Matthew 28: 5The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.
I saw an old video of the ending of a South African Rugby match. It was the 2014 Varsity Cup Final, a game that would crown the National University champions. Late in the game the visiting University of Cape Town (UCT) was trailing Pukke (North-West University) 33-15. This game was all but finished. In order to win, UCT would have to score three tries (the equivalent of touchdowns in North American football) in the final 5 minutes, and then allow no points against. Even the most ardent UCT fans couldn’t imagine a scenario in which that would happen – it was finished.
While it appeared to be finished, it was by no means over. A combination of UCT’s dramatic efforts and a critical home side mistake allowed the visitors to score three tries in the final minutes to claim the victory.
As exciting as it must have been to watch that match live, and as stark a difference in emotions there must have been in those final 5 minutes, nothing can match the drama of the cross. Over 2,000 years ago, God came as man to this earth – he was Jesus Christ. He gained a following including his family and his closest friends the disciples. Many who thought this man of miracles was a prophet soon realized he was much more; he was the promised Messiah. He was the one who would overthrow the government, rebuild the Temple, gather the exiles, restore justice, end wickedness, sin and heresy. In fact, after clearing the Jerusalem temple of the merchants, Jesus himself said: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2: 19b).
If we fast forward, Jesus is now hanging on a cross, bloody and broken. His mother, brothers and a few others are gathered at a distance. His disciples had scattered fearing for their lives. This was not how they had envisioned the Messiah’s return; this was not victory – it was defeat, it was finished. Interestingly those were Jesus’ last words as well as he hung on the cross. “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). The Greek word here is teleō and more than simply meaning “it is finished”, it refers to paying a debt. Christ had to satisfy God’s justice by dying for all to pay for the sins of the world.
But the story did not end there, because on the third day Jesus rose again. “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:24). It was not the end of the game; it was the greatest comeback ever witnessed on earth and the greatest comeback that will ever be witnessed. What was considered the worst thing that could have ever happened in history, turned out to be the greatest victory every achieved – the victory over sin.
While Jesus’ death took everything he had and was the greatest sacrifice he could have ever paid, we reap the benefit as believers not because of our effort or any great works, but just accepting the gift. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)