Tetelestai is the last word that Jesus spoke while He was on the cross, right before He “gave up His spirit” and died (John 19:30). It is one of the most important words that Jesus ever spoke, because it explains to us the mission of Jesus in the world and the purpose of the cross.
Literally the word tetelestai means “it is finished.” The verb teleo means “to bring to an end, or to complete, or to finish.” This word appears only two times in the New Testament (John 19:28, 30). In John 19:28, John implies that all of the prophecies about Jesus were fulfilled or completed. In John 19:30, Jesus uses the term to describe the completed work that Jesus accomplished with His life and death. It is interesting that in New Testament times, the word tetelstai was often associated with the canceling of business debts. The word would often be written on documents or receipts indicating that a bill had been paid in full, or that a debt had been canceled.
It is also interesting to note the verb tense that Jesus uses. In Greek, Jesus used the perfect tense. This is significant because this tense implies an action which has been completed in the past with result continuing into the present. Unlike the past tense which only looks back to an event and says, “it happened,” the perfect tense adds the idea that “it happened and it is still in effect today.”
So what is finished?
Jesus was very clear that He came into the world to do the “work of His Father.” He said in John 6:38 – “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” So, what was the work that is now finished on the cross? Consider what has been completed on the cross:
- The work of redemption that the Father had given to Jesus was accomplished.
- Every prophecy of God had been fulfilled. (John 19:28)
- Sin has been completely atoned. (1 Jn 3:5, 4:10)
- Satan has been defeated & rendered powerless. (1 Jn 3:8)
- Every requirement of God’s righteous Law had been satisfied. (2 Cor 5:21)
- God’s holy wrath against sin had been appeased or propitiated. (1 Jn 2:2, Rom 3:25)
Payment to Whom?
There was a theory presented in the early Church by a Church father named Origen, who suggested that the payment that Christ made was to Satan in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin. This theory is known as the Ransom to Satan theory. In other words, Christ paid Satan so that Satan would release sinners from the bondage of sin and Satan’s kingdom. The problem with this view is that the Bible never speaks of sinners as owing Satan anything. Satan is nothing but a created being, who deserves nothing. Second, the Bible is clear that sinners have a huge debt that they owe to God who is holy. The death of Christ should be understood only as a means to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. A ransom was definitely paid, but it was paid to God alone (Mark 10:45).
What does this mean for us?
1. It means that sinners can have ALL of their sin debt paid in full! The work of Christ on the cross is sufficient to cancel every sin regardless of how little or how great the sin debt. The incredible payment of Jesus is sufficient to forgive the worst of sinners.
2. It means that forgiveness is a GIFT and that works play no part in our salvation. It is an affront to God for sinners to think that they can contribute to their salvation through their works. The atonement of Christ is not a cooperation between man and God. It is the sole transaction of God providing what is needed for unable and weak sinners (Eph 2:8-9).
3. It means that sinners can rest in the accomplished work of Christ. We must change our mindset about living holy lives. Living holy lives is very important. But our holy lives do not contribute to our salvation. Once our debt has been fully paid, through faith in Jesus Christ, the transaction has been completed and we have been fully justified. Holy living becomes the result of our forgiveness not the source. Certainly, if there is no holiness in our lives, our conversion should be questioned. But our salvation is solely on the work of Christ, so that no one can boast about anything except in the cross. We must no longer view God as some mean Father who continues to punish us when we sin. In Christ all of our sins have been fully paid in the cross of Christ. Therefore, we have the love of God lavished on us and we are truly “sons.”
4. It means that we must tell others about the good news. Since the work of Christ is complete, there is no other way to be saved. We have the good news and must share it with others that they too can have all of their sin debt “paid in full.”