Anyone who is being crucified suffers from dehydration, with the mouth and throat unbearably dry and the tongue grossly swollen (see Ps 22:15). At first Jesus had refused the relief of the offered sour wine (Matt 27:34) so that all of his senses might be fully alert for his suffering. But hours later, the excruciating pain of crucifixion had begun to dull the senses and make speaking almost impossible, so Jesus accepted what he had earlier refused: “When Jesus had received the wine, he exclaimed, ‘It is finished!’ ” (John 19:30).
This cry consists of a single word in Greek—tetelestai. It is in the perfect tense, which presupposes a past occurrence but focuses attention on the present results of that event, so the word may be translated “it stands complete” or “it is finished.” It is a word an artist would use when she stands back after spending weeks perfecting what could become a masterpiece and gently whispers, with great relief and pleasure, tetelestai. Perhaps Jesus had used the word in his life as a carpenter when he had finished making a bedside table or plough for a client in Sepphoris. Running off to Joseph, he calls out “Abba, Abba, come quickly!” and proudly shows his foster father his completed carpentry.
“Splendid, Yeshua,” says Joseph, placing an approving hand on Jesus’ shoulder. “Tetelestai.”
The identity of the ‘It’ in ‘It is finished!’
The subject of the verb, the identity of the “it,” is not stated, but it could refer to Jesus’ life on earth, his work on earth, or both. Jesus realized that his death was imminent—perhaps only minutes away—when he would commit his spirit into his Father’s care. When he exclaims, “Tetelestai,” he is speaking in anticipation, under the shadow of his atoning death.
As he surveyed his earthly life, he knew he had completely and perfectly fulfilled God’s will. He had earlier observed, “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to bring his work to completion” (John 4:34), and now he could affirm, “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Tetelestai! This “work” involved his full and perfect exposure of God’s heart (John 1:18) and his becoming God’s paschal lamb (John 1:29), actions that brought salvation to humankind. From this perspective, “it” means the provision of salvation.
This cry was spoken in a loud voice. This is not said explicitly, but it is an appropriate inference from the Gospel accounts. According to both Matthew (27:48–50) and Mark (15:36–37), it was only after Jesus had been given the wine that he cried out again “in a loud voice” and before he yielded up his spirit. Tetelestai, “It is finished!” was a cry of triumph, not the lament or complaint of a defeated foe. The victim had become the victor.
Significantly, this is the only cry of Jesus on the cross that was not spoken to somebody, but because it was spoken loudly, anyone within earshot could have heard this victorious shout.
This article about what Jesus meant when he cried out from the cross, “It is finished!” is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris, available now from Lexham Press.
- How Jesus’ Last Words on the Cross Reveal the Glory of Reconciliation
- What Does ‘Binding and Loosing’ Mean in Matthew 16:19?
- 5 Insights for Interpreting the Deaths of Ananias and Sapphira
- Strange Fire in Leviticus 10, and Why It Earned a Death Sentence
- The Unforgivable Sin: Evidence You Have Not Committed It
- Between the Cross and the Throne: The Book of Revelation (Transformative Word) by Matthew Emerson
- Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament by Murray J. Harris
- Perspectives on Justification by Faith: Five Views on Its Meaning and Significance (4 hour course)
- Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions by Sam Storms