Each of the four gospels gives us a different picture of Christ on the cross.
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ last words are dark and questioning: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
In Luke, his last words are confident and trusting: ‘Father, in your hands I commend my spirit.’
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ last saying is a single Greek word: ‘tetelestai’. In English it can mean either ‘It is finished’ – it’s all over. Or ‘it is accomplished’ – it is fulfilled.
And that is typical of John’s gospel. It is as though two perspectives of the same story are going on at the same time – the world’s perspective, and God’s perspective. In John’s gospel, Jesus talks about being ‘lifted up’. On the one hand this refers to the crucifixion, a terrible thing done to him through the wickedness of humanity. On the other hand, it refers to his glorification, a work of grace and salvation by God, by means of which we ourselves are drawn into communion: ‘when I am lifted up from the earth’ he said, ‘I will draw all people to myself.’(1)
This is what is called literary irony. There are two levels of meaning. The characters in the story can only see one level, but the reader is invited to see another, deeper level of understanding.
So when Pilate says to him, ‘Behold your king’(2) and when the soldiers dress Jesus in a purple robe and place a crown of thorns on his head, they think they are mocking him – but we know their words and actions carry a much deeper truth than they realise. For we know he is not merely the king of the Jews but king of the universe.
So there are two levels of meaning to Jesus’ final words: It is finished – it is accomplished.
On the one hand there is the human perspective. Jesus came to show the world what God was like. But from the first he encountered opposition from the religious authorities. It was entirely predictable that they would rather hold on to their own ideas about God than open themselves to the radical truth of God that Jesus brought.
The prospect of God’s kingdom was far too threatening to those who enjoyed power and status in the kingdom of this world. And then Jesus’ practice of seeking out and spending time with sinners and the marginalised was always going to offend mainstream sensibility. It was clear from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry that conflict was inevitable, as Jesus said: ‘the son of man must suffer many things and be rejected’.
Even his own disciples repeatedly failed to understand him. And when the crunch came, his disciples betrayed him, denied they knew him, and abandoned him.
From a human perspective, his mission had failed. Hence his great cry of anguish in Mark’s gospel: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
A bystander hearing Jesus say, ‘It is ended,’ might have thought those were words of defeat. But it is clear that the author of the gospel understands them differently. Not, ‘It’s all over’ but ‘it is accomplished’. For John, there is a clear sense that the cross fulfilled God’s work in Christ.
This raises difficult questions. How could the suffering and death of his son be part of God’s plan? The church has wrestled with this question – and put forward various theories of atonement. I confess I find it very hard to believe in some of them. I believe in a God of love and forgiveness, and I struggle to believe in a God who was so angry with humanity that he needed the sacrificial death of an innocent victim to appease his anger.
And yet in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus recognises the crucifixion as God’s will. He prays that he might be spared the agony of the crucifixion, but then says, ‘yet not what I will but what you will’. And John’s gospel is clearly saying that on the cross – indeed because of the cross – God’s will is being accomplished and fulfilled. How can this be?
Notice the word here is God’s will – not God’s plan. I often hear people talking about ‘God’s plan’ but there is no mention of it anywhere in the bible(See footnote). The word for ‘plan’ in the Bible usually has negative connotations – a plot against someone – and is nearly always used of those who are wicked.
The word generally used of God is his ‘will’: this does not suggest a predetermined course of action but a desire, a purpose – and one which is offered but never imposed.
To talk of God’s ‘plan’ makes it sound like he had everything mapped out, step by step, in advance. Like a conductor following a musical score. But I think the way God works in our world is more like a jazz musician, constantly improvising in response to what the other players are doing.
Or another image of God is like a master chess player. God’s opponents – sometimes the devil, sometimes the Pharisees, sometimes the chief priests – have total freewill to make whatever move they choose. They are not puppets. Surely God did not make them put Jesus to death? But though the opponents seem to threaten God’s control of the board, God is able to turn each of his opponents’ moves to his own ultimate purpose.
God’s first great move in Jesus was to become human and dwell amongst us. This was the will of God – that Jesus should empty himself of his divinity and take the form of a servant. And being born in human likeness he humbled himself and was obedient to God’s will, not just for a while – or until things got tough, but to the point of death, even death on a cross.(3)
‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’(4). But when you truly give something you take the risk that your gift may be misunderstood, abused, rejected. To give with conditions is not giving. And once a gift is given you cannot take it back. For God to give his son was a risky opening move.
And after that first move he could make no definite plan, because that depended on the moves his opponents would make.
One of the devil’s first attacks was to tempt Jesus to give up his humanity. All three temptations in the wilderness try to get Jesus to use divine powers and abandon his solidarity with our human condition. But Jesus’ defence against these attacks remained firm – he remained obedient to God, emptying himself of his godly powers and taking the form of a servant.
The last temptation comes during the crucifixion. ‘If you are the son of God, save yourself.’ But Jesus remained obedient to God’s will, even to death upon a cross.
In Jesus God absorbed all the attacking moves of his opponents, all the blows evil directed at him, and just when his opponents thought they had gained the victory on the cross God turned their last move to his own purposes and brought the ultimate good out of it.
This is the heart of my faith. That there is nothing so bad that God cannot bring good out of it. And the cross and resurrection are the pattern and the proof of that.
So I do not think of Jesus’ suffering and death as God’s plan, in the sense that this was what God wanted or intended. Instead I see it as the inevitable consequence of Christ’s absolute obedience to God’s will, even to death on a cross.
The crucifixion is the killer move of God’s enemies: ‘Check. Get out of that, God, if you can!’ Mark’s gospel suggests Jesus himself, in the limitations of his human form, thought all was lost. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Those moments in life when we feel everything is going against us – when we are overwhelmed by darkness and can see no prospect of light – when we hit rock bottom: Jesus has been there. God’s enemies had played their trump card. They had done their worst. They thought they had won. But even as Jesus was being laid in the tomb God was already working on his next move, as the world would see, on the day we call Easter.
A footnote on ‘God’s plan’.
I am making a grand claim here which needs further explanation. I am not suggesting God does not have a purpose or an intention for the world but rather that the connotations of the English word ‘plan’ are misleading. I do not believe God has the details of the future already mapped out for the world or for each of us individually. What happens in the future will be a mixture of God’s calling, our free choices (both good and bad) and God’s response to these always with his will and purposes in mind.
Two places where it might seem the Bible refers to God’s plan:
Jeremiah 29.11 is often translated as ‘I know my plans for you, says the Lord …’ However the Hebrew literally says, ‘I know my thoughts for you… ’Ephesians 1.10 is often translated ‘as a plan for the fullness of time’ but the Greek, oikonomia, literally means ‘stewardship’ or ‘management of household affairs’. We get our word ‘economy’ from this Greek word. Oikonomia was used in contrast to legalism – its meaning has more to do with how a situation is managed in response to circumstances, than a predetermined course of action. Note that in this passage (Ephesians 1.3-12) the key word is God’s ‘will’ (verses 5, 9 and 11). The oikonomia is subordinate to God’s will.