The Scriptures record seven times that Jesus spoke while He was being crucified. As He neared the point of death, having hung on that cruel cross for approximately six hours, one of the final things Jesus said is recorded in John 19:30, “It is finished!” Then, “bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.”
What did Jesus mean when He said, “It is finished”? What was finished? Let’s examine this statement and the context in which it was spoken.
To begin with, let’s look at what the statement, “It is finished,” did not mean, basing our conclusions on how Jesus spoke the words.
Not the Last Gasp of a Worn Out Life
Though Jesus had endured terrible sufferings, His words were not the last gasp of a man whose life was simply worn out. As we read further in John 19, verses 31-33 describe what happened after Jesus died. It was the Preparation Day (the day before the Sabbath), so the Jews, not wanting the bodies of these men to remain on the cross on the Sabbath day, asked Pilate to break their legs and thus hasten their death. The Roman soldiers came and broke the legs of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, but when they came to Jesus they found that He was already dead, so they did not break His legs. This was quite unusual, for the process of crucifixion usually took longer than this to kill a man, even a man who had suffered as much physical punishment as Jesus had endured. When news reached Pilate, he “marveled that Jesus was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time” (Mark 15:44).
While He hung on the cross, Jesus remained fully alert until the moment He died. John 19:28declares, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst’.” Jesus was fully aware, even as He suffered on the cross, of all the things that had happened. He knew that the work He had been sent to do was now accomplished. He was also aware of all that was prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures concerning Him and His death. He knew that there remained a prophecy in Psalm 69:21 that was yet to be fulfilled, therefore He uttered the words, “I thirst.”
One of the reasons Jesus remained alert is found in Matthew 27:34, where it states, “They gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink.” Sour wine mingled with gall was a drink that was given to numb the senses and help decrease the pain during crucifixion. Jesus, as soon as He tasted the drink, knew what it was for, and therefore refused to drink it.
Not an Admission of Defeat or Failure
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” it was not an admission of defeat or failure. Many people envision Jesus uttering these words quietly, almost in a whisper, as if He were, in dejection, giving up or surrendering to death. The Scriptures indicate something quite different. Matthew 27:50 states that before He died, Jesus cried out with a loud voice. Comparing the various gospel accounts, I believe the words Jesus cried out with a loud voice were “It is finished!”
After crying out these words, John 19:30 says that Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit. If He bowed His head, this implies that it was erect when He cried out, “It is finished;” another indication that Jesus was not admitting defeat or failure.
Not a Cry of Despair from a Helpless Martyr
As Jesus hung on the cross, the crowds taunted Him, saying, “Save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40). Could Jesus have come down from the cross? As the Son of God, He certainly had the power to do so, but as a man, Jesus “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).
Going back once more to John 19:30 we read that Jesus “bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” The word “bowed” carries the idea of laying down the head to rest, as opposed to simply letting the head drop. The expression “gave up” means to deliver or give over into the hands of another. To whom did Jesus give His spirit? Luke 23:46 records what are likely His final words, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” After saying this, “He breathed His last.” Please notice the order of the events described here. Jesus laid His head down to rest before He died. If He had died first, His head would simply have fallen as He slumped in death. After laying His head to rest, then Jesus gave up His spirit and died.
Jesus’ death was certainly not the despairing cry of a helpless martyr. No one took Jesus’ life from Him. Jesus Himself chose the moment that He would die. He willingly and voluntarily gave up His life for our sins. In Galatians 2:20 Paul refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as, “… the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” In John 10:17-18, Jesus Himself declared, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
Let’s now turn our attention to what the words, “It is finished,” do mean. The expression “It is finished,” is translated from only one word in the Greek: “tetelestai” which is from the root word “teleo,” a word whose basic meaning is “finished.” However, this Greek word is very expressive and has several shades of meaning. Each of these meanings gives us a better understanding of why Jesus spoke this word from the cross.
To Bring to a Close, To Finish, To End
The word “teleo” in one sense means to bring to a close, to finish, to end. It is used in Matthew 11:1 where it states, “Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished (‘made an end of’ in KJV) commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities.” What was finished or brought to a close when Jesus died? For one thing, it brought to a close His sufferings, yet He didn’t utter this cry simply to indicate His relief that His physical sufferings were over. Jesus’ statement referred to the fact that His sufferings for our sins were finished. The gospel message is not just that Christ died, but that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). As Jesus hung on that cross, He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Jesus was “made sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). As Jesus bore our sins there on the cross, God the Father turned away from His only begotten Son and utterly forsook Him (Matt. 27:45-46). What unbelievable agony this must have been for Jesus. At the point of death, Jesus declared that His sufferings for our sins were now ended.
The death of Jesus was not only the end of Jesus’ sufferings for our sins, but also the end of the work the Father had sent His Son to do. Thus we often refer to the finished work of Calvary. This finished work involved three different aspects: (1) Jesus made propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2). The righteous and holy requirements of God were now satisfied. The wages of sin had been paid (Rom. 6:23). (2) Jesus’ death therefore made it possible for the whole world to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-19). (3) By the shedding of His precious blood, Jesus provided redemption for all men, paying the ransom price that would release men from the slavery of sin and death (1 Pet. 1:18-19, Eph. 1:7).
Though Jesus’ finished work made it possible for all to be saved, only those who believe in Him, trusting and relying upon His finished work to save them from their sins, will realize this wonderful gift of salvation from God (John 3:16, Rom. 3:24-26).
To Perform, Execute, Complete, Fulfill
The word “teleo” also means to perform, to execute, to complete or fulfill. It is used in Luke 2:39where it states that Jesus’ parents “performed all things according to the law of the Lord … ” It is also used in Luke 18:31 when Jesus, “took the twelve aside and said to them, Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.” The word means to perform or fulfill as to content, which means in every single detail, and to perform or fulfill as to form, which means in the exact manner and at the prescribed time.
Jesus had performed and accomplished the will of God. Just before Jesus uttered the words, “It is finished,” John 19:28 states that Jesus knew “that all things were now accomplished.” Jesus’ very purpose for coming into the world was to do the will of the Father (Heb. 10:5-7), just as the Psalmist prophesied (Psalm 40:6-8). Jesus was delivered up to be crucified “by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God” and then raised from the dead because it was not possible that death should hold Him (Acts 2:23-24). The word translated “purpose” (“council” in KJV) refers not to the desire of God, but to His determined will which cannot be changed. God’s eternal purpose was “accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11) in every single detail and in the exact manner and time prescribed by the Father (cf. John 12:23-33).
Jesus had also performed and accomplished the word of God. Look again at John 19:28 which says, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst’.” It was a very simple thing to say, “I thirst,” but it was extremely important, for there was a prophecy of Scripture that had yet to be fulfilled. Psalm 69:21 reads, “They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” After saying, “I thirst,” they “filled a sponge with vinegar (or sour wine), put in on hyssop, and put it to His mouth.” It was after Jesus had received the sour wine that He declared, “It is finished,” for He knew that every prophecy of Scripture concerning His death had now been accomplished.
Every Old Testament promise and prophecy concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was fulfilled perfectly. When Peter preached to the people of Israel in the early part of the book of Acts he declared, “Those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). In John 19 alone, there are several specific prophecies which are identified: vs. 24 “They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18), vs. 36 “Not one of His bones shall be broken” (Psalm 34:20), and vs. 37 “They shall look on Him whom they pierced” (Zech. 12:10).
To Pay a Debt
During Jesus’ lifetime the word “teleo” was used in the sense of paying a debt, such as a tax or tribute. This is how the word is used in Matthew 17:24 when those who collected the temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” Today we often see the words “PAID” or “PAID IN FULL” stamped or written on receipts or invoices. Archaeologists have recovered tax receipts from the first and second centuries with the Greek word “tetelestai” written across them, indicating that this particular debt had been “PAID IN FULL.”
Each of us are sinners (Rom. 3:23), and because of our sin, we are in debt. Romans 6:23teaches that the wages (payment, debt) that must be paid for our sin is death. When Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, He cried out “Tetelestai!” indicating that the debt or price for our sins had been “paid in full.” He paid the price to redeem us, to free us from the penalty of sin. The price that He paid was not something corruptible, such as gold or silver, but His own precious blood.
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” (Eph. 1:7)
“Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” (1 Pet. 1:18-19)
1 John 2:2 tells us that Jesus Himself “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” God was propitiated or satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice, His payment for our sins, therefore Jesus cried out, “Paid in full!”
Many people today feel the need to perform some type of good works or religious works in order to be saved. Nothing needs to be added to Jesus’ finished work. He paid it all!
A Military Cry of Victory
The word “tetelestai” has also been used in military situations as a cry of victory. When Jesus used this word on the cross, remember that His head was erect, and it is likely that He cried out with a loud voice, “Finished!” He had won the victory; the victory over Satan, the victory over sin, and ultimately the victory over death.
Following the sin of Adam and Eve, God spoke these words to the serpent (Satan): “I will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed (Christ); He (Christ) shall bruise your (Satan) head, and you (Satan) shall bruise His (Christ) heel. Enmity speaks of hatred or an enemy relationship. In this prophecy in Genesis 3:15, God announces that Satan will bruise the heel of Christ, a blow which is not fatal, but that Christ will one day bruise the head of Satan, a blow which is fatal. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, He struck the fatal blow to Satan’s head and won the victory over him. Hebrews 2:14 tells us that Jesus became a man (“partook of flesh and blood”) that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.”
Jesus’ death on the cross not only paid the penalty for our sins, but it also provided a way for the believer to have victory over sin; victory over our old sin nature. Romans 6:10 tells us that Christ not only died for our sins, but He also died to sin. We are identified with Christ in His death, thus we also died to sin (Rom. 6:2). Before we trusted in Jesus Christ as our Savior, we were slaves to sin, that is, to our old sin nature (Rom. 6:17), but when we trust in Christ, we are made a new creation in Him (2 Cor. 5:17). Being united with Him in His death, we read that “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with (‘rendered powerless’), that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:6). We have been “freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7). This wonderful victory over sin and its enslavement over us was won by our Savior when He died on the cross.
After three days in the tomb, Jesus was raised from the dead. “God loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Christ won the victory over death for all eternity. The last few verses of 1 Corinthians 15, which is often called the resurrection chapter, describes this wonderful victory over death that Christ won on our behalf:
“… Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)
Once For All
The Greek word “tetelestai” is the perfect tense form of the verb “teleo.” The Greek perfect tense, which is not easily expressed in English, is used to describe an act which was completed in time past, but which has a continuing state or results. It describes something that never has to be repeated—something that is done ONCE FOR ALL! When Jesus died on the cross, He finished the work the Father sent Him to do; the work of eternal redemption; a work that will never have to be repeated.
“… We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. … this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” (Heb. 10:10-12)
“For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.” (Rom. 6:10)
“It is finished!”—Only one little word in Greek, but, as you can see from this brief study, it has so much meaning. With this one word, Jesus spoke volumes about what His sacrificial death accomplished for us.
If you have never trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, you are outside of Christ and therefore separated from God. In this lost condition, nothing that Christ finished, performed, paid and won at Calvary has been realized or experienced in your own life! Won’t you carefully consider the things we have looked at from God’s Word. Think about God’s wonderful love for you, a love that He demonstrated by sending His own beloved Son into the world to die for your sins (1 John 4:9-10). Consider all that was accomplished on your behalf through the finished work of Christ.
Apart from Christ, you are still living under the penalty of your sins, and “the wages of sin is death.” Yet, God offers you the greatest gift that has ever been given: “the gift of God is eternal life, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” You can receive this gift right now by simply believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior (John 3:16, Eph. 2:8-9).
When you trust in Christ, resting and relying upon Him and His “finished” work on the cross of Calvary, God saves you and places you “in Christ.” Your debt of sin is “paid in full.” You have peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and peace in your heart, knowing that you are “complete in Him” (Col. 2:10).