of that last meal in Egypt; there was no time to wait for the dough to rise. The lamb? Well, he died in place of the firstborn.
The commandment was clear. This feast was to be observed in perpetuity. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever” (Exodus 12:14). Every year, every household in Israel was to do this in remembrance of the Lord and his mighty deeds.
There is, in the Book of Exodus and in the later literature of the rabbis, a great emphasis on the exactness of the ritual. There was even a scripted catechetical exchange of questions and answers.
And when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” you shall say, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.” (Exodus 12:25–27)
Nothing could be so clear as the prescription for this feast. It should have been fail-safe. The people of Israel could never forget the marvels the Lord had done for them in the Exodus. Could they?
1. Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance (New York: Schocken Books, 1996, reprint).