[This is the word I had the privilege of proclaiming at Community of the Savior 0n March30, 2018, Good Friday, based on John 19:30.]
The words become more personal, more intense. While Jesus might have been consumed by his own pain and the sheer degradation of the cross, he is thinking of others. At first, at least. He calls for forgiveness for his executors. That list is lengthy: Pilate, Herod, the chief priests, the Roman centurions. “Father, forgive them…” He reaches out to the thief on the cross beside him with the promise of eternal life: “Today you will be with me….” He arranges for the care of his aging mother, her heart breaking at something no mother should ever see happening to her son. “Woman, behold your son…disciple, your mother.”
Crucifixion had been designed by the Roman Empire to be the ultimate deterrent. It was ghastly and barbaric. It was designed to be a long and excruciating death. Crosses were erected next to well-traveled roads, so passersby could see and even interact with the dying. This slow form of execution allowed those being killed to see and hear those gawkers. And sometimes friends and relatives. After hours, the death would usually be due to asphyxiation, as the head could not lift itself.
As the weight of his body is pulling him down to his death, Jesus’ words turn more inward. He cries out in his abandonment to the Father who loves him and who is allowing him to be cut off from the land of the living. “My God, my God….” In perhaps his most poignant word, he confesses his thirst. He who turned the water into wine, he who is the fountain of living water, he who promises that whoever drinks from him will never be thirsty, he becomes thirsty—and he admits it. Yet his most profoundly theological word is yet to be spoken.
Most of these seven words from the cross are short sentences, full thoughts, even scriptural words. Just two of them are, in the Greek language of the New Testament, actually single words. The fifth word, “I thirst.” And the sixth word, “It is finished.” On Jesus’ lips both were but a single word. There is not much left in his lungs at this point. Each breath is precious, both heavy and fleeting.
This death is no mistake, mind you. It is not due to Pilate’s error. Or Roman cruelty alone. Or Judas’s betrayal. Or Peter’s denial. A higher purpose is at work. An unseen hand is moving the drama of the passion forward. They—the disciples, the crowds, the detractors—could not discern it, but Jesus could and did. Who of them and who of us can possibly understand this? This was not God’s wrath satisfied, but God’s love magnified.
As Jesus hangs from the cruel cross, John records that one most powerful word that Jesus utters just before his dying breath. For us it has become three words, but it was one when articulated from his parched lips. Putting ourselves at the foot of Calvary’s cross, we cannot help but wonder what he means. Is he finally giving in to the immense pain? Throwing in the towel of serving others? Is he a misguided zealot whose noble cause has finally been dealt its deathblow? Is he telling his disciples to pack it in and head back to their fishing nets? Is he conceding to his enemies that he is backed into a corner and has no more moves to make? Is he the victim of his own story: the bold teachings, the colorful parables, the signs and wonders, the palm waving crowds, and now he cannot do the final miracle? Is he conceding defeat? Is this grand and great adventure finished? Done, in a last burst of failure?
Tetelestai. That’s the actual word. Perfect tense. That means completed action with continuing effect. Done once for all, but with continuing ramifications right to this day. Finished. Completed. Accomplished. Modern translators of the Bible have broken much ground, but few have been willing to tinker with the classic, “It is finished.” Tetelestai. “Finished.” It means finished in the sense of fulfilled. Mission accomplished. Assignment completed. Promise kept. Goods delivered.
Standing at the foot of that cross that day, we may have recognized the word. For this is not an admission of defeat. It is the victor’s cry. It is the word we would hear from the lips of the marathon runner, having worked and trained for all those endless months of intense discipline, when finally, after 26 grueling miles, she crosses the finish line. Finished! Race completed. Tired? Yes. Exhausted? Without question. Defeated? No. Victorious! The runner manages a shout: Tetelestai. Race finished.
It is the word we might hear from a ship’s captain after a long journey at sea. After weeks of preparation—selecting a crew, getting the ship sea worthy, purchasing the supplies and provisions, then weathering storm, wind, and salt—the ship returns to port, battered but still sea worthy. Entering the calmness of the bay and seeing friends and family eagerly awaiting the crew, the captain boldly shouts: Tetelestai. Journey completed. The work done. Vision fulfilled. Mission accomplished. Assignment honored. Promise kept. In his agony, in his weakness, in his death, Jesus is not defeated. Death is. Hell is. Satan is. Death does not have the final word. It never does and never will. Jesus does: Tetelestai.
We see him in his suffering. We ponder his passion. Slowly, we appreciate his atoning work. All creation witnesses it. Even the heavens are weeping. The sun hides its face. The earth quakes. The disciples tremble and run. Weeping women keep watch. In the eye of the storm, Jesus shouts, Tetelestai. Journey completed. Work done. Vision fulfilled. Mission accomplished. Assignment honored. Promise kept. Done. To the glory of God. For the redemption of the world. Finished!