“ὅτε οὖν ἔλαβεν τὸ ὄξος [ὁ] Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Τετέλεσται, καὶ κλίνας τὴν κεφαλὴν παρέδωκεν τὸ πνεῦμα.”
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
My favorite Christmas present as long as I can remember is a woodworking of the word tetelesai. There is so much significance to the Greek word tetelestai. It means “it is finished” or “it is a completion.” The Latin Vulgate uses consummatuum, from which we get our word “consummation.” Jesus’ last cry formed the sentence “It is a consummation!”
In many of the trash piles of ancient documents we have found are these boring and seemingly insignificant bills of sale. Yes, the ancient world used to use those as well. When someone would complete the contract, the person to whom the contract was completed would write a bill of sale, indicating that the debt had been paid in full. Moulton and Milligan say this:
“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner…” (p. 630)
So, basically, it was like a stamp that said: “paid in full”!
There are two things to take note of here:
1. Tetelesai is in the past perfect. We don’t have that in English, at least in such a precise form. It indicates an action that has taken place in the past that has ongoing application into the future. Basically, Christ was saying emphatically “it is paid by me and it will always be paid.”
2. The most interesting thing about this cry of Jesus is that he said he was thirsty as an immediate prologue to his death. “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28). Why did he need wine before he was about to die? Was he trying to sustain his life a little longer? Or was he just trying to fulfill the prophecy of the Psalmist that said he would thirst:
“The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery; my tongue sticks to my gums.” (Psalm 22:15).
Christ was not trying to fulfill a prophecy. The prophecy was made by the Psalmist precisely because Christ would thirst. The reason why he asked for wine was so he could wet his tongue and throat to make the most important proclamation ever uttered. But this proclamation wasn’t a sigh of relief, as it might sound. When he said “it is finished,” he wasn’t expressing relief because his exhaustion and pain were about to cease, but because he needed to wet his dry throat so that he could proclaim victory to the world . . . no, to the universe. He was making an announcement to all of existence and this is the most victorious claim that has ever been made.
John Bernard, in his excellent commentary on John, says “τετέλεσται is not a cry of relief that all is over; it is a shout of Victory.” (Bernard, John Henry, ICC John).
What an incredible word. What an incredible thought. Christ is proclaiming to you that the confirmation of your salvation has been acquired and it shall have ongoing effects forever. Paid in full!
Here is what Calvin said about this word. It is beautiful:
“Now this word, which Christ employs, well deserves our attention; for it shows that the whole accomplishment of our salvation, and all the parts of it, are contained in his death. We have already stated that his resurrection is not separated from his death, but Christ only intends to keep our faith fixed on himself alone, and not to allow it to turn aside in any direction whatever. The meaning, therefore, is, that every thing which contributes to the salvation of men is to be found in Christ, and ought not to be sought anywhere else; or — which amounts to the same thing — that the perfection of salvation is contained in him.”
Finally, just listen to this in Greek. If you ever wanted to memorize a verse in the original language, this should be it.