A Thought for Good Friday: What Is The “It”?
“When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” ~ John 19:30
τετελεσται (teh-tel-es-tai) – verb; indicative mood, perfect tense, passive voice, 3rd person singular. It is derived from the Greek noun telos which is used to refer to something set out as a goal or an aim, or the conclusion of an act or state.
All Churchians most likely at some point in their life have heard the explanation that when Jesus uttered these words that He meant that he had finished what He had come to earth to accomplish. And what was it that Jesus accomplished? The orthodox interpretation of that would be that Jesus accomplished the forgiveness of sins. Moreover, it would be that Jesus lived a perfect life of obedience. Now having demonstrated perfect obedience to the Law, Jesus could fulfill his purpose as the perfect sacrifice for sin. His job was done.
It is true that Jesus did accomplish the forgiveness of sin with His death on the cross. But how exactly did this happen? Furthermore, Reformed orthodoxy would have us believe that Christians need to preach the gospel to themselves every day. They must daily return to the cross to continually have Jesus’ obedience imputed to their lives as a covering. This is accomplished by “faith alone” works through the “means of grace” administered by the local church. If Christians need an ongoing imputation of righteousness from Christ through His obeying the law for us in our stead, how exactly can one say that Jesus’ work is “finished”?
Lest I be accused of setting up a “straw man” argument, consider that after almost nine years of research here at TANC ministries, all of the problems with Protestant orthodoxy and the institutional church can be boiled down to one thing: a misunderstanding of the Law. Reformed orthodoxy keeps Christians “under law” (the Biblical definition of an unsaved person) by making perfect law-keeping the standard for righteousness. Because Protestantism’s metaphysical assumption of man is “total depravity”, man cannot keep the law, so he must rely on Jesus to keep the law for him.
But the Bible says that righteousness is apart from the law (Romans 3:21, 28). If Jesus must keep the law for us, not only does that make Jesus’ work not “finished”, but it is also not a righteousness apart from the law. What could Jesus have possibly meant when He said, “It is finished”?
It is important to note the grammar of that phase, which is only one single word in Greek. First of all, it is in the “passive voice”. That means the subject is the recipient of the action. Jesus did not say I have finished something. Some subject “it” received the action of being finished, and Jesus’ death accomplished that.
Second, the word “tetelestai” is in the “perfect” tense. The perfect tense is a verb form that indicates that an action or circumstance occurred earlier than the time under consideration, often focusing attention on the resulting state rather than on the occurrence itself. Although this gives information about a prior action, the focus is likely to be on the present consequences of that action. In fact, the King James rendering of this verb is incorrect. The correct rendering of this phrase in the perfect tense would be, “It has been finished.” Jesus declared that His death produced a resulting state of something that now exists that is different from an earlier state.
Third, “tetelestai” is in the singular third person. The subject is not Jesus and something He did. The focus is on some third party subject that was the recipient of some action being performed upon it. Therefore, the statement, “It is finished” could not be a reference to Jesus finishing His work of perfect obedience to the Law. Something else had the action of “finished” performed upon it.
The question then remains, when Jesus said, “It is finished”, what exactly then is the “it”?
For one thing, the Law was actually a living will or “testament”, a covenant made between God and Israel that was ratified with Moses by the sprinkling of blood (Hebrews 9:18-21). This covenant of the Law acted as a guardian until the promise made to Abraham and his “seed” was fulfilled. (Galatians 3:16, 22-24). The Law took Old Testament saints into protective custody, protecting them from the Law’s condemnation upon their death. All sin was imputed to the Law. This was the “atoning” or “covering” aspect of the Law.
The Law’s testament pointed to the coming “promise” to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed. There would come one who would “take away” sin once and for all. This was so clearly symbolized by the picture of the “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16. The high priest would lay his hands on the head of a goat, signifying the imputation of sin to the Law. The goat would then be delivered into the hands of a strong man who would carry that goat into the wilderness and release it, signifying the taking away of sin as far as the east is from the west.
Jesus was the promised “seed” of Abraham. He was the “testator” of which the Law’s covenant spoke. Just as with any will, it could not be in force until after the death of the testator (Hebrews 9:16-17). It would seem reasonable then that the perfect tense of the verb “tetelestai” would put focus on the Law, its testament, and its role as guardian. The initiating of the Law was an event or circumstance of the past, but Jesus’ death now causes us to focus on its resulting change of state. The passive voice indicates that the Law is the recipient of this change of state. What is now changed?
- The testament of the Law is finished. Jesus’ death now allowed its promises to be fulfilled; that is, sin would be ended because the Law was ended. All sin that was imputed to the Law would be taken away forever. The Law can no longer condemn.
- The Law’s role as a guardian is finished. Since the “promise” had been fulfilled, believers are now the righteous offspring of the Father. There is no Law to condemn them, and where there is no law there is no sin. And since there is no sin there is no longer any need of a guardian. The covering aspect of the Law is ended.
- The distinction between Jew and Gentile is finished. Now every born again child of God would be baptized into one Body. This is the mystery that Paul spoke of in Ephesians. He called it the New Man. Every person who is a member of the Body is given a gift to exercise to the edification of the Body and to demonstrate love to God and others. The Law is the means by which believers show love through obedience.
One could say that because of Jesus’ death to end the Law, there is now a new relationship to the Law. There is a change of state; not only of the law but the state of the believer as well!
It was God’s plan to reconcile every man to Himself by putting to death the “old man” who is “under law” and replacing him with a new creature who is the literal offspring of the Father. In this way sin is ended because the Law is ended for those who are born again. The Law is fulfilled in us, every believer, each time we show love to another.
On this “Good Friday”, take time to consider this: Sin sought to bring death by condemnation and alienate man from God. God defeated Sin by providing a way to make man part of His own family!