With Easter on the horizon, the promise of another season of reflection regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus is closely approaching. As a result, our conversations at “the office” have naturally migrated towards topics surrounding our Faith Family’s celebration of what happened two millennia ago in the Roman province of Judea, in God’s city, Jerusalem.
While the world around us causally celebrates Easter by marking off the syncretic pagan traditions of our ancestors (sorry Easter Bunny), we have a unique opportunity to engage that same world regarding the absolute miracle that occurred so long ago… but not JUST when Jesus was resurrected, or walked out of the tomb, no longer dead, but alive. We get to ALSO celebrate the cosmic, historical event that marks the moment when our sin was paid for, dramatically and decisively, on the cross with, through and by Christ. We get to celebrate the Great Atonement.
Τετέλεσται! It is finished! These were our Lord Jesus Christ’s last words, as recorded by the Disciple John, before Jesus gave up His spirit and died (John 19:30). A couple verses earlier, that same Greek word was used to describe the moment where Jesus knew that “all was now finished,” which led Him to make a request to fulfill a messianic prophecy (“I thirst,” see Psalm 22:15; 69:21), before willingly surrendering His life.
Now, so much happened in this moment, so fast, that if we blinked, we could miss what was actually occurring in that moment in time. As finite creatures, our brains often struggle with concepts pertaining to infinite time (think of the films Inception or Interstellar, but even more brain-twisting). Since our lives come and go in such a relatively short amount of time, it is hard for us to imagine events along a timeline as vast as creation. But God does not share in this disability. God crafted a plan of redemption that spans and exceeds the timeline of creation; He orchestrated the reconciliation of mankind prior to the creation of world (ex. Ephesians 1:4-6). No event was random, nothing that had occurred had happened by chance or took Him by surprise. So, Jesus, God in the flesh, shared in the providential plan of His Father in Heaven. In fact, Jesus played a crucial role in the redemption narrative God wrote for the sake of His people.
In Colossians 2:13-14, Paul describes Jesus’s role on the cross in this way: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with (Jesus), having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Because we are saved, by grace through faith in Jesus, it is possible to be tempted to consider our own actions supreme to those of God when it comes to our salvation. We might say, “I am saved because I believe in Jesus.” While this is true according to scripture, Easter provides us a time to consider HOW we were saved, or, at what cost was the possibility of our saving faith purchased.
The truth is, without the cross we are epically condemned. The Bible clearly states that we are all storing up wrath in heaven because of the great sins we have, are, and will commit against a righteous and holy God (ex. Romans 2:5). And this does not become untrue simply because we believe in Jesus. We still sin as Christians. We still daily violate the legal, moral, and natural laws of God (Romans 2:12-16). So how is it that Christians can stand before God on the Day of Judgement and be found to be anything other than guilty? Even if Christ “saved us from our sins,” how is it that we can be righteous at the end of our lives, AFTER we confessed that Jesus is Lord, and then sinned again (and again)? Do we need to ask for forgiveness daily? Should we maybe earn our righteousness back, again and again, by simply getting better at obeying the “rules” of the Bible? In the Church, historically, many have wrestled with these questions, leading to the creation of the traditions of holy confession and indulgence, otherwise known as “ways to appease God,” AFTER faith in Christ. And to be fair, this was at least partly because the church was naturally reacting to this overwhelming awareness that we still personally fall short of the glory of God, even as Christians.
But what these traditions failed to do was to acknowledge the power of Jesus’ words when He said, “IT IS FINISHED.” Jesus’ words that day comprehensively expressed that what Paul explained had occurred on the cross in Colossians 2:13-14 was, in fact, accomplished. Completed. Done. PAST tense. Again, every person that has lived (and will live) has acquired a debt to God in the fullest sense, a debt that deserves the wrath of God. In fact, if you are reading this, your debt is still being contributed to daily. In the Old Testament, atonement applied to the idea of the sacrificial system of the religions of Israel, which even to the day of Christ’s life, still involved offering things (animals, grains, incense) to God so that His wrath would be appeased, and His people could be reconciled (made in right relationship) with Him again. That’s what God’s people often thought and relied on to pay for their shortcomings.
But in Christ, the final (and true) sacrifice was, at a singular point in time, paid for by His death. In Colossians, Paul says “the record of debt,” or the sign that was hung over the heads of the accused to explain why they were condemned (ex. in Jesus’ case, it was that He was “The King of the Jews”), was canceled on the cross for believers. Paul says our sins, the things we EVEN NOW are committing, God BACK THEN nailed to the cross with Christ… and so, those sins were set aside when He died, forever. Our sins died with Christ on the cross, and as Paul goes on to say, we are free to put on a new self; defined by the righteousness of Christ, not our own personal righteousness, and pursuing after the things of God while putting to death the things of this world (Colossians 3:1-17). As one theologian puts it, “The atonement is not a theory; it is an event, an act of God in history, a sacrifice by which God’s justice is satisfied, man’s sins covered, perfect love fulfilled and set forth as a goal, and victory over sin and death proclaimed and achieved, once and for all time.”
Yes, Christian, at Easter we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, because in rising from the dead, Jesus proved that we are alive again with Him, because He has the power to save us from our sins (ex. Romans 1:3-6; 1 Peter 1:3-5). But never forget that during the Easter season we also celebrate the Great Atonement, the point in time where Jesus took on the sins of His people, became sin on the cross for us, and bore the wrath of God that we deserved, even before we were born to earn that wrath. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was telling the world that God’s decisive plan to reconcile you to Him had finally been accomplished, forever. Hallelujah.