When Jesus cried, “It is finished!” What was finished? What did He mean by these words just before He expired on the cross?
- Paid in full: “[Financial] receipts are often introduced by this phrase,” according to Moulton & Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament. In general the word means: to fulfill obligations, to pay.” Charles Swindol expanded:
“It was a Greek expression most everyone present would have understood. It was an accounting term. Archaeologists have found papyrus tax receipts with “Tetelestai” written across them, meaning “paid in full.” With Jesus’ last breath on the cross, He declared the debt of sin cancelled, completely satisfied. Nothing else required. Not good deeds. Not generous donations. Not penance or confession or baptism or…or…or…nothing. The penalty for sin is death, and we were all born hopelessly in debt. He paid our debt in full by giving His life so that we might live forever.”
- The simplest meaning of “finished” in the form He spoke it on the Cross is “All is fulfilled, All is accomplished!” This, to me, fits better in the context since Jesus was not talking about an unpaid bill but the fulfillment of all prophecy.
Everything God commissioned Jesus to do has been “completed,” the saving work whose earthly completion according to J[oh]n is at the cross. [Kittell vol VIII 59]
This might explain what Jesus meant in Luke 12:50 since He spoke these words in reference to the Cross:
“But I have a baptism to undergo, and how it consumes me until it is finished!” [CSB]
Let me suggest why I lean toward the second meaning but not to exclusion of the first.
The first meaning suggests a propitiatory substitution. (Jesus bore our sins. Colossians 2:14; I Peter 2:24) The doctrine of a propitiatory atonement is based on the belief that God required a penal justice (Justice required a punishment. He bore ours, Isaiah 53:5) which idea became established theology during the Reformation. The early church fathers did not formalize in doctrinal creed any theory of the atonement, leaving us to wonder why Jesus had to die.
The second meaning does not attempt a reasonable explanation as to why God in the form of His son volunteered to die on the Cross for our sins. It asks us to accept it by faith but He did provide through His death and resurrection a new way of life for us to walk in (Romans 6:4). If justice (retributive and/or reformative) is a theological concern: Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:16) that though this remains a mystery to us, why Jesus had to die, He was justified—vindicated—in so doing. He was judged just, He satisfied justice, in rescuing you and me from our sinfulness.
The phrase “It is finished” is one word in the original Greek in a nuanced form which may carry three meanings (I want all of them):
- Jesus finished the Work FINALLY (Galatians 4:4)
- Jesus finished the work COMPLETELY (Luke 24:26-27)
- Jesus finished the work once FOR ALL TIME. (Hebrews 10:10)
Then he led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. And while he was blessing them, he left them and was carried up into heaven. After worshiping him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they were continually in the temple praising God. — Luke 24:50-53 [CSB]
Their joy on seeing the resurrected Savior was all they cared to know! And now we await His return.