For far too long, these words, quoted by John as Jesus’ final statement from the cross, have been represented as if they were a pathetic whimper of abject submission to the unmitigated evil which sincere, but misguided, interpreters insist that God inflicted upon his Son in vicarious (one could just as well say “vicious”!) punishment for the offenses of mankind.
Woven skillfully into closely reasoned doctrinal positions, most of which bear no resemblance whatever to anything that Jesus himself said or taught, the resulting package has been accepted without question, despite its absurdly circular reasoning, as authoritative “proof” of those systems, and consequently has escaped serious examination.
The two words traditionally translated “finish”, teleioo and teleo – treated briefly in the studies on “perfection / maturity” (#13) and “fulfillment” (#108), both of which make more frequent use of pleroo – have a distinctly different flavor. Lexically, teleioo generally carries the freight of completion, (hence its frequent parallel with pleroo, referring to maturity and commonly translated “perfect”), while teleo leans more toward the idea of accomplishment, although the lines between those two are not easily defined.
Although he makes no reference to the spectacular splitting of the temple veil (#127 and Chapter 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom) mentioned by all the synoptic writers, John nevertheless displays a unique understanding of what is “finished.” Not only is he the only writer to quote this statement from the cross, but earlier, he had also noted Jesus’ telling the disciples (4:34), “My food is that I may do the will of the one that sent me, and that I may finish / complete his work!”, and replying to the Pharisees’ challenge (5:36) “The work that the Father gave me to finish: these deeds testify about me, that the Father has sent me.” Both of these are purpose clauses, employing aorist subjunctive forms.
As Jesus prayed (17:4), “I glorified you on earth (by) finishing the work that you gave me to do,” the verb is aorist indicative, indicating past, completed action.
But notice that at the time of that statement, Jesus had not yet died or arisen! What, then, was “finished”? (Jn.19:28-30)
For a partial answer, please refer back to #23, where we explored Jesus own version of his purpose, which is quite different from the condensed and distorted version usually promulgated. Additional light can be gleaned from Luke’s use of teleo, where it was traditionally translated “accomplished” (12:50, 18:31, 22:37), describing respectively an unexplained reference to an impending “baptism” (usually assumed to involve his suffering), to the fulfillment of prophecy “about the Son of Man”, and to “all that has been written about me”. Each of these is related in some way to a prophetic message: however, the second, with its parallels in Mt.20:17-19 and Mk.10:32-34, requires particular attention.
While the Matthew and Mark accounts specifically refer to Jesus’ betrayal and execution, Luke’s account does not. Instead, he records Jesus’ forecast that when they get to Jerusalem, “everything that has been written about me will be completed / fulfilled / finished”! If Jesus is correct – and I believe he always is – then there remains no “unfulfilled prophecy” from the ancient writings! And the folks who confidently construct future scenarios out of Old Testament prophecies, are seriously out-of-line.
This observation is corroborated by Jesus’ own words mentioned above in John’s gospel, as well as by his earlier statements (Mt.11:13, Lk.16:16) that “the law and the prophets were (in effect) until John” (the Baptist).
Please note this in no way discredits genuine New Testament prophecy, whether articulated by Jesus himself (Mt.24, 25; Mk.13, Lk.21, and elsewhere), or by various ones of his followers (parts of the Revelation and epistles) – although as Brother Paul reminds us (I Cor.14), we do need to be careful to evaluate what is represented to be prophetic. (See #45). And it does raise questions about folks who, ignorant of history, label many of the earlier writings as “yet to be fulfilled”. I venture to contend that the Lord Jesus represents authority and understanding far greater than theirs!
So – what was “finished”, when he proclaimed it so, and deliberately dismissed his “spirit / breath” (pneuma) (Jn.19:30)?
Exactly what he had declared in his prayer the previous evening: “I finished the work you gave me to do!” He had introduced the Kingdom designed by his Father to “the people you gave me out of the world” (Jn.17:6), and equipped them to carry on that Kingdom’s work. He had inaugurated a “demonstration project” to make his Kingdom accessible to the world. He had thereby finished / fulfilled the purpose of his Incarnation, and set the stage for its next installment (#150).
He had set the ultimate example of selfless obedience (Phil.2:6-8), so that the only “unfinished” thing remaining was (Phil.2:9-11) in the hands of the Father, who would shortly validate the whole affair by effecting his Son’s triumphant resurrection, and with it the definitive defeat of death and despair.
It is for this reason that I urge you to take another look at this “last word”, and at least entertain the possibility that, far from a “last gasp” of surrender or defeat, it is rather a shout of triumph!
The synoptics are unanimous in characterizing the departure of Jesus’ spirit as energetic, and not as a feeble expiration due to his terrible suffering. Mt.27:50 records “shouting with a loud voice”. Mk.15:37, “letting out a great shout”, and Lk.23:46, “shouting in a loud voice”, even though only John recorded the actual words of that climactic shout.
Jn.19:28 : “Jesus knew that everything had already been completed, in order for the Scripture to be fulfilled …” and announced in glorious victory, “It is finished!” (19:30) Having successfully crossed that “finish line”, he sat down at the right hand of God, (Heb.10:13) – you sit down when the work is all done! – , where “all he has to do now is wait until his enemies are placed as a stool for his feet!”
“It is finished!”
Praise the Lord!