[Last night, The District Church’s East Side campus marked Good Friday at a joint service with The Table Church and Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church. We explored the Seven Last Words of Jesus, and this was my contribution to “It is Finished.”]
It is finished. Three words in English, but one word in the New Testament:
One of the most powerful words ever spoken. One of the most definitive words ever spoken. One of the truest words ever spoken.
See, in Jesus’ day, that word tetelestai was very common; it was used in several ways.
1. It was used by a servant, reporting to his or her master. Tetelestai: “The work you gave me to do is finished.” In the gospel of Luke, it says, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.” And by that, it means the work that his Father gave him to do. It’s not that he wasn’t working before that—most of his life, he worked faithfully as a carpenter in Nazareth; but he also knew that there was a work to do that was greater still. In John 17, he prays, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” The work of making God known, the work of showing the world what God is like, the work of bringing the kingdom to earth, the work of inviting all of creation into right relationship with its Creator. This work is finished.
2. The word tetelestai was used by artists and writers. When a sculpture was done, a picture finished, a manuscript completed, the creator would say, “Tetelestai. It is finished.” The story of creation God had been writing, the tapestry of salvation God had been weaving, the masterpiece of love God had been crafting—since before the dawn of time—each of these found its completion in the Son of God hanging on the cross. Here at Calvary, God’s work of art is finished because somehow, out of the death of that one comes life for all.
3. The word tetelestai was used by merchants. In ancient times, just like today, people would sometimes use credit to make purchases—they would incur debt that they would have to pay off. And when they had erased their debt, when whatever it was they had purchased no longer had any payments to be made, the creditor would write that word on the document as a kind of receipt: “Tetelestai. Paid in full; the debt is no more.” There is no more to be done; Jesus paid it all.
4. The word tetelestai was used by priests. In Jesus’ day, people brought animals to the temple in Jerusalem to be sacrificed, both as a price to be paid for their sins and also as a sign of their worship and devotion to God. According to the Law of Moses, the animal had to be whole, uninjured, and spotless—the book of Leviticus says, “without blemish.” The priest would examine the animal and, if it was found to pass the test, he would declare, “Tetelestai!” meaning, “It is found suitable for sacrifice.” Jesus, the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, found suitable to pay the price for our transgressions.
5. And finally, the word tetelestai was used by jailers and judges. In those days, when someone was convicted of a crime, he or she would have what was called a “certificate of debt,” which listed all the crimes of which the person was convicted, and it was usually nailed to their cell door so that all could see. And when that person served his or her sentence, the word tetelestai would be written across that certificate of debt and that document would be given to the criminal to show that all crimes had been paid for. Jesus took the sin of the world upon his shoulders; for the first time in his life, he felt the separation from God that sin creates, and not because of any transgression of his own. The apostle Paul wrote, in his letter to the Colossians: “When you were dead in your transgressions … God made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us … and He has … nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). Tetelestai. The crime has been paid for.
Tetelestai. The work is complete. The masterpiece is finished. The story finds its apex. The tapestry finds its golden thread. The play finds its climax. The mission is accomplished. The job is done. The sacrifice has been found. The price is paid in full.
Tetelestai. It is finished.