This morning, we are continuing our reflections on the seven statements of Jesus from the cross, as they are recorded in the gospels. Today we come to the sixth of those “words” of Jesus, and the last word Jesus uttered according to John’s Gospel – although Luke records one final pronouncement which we will be considering next Sunday.
Today’s “word” from the cross follows immediately upon the one we looked at last Sunday. Last week, you’ll recall, Jesus is recorded as speaking just one word, translated in English as “I thirst.” In response, the soldiers put a sponge soaked with sour wine on a stick and offered Jesus a drink. Having tasted the wine, Jesus called out, again using only one single word, translated in our Bibles as three words, “It is finished.” And with that word, John tells us that Jesus died.
Jesus said, “It is finished.” Sounds pretty clear to us – Jesus’ words seems plainly spoken – very matter of fact. But as we have seen with the other statements we have looked at, there is always more than meets the eye to each thing Jesus said from the cross. We can assume the same is true with this one.
“It is finished.” What exactly did Jesus mean by that? WHAT was finished? His suffering? His life? His destiny? What is Jesus saying here?
On the surface, one might assume that this word was a statement of defeat, or at the least, a statement of resignation to failure. Considering the horrific circumstances of the previous 24 hours of his life, one could interpret the meaning of Jesus’ word this way: “O well, I did my best – too bad things didn’t work out the way I had hoped – I guess I’ll just give up.”
To the outside observer of the scene, that would be a logical conclusion – execution on a cross was the ultimate sign of failure and defeat – agonizing, humiliating, insulting, and degrading. It certainly wasn’t the what people expected of a Messiah. Maybe Jesus was lamenting that he had failed and was saying, “I can’t go on. It’s over.”
“It is finished.” Was this a statement acknowledging defeat? Not at all! When we begin to look deeper, we can see that it was actually a declaration of victory!
It’s interesting that none of the other gospel writers give us this word of Jesus as he dies. But when Mark and Matthew record this moment, they simply report that Jesus cried out with a loud voice. It is only John who tells us what it was that Jesus cried out (after all, we was present at the crucifixion). Instead of a whimper of self-pity, or even a scream of pain, Jesus shouted a word – one word – proclaiming triumph!
The word Jesus shouted was “tetelestai,” a Greek word that has a number of connotations. It can mean “finished,” as most of our Bibles translate it. But it can also mean, “to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.” That carries with it a whole different tone, doesn’t it? What exactly was completed or accomplished with Jesus’ death? That is the crucial question here.
The key is found in understanding the meaning of this word that Jesus spoke.
“People in the first century would have understood the word, “tetelestai,” because it was used in many ways: A farmer used it to describe an animal so beautiful that it seemed to have no faults. If he brought that lamb to the temple to be offered for sacrifice, the priest, whose job it was to ensure no animals with defects were offered for sacrifice, would look at it and say ‘tetelestai’! What a perfect animal you are offering to God! A carpenter, after finishing a perfect piece of furniture would smile and say ‘Tetelestai’! An artist, placing her finishing touch on a canvas would step back and pronounce it, ‘Tetelestai’! A servant would return to his master after faithfully finishing his job and report ‘Tetelestai- Done! I have finished the work you gave me to do’. And, perhaps most importantly, this Greek word was a banking term. When a person had paid off his debt, the banker would hand him a receipt with the word ‘Tetelestai’ written across it: ‘Paid in full’.
So you get the sense of this word. It is finished. There are no defects. It is perfect. The job has been performed exactly to the specifications. The debt is fully paid.” 1
Are you beginning to see why this word is so important to our understanding of the cross? One commentator has said that this one Greek word, ‘tetelestai’ is the greatest word ever spoken in all of history. Tetelestai is the one word that explains the purpose of Jesus coming into the world; it sums up the meaning of the incarnation, the power of the cross, and the glory of the resurrection. It is the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy. It is the climax of Salvation history. This is at this moment as Jesus lays down his life that the Great Transaction is completed. Jesus’ purpose for coming into the world is fulfilled, the perfect sacrifice is made, and our debt is paid in full! With his dying breath, this is what Jesus shouts, for all the world to hear! Tetelestai!
For John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross pivotal moment of history. And just so we don’t miss the significance of what is happening at that moment, John fills his Gospel with lots of clues that are hard to miss. For instance, did you notice that John specifies what kind of stick the soldiers used to lift the wine-soaked sponge to Jesus’ lips? It was a reed from the hyssop plant. Now why would John bother to tell us that?
Probably because hyssop plays a central role in one of the most important salvation stories from Jewish scripture – the story of the Exodus from Egypt. You recall the story, how Moses went to Pharaoh to demand that he let the Hebrews go, but Pharaoh refused. So God sent a series of plagues on Egypt, and still Pharaoh said no. Finally, God declared that every firstborn son throughout all of Egypt will die. But he gave special instructions to the Hebrews. Do your recall what they were to do? They were to kill a perfect lamb, then take the blood and smear it on the door posts and lintels of their houses, and the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes and spare their sons. (That’s where we get the word “Passover”.) But do you recall what they were to use to apply the precious blood that would be their salvation? They were to use hyssop branches! Any Jewish reader of John’s Gospel would make that correlation with the story of Exodus.
Then there is the chronology of Holy Week in John’s Gospel. As John tells the story, the events of that fateful week fall on different days than they do in the synoptic (or first three) gospels. Traditionally we follow the timeline that we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke: assuming that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, eaten on the Day of Passover. But in John’s Gospel, the meal may have occurred the day before Passover, with the crucifixion itself taking place on Passover itself.
Now do you see the connection John is making? If John is correct in his timeline, then Jesus, the Lamb of God, was dying on the cross at exactly the same moment that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. Those sacrificed lambs recalled the blood of the Passover lambs placed on the doorposts that brought liberation from physical bondage. But the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, smeared on the cross brings liberation from spiritual bondage. Those lambs sacrificed in the temple only brought forgiveness of specific sins for which they were offered. But the Lamb of God sacrificed on the cross brings forgiveness for all the sin of the world, for all time. It’s no wonder that John is the only gospel writer that begins his gospel by having John the Baptist point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It is also only in John that we hear Jesus declare the purpose he came into the world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17) “It is finished! Tetelestai!”
Leo Douma, of the Sydney Reformed Church described the eternal significance of this word from the cross this way:
“On that first Good Friday Jesus in great excitement and jubilation declared on the cross “It is finished!” And on Easter Sunday morning the Father replied to that jubilant cry. He opened the heavens, removed the stone from Jesus’ grave and raised Jesus to life. With that reply God had responded and said ‘Yes! It is finished. My plan of salvation, my decree is fulfilled. It is all paid in full. Here is my receipt.’ As Paul said in Romans 4:25: ‘[Jesus}…was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our
justification.’ The resurrection of Jesus is God’s “Amen!” to Jesus “It is finished!” The Son said “Done!” and the Father replied “It sure is Son, it sure is!”1
At the moment of his death, Jesus declared “Mission Accomplished.” He had done for us what a million lambs could never have done. He had freed us from the bondage of sin. He had opened the way back to the Father. He had built us a bridge to heaven. Yes, he had completed his mission and fulfilled his purpose.
Jesus paid it all. There is nothing we have to do – there is nothing we can do – to earn our salvation. All that is required is to claim it – to apply the blood of the Lamb on the doorposts of our heart. As Roger Fredrikson put it: “Jesus is the Lamb of God whose blood is shed and the one door by which we must enter.”2 Jesus is the key to our salvation. It is finished – “Tetelestai!”
But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing left for you and me to do. As the Body of Christ in the world today, his purpose must be our purpose, we are to carry on his mission – what Jesus cared about, we are to care about – what he did, we are to do. Jesus was merciful, so we are to show mercy. Jesus was forgiving, so we are to forgive. Jesus cared about issues of justice for the poor and outcast, so we must work for justice for the poor and outcast. We are to love the world as Christ loved the world. We are to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God just as Jesus did, and then work to make that Kingdom a reality. And we are to proclaim to the world the good news of Tetelestai – that God has acted in Jesus to give us eternal life!
Yes, in gratitude for what Jesus did for us on the cross, we are to be his feet and go where he would go; his hand and do what he would do, his arms to comfort those he would comfort, and his voice to say what he would say. And that was Jesus’ plan all along:
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed this prayer to his Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) And then on the evening of the resurrection, Jesus commissioned us to carry on his word: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Tetelestai – It is finished! And because it is, our work has just begun!
2Fredrikson, Roger. The Communicators Commentary: John. c1985 p. 276