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It is very significant that the Apostle John recorded the penultimate word (in Greek it is one word: tetelestai) of Jesus meaning ‘it is finished’ as recorded in John 19:30. It reads “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” When one says “It is finished,” there is a sense of completeness, accomplishment, and victory. It is a joyful experience, and yet Jesus uttered this word in much pain and anguish. He was hanging on the cross with his hands and legs nailed and a crown of thorns on his head. Despite his physical state, he uttered this word of victory. By these words, the fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation was pronounced ‘completed.’ We are assured that Jesus’ work for our salvation is fully completed.
Grammatically, the word, tetelestai is in the perfect tense, meaning that the action was completed at the time of speaking. The question we need to ask is, what is the ‘it’ referring to, or what did Jesus finish, or complete, or what did he accomplish? In verse 28 we read “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” In John 17:4, in the high priestly prayer before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” The phrase having accomplished or having completed is the same verb used in the phrase ‘it is finished.’ So what was the work God the Father had given Jesus to do that he finished or accomplished? Jesus did not mention the work he had accomplished. So reading through Scripture, both the Old and the New and the record of Jesus’ words we can know the work Jesus accomplished.
So what did Jesus finish?
1. Jesus bruised the head of Satan.
Way back when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3), God told the serpent (Satan), “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15). Jesus who is the eternal son of God, fully God who became fully man, was the offspring of the woman who would crush Satan. So on the cross Jesus, the perfect offspring of the woman, decisively struck the blow and crushed Satan. The author of Hebrews writes, “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.” (Hebrews 2:14). So Jesus defeated and disempowered the devil through his death. The power of sin and Satan was defeated.
2. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins.
Jesus said of himself in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mankind who was in sin had no way to rescue themselves from the punishment of sin. The punishment is that they incur the wrath of God and be ultimately condemned to hell where they will suffer for eternity. Man could not save himself by any means. He was doomed. He needed someone to save him. He needed someone to pay for the penalty of his sins, someone to propitiate God’s wrath. The Greek word translated “it is finished” is tetelestai, sometimes used as an accounting term that means “paid in full.” When Jesus uttered those words, He was declaring the debt owed to the Father was wiped away completely and forever. Not that Jesus wiped away any debt that He owed to the Father; rather, Jesus eliminated the debt owed by mankind—the debt of sin. Jesus took the punishment for our sins and propitiated God’s wrath. He became the perfect sacrifice. He redeemed man with his precious blood, like a lamb without blemish or spot being offered as a perfect sacrifice for sin. (1 Peter 1:19). Jesus paid the price and made us free.
I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross He suffered,
From the curse to set me free.
I will tell the wondrous story,
How my lost estate to save,
In His boundless love and mercy,
He the ransom freely gave.
Sing, oh, sing of my Redeemer,
With His blood He purchased me,
On the cross He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.1
3. Jesus defeated death and brought life.
In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that if they disobeyed him they would die (Genesis 2:16-17). God was not just talking about physical death. Scripture talks of death more in legal terms than in physical terms, as the grim yet just penalty for sin. Throughout the Bible, we see the central point that sin’s penalty is death. (see Romans 1:32, 5;12, 6:23). Jesus on the cross defeated the death that was due to sinful men, the just punishment for sin. Paul in Romans 6:10 writes, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all,” Christ bore sin’s condemnation, namely death. So God raised him from the dead, satisfied with his sin-bearing, and now he lives with God eternally. Jesus in John 10:10 said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” How did he do this? By defeating death. This he accomplished through his own death and resurrection and by giving man the gift of eternal life.
4. Jesus fulfilled every prophecy spoken of him during his life from birth to death.
Just before Jesus uttered “It is finished”, John records in John 19:28, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), ‘I thirst’”. John recognized that when Jesus said “I thirst.” it was said to fulfil Scripture. What Jesus completed on the cross was the fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecies, symbols, and foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. From Genesis to Malachi, there are over 300 specific prophecies detailing the coming of the Anointed One, all fulfilled by Jesus. From the “seed” who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15), to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, to the prediction of the “messenger” of the Lord (John the Baptist) who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah, all prophecies of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death were fulfilled and completed.2 The writers of the New Testament bear witness to it.
5. Jesus accomplished the will of his Father.
Jesus, in perfect obedience, fulfilled the Father’s will for him. Jesus said of himself, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), cf. Philippians 2:8.
Jesus did not surrender His spirit to death until He had determined that His work was finished. He was saying not just that His life was over but that His mission had been fulfilled. His purpose in coming to earth and going to the cross was accomplished. Also, in declaring that His work was finished, Jesus indicated that nothing more has to be done for our salvation. He has fully paid for our sins, and there is nothing more we need to do or that we can add to His work on our behalf. Christ finished the work of salvation that the Father had given Him to do in every aspect of His life as God incarnate; glorifying the wisdom of God, the faithfulness of God, the holiness of God, and the love of God.3
Among the four Gospel writers John alone is the one who recorded Jesus on the cross saying, ‘It is finished’. Why was it recorded? He writes in John 20:31, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Though ‘these’ refers to the signs Jesus did, it can be said that all that John has written in his Gospel, even the saying ‘it is finished’ is so that the readers and hearers of his gospel, respond in repentance and faith in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God who has accomplished all that man needed for salvation and eternal life.
May the words of this song which sums up the completed work of Jesus Christ be on our lips.
The strife is o'er, the battle done;
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.
- Paul Paul Bliss, 1876
- Anonymous/Unknown,pub.1695, tr. By Francis Pott, pub.1861 alt