The four Gospels do not give us the same perspective or provide the same information about the moments leading to Jesus’ death. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus cried out loudly and then breathed his last. Luke tells us that he gave his Spirit to the Father. John, however, tells us that Jesus said, “It is finished” before yielding up his life.
“It is finished.” By itself, quite an ambiguous statement. What does the word “it” refer to? What exactly has been finished? And as soon as we have answered that another question crops up: What does the word “finish” mean?
Is Jesus saying, “The wine is over?” Or is he saying, “My life is finished, my body is now broken, my spirit is crushed.” V. 30, by itself is a verse without hope. For Jesus could well be saying, “My hopes are now done for, they are finished, there is nothing to look forward to, God has abandoned me. I had hoped he would come to my rescue, but he hasn’t. And so there’s nothing more to do than die. It is finished.” If we take v. 30 by itself, we have no way of refuting these claims. V. 30, by itself, would seem to be the final statement of a gory defeat.
But we do not have only v. 30! Thank God for that! And we have in John an artist, a wordsmith who knows how to direct our attention where it needs to go simply by his choice of words. Many of you may have heard that the Greek word Jesus uses here is “tetele,stai” and that it is used only here and in v. 28. We must, however, consider two things. First, Jesus probably spoke only Aramaic and Hebrew, not Greek. So “tetele,stai” is John’s choice rather than a recollection of what Jesus had said. Second, to say that the word is used only here and in v. 28 is misleading. Would we consider “complete”, “to complete”, “completing”, “has completed”, “to be complete”, “has been completed”, and “completion” different? No! They are different forms of the same word, that would function differently in different sentences. In the same way, the root “tele,” is used as a verb, noun, adverb, adjective and participle no fewer than 90 times in the New Testament and 8 times in John’s Gospel.
Once we divest ourselves of the assumption that one particular form of the word, in this case “tetele,stai”, carries meaning, we open ourselves up to what John is telling us. For now we can answer the initial questions: “What does ‘it’ refer to?” and “What does ‘finish’ mean?”
There are two groups of words which the Gospels use to convey the ideas of fulfillment or completion. One is words with the root “plhro,” which the other Gospels use when talking about fulfillment of scripture. John also follows this practice, with one exception, here in v. 28 where, while mentioning scripture, he uses the second word. The second is the group of words we have here, with the “tele,” root, which the other three Gospels mainly use for phrases like “when Jesus finished talking” or “then comes the end”. In other words, they use it in a matter of fact way.
But John uses the words in the “tele,” group differently. Let us consider the uses other than “tetele,stai” in vv. 28, 30. The first time he uses it is in 4.34 where Jesus tells his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Then in 5.36 Jesus again says, “The works that the Father has given me to complete testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” In his prayer in 17.4 he says, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” Again in his prayer in 17.23, while praying for us he prays, “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.” And finally here in v. 28 John tells us that Jesus said, “I thirst” “in order to fulfill scripture.” Since this last use is the exception we saw earlier, let us look at the other instances.
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
“The works that the Father has given me to complete testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”
“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”
“That they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.”
So, according to John, when Jesus says, “It is finished” or “It has been completed” he is saying that he has completed the task for which his Father had sent him. And that task is not limited to what happened on the cross. To the contrary, his entire life was one which involved completion of his Father’s commission. And we can now see that the exception in v. 28 points not to a simple fulfillment of one verse of scripture. Rather, John is telling us that in Jesus’ death even his fulfillment of scripture is complete.
You see, we make the grave mistake of thinking that Jesus’ only work was dying on the cross for us. That is important, critical, and absolutely necessary. But Jesus’ work was much more than that. We focus on the forgiveness of our sins because we are self centered. We want to know only how this man’s death benefits us. This is revealed in many of our catechisms. Indeed none of our creeds mention anything between his birth and his suffering under Pilate – an omission of 78 of the 89 chapters in the Gospels! Would we even be interested in this remarkable man were it not for the fact that his death benefits us?
Some preachers have gone even further and drawn up formulas for why Jesus had to be on the cross for a specific amount of time and that Jesus died only after he had paid for each and every sin I and you have ever committed or will ever commit. We make a fetish of the cross when we do this. Jesus’ obedience to the point of death is what is important and crucial. The time of day and the duration of his sufferings, do not really count. He could have said “it is finished” after fifteen minutes or fifteen hours. He could have said “it is finished” at noon or at sundown. As soon as the nails were driven in, as soon as backing out was an impossibility, he could have said, “it is finished”.
You see, according to John, when Jesus says “it is finished” what is at the front of his mind is obedience to his Father. Forgiveness of our sins, so important and crucial to us, and central to John, was like a corollary for Jesus. Its truth, important though it is for us, is only of secondary and derived importance. For John, the axiom, the unquestionable, irrefutable truth, the solid foundation on which that corollary rests, was his obedience.
Because, you see, it is not just the fact of ending up on the cross that is important. Two others managed to do it the very same day and place as Jesus. Getting crucified was not a big deal really. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that during the reign of Augustus many thousands of Jews were crucified in the Palestine region. No, it was not the fact of crucifixion that was important. Rather, it was the road that led Jesus there that was the important factor.
You see, Jesus ended on the cross not because he was a sinner, but precisely because he was not a sinner! He died precisely because he was obedient, precisely because he had done no wrong. He was obedient to the point of death on the cross. It was his obedience that put him there. You see, for John, the cross is not primarily about us and our sins. It is the crowning act of Jesus’ obedience to the Father for without that his death would have been empty – for him as well as for us.
And so “it is finished” is not said to us, but to the Father. We can certainly draw out all the benefits that pour out for us from Jesus’ death. But for John “it is finished” is the completely obedient Son telling his Father, “I have obeyed you all my life. And it has put me here on this cross. I have obeyed you to the point of death. I am going to die now. Mission accomplished.