Michelangelo: the name brings to our mind great artistry, architecture, and sculpture. To say his name is to be reminded of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican at Rome. Yet time and again he left that work, tiring of it, to return to his beloved and native Florence—only to be coaxed back by the Pope, insisting that he finish that work. When we think of his name, we think of those statues of Moses or David. What we may not remember, however, is that he left far more works unfinished than finished. In the sacristy of a church in Florence, the unfinished masterpieces of Michelangelo were gathered together, and by count, he left more works unfinished than complete.
In my study at home, I keep a picture of the desk of the late and great Dr. A. T. Robertson, perhaps the most famous and influential scholar the Southern Baptist people ever produced. It was a photograph taken of his desk the day he died. Our senior pastor and others in his class were there on that occasion, on September 23, 1934, when he walked into his senior class in the Greek New Testament at 3:00 in the afternoon. Thirty minutes into the class he was stricken, and two hours later he was taken. When they looked at the rudiments that were left on his desk, they found he had begun the masterwork of his life: a translation of the New Testament bearing his own name. He had translated as far as the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew's Gospel, and then he was taken, leaving across his desk unfinished notes, manuscripts, and papers.
The world-famous Cecil Rhodes, whose name was known across the continent, said as his last words, "So much to do, so little done."
We've read the mighty, triumphant shout of Jesus from the cross: "It is finished."
What do you suppose the most significant word in human history might be? Was a word of wisdom uttered by a philosopher, Aristotle or Socrates? Was it spoken by a poet who—in perfect rhyme and meter—arrived at just the right word? Was it spoken by a statesman, Churchill or Roosevelt? Or was it this word, which Jesus cried out from the Cross that has baffled and inspired for the ages: "It is finished"?
A single word
It is a word of brevity, and when a task has been accomplished, it can be spoken of in brevity. There needs to be no ambiguity, there need not be a great deal of verbiage. When a task is done, it is enough to say, "Finished." Indeed, in the words of the New Testament, it is only a singular word: tetelestai.
Remember Caesar's famous three-word message? Veni, vidi, vici. "I came, I saw, I conquered." It was enough to be said; it was a word of brevity and a word of intensity.
According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke's Gospels, Jesus shouted out his last words on the cross. Evidently he received that sop of vinegar from the soldiers gathered at the foot of the cross in order that he might clear his throat and moisten his tongue—that after he had cried, "I thirst," he could cry out this shout of triumph: "It is finished."
If you look at it grammatically, you can describe it as a third person, singular, perfect, passive, indicative verb. To say that almost conjures up the dryness and the deadness of grammar, as well as the old refrain: "Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be, first it killed the Romans, and now it's killing me." Sometimes when you parse a verb and take it apart in the language of Scripture, it's like taking the petals off a flower, but there is something to be learned from the very word that Jesus used here. It is a third person singular, which means Jesus was not speaking of himself but of something else when he said, "It is finished." We shall see in a moment what he referred to by that pronoun "it," the antecedent of which we have to find in "it is finished." But he did not say, "I am finished."
Dr. Albert Schweitzer came to the despairing conclusion that this was no shout of triumph, but instead a shout of despair. Jesus had offered himself in the kingdom of God to that generation, and he had been rejected by every level of society. Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Romans, and his own disciples had turned their backs on him, and in despair, it was as if he had said, "I am finished."
But that's not the significance of this word. He did not say in the first person, "I am finished." He said in the third person singular, "It is finished." He had in mind something of significance that was stated poignantly in the perfect tense of the Greek language, which indicates that a mighty act had been achieved and the results of it would abide. It was as if someone had stepped in wet cement that hardened and left a footprint—as if these words had been chiseled for all time into some kind of marble or granite that time could never efface. "It is finished."
It was spoken in the indicative, which is certainty. Had there been any question about it, he might have said in the subjunctive, "It may be finished, it should be finished." But with a shout of triumph and certitude, he said, "It is finished." Not only that, but that passive voice indicates that he had been acted upon by some great intention, some great force. He did not say, "I finished it." Putting that mighty deed out there, he said, "It is finished." It has been acted upon by the purposes of God—by the types, the symbols, the promises, and the prophecies of the Old Testament—and "it is finished."
That word, tetelestai—the verb in the third person, singular, perfect, passive, indicative—catches in itself, in one word, the mighty sweep of God in history. The substantive of that verb is the word teles: it gives us telephone, telegraph, television. It has about it the sense of that which has reached its goal, that which has come to ripen to maturity, that which has come to full completion. A telephone delivers a message in sound to its desired destination, a telegraph delivers a message encoded, and a television delivers a message in picture. When Jesus said, "Tetelestai," he was saying, "I have finished the right purposes of God and they have now been delivered to their appropriate and full intention."
The done deed
In the 19th-century Egypt, where the sands are dry, pieces of papyrus that dated from the time of the New Testament were discovered by Adolf Deissmann and others. They were business papers, correspondence, real estate papers, papers from the marketplace of life. That papyrus, in the dryness of the sands of Egypt, had never turned brittle, had never faded. It was like finding a treasure trove. As they began to look through these papyri, these pieces of plant on which had been written the very kind of language in the New Testament, they began to discover the same words that you have in the New Testament. Up to that time, it had been thought that the New Testament was written in some kind of special, holy, sacred form of Greek, because it was unlike other known Greek. But they found that it was the language of the marketplace, the common language, and they found this very word: tetelestai. How did they find it? They found it on documents indicating that a deed had been signed, that a transaction had been completed.
There is a sense in which the whole of the Old Testament was a deed waiting to be signed. Since outside the gates of Eden, as sin, failure, and guilt cast its shadow and eclipsed the human race through patriarchs, kings, and prophets, it was delivered up to that cross as if it were something that demanded a signature to bring it to pass. When Jesus said, "It is finished," it was as if he took the 39 books of that old covenant and wrote across them the name "Messiah," "Christ," finished.
Not only that, but when they dug around in the sands of the desert in the mid-19th century and found the papyri, they found that this very word—tetelestai—was used to sign receipts after a business transaction. The light that came from those papyri shocked the scholars and stunned the grammarians. There in the marketplace, when a debt was paid in full, they wrote tetelestai: it is complete, it is paid.
What is finished?
What did our Lord say in the midst of his ministry? He said the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom price for the many. If that is the case, what is it that is finished?
To try to unpack a word like that makes me feel so trivial and so unable, so lacking to speak of it. At that very moment, Jesus must surely have meant that which he was suffering was finished. When he was born, his mother Mary was told by that old man in the temple, Simeon, that her own heart was going to be pierced by what would happen to the baby she held there in anticipation.
All the days of his life, did he not speak of his hour, as if he saw some invisible hourglass hovering there? He said it at Cana: "My hour has not come." Like the striking of a clock, he said, "My hour has not come, my hour has not come." He lived as a man knowing that over his head there hung some awesome hour that he would face. At the very early part of his ministry, he spoke of the time when the bridegroom would be taken away and the disciples would be saddened. Six months before the cross, he began to predict to them—in those passionate sayings—that the Son of Man must go up to Jerusalem, must be arrested, must die, and must be raised.
When we look at the Cross as the only suffering, we mistake the ministry of Jesus. Some of us cringe if we have to wait to go to the dentist next week. If we await a surgical operation that we know is on the calendar, it hangs over our heads. Here was the Son of Man, the Son of God, who lived out his life in ministry knowing that moment was coming, and all of that was bound up in that final triumphant cry of "It is finished."
But he also meant that all of the types, symbols, emblems, and the institutions of the Old Testament—the priesthood, the temple, the altar, the sacrifice, all of it—were finished. In Matthew 5:17—the Sermon on the Mount, his great inaugural manifesto—Jesus defined his relationship to everything God had done before him, saying, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." What he meant by that is that every type and every symbol in the Old Testament would find its antitype and its substance in him. What he meant by that was every promise that predicted his coming would find its fulfillment in him. Every priest who had come to that altar and tabernacle and temple would find his ultimate fulfillment in the Great High Priest.
When you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a painting hangs on a wall there with an inscription that reads Ha megalos archiereas—the Great High Priest. That bloody trail of the sacrificial victims—every lamb, goat, and bull, everything that had been offered in that river of blood flowing from the tabernacle and temple—flowed right up to that cross when he cried out, "It is finished." It was as if every promise were a spring compressed, about to spring like a rubber band stretched, about to break, and all humanity was agape and agog with expectancy for the day when it would be cried out, "It is finished."
What is finished? The payment of the ransom price, the atonement, the covering; all that had been anticipated in his deed on the Cross. Dying to be the death of death, never to die again. It is finished.
Looking about, though, I wonder if there were not a word about sin and the works of the adversary, the devil, Satan himself. From the time of the temptation of the first pair to this very night, every one of us knows the sting of defeat. We know the alluring seduction of temptation. We know the vacillating weakness of our own will. We look back and see the guilt of the past, and we sense in the present the powerlessness of our own life apart from the mighty power of God. You look around yourself: in this city, you see the works of the adversary up and down every boulevard and street. In every neighborhood and home, you see there the shadow of the accuser, the slanderer, the enemy of our souls.
Little wonder that it was said in 1 John 3:8: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." What was meant by that is that on that cross, underneath his pierced feet, Jesus was crushing the head of the Serpent. As one said to me so many years ago, "If he is dead, he sure looks alive." Yet from that moment, it is our belief that Jesus struck the blow that will ultimately render inoperative the great enemy of our souls, and in this age of the church, we are seeing the final display of the powers of darkness. But when he comes again in the shout of victory in the tribulation, chained will be the Enemy, and we will see the truth of the cry, "It is finished."
This word was spoken, but to whom was it spoken? To whom did he cry it out? Did he not cry it out to God the Father himself? Who could imagine that hour when the eternal Word of God stood from his regal seat and as a glad volunteer said to the Father, "I lay down my life, no one takes it from me"? The word from the Father came down to the Jordan: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." When was that? Was it not when Jesus laid aside the splendor of the eternal Word of God and came to the crèche of Bethlehem, to be born there and walk among us? At the Transfiguration, that voice thundered again from heaven to earth, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Now there echoes back from Earth to heaven the word of affirmation from the Son to the Father: "It is finished."
But was it not also spoken to those unseen angelic hosts gathered around the Cross? The Word says that he had at his call legions of angels. Who could even imagine it? Seraphim, cherubim, burning spirits, divine agents. It seems as if the Bible suggests they were almost restrained from intervening as the Son of God bled to death on the Cross. Was it not to those restrained celestial creatures that he cried out, "It is finished"?
But there were also those more interested than any others; those Old Testament believers who, one by one, had been gathered into the bosom of Abraham. When the blood of Jesus fell on Golgotha, leaving its crimson stain, those droplets of blood must have cried out to the green grass alongside Calvary, and the grass to the trees lifted toward heaven, and the trees to the songbirds, and as those birds circled to high heaven above: "It is finished." I wonder what was heard there when Father Abraham heard that word and whispered to his son Isaac, "That for which I took you to Mount Moriah in symbol is finished." Isaac said to Jacob, "We are told it is finished." Jacob said to Joseph, "It is finished." Joseph to those, "It is finished." All of heaven rang with the affirmation—"It is finished"—and they began to prepare to fall down before the throne and say, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain." What a resounding sound must have gone through the rank and file of those Old Testament believers who were there on credit. Can you imagine the interest they had in that Cross with every flinch of the Savior, lest he come down and it not be finished?
I wonder if that cry wasn't uttered toward hell itself, where the adversary had to cover his very ears: the one who, from the gates of Eden had let loose the hounds of hell to stop the purposes of God. The one who had animated Herod the Great to butcher the infants in Bethlehem, the one who had tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, the one who had tried to slay him in the very Garden of Gethsemane, lest he bleed to death before the Cross. I wonder if he didn't hear that shout of triumph, "It is finished."
How do we know it's finished? It could be said, "It is finished," but how do we know it? The ripped veil cries out, "It is finished." Matthew, who is Jewish, wrote in his Gospel that at that same moment, the veil—60 feet long, Josephus says, heavy with embroidery, hung on acacia wood covered with gold—was torn from the top to the bottom. Can you imagine that sleepy-eyed priest on 15th Nisan, who walked in to go through his desultory ministrations and suddenly turned to see that the veil was torn from top to bottom? He must have run out in a holy terror and said church was never like this. It is finished because the veil was ripped.
It is finished because of the vindicating resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. If his body had turned to dust in some unmarked Palestinian sepulcher, we would have had no vindicating assurance. But the book of Romans opens with triumphant words, that Jesus was proved and attested to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection. Then he was exalted to the right hand of the Father. It is finished.
Another affirmation is the shedding forth of the Holy Spirit on the church of the living God. Before Jesus left, he said to wait for the promise of the Father. What if those 120 had gathered in that upper room praying, "Oh, God, send the promise," and nothing had come? He would have been finished: just another wandering Hebrew rabbi, an intertestamental figure. Who knows what would have happened? Nothing. But on that day, 50 days after, there came the sound of the echo of a rushing mighty wind and cloven tongues of fire, and it was the affirmation of the truth of his statement: "It is finished."
Right down to our gathering today, we remember it is finished. The very fact we gather at this table is an abiding reminder. It is finished.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.