Jesus’ words, “Tetelestai,” “It is finished,” appear only twice in the New Testament–John 19:28 and John 19:30.
“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill 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.” (John 19:28-30, emphasis added).
What Does Tetelestai Mean?
“It is finished,” which is one of Jesus’ most important statements, is translated from the single Greek word tetelestai. The grammatical structure of the Greek word, perfect passive indicative, is very important.
The perfect tense indicates that the progress of an action has been completed and the result of that action is ongoing and with full effect. The passive voice indicates that the subject of the sentence is being acted upon, and the indicative mood indicates a statement of fact or an actual occurrence from the writer’s or speaker’s perspective. While this may sound like more of a grammar lesson than most readers care for, this information is, again, very important to understand the significance of Jesus’ words. Allow me to break it down.
What Did Jesus Finish?
Let’s begin by identifying what the “it” is. What did Jesus finish? Jesus gives us the answer throughout the gospels, and the New Testament writers give us the answer throughout the epistles.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
Jesus obeyed the Father by being the perfect fulfillment of the Law of God and the prophecies regarding the Messiah. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36).
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).
Jesus did not come to preach a message of coexistence, tolerance, or ecumenism. Jesus made it clear that you are either with the one true God or against Him. Such truth was and is today the most divisive message the world has ever known. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him” (John 5:43). “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
Jesus came in the name of the only true God and to perfectly do His will. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38).
Jesus came to perfectly do the works of His Father so people could understand that He and the Father were one (John 10:30). Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:46-48).
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (John 14:6).
Jesus came as the light of the world, giving fallen mankind the opportunity to move from utter darkness into His marvelous light. He came to save people. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“Then Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice'” (John 18:37).
Jesus came to earth, truly God and truly Man to be the incarnation of the Truth of God. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:14-18).
Jesus came to make propitiation for our record of sin against God. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11).
Jesus came to make reconciliation between God and man possible. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Jesus came to die for and to purify His Bride, the Church. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Jesus came to glorify His Father through His life, death, and resurrection. Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father.
“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 sympathize 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” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Jesus came to make the way, the only way, for people to find mercy, grace, and help in time of need. Jesus, the sympathetic Savior, finished the work given to Him by His Father.
Jesus Declared His Work Finished!
Having identified the “it” (the work God the Father had given God the Son to accomplish on earth), let’s take a look at what Jesus meant when he cried out that He had finished the work.
As I mentioned early in this article, having an understanding of the structure of the sentence in the Greek text is very helpful toward grasping the full weight of Christ’s forever-memorable words.
What Jesus did through His perfect earthly existence, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection fully completed the work the Father had given Him to do. Not only did He complete His salvific work, but His accomplishment is fully efficacious, today and will be forevermore. There is nothing more to add–nothing more to be done by God, man, or religious institutions. The undeniable, factual, historic, and eternal work of Jesus Christ has been completed–is complete–and will forever remain complete. “IT…IS…FINISHED!”
“It is finished!” Jesus finished the work given to Him by His Father, which culminated at the cross. At the cross, the gavel of the Supreme Judge of the Universe crashed upon His mighty bench when God the Father, pleased to crush His Son, poured the full cup of His wrath against sin upon His innocent Son.
“It is finished!” At the cross, the Great Exchange took place (2 Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:13-15). The eternal debt owed for the sin of mankind was paid in full. God the Father looked upon His perfect, precious, and priceless Son as if He had lived the filthy, detestable, sin-stained lives of fallen mankind. And, for those who repent and receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, God the Father looks upon them as if they had lived His Son’s perfect, precious, and priceless life.
“It is finished!” At the cross, God kept His promise to crush Satan’s head through the bruising of His Son. The power of sin and death was vanquished once and for all time.
“It is finished!” Jesus Christ’s finished work on the cross forever made man’s work to appease God, to please God, and to be reconciled to God, impotent and blasphemous.
The sin debt I owe to God was and is paid in full by my Lord and Savior, my Master and King, Jesus Christ, when He shed His innocent blood on the cross on my behalf! IT…IS…FINISHED!
Implications of Tetelestai
The implications of Jesus’ words on the cross are eternally positive for those who repent and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior–by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. However, the implications of Jesus’ words on the cross are eternally negative for any organization or individual who seeks to add to, detract from, or replace not only Jesus’ words on the cross but also the work He accomplished to the glory of God the Father.
Every man-made religion and each of its faithful adherents stand, right now, in the cross-hairs of God’s wrath.
“For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:34-36).
Roman Catholicism denies the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross through the practice and observance of the mass. During the mass, through the unbiblically magical art of transubstantiation (Jesus literally becoming the bread and the wine), Jesus must sacrifice Himself again and again for sin.
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross by denying Christ died on the cross and by insisting one must be a member of the Watchtower Society and obey the Law of God to receive their demonic brand of salvation.
Mormonism denies the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross by adding their perceived righteousness and works to their ungodly salvation process. According to 2 Nephi 25:23, in the Book of Mormon, salvation is by grace, plus works. “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
Islam denies the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross by seeing Jesus as nothing more than a prophet, second to their false prophet Muhammad. They also believe it was Judas (a treacherous false convert), not Jesus, who died on the cross.
But the implications of Jesus’ words on the cross extend beyond false religions and into American Evangelicalism.
Some churches deny the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross by spending time and resources wooing the unsaved to the “Christian Club” instead of calling them to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, how many times I have heard the testimonies of professing Christians–testimonies that culminate with happy membership at a church and not with the bending of the knee, in repentance and by faith, at the foot of the cross.
Some churches deny the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, diminishing the gospel as the power of God for salvation, by insisting Jesus and the gospel need the help of man’s innovation and perceived ability to make the gospel more palatable. This is demonstrated through gimmicks, sales pitches, bait and switch tactics, and playing to the primal desires of health, wealth, prosperity, ease, comfort, and happiness without accountability.
Some churches deny the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross by teaching unbiblical mantras such as:
- “Christians have to earn the right to share the gospel with someone.”
- “Unbelievers need to see Jesus in you before they will hear what you have to say.”
- “People need to hear more than ‘Jesus can forgive your sins and give you eternal life.’ They need help with the real problems they’re facing today.”
Some churches deny the efficacy of Jesus’ finished work on the cross by failing to distinguish service, helps, and hospitality from evangelism, which is the actual and literal presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are lost and bound for Hell.
And the list goes on…
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” He meant it. He actually meant what He said. He really meant it. For any group or any individual to add or detract from Christ’s words or finished work, regardless of the religious stripes they wear, is the height of arrogance and the depth of depravity.
But let’s conclude on an up note. Having read several commentaries on John 19:30, I was particularly moved by the thoughts of Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry. I will be adding the following to my open-air preaching Bible:
The dying word wherewith he breathed out his soul (v. 30): When he had received the vinegar, as much of it as he thought fit, he said, It is finished; and, with that, bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. Observe,
What he said, and we may suppose him to say it with triumph and exultation, Tetelestai- It is finished, a comprehensive word, and a comfortable one.
It is finished, that is, the malice and enmity of his persecutors had now done their worst; when he had received that last indignity in the vinegar they gave him, he said, “This is the last; I am now going out of their reach, where the wicked cease from troubling.”It is finished, that is, the counsel and commandment of his Father concerning his sufferings were now fulfilled; it was a determinate counsel, and he took care to see every iota and tittle of it exactly answered, Acts 2:23. He had said, when he entered upon his sufferings, Father, thy will be done; and now he saith with pleasure, It is done. It was his meat and drink to finish his work (ch. 4:34), and the meat and drink refreshed him, when they gave him gall and vinegar. It is finished, that is, all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, which pointed at the sufferings of the Messiah, were accomplished and answered. He speaks as if, now that they had given him the vinegar, he could not bethink himself of any word in the Old Testament that was to be fulfilled between him and his death but it had its accomplishment; such as, his being sold for thirty pieces of silver, his hands and feet being pierced, his garments divided, etc.; and now that this is done. It is finished. It is finished, that is, the ceremonial law is abolished, and a period put to the obligation of it. The substance is now come, and all the shadows are done away. Just now the veil is rent, the wall of partition is taken down, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, Eph. 2:14, 15. The Mosaic economy is dissolved, to make way for a better hope. It is finished, that is, sin is finished, and an end made of transgression, by the bringing in of an everlasting righteousness. It seems to refer to Dan. 9:24. The Lamb of God was sacrificed to take away the sin of the world, and it is done, Heb. 9:26. It is finished, that is, his sufferings were now finished, both those of his soul and those of his body. The storm is over, the worst is past; all his pains and agonies are at an end, and he is just going to paradise, entering upon the joy set before him. Let all that suffer for Christ, and with Christ, comfort themselves with this, that yet a little while and they also shall say, It is finished.It is finished, that is, his life was now finished, he was just ready to breathe his last, and now he is no more in this world, ch. 17:11. This is like that of blessed Paul (2 Tim. 4:7), I have finished my course, my race is run, my glass is out, mene, mene-numbered and finished. This we must all come to shortly. It is finished, that is, the work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed, at least the hardest part of the undertaking is over; a full satisfaction is made to the justice of God, a fatal blow given to the power of Satan, a fountain of grace opened that shall ever flow, a foundation of peace and happiness laid that shall never fail. Christ had now gone through with his work, and finished it, ch. 17:4. For, as for God, his work is perfect; when I begin, saith he, I will also make an end. And, as in the purchase, so in the application of the redemption, he that has begun a good work will perform it; the mystery of God shall be finished. 1
Usage of Tetelestai
While doing some research for this article, I learned there were several ways the word tetelestai was used in Greco-Roman culture—all of them illustrative of Jesus’ finished work on the cross.
An artist might have said Tetelestai! when he finished a painting in order to announce, “the picture is perfect.” Jesus, the Master Artisan, declared from the cross that the picture of salvation He had drawn from eternity past was always perfect, but now complete.
It is finished!
A servant might have confidently said Tetelestai! when asked by his master if the work he had been assigned to do was complete. The servant would say, “Yes, master. I have finished the work.” Jesus, the Suffering Servant, completed the work His Father had given Him.
It is finished!
A judge might have said Tetelestai! when he conferred a sentence or when issuing a ruling that a sentence had been completed. The judge would say, “Justice has been served.” There is only one Lawgiver and Judge–only One who is able to save and destroy. And as the Father turned His back on His Son, the Father was well pleased. It pleased the Father to crush His Son.
It is finished!
A priest might have said Tetelestai! when he recognized an unblemished and acceptable sacrifice for God. The priest would announce to the person offering the sacrifice that the offering was acceptable according to the law of God. And, “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 sympathize 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” (Hebrews 4:14-16). Yes, our Great High Priest, Jesus the Lord, not only mediates for His people as a priest but He Himself was and is the perfect sacrifice.
It is finished!
A merchant might have said Tetelestai! after stamping a bill “the debt has been paid.” The Christian’s debt has been paid in full by the propitiation of Jesus Christ. By Jesus paying the Christian’s sin debt in full, “God [has] made [us] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:13-15).
It is finished!
A soldier might have said Tetelestai! as a battle cry toward a vanquished foe. The soldier would yell, “You are finished!” Jesus’ cry on the cross was not a cry of despair or defeat. Oh, no. When Jesus cried with a loud voice, He was declaring victory over the enemy–Satan, sin, and death.
It is finished!
The Artist had the last word as to the meaning of the painting—not the art critic. The Servant knew if the work in the house had been completed and approved by the Master—not the stranger who entered the house. The Judge determined the sentence, its execution, and its satisfaction—not the convicted criminal. The Priest determined if one’s sacrifice was acceptable to God—not the penitent. The Merchant determined if a debt was paid—not the debtor. The Victorious Warrior determined the future of his combatant—not the defeated enemy.
Jesus Christ is the Artisan, the Servant, the Judge, the Priest, the Merchant, and the Victor—you are not. Your religion is not. Your intellect is not. Therefore, repent of any false ideologies that add works to Christ’s finished work. Repent of any arrogant notions, through manmade philosophies of ministry, which would presume to finish the work that Christ has already finished.
Jesus said, “It is finished!” And He meant it.
IT…IS…FINISHED! It is finished, indeed. Thank You, Lord Jesus. Thank You.
1. Matthew Henry’s Unabridged Commentary on John 19:30
I wrote this article in 2015. I’ve decided to publish the article, here, hoping my readers will find the article edifying.