19th November 2020
Over the next couple of weeks, Andrew Wilson, our Teaching Pastor, will be posting a series of guest posts on this page while Steve takes a short break from blogging.
One of the most famous lines in Scripture is also one of the most puzzling. We all know that Jesus, as he was dying, uttered the triumphant words, “It is finished.” We quote it all the time. We celebrate it in our songs and our sermons. Some of us have the original Greek word, tetelestai, tattooed on our bodies. Yet if someone was to ask us exactly what it means—what exactly is the “it” which is “finished”?—we might have to stop and think for a while. Is Jesus saying that his life and mission is over? The power of sin is broken? The reign of death is ended? All of the above?
Theologically speaking, we could defend all of those interpretations. But it is interesting that John, the only evangelist who records the phrase, does not mention any of them. Instead, he connects it to several other themes by using a flurry of similar terms in one paragraph. In just three verses, he uses five words which mean either “fulfil” or “full,” of which Jesus’s dying cry is the climactic one. If we overtranslated it, we would get something like this: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was fulfilled, said in order to fulfil the Scripture: ‘I’m thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was there, so they put a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is fulfilled,’ and bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:28-30). John, it seems, wants us to see the death of Christ not merely as a conclusion, but as a culmination.
Each of these five words is worth reflecting on, to make the same connections John does. The first one refers back to the previous paragraph: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was fulfilled …” (28). Clauses like that should always make us ask: after what? In this case, the answer is: after ensuring that his mother was taken into the home of his friend (26-27). This is probably not where I would have focused my attention as Jesus was dying! For John, however, it is a critical moment. There are five people at the foot of the cross, and they include the mother of Christ (Mary), the first witness of the resurrection (Mary Magdalene), and the writer of this Gospel (John). Jesus’s death joins them together, uniting people from different families into one household. In some ways, this text marks the start of the church, in all her Gospel-writing, resurrection-witnessing splendour. With that achieved, it is mission accomplished.
The next word comes immediately afterwards: “Jesus said, in order to fulfil the Scripture: ‘I’m thirsty.’” (The passage referred to here is probably Psalm 69:21: “For my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”) Read in this light, Jesus’s cry of triumph does not just mean that the debt of sin is cancelled: “It is paid!” It means that the story of Scripture has reached its climax in the cross, just as God always said it would: “It is fulfilled!” All the promises that God made to the prophets have come to pass and become Yes and Amen in Christ.
The next two examples look more obscure, because they relate to a sponge. “A jar full of sour wine was there, so they put a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch” (29). What possible connection is there between a jar or a sponge “full” of wine, and the “fulfilment” of the Lord’s death? It sounds odd, until we remember that the story of the cross began with Jesus’s insistence that he would “drink the cup that the Father has given me” (18:11). John has set us up: he has framed the entire cross story as one in which Jesus drains the winecup of God’s judgment to the dregs, like Dumbledore in the Horcrux cave, and now he ends with Jesus drinking a full jar of wine via a full sponge. The sacramental overtones of the wine, and the hyssop branch (Exodus 12:22), make it even more emphatic.
So when we finally hear that famous word tetelestai, we make at least three connections. Jesus has “completed” the foundation of the church. He has “fulfilled” the promises of Scripture. He has “finished” the winecup of God’s judgment against sin. Now there is nothing left for him to do except bow his head and, in a final twist, “hand over the Spirit” whom he has been promising throughout John’s Gospel (19:30).
Last words are famous for a reason. The Buddha’s dying words, for example, summed up his teaching: “Work hard to gain your own salvation.” In Christ’s dying words, we have the exact opposite: the claim that the salvation of the world is achieved not by our work, but by his. God’s church is founded. God’s promises are fulfilled. God’s judgment is finished. God’s people are free.
Posted by Andrew Wilson
Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham and Lee. Over the past fifteen years the church has seen continued growth, both in size and diversity. Steve is also involved in Newfrontiers and regularly coaches other lead elders. His book, Good to Grow, was published in July 2011. He is married to Deb, and they have three sons.