By James Stalker
Like the Fifth, the Sixth Word from the Cross is, in the Greek, literally a single word; and it has been often affirmed to be the greatest single word ever uttered. It may be said to comprehend in itself the salvation of the world; and thousands of human souls, in the agony of conviction or in the crisis of death, have laid hold of it as the drowning sailor grasps the life-buoy.
Sometimes it has been interpreted as merely the last sign of ebbing life: as if the meaning were, It is all over; this long agony of pain and weakness is done at last. But the dying words of Jesus were not spoken in this tone. The Fifth Word, we are expressly told, was uttered with a loud voice; so was the Seventh; and, although this is not expressly stated about the Sixth, the likelihood is that, in this respect, it resembled the other two. It was not a cry of defeat, but of victory.
Both the suffering of our Lord and His work were finishing together; and it is natural to suppose that He was referring to both. Suffering and work are the two sides of every life, the one predominating in some cases and the other in others. In the experience of Jesus both were prominent: He had both a great work to accomplish and He suffered greatly in the process of achieving it. But now both have been brought to a successful close; and this is what the Sixth Word expresses. It is, therefore, first, the Worker's Cry of Achievement; and, secondly, the Sufferer's Cry of Relief.
Christ, when on earth, had a great work on hand, which was now finished.
This dying word carries us back to the first word from His lips which has been preserved to us: "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" Even at twelve years of age He already knew that there was a business entrusted to Him by His Father in heaven, about which His thoughts had to be occupied. We cannot perhaps say that then already He comprehended it in its whole extent. It was to grow upon Him with the development of His manhood. In lonely meditations in the fields and pastures of Nazareth it seized and inspired His mind. As He cultivated the life of prayer, it became more and more His settled purpose. The more He became acquainted with human nature, and with the character and the needs of His own age, the more clearly did it rise before Him. As He heard and read the Scriptures of the Old Testament, He saw it hinted and foreshadowed in type and symbol, in rite and institution, in law and prophets. There He found the programme of His life sketched out beforehand; and perhaps one of His uppermost thoughts, when He said, "It is finished," was that all which had been foretold about Him in the ancient Scriptures had been fulfilled.
After His public life commenced, the sense of being charged with a task which He had to fulfil was one of the master-thoughts of His life. It was written on His very face and bodily gait. He never had the easy, indeterminate air of one who does not know what He means to do in the world. "I have a baptism," He would say, "to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished." In a rapt moment, at the well of Sychar, after His interview with the Samaritan woman, when His disciples proffered Him food, He put it away from Him, saying, "I have meat to eat that ye know not of," and He added, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me and to finish His work." On His last journey to Jerusalem, as He went on in front of His disciples, they were amazed and, as they followed, they were afraid. His purpose possessed Him; He was wholly in it, body, soul and spirit. He bestowed on it every scrap of power He possessed, and every moment of His time. Looking back now from the close of life, He has not to regret that any talent has been either abused or left unused. All have been husbanded for the one purpose and all lavished on the work.
What was this work of Christ? In what terms shall we express it? At all events it was a greater work than any other son of man has ever attempted. Men have attempted much, and some of them have given themselves to their chosen enterprises with extraordinary devotion and tenacity. The conqueror has devoted himself to his scheme of subduing the world; the patriot to the liberation of his country; the philosopher to the enlargement of the realm of knowledge; the inventor has rummaged with tireless industry among the secrets of nature; and the discoverer has risked his life in opening up untrodden continents and died with his face to his task. But none ever undertook a task worthy to be compared with that which engrossed the mind of Jesus.
It was a work for God with men, and it was a work for men with God.
The thought that it was a work for God, with which God had charged Him, was often in Christ's mouth, and this consciousness was one of the chief sources of His inspiration. "I must work the work of Him that sent Me while it is day," He would say; or, "Therefore doth my Father love Me, because I do always those things which please Him." And, at the close of His life-work, He said, in words closely related to those of our text, "I have glorified Thee on the earth, I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do." This was His task, to glorify God on the earth--to make known the Father to the children of men.
But just as obviously was it a work for men with God. This was stamped on all His words and on the entire tenor of His life. He was bringing men back to God, and He had to remove the obstacles which stood in the way. He had to roll away the stone from the sepulchre in which humanity was entombed and call the dead to come forth. He had to press His weight against the huge iron gates of human guilt and doom and force them open. He had done so; and, as He said, "It is finished," He was at the same time saying to all mankind, "Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it."
The more difficult and prolonged any task is, the greater is the satisfaction of finishing it. Everyone knows what it is, after accomplishing anything on which a great deal of labour has been bestowed or the accomplishment of which has been delayed, to be able to say, "There; it is finished at last." In the more signal efforts of human genius and energy there is a satisfaction of final achievement which warms even spectators with sympathy at the distance of hundreds of years. What must it be to the poet, after equipping himself by the labours of a lifetime with the stores of knowledge and the skill in the use of language requisite for the composition of a "Divine Comedy" or a "Paradise Lost," and after wearing himself lean for many years at his task, to be able at last, when the final line has been penned, to write Finis at the bottom of his performance? What must it have been to Columbus, after he had worn his life out in seeking the patronage necessary for his undertaking and endured the perils of voyaging in stormy seas and among mutinous mariners, to see at last the sunlight on the peak of Darien which informed him that his dream was true and his lifework accomplished? When we read how William Wilberforce, the champion of Slave Emancipation, heard on his deathbed, a few hours before he breathed his last, that the British Legislature had agreed to the expenditure necessary to secure the object to which he had sacrificed his life, what heart can refuse its tribute of sympathetic joy, as it thinks of him expiring with the shouts of emancipated millions in his ears? These are feeble suggestions of the triumph with which Christ saw, fallen behind Him, His accomplished task, as He cried, "It is finished."
If Jesus had during life a vast work on hand which He was able on the cross to say He had finished, He was in quite as exceptional a degree a sufferer; yet on the cross He was able to say that His suffering also was finished.
Suffering is the reverse side of work. It is the shadow that accompanies achievement, as his shadow follows a man. It is due to the resistance offered to the worker by the medium in which he toils.
The life of Jesus was one of great suffering, because He had to do His work in an extremely resistant medium. His purpose was so beneficent, and His passion for the good of the world so obvious, that it might have been expected that He would meet with nothing but encouragement and furtherance. He was so religious that all the religious forces might have been expected to second His efforts; He was so patriotic that it would have been natural if His native country had welcomed Him with open arms; He was so philanthropic that He ought to have been the idol of the multitude. But at every step He met with opposition. Everything that was influential in His age and country turned against Him. Obstruction became more and more persistent and cruel, till at length on Calvary it reached its climax, when all the powers of earth and hell were combined with the one purpose of crushing Him and thrusting Him out of existence. And they succeeded.
But the mystery of suffering is very insufficiently explained when it is defined as the reaction of the work on the worker. While a man's work is what he does with the force of his will, suffering is what is done to him against his will. It may be done by the will of opponents and enemies. But this is never the whole explanation. Above this will, which may be thoroughly evil, there is a will which is good and means us good by our suffering.
Suffering is the will of God. It is His chief instrument for fashioning His creatures according to His own plan. While by our work we ought to be seeking to make a bit of the world such as He would have it to be, by our suffering He is seeking to make us such as He would have us to be. He blocks up our pathway by it on this side and on that, in order that we may be kept in the path which He has appointed. He prunes our desires and ambitions; He humbles us and makes us meek and acquiescent. By our work we help to make a well-ordered world, but by our suffering He makes a sanctified man; and in His eyes this is by far the greater triumph.
Perhaps this is the most difficult half of life to manage. While it is by no means easy to accomplish the work of life, it is harder still to bear suffering and to benefit by it. Have you ever seen a man to whom nature had given great talents and grace great virtues, so that the possibilities of his life seemed unbounded, while he had imagination enough to expatiate over them: a man who might have been a missionary, opening up dark countries to civilisation and the gospel; or a statesman, swaying a parliament with his eloquence and shaping the destinies of millions by his wisdom; or a thinker, wrestling with the problems of the age, sowing the seeds of light, and raising for himself an imperishable monument: but who was laid hold of by some remorseless disease or suddenly crushed by some accident; so that all at once his schemes were upset and his life narrowed to petty anxieties about his health and shifts to avoid the evil day, which could not, however, be long postponed? And did it not seem to you, as you watched him, to be far harder for him to accept this destiny with a good grace and with cheerful submission than it would have been to accomplish the career of enterprise and achievement which once seemed to lie before him? To do nothing is often more difficult than to do the greatest things, and to submit requires more faith than to achieve.
The life of Christ was hemmed and crushed in on every hand. Evil men were the proximate cause of this; but He acknowledged behind them the will of God. He had to accept a career of shame instead of glory, of brief and limited activity instead of far-travelling beneficence, of premature and violent death instead of world-wide and everlasting empire. But He never murmured; however bitter any sacrifice might be on other grounds, He made it sweet to Himself by reflecting that it was the will of His Father. When the worst came to the worst, and He was forced to cry, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me," He was swift to add, "Nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done." And thus on step after step of the ladder His thoughts were brought into perfect accord with His Father's, and His will with His Father's will.
At last on the cross the cup out of which He had drunk so often was put into His hands for the last time. The draught was large, black and bitter as never before. But He did not flinch. He drank it up. As He did so, the last segment of the circle of His own perfection completed itself; and, while, flinging the cup away after having exhausted the last drop, He cried, "It is finished," the echo came back from heaven from those who saw with wonder and adoration the perfect round of His completed character, "It is finished."
Though these two sides of the life of Christ are separable in thought, it is evident that they constitute together but one life. The work He did involved the suffering which He bore and lent to it meaning and dignity. On the other hand, the suffering perfected the Worker and thus conferred greatness on His work. In His crowning task of atoning for the sin of the world it was as a sufferer that He accomplished the will of God. And now both are finished; and henceforward the world has a new possession: it has had other perfect things; but never before and never since has it had a perfect life.
 "It is finished."
 Sometimes they are expressed by saying that life is both a Mission and a Discipline.