This week, culminating in the celebration of the Resurrection on Sunday, is the most significant week in the Christian calendar. Different denominations have differing plans for the lead up, a variety of traditions and observances that are indeed the true meaning of what we now culturally call Easter. But no matter the name hanging on the sign out front, all of the words and actions all lead up to this one word:
As Jesus hung dying on the cross, after untold humiliation and unspeakable torture, His body torn past the breaking point, nearly bled out, in complete and abject pain and misery, He had the presence of mind to utter a phrase that we know in English this way:
“So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” John 19:30
The New Testament came down to us in the Greek language, the language of the common man, the language of commerce. And when we see the phrase “It is finished” in English, we are really seeing the Greek word TETELESTAI. And maybe when we read, we interpret His last words as “I am finished”, i.e. “my body is done.” Maybe we see it as “I have completed my mission” or “I have done what I set out to do.” And maybe, if we are thinking some 2,000 years down the road, we read “It is finished forever.” The Greek language is descriptive enough to cover all that, as we shall see.
There’s one thing we need to know first though – what exactly was He finished with? Why would those words be His last?
The history of mankind is the history of man failing to meet God on His terms. From the Garden to the Desert to the Holy City of Jerusalem, God had been speaking to His people in very specific and pointed ways. He spoke directly, at first, with simple commands and promises. He spoke later through Moses, where the Law was given, not just the Ten Commandments but the long list of requirements – the 613 rules for life that the Nation of Israel would adhere to. He spoke through His prophets, warning and predicting and declaring what was to come. Because there was a plan in play, a place He was taking His creation, a destiny for humankind.
A side note is important here. When man failed God at the very first, the universe was put in a perilous place. Man was the ultimate creation, a physical representation of the eternal being that is God. But he had given it all away to his lesser desires. And that required a legal payment. If you or I commit a crime, and we are determined by a court of law to be guilty, we are expected to pay a price. That payment may be in the form of money, it may be in the form of time served in prison. Or it may be in the ultimate form of death, the shedding of your life blood. Since a crime had been committed, and it involved the entire human race, a price was demanded to be paid to satisfy the debt to the universe.
Man found himself with a price on his head. All the laws, all the ordinances, all the words of the prophets were there to continually lead the human race to a point of redemption. They, we, were told continually the how, the when, the where, the why and even the very mechanism that would bring this about. Because payment was demanded, and God had a plan that would satisfy His perfect universe.
The Greeks had a word for it – hilastērion. We translate that propitiation. And what it means is vitally important to understand.
If you were to commit that hypothetical crime mentioned above, and if you were found guilty, you now have a debt to be paid to society. Let’s say it’s something not-so-serious, like a ticket for speeding 25 miles per hour above the posted limit. The fine is $300, which you do not have. But a surprise benefactor shows up in court and offers to pay the price of your freedom. Your fine is paid, the debt is cleared, and you walk free.
That is propitiation. And here’s one of the places that word hilastērion shows up:
“whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” Romans 3:25
So back to Easter week and back to Jesus hanging on that cross and back to His last words – “It is finished.” Because hilastērion and tetelestai go together, and all the things we read when we see those words are correct.
That word tetelestai is a very unusual word indeed. The English language has tenses – I ran, I run, I will run. The Greeks take it a bit deeper. And that word tetelestai is Perfect Passive Indicative. It is only used once in the Bible and it combines the Present tense with the Aorist tense, the linear with the punctiliar, the past with the present with the future.
It’s about to get real here, and in very simple English.
If when Jesus said those words in the past tense only, then only that which had already happened would have been covered. If you were born the next day, the next year, the next century, you would be out of luck. But God, in His infinite wisdom, used a word to tell us the most important thing in human history: I have paid your speeding ticket, I am paying your speeding ticket, I will continue to pay your speeding ticket. You have failed, you are failing, you will fail. But the bill has been paid.
Propitiation. Tetelestai. The bill is paid, once and for all, for any who will appropriate it.
But there are two more days to this Easter weekend. And it’s worth finding out the truths they hold for us.
Next: There is Hope.