“It is Finished”: our Lord’s Sixth Word from the Cross
What is history? That simple question covers a multitude of complexity, profundity, richness, and depth. In the end, the question touches upon everything that exists.
Fundamentally there have been two answers to the question. One answer has offered meaning to history outside of history itself. It has talked of a perfect ideal (god) beyond history, beyond mankind. This has ever been the province of the Greeks and of pagan thought. Ultimately, this world-view denies the importance or significance of history because it looks to something beyond history. But we live and breathe in a historical world. The Greek view ultimately destroys mankind because it destroys the milieu of humanity and the warp and woof of our existence.
The second answer looks to history itself to give meaning. It sees history as a canvass upon which the Living God has painted a picture of Himself and of His creatures. Within the global tide of human affairs upon the earth runs a stream which ultimately becomes a mighty rushing torrent embracing all mankind. That stream is the history of God saving His people—which ultimately expands to fill the whole earth.
In the whole course of human history, along the full traverse of the history of redemption—which is real history—stand utterances or events which are the pillars of all else that exists. As we come to the sixth word from the Cross, “It is finished” we are faced with such a word.
This word shapes all human history, all human existence. It gives more meaning to life than a thousand thousand works of art, books, or musical scores. It dwarfs the affairs of government. All else lies beneath, subject to its glorious light. In case you have not realised it, your life is utterly shaped by the sixth word from the Cross. Millions upon millions of Christian brethren and sisters throughout the whole Christian era have found this one word (in Greek it is one simple word) gives more meaning, more hope, light, joy, courage and triumph than any other.
If ever there was a word that shook the very foundations of the world, that cast down kingdoms, that raised up the poor and wretched of the earth, that liberated men from sin, that brought them from the dungeon of degraded despair, and that forever broke the bastions of human pride—it is this one word “tetelestai”—it is finished!
Small wonder, then, that our Saviour having gone to Hell in our place; having borne the full weight of guilt for all the sins of all His people for all time; having emerged from Hell with that cry of dereliction that finally accomplished all things to do with our redemption—small wonder, that He asks His Father for something to moisten His lips. He is about to make the utterance before God in the hearing of the angels, the Devil and man that will provide the foundation of everything else. He needs to make the utterance clearly, unambiguously, strongly. It is too important to mutter or whisper. He needs to drink in order to speak forth.
We note that Matthew and Mark tell us He shouted these final words in a loud voice. This utterance is not the word of despair or pain or frustration. It is a word of pronouncement. It is a word of declaration. In this sixth declaration, the Lord is our Hero, our Champion, our great Priest-King.
How we marvel at the carefulness of our Lord Messiah. He is acting in His official capacity as our High Priest. Every word has meaning. Nothing may be neglected. He does all things well. In order to do them well He needs help. He needs to moisten His lips so that He can speak clearly, so that God and man, angels and devils may hear. May hear, and be left in no doubt.
We have said that this sixth word is one of the most significant utterances of all history. We will return to that thought in due course. But first, let us consider the form and meaning of the word itself, then the audiences—that is, those to whom it was spoken. The tense in Greek is quite particular. It signifies the end of what had been a process. The tense indicates the terminal point of a journey, such that while the journey had ended, all the accomplishments of that journey would continue. We use a similar construction in English, for example, when we say, “the wedding day had come.” We imply a deliberate process which had led up to that final day—which in turn would shape everything afterwards. So with this tense used in “tetelestai”. Whatever the Lord had been going through, it had now finally and completely come to an end.
Secondly, the word itself indicates finality. It means to bring, or come to an end, to complete. “It has been finished!”
Next we need to consider, to whom is our Lord speaking? First, and most importantly, our Lord is speaking to His Father. His work as Messiah upon earth has come to an end. His course of suffering as our substitute those long years has been accomplished. It has ended. We cannot do better than recite the words of the Heidelberg Catechism: “That during His whole life, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race.” That has now ended. It has been finished.
Yes, . . . .especially at the end. We have meditated upon His descent into Hell. Upon how He stayed true and did not sin. We have reflected upon how He bore our punishment, sustained by His love for His Father and for us. The full price had been paid. It is finished! It is over!
He speaks this Word with all the authority that God has granted Him. Notice He does not say, “I have finished”, but He speaks impersonally—“It is finished.” There is great significance in this. It takes us back to the eternal contracts that lay between the Father and the Son—contracts for our salvation.
So often our Lord during His public ministry, has spoken of the understandings, the arrangements, the terms of contract entered into by the Father and the Son. Note, for example, this wonderful language of the High Priestly prayer: “I glorified Thee upon the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was.” (John 17: 4, 5). This is the language of covenant, of binding arrangements, of terms and conditions, of mutual commitments, of agreements, of a divine pact!
Our Lord implicitly evokes all of that covenant’s terms between His Father and Himself when He says in a loud voice, “It is finished.” It has been done Father, as we agreed. Praise be!
Now, dear Christian: note this, and note it well! The Father does not contradict, but confirms. He gives two immediate “words” of amen: the darkness ends and the veil of the Temple preventing access to the Holy of Holies is ripped apart. God confirms that the terms of covenant for our salvation have been completely and perfectly fulfilled—that it is, indeed, finished.
Within three days, the Father will provide the third (and greatest) amen by raising Him from the dead.
In the second place, our Lord cries out to the Father in the hearing of the angels. The Psalms speak of the angels of the Lord encamping around those who fear God. All during His life, our Lord was specially and constantly ministered to by these holy messengers and servants of God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in particular, Luke tells us that an angel from heaven appeared, strengthening Him in His agony of heart.
But while Scripture does not explicitly state, it is obvious that the angels had been directed away from Him on Golgotha. He was alone. It was all part of the road of dereliction and being forsaken of God.
Jesus was utterly confident of His ability to command the angels. Even when arrested, He rebuked Peter’s attempt to rescue Him, saying “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Luke 26:53) And who can forget the terrible power of these wonderful beings. In one night, just one angel had destroyed the army of Sennacherib and 185,000 died at his hand. Twelve legions, or 72,000 of these creatures, could destroy the planet. And, we add, would have destroyed the planet, if He had not first prayed, “Father, forgive . . .”
On Golgotha they had all been withdrawn. No longer could they look upon Him with love and favour. But now Jesus announces that it is over. Once again they might resume their ministry to Him, and join with Him in His triumphal procession as He is about to enter Paradise.
Thirdly, He speaks to His Father in the hearing of Satan. For a time during the hours of darkness He had been consigned to the dominion of the evil one, to the powers of Hell, to the despite of him who utterly hates all mankind, and in particular, the Son of Man. That serpent of old had bitten His heel. That bite brought with it a pain beyond our comprehension or experience.
Our Lord’s sixth word carries great meaning for the devils. In their hearing also He pronounces that it is over. They have not triumphed. Rather, He has triumphed over them. He has not joined with them in their despite, their despair, their hatred of God. The head of the serpent has been crushed. All that is evil in the world, all the works of the Devil, all the influence of the Prince of Darkness and the powers of the air will now be removed and destroyed as a consequence of Messiah’s pronouncement: “it is finished.”
Finally, He speaks in our hearing, for our benefit. It is for us principally and primarily that He has asked for the sour wine, that we might hear and witness what He says to the Father. For the Father sees and hears in secret. Our Lord might have spoken these words, “it is finished” in His heart to His Father. But no—these words are to be spoken out, publicly, in our hearing. Ever the Shepherd, ever concerned for the welfare of His beloved sheep, it is for our sake that He speaks out loudly.
Tetelestai! It is finished! What a comfort and consolation those words have been to the Church down through the centuries. How often we, along with countless Christians, have meditated upon them in our dark watches of the night. If there is one Greek word you should know, one Greek expression you should make it your business to understand, one Greek word that has become the sublimest word in all history and human language it is “tetelestai”, the sixth word from the Cross.
Man is born to sin as the sparks fly upwards. It is ever part of our existence to try to cover our sins, to make our own atonement for them. It is ever our temptation pridefully to seek to add to the work of our Saviour. Or, when the pendulum swings along the arc of sin, it is ever our want to despair and doubt that enough has been done, that our sin is truly covered, that we are washed clean and that our sin is utterly taken away in the sight of God.
But this sixth word cuts through it all. How often we find faith and hope in this word. I hear it spoken so clearly, powerfully, meaningfully, as if I were standing at this very moment at Golgotha. It is the sum of all my hope. It is the assuaging of all my doubt and fears. It enables me to sit clothed and in my right mind. It is to me more precious than life itself. Because of this one word, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
His work of atonement has been completed. It is over. It is done. On His shoulders, as He walked through Hell, He carried the guilt of Adam’s first sin. He bore Abraham’s lies. He bore the guilt of David’s murders. And to my fathers' sins, mine were added and heaped upon Him, and He bore them all. He stood before the bar of God’s justice and having stood there and having gone to Hell, He returned and said it had been finished. It had been completed. He wanted me to hear this word. He knew I needed to hear this word.
And so, I have been set free—and not me only, but all His people.
There are three great proclamations in Scripture of things being finished. All three are pillars or foundations of history and of our collective life. The first is found in Genesis 2:1: “thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.” Because creation was completed, God rested; so the Sabbath was established. Creation completed is the first pillar of history, of our lives.
The third great proclamation of things being finished is found in Revelation. The seventh angel pours out the seventh bowl and from the throne and temple comes a loud voice, declaring “It is done.” (Rev. 16:17) As a result, judgment falls upon Babylon, and we are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9) and the eternal Sabbath.
The beginning of history. The end of history. Between these two is the central pillar which upholds the bridge of history. The central pillar is the triumphant cry of our Saviour to the Father at the end of Golgotha: “It is finished.” It is indeed a word that shapes the entire course of mankind upon the earth.
It utterly shapes the life of the Church, of every believer. I say again, it is the most significant word that any man has uttered (or will utter) in all the long years of mankind upon the earth.
This is the undoubted Christian faith. Thus it was confessed by our forbears, in both formal confession and in hymn.
“. . . we justly say with the apostle Paul that we know nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified; we count all things but loss and refuse for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, in whose wounds we find all manner of consolation. Neither is it necessary to seek or invent any other means of being reconciled to God than this only sacrifice, once offered, by which He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” (Belgic Confession)
“Hark the voice of love and mercy
Sounds aloud from Calvary;
See! It rends the rocks asunder
Shakes the earth, and veils the sky.
‘It is finished!’ ‘It is finished!’
‘It is finished!’ Hear the dying Saviour cry
Hear the dying Saviour cry!
“’It is finished!’ O what pleasure
Do these precious words afford;
Heavenly blessings without measure
Flow to us from Christ the Lord;
‘It is finished!’ ‘It is finished!’
‘It is finished!’ Saints the dying words record.
Saints the dying words record.”
You too, dear Christian, mark it well, and enter into the Sabbath rest of our Lord. Let that great triumphant cry from Golgotha guard your heart in the dark watches of the night and never forsake you as long as you shall live.