Halim Suh speaks on John 19:28-30
Series: The 7 Sayings of Jesus
It is finished. Three words in English, but in the original Greek it was only one word. Jesus uttered a single word, tetelestai.
A. W. Pink said, “’It is finished’ is but one word in the original, yet in that word is wrapped up the gospel of God; all assurance, and the sum of all joy.”
Charles Spurgeon said:
“An ocean of meaning in a drop of language, a mere drop, for that is all that we can call one word! “tetelestai.” Yet it would need all the other words that ever were spoken, or ever can be spoken, to explain this one word. It is altogether immeasurable! ... “Finished.” It was a Conqueror’s cry – it was uttered with a loud voice! There is nothing of anguish about it, there is no wailing in it. It is the cry of One who has completed a tremendous labor and is about to die – and before He utters His death-prayer, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit,” He shouts His life’s last hymn in that one word, “tetelestai”.”
Perhaps the single greatest word ever spoken. No other word can better show us the greatness of Jesus. Tetelestai means finished, accomplished. It was always a happy and victorious word. But there’s a particular usage of the word that will help us understand what Jesus meant by using it; it also meant debt paid in full.
During this time, when you incurred a debt you couldn’t pay back you were thrown into debtor’s prison. They would write down a list of all your debts and you would have to stay in prison until it was fully paid off. But how could you do this? You couldn’t pay it off while you were free and able to work, how were you suppose to do it while you were in prison?
The only way you could get out of debtor’s prison was if somebody else came on your behalf and paid your debt. After paying them off they would take the list with all your debts and write a single word across it, tetelestai, debt paid in full. Essentially, they were saying, “Here is your freedom. Not only that, here is your safety. Keep this receipt. No one can ever accuse you of these same debts ever again.”
This was the word Jesus said on the cross. Do you see the connection and how it points to the greatness of Jesus and everything He accomplished for us?
However, there’s more.
Bulls & Goats
Jesus said, “It is finished.” To really answer this question and understand what it means, we have to look back at the Old Testament.
Sin entered into the world through Adam and Eve. Starting with them, the way God dealt with the sins of His people was through a blood sacrifice.
God is just and because He is just, He demands payment to be made for sin. Sin has to be dealt with. But He’s also merciful; God has provided a way in which the blood that needs to be shed isn’t your own blood, but the blood of a substitute.
22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:22 (ESV)
The Book of Leviticus is dense and has a lot of complicated stuff in it, but simply put, the whole thing is about God setting up a sacrificial system by which the blood of bulls and goats are spilled instead of the blood of His people.
It is called atonement, the demand for the payment of sin being satisfied.
In Leviticus 16, we have the description of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was the holiest day of the year for the Israelites; the day sin was dealt with. The high priest would take two goats and present them before God at the door of the tabernacle.
The priest would take the first goat, pull its head back and slit its throat, the goat’s blood being shed as a sacrifice. Then he would take the blood into the tabernacle, into the holy of holies where the presence of God dwelt, and sprinkle the blood on God’s mercy seat. This was to satisfy the demand of God’s justice; sins had to be dealt with and paid for. He would then come out and take the second goat, the living one, and putting both hands on its head, he would confess over it.
21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. Leviticus 16:21 (ESV)
As the priest would call out one sin after another, imagine the feeling of guilt and shame weighing heavier and heavier upon your shoulder. But, by putting both his hands on the head of the goat, he was signifying all the sins of Israel being transferred to their substitute. It was guilt transference. This is where we get the term scapegoat.
22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. Leviticus 16:22 (ESV)
The goat, bearing Israel’s sin was taken into an uninhabited wilderness, outside their camp, where it would go and die. The goat walking into the wilderness until it disappeared was a picture of all your sins, shame, guilt and consequences of sin disappearing, being removed and taken from you.
The first goat was a picture of the payment God demands for sin being satisfied. The second goat was a picture of the guilt and consequence of your sin being removed from you. But there was a problem.
It was only a picture. It pictured what needed to happen, but didn’t actually do what needed to happen.
Paying With Credit
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Hebrews 10:4 (ESV)
If it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins, how were people in the Old Testament saved? How were their sins dealt with?
All the Old Testament sacrifices made through the blood of bulls and goats was like making a payment with a credit card.
You go shopping with your credit card for a new TV. You go to the counter and they swipe your credit card, letting you take the TV home. It’s yours now, it belongs to you in a very real way, but only as long as you make good on the payment when the bill comes. Charging a credit card is not making a real payment, it’s just a picture of a payment that’s only valid if you make good on the real payment at a future date.
Every time God’s people would make a sacrifice for their sins, it was like taking a credit card and making a charge against God’s account. Just like a credit card, the blood of bulls and goats was not an actual payment. Just as with a credit card purchase you got to take the TV home, so too were sins really forgiven. But it all depended on God paying the bill later.
24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:24-26 (ESV)
God kept His promise to make the real payment; He put Jesus forward as the payment. Propitiation means satisfying the demand of payment. The propitiation was Jesus’ blood, the only blood that could actually pay for sin. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He passed over former sins. For a long period of time, because God is slow to anger and His credit limit is really high, sins were not really dealt with. There were only charged. We know if you just make a bunch of credit card charges, but never pay the bill, you’re committing credit card fraud. God forgave countless sins through the blood of bulls and goats, because He promised one day He would make the true payment. But if He never did, it would prove Him to be a liar, a fraud.
That’s why Romans 3 is adamant that when Jesus was finally offered to be the true payment for sin, this was to show God’s righteousness. It proved Him not a liar or a fraud. It proved Him to be the true forgiver of sins, the keeper of promises. He is just; He demands the payment of sin. But He’s also the justifier, so He also provides the payment.
Paying The Bill
God put Jesus forward to make good on that promised payment, because by Jesus being the true Lamb of God He could actually pay for our sins.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29 (ESV)
John saw God making His payment. The blood of bulls and goats couldn’t take away our sins, but the Lamb of God could. As the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, Jesus accomplished within Himself the picture of the two goats.
The first goat was killed, sacrificed to be a picture of the payment that is being made for sin. Jesus was killed, crucified, His blood was shed, not just to be a picture, but also to be the actual payment for sin.
The second goat was taken away, removed outside of the camp, to be a picture of the removal of our sin and guilt. Hebrews 13:12 tells us that Jesus was also taken and crucified outside the camp, not just to be a picture of the removal of sin and shame, but He was the actual remover of our sin and shame.
Having accomplished it all, making the payment for sin and removing our sin, shame and guilt, Jesus then said, “tetelestai, your debts paid in full. It is finished.”
I know we could apply this in a million different ways, but let’s discuss two ways this tetelestai ought to change our lives. Through how we deal with:
1. Guilt, because Jesus removed it.
2. Suffering, because it was through suffering Jesus accomplished it.
Tetelestai Changes Guilt
With our sins we racked up a debt we couldn’t pay. We were imprisoned, slaves to sin, a list of debt against us. Every angry outburst has been written down, every lust filled look, every cheating business deal, every overlooked orphan, every word of gossip, every ignoring of the Scriptures, every failure to pray and on and on. This is what bars us in prison. This is the list the enemy, the accuser, reads over us every time we wake up. Through out our day, there is an underlying sense of guilt and shame about us. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and it paralyzes us.
What happened to this list?
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Colossians 2:13-15 (ESV)
The record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands was nailed to the cross. Jesus, with His blood, declared over it, “tetelestai, debt paid in full!”
The cross of Jesus is now your receipt.
That’s why Christians, through out the ages, have looked at this cross and held it to be so precious. Our debts have been paid in full. No one can ever accuse you of these same debts ever again.
This changes everything! Finally, we can deal with our guilt.
Some of you used to dream for Jesus, but then, the guilt of sins set in and paralyzes you. The enemy starts reading the list of sins against you. The next time he does that, tell him, “Yes, I know I’ve committed all of those sins. But that list is at the cross, that’s the only place it exists. It also says tetelestai, debt paid in full across it!”
Another way we try to deal with our guilt is through prayer. We apologize to God for messing up again, asking Him to be merciful and gracious to us and forgive us our sins. We ought to pray like this. We need His mercy and grace. But because of the tetelestai of Jesus, we are able to pray something more, not just for mercy and grace, but also for Him to be just to forgive us our sins. Let us ask God to honor the payment Jesus made on our behalf and ask Him to be just to forgive us our sins. It’s not only merciful to forgive us, but now it is right of Him. It would be wrong of Him to demand two payments for sin. Jesus paid it all already.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)
If you pray like this, you will feel the weight of your guilt lift and you’ll be able to dreams those dreams again.
Tetelestai Changes Suffering
When something bad happens to us, we interpret it by thinking God might be punishing us for some sin or evil is winning somehow. In light of tetelestai, that’s not true. Tetelestai is a cry of victory. We don’t have trouble seeing it as victory, because we know the resurrection happened. Jesus rose from the grave and conquered sin and death. But imagine being one of Jesus’ disciples at this time.
The One in whom they had placed all of their hopes and dreams was captured. Out of fear they ran away and abandoned their Jesus. They had left their homes and their jobs to follow Him. Every time He spoke, their hearts felt like they would jump out of their chests. There was nobody like Him. The way He would speak, embrace and pay attention to the lowliest of people. But now He was hanging on a cross, dying. They could hear His breath becoming shallow.
Then all of a sudden He cried out, “Tetelestai,” a cry of victory, but they were confused as to what was happening. They must have thought He was confused or hallucinating. There was nothing about the cross that looked victorious to them. They were reading the cross as a disaster.
They were depressed, sad and scared. The disciples were in a house, with the doors locked and the windows shut. Mary of Magdalene went to the tomb and after she saw it was empty, she didn’t begin to celebrate thinking He must have risen, she walked around crying, asking people if they took the body of her Lord.
The people closest to Jesus were reading it all as a disaster, but Jesus was actually saving them, paying for their sins, working out salvation for them.
So often when bad things happen, we read it as disaster. We can’t imagine something more terrible happening. Some of you are going through it right now. It seems that evil is winning. However, God is saving you. He is increasing your faith, making it genuine.
Some of you have experienced a loss. God is saving you. He’s forcing you to let go of things you hold so dear. He’s loosening the grip on things in your life that you’re clenching to. He’s trying to show you Jesus is enough.
Someone once said, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all that you have.”
My son Malachi got a bow and arrow set for Christmas. He loved it and played with it all the time, but like all cheap plastic toys, it broke. He came into our room weeping, completely broken and pitiful. As a parent, you’re sad for him. What we knew that he didn’t was that we had a brand new bow and arrow set in our closet from Christmas. It was even the upgraded version of the one he had been playing with. If it was up to us in that moment, apart from God’s grace to slow down and think, we would have given him the new set right there, in order to see the smile on his face. But in God’s grace, we paused and realized that what Malachi needed most at this time was to grieve a loss. He needed to go through something his kid heart was interpreting as disaster. He couldn’t imagine anything worse happening to him. He needed to learn that the things of this world are going to break and they’re not meant to truly satisfy his heart.
The best thing we could do for him was to allow him to experience a loss. It would help him learn this world is fleeting and temporal. Our hearts still ached for him; we wanted to see him smile. But instead, we just held him and kept telling him as he grieved his loss that it was okay, Jesus is better.
If the best thing for us is for God to immediately make something better, He will. In His closet, He has the new things you want. Many of us have actually experienced this, because He’s a good Father. But if the best thing for us is to experience the loss so He can increase our faith and make it genuine, loosening our grip on anything that’s not Him, then that’s what He’ll do. He’s still a good Father. He knows you’re in pain and He’ll hold you through it.
The tetelestai of Jesus shows us that when everything looks like it’s falling apart and all hope is gone, God is still busy and at work rescuing us. We can trust Him.