We’ve taken time during Lent to think about Jesus seven words from the cross in part because words have meaning. We consider Jesus’ words because we think they’re worth something, they mean something, they say something. They reveal what our Savior is thinking and doing as he brings his ministry to a close. As such, Jesus’ words from the cross, express divine things and have life-changing significance. Of the words Jesus spoke, none is very long – at most 11 English words – two of them in Greek are as short as one word. Last week Jesus spoke his thirst in one word, but said enough for a sermon as he fulfilled prophecy and prepared to speak again with strength. Tonight Jesus again speaks only one word but with it expresses everything we need to hear.
From John 19:30, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
So that we can find the comfort Jesus intends for sinners, consider with me tonight what this one word means. Words, of course, can mean many things and the word Jesus speaks is full of meaning that might remind us of the beauty and grace of his work. The Greek word Jesus spoke is τετελεσται – it comes from a verb that means “bring to an end” or “to finish”. Thus, most often we translate, “It is finished.” But when Jesus spoke that word from the cross, those standing around might have been reminded of different things – things that might serve us well to consider for ourselves.
For instance, they say that a painter finishing a painting to perfection might have cried out, “τετελεσται! / It’s perfect!”. Similarly, this word is the one priests might use when they talked about “carrying out” their temple work, their worship service, all the right motions and words in just the right way, “perfectly”. It’s said, just the same, when they would look for a lamb for sacrifice, the perfect, unblemished one they might call a word like this: “perfect”, “complete”, “just right”.
As you stand around the cross, hear Jesus cry “τετελεσται” and think of his work in this way. Not on any day have you or I achieved God’s “be holy / be perfect” demand. We know how often we are tempted and fail and mar the perfect painting that would be holiness. We know how often too we’re tempted to minimize our sins and to think that everything will be good enough if we present our imperfect pictures, our imperfect procedures, our spotted lives to the holy God. Hear at the cross that God works everything out in one perfect way only. Hear at the cross the only one ever who was perfect, complete, and just right in every way. Every day, even on his worst day, Jesus said and did everything God desired. Here, “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” – God made perfect sacrifice for sinners’ imperfections – redeemed us. This one who cries out, “It is finished” makes us confident because here “we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” And this one brings his perfect work to stand before God in our place, to mediate for us. For every imperfect moment you have, here is perfection presented to God instead. This perfect, holy one says, “It is finished.”
There is another sense in which this word was often used. When someone had a debt and it was paid off, they might write “τετελεσται” on their certificate of debt. It’s just like when you pay off your hospital bill and they send you a notice stamped, “paid in full”. It means there’s nothing left to be paid, your account is clear, no debt outstanding. Some say they used the word in almost the same way with those convicted of a crime. The criminal record was a debt against society and might even have been tacked to the door of the jail cell where the person served their time – to assure that he “paid in full” for his crimes.
As you gather again around the cross, hear Jesus cry “τετελεσται” and think of his work in this way. We ought to be troubled by our sins – in this season, we see most clearly their cost – God’s own Son sacrificed perfection to make payment. Perhaps, however, the guilt of sin tempts you in a particular way. Satan whispers in your ear as he plays the memory movie, “There is no payment for that…” “Oh no, you did what? And you think God will ever accept you? Your guilt is too great.” But as you’ve gathered here, listen to what Jesus is saying in his work for you. Paul said it in a couple of places, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [because God sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us.” In Jesus’ body and soul on the cross, every sin is punished so that Paul can say that believers in Jesus Christ have no condemnation waiting – not for any of their sins, not ever – instead they have a perfect record. Or Paul said it this way too, “[God] forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” There is no rap-sheet, there is no criminal record in God’s file about you. That was wiped clean, nailed to the cross to die. For every single one of your sins Jesus paid in full and said, “It is finished.”
There is one other way this word was used in Jesus’ day. If a servant was given a task by his master, he would run about to get it done and at the end of the day hope to say, “τετελεσται / The work is completed. There’s nothing more to do.” This is the best way to think about Jesus word tonight. Words don’t just mean anything – and they certainly don’t mean everything they can all the time. Words are always used in context, in a setting, with meaning, for a purpose. Just so here… It’s right to see Jesus doing perfect work – pleasing to God in our place. It’s right to think of Jesus’ work as the payment in full for all our guilt. But do you remember how John introduced the fifth word at the cross? He said, “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished…” That’s just like what Jesus prayed to his Father the night before in the Upper Room: “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the workyou gave me to do.”
Gathered around the cross of Christ, it’s easy to think about all we have done, to see the gravity of our sins. But at the end, God would have us think about something else: the gravity of his grace. Hear Jesus say, “τετελεσται” and know that his saving work is complete in every way. Complete regarding everything God demands: in his life, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law of God and proved himself to be the Messiah; he taught God’s truth no matter the opposition and did not change to be palatable or appealing; he did his Father’s will and every day worked so that people might know that he is the true God and Savior. Jesus’ work is complete regarding everything to represent us: he did his work walking among us as true man, finally to make perfect payment for sins, becoming sin himself so that we might become the righteousness God is. Jesus completely glorified his Father and completely assured our salvation by finishing everything he had to do. In fact, he says it tonight in such a way that we should understand that his salvation stands completed, like a tower overlooking all of time; it has been finished for now and forevermore. So that there is not a thing left for you to do… Nothing, that is, except to sing… Maybe like we do in that familiar hymn: “Nothing in my hands I bring, only to thy cross I cling.” Or maybe, always about his victory…
In a familiar Lenten hymn, we often sing that – the astounding victory Jesus wins, the blessing and benefit he brings, all at the cross where he gives himself into death not the victim but the victor:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; Sing the ending of the fray.
Now above the cross, the trophy, Sound the loud triumphant lay.
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer, As a victim won the day.
Faithful cross, true sign of triumph, Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom, None in fruit your equal be,
Symbol of the world’s redemption, For your burden makes us free.
In this sixth word, all wrapped up in one word, hear that: you are free. Ours is the confidence and joy that victory over every sin is won and there is nothing left to do. Because Jesus has said, “It is finished” in every way.