Famous last words. We use this phrase in English in at least two major ways.
On the one hand, “famous last words” might, as the phrase suggests, simply describe the last recorded words of famous people. Marie Antoinette is reported to have stepped on her executioner’s foot at the guillotine and, as her last utterance, apologised: “Pardon me, sir. I meant not to do it.” Nostradamus is said to have uttered one last “incredible” prophecy as his final words: “Tomorrow, I shall no longer be here.” Shortly before slipping into a coma from which he never awoke, Winston Churchill is said to have famously uttered, “I’m bored with it all.”
On the other hand, we use the phrase to talk about confident predictions or assertions made by people that ultimately prove unfulfilled or unrealised. The engineers of the Titanic advertised their flagship vessel as “practically unsinkable.” In 1911, British surgeon Richard Clement Lucas predicted that, before long, the human “useless outer toes”—that is, the piggies who stayed home, had roast beef, had none, and went wee-wee-wee all the way home—would become obsolete so that “man might become a one-toed race.” In 1900, John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., curator of mechanical technology at the Smithsonian Institute, predicted that, by the 2000s, “there will be no C, X, or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.”
Other predictions strike a little closer to home. In September 2018, virologist Robert G. Webster published a book titled Flu Hunter: Unlocking the Secrets of a Virus, in which he examined the fallout of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. He warned that another deadly and disruptive pandemic was “not only possible” but “just a matter of time.” He predicted that millions would die before this pandemic would be brought under control. “Nature will eventually again challenge mankind with an equivalent of the 1918 influenza virus. We need to be prepared.” We haven’t quite hit the “millions” of deaths yet, but we are certainly living through a Spanish Flu-like pandemic right now.
Sometimes, famous last words are words of little ultimate significance. At other times, they prove to be words of enormous import. In the week leading up to Easter, I published a series of articles touching on the seven last sayings of Jesus from the cross. His penultimate utterance, recorded in John 19:30, was perhaps of unequalled significance as far as famous last words go. Listen to John’s account:
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Given the significance of what he claimed to accomplish on the cross, those words are of eternal import. If they did not prove to be true—if he didn’t finish what he had set out to finish—Christianity would be a farce. If we are to have any confidence in life and death, we must know that he finished what he claimed to have finished. But how can we know?
Thankfully, we are not left to speculate. The scriptural record goes on to record at least four events that serve as proofs that it was indeed, finished. The first of these was immediate; the second delayed by a few days; and the third and fourth delayed by several weeks. It helps our faith as we consider these four proofs and their significance.
The Torn Veil
The first evidence that it was finished, as Jesus claimed, was the tearing the veil in the temple, signifying that direct access to God was now possible.
Under old covenant temple worship, the temple proper was divided into two sections: the holy place and the most holy place. Priests alone were permitted access to the holy place, where they were required to perform various religious rituals. Separating the holy place from the most holy place was a thick curtain. The ark of the covenant—the symbol of God’s presence with his people—rested inside the most holy place and access to the ark was permitted only once a year and only by the high priest. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest carried a sacrifice, on behalf of the people, into the most holy place and placed its blood on the ark as an act of faith to secure atonement for the people.
The veil in Herod’s temple is thought to have been some 18 metres high. Jewish tradition suggests that the curtain was ten centimetres thick. Matthew records the actual rending of the veil: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:50–51).
For centuries, the curtain had barred access to the most holy place, the place where God’s presence visibly dwelt. Neither ordinary Jews nor Jewish priests were permitted access to God’s presence. Only the high priest had that privilege, and only once a year. Access to God depended on the intercession of the high priest.
But the tearing of that curtain, as Jesus yielded up his spirit, dramatically symbolised that his death was a sufficient, once-for-all atonement for sin. No longer was access to God’s presence barred. No longer would the high priest be required to carry the sacrificial blood of the lamb into the holy place and offer it on the ark to secure a temporary atonement for sin. Christ’s blood was sufficient to do that once for all time. It was indeed finished.
The purpose of the temple was finished. The need for a sacrificial lamb was finished. The ministry of the Levitical priesthood was finished. The entire sacrificial system was finished because Jesus had secured eternal forgiveness for all who would come to God through him. “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5–6).
Under the old covenant the high priest had to go through the curtain to approach God to secure forgiveness for God’s people. Under the new covenant, we approach God through Jesus Christ. He has made it possible for us to come to God and calls us now to do so.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Because of the torn curtain, we know it is finished.
The Resurrected Saviour
The second evidence that Jesus’ claim that it was finished is true was the resurrection. By raising Jesus from the dead, God provided stark evidence that he had accepted his sacrifice. Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the entire Christian faith falls flat.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
(1 Corinthians 15:12–17)
Forgiveness of sins is contingent on the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). To secure forgiveness for his people, it was necessary for Christ to shed his blood, and not merely a drop or two from a papercut, but to shed his blood to death. It was his death that secured the forgiveness of sins.
But what made Christ’s death any more significant than the death of millions of sacrificial animals over the course of Jewish history? How do we know that his shed blood was more significant than the shed blood of thousands of heifers on thousands of Days of Atonement over the centuries? God proved that Christ’s blood was different—that it secured our eternal salvation—by raising him from the dead. Because of the resurrection, we have confidence that our sins can be eternally forgiven and that we will one day inherit eternal life. His resurrection secured our own resurrection because his death secured the forgiveness of our sins.
Because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that it is finished.
The Ascended Lord
The third evidence that highlights that it was, indeed, finished was the ascension. By exalting Christ to his right hand, God offered evidence of his ongoing delight in his Son.
What happened at the ascension? Why is this sometimes overlooked aspect of Christ’s ministry so significant. It is so for at least five reasons.
First, it was at the ascension that Jesus took his throne at the right hand of the Father. We saw this recently in our study of the Olivet Discourse as a reality clearly prophesied in the Old Testament.
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
The New Testament confirms this reality in Ephesians 1:20–21 when Paul writes that the Father “raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” His “rule and authority and power and dominion” are clearly tied to his being “seated at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places.” Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). As Doug argued from Mark 13 recently, Jesus received his kingdom at his ascension. It is not something for which he is still waiting.
Since believers are seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6–7), we share in his exaltation and victory over the powers of darkness. This means that we can be victorious in the spiritual conflicts we face. The church can expect to be victorious in the Great Commission because Christ is reigning. Christians can expect to overcome sin in their lives because Jesus Christ is reigning. There is no justification for us to give into defeat because Jesus Christ is King.
Second, the ascension guarantees us access to God’s throne for mercy and grace. When he ascended, Jesus passed through the heavens. And what does that mean for us?
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
We can hold fast to our confession because Jesus has ascended. We can pray boldly, confident of his willing ability to answer our prayers, because he passed through the heavens at sat at the right hand of the Father. You can pray confidently in the face of uncertainty and unemployment and dread disease and deep discouragement because Jesus Christ reigns.
Third, Jesus’ ascension secured the presence of our Helper on earth. Jesus spoke of this to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:15–17).
Jesus said that the coming of the Spirit would be to our advantage and that his coming could only be secured when Jesus left—when he ascended: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The ascension was crucial for the coming of the Spirit.
It may have sounded strange to the disciples to think of Jesus leaving as being for their benefit. They desperately wanted him to stay with them, but his point was that, while he was limited in his humanity to being in one place at a time, the Spirit would not be bound by such limitations. The Spirit would be with all disciples at all times in all places at the same time. There is nowhere you can go without the presence of the Spirit.
Christians throughout the ages have taken deep comfort in this truth. Christians have known of the presence of the Spirit in the gathering of the saints. They have known of the presence of the Spirit in family worship and private devotion. But Christians have also testified to the presence of the Spirit in prison and in persecution and during hijackings and in the face of certain death. The Spirit is indeed our limitless, always-present Comforter, and his coming was secured by Jesus’ ascension.
Fourth, Paul tied Jesus’ ascension to the giving of spiritual gifts to his church.
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.
When Christ took his throne, he immediately began distributing gifts to his church in order for the body of Christ to be built. We are confident that our churches can be built into maturity in Christ because Christ is reigning. His ascension guarantees the church’s onward progress toward ultimate Christlikeness.
Sometimes, it feels like church ministry is stagnating. Sometimes it feels like the church is moving backwards rather than forwards in maturity. The ascension of Christ gives us hope that maturity is certain. Just as every Christian will certainly attain Christlikeness, so every church will ultimately “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” His ascension guarantees it.
Fifth, Jesus ascension gives us confidence that he will return. And it keeps us longing for it. As the disciples gazed longingly into heaven as Jesus ascended, “behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10–11).
Jesus ascended bodily into heaven; he will come back the same way. Only then will our commission be complete. Only then will we finally be done with our sinful inclinations. Only then will death be fully and finally conquered. That is something to long for. And the ascension of Jesus assures it.
We don’t always give the ascension the attention we should but, in the large scheme of God’s kingdom work, it is crucial. The ascension was the Father’s divine stamp of approval on the Son’s completed work, offering yet another proof that it was, indeed, finished.
The Sent Comforter
We have already alluded to this, but the fourth and final proof offered by God that his Son’s work was finished was the sending the Holy Spirit to apply the benefits of Christ’s completed work to his people.
Jesus finished everything that needed to be finished to secure the eternal redemption of God’s people. There is nothing more for us to do: no work for us to add to Christ’s work; no religious ceremony to keep to earn God’s favour. Christ finished the work and the Helper now applies the benefits of that redemption to God’s people.
We can be sure that our salvation will be brought to completion. The work of Christ secured it. The Holy Spirit applies it. The Spirit was sent to earth as proof that it was, indeed, finished at the cross.
Famous last words.
The Titanic was “practically unsinkable,” a claim that proved to be remarkably impractical. Despite Dr. Lucas’s confident prediction, there are still five little piggies in our nursery rhyme. Scrabble and Words with Friends players are happy to report that “accuracy,” “equivoque” and “extratextual” are still valid, high-scoring words in their preferred word game. Famous last words don’t always prove particularly accurate.
Jesus’ famous last words were different. The tearing of the veil, the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost all testify to this truth. It is finished. He finished the work that the Father had sent him to do. By his Spirit, he will complete his work in you. It is—and it will be—finished.