July 7, 1991
Unfinished Business … We were reminded of several good examples this week.
—On Wednesday, President Bush flew to Mt. Rushmore for a special 50th Anniversary celebration. It’s a little-known fact that the sculptor, a man named Gutzon Borglum, never finished his work. If you study the faces carefully, it’s clear that he spent more time on George Washington than he did on the other three presidents. That’s because he originally planned to extend the figures of each president down into the chest area. But he never lived long enough to see his dream through to completion. His son continued his work for a few months after his death, but he ran out of money. It’s been 50 years—and millions of tourists since then, but Mt. Rushmore for all its grandeur remains an unfinished work of art.
—On Thursday night Sandi Patti sang with the Boston Pops Orchestra at a great 4th of July celebra-tion. The audience numbered in the tens of thousands. I caught her closing number—a song I hadn’t heard in 20 years—”Let There be Peace on Earth.” The crowd held hands and swayed back and forth as she sang—”Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” It was a moving sight to see so many earnest voices singing what is essentially a prayer for peace. But just a flick of the channel showed how far we are from “the peace that was meant to be.” The screen transported us to some faraway land called Slovenia where tanks were blasting away at farmhouses and men were marching off to war. It was a solemn reminder that the quest for peace is just that—a quest and not a finished journey. With so much killing in the world, the voice of Sandi Patti was like a midsummer night’s dream. The search for lasting peace on earth is another bit of unfinished business.
—But the most poignant reminder came last Monday. He was only 54 and in many ways, still rising in his profession. Several months ago, while vacationing in Arizona and Utah, he noticed a nagging pain in his chest. When he returned home, he had the doctors run some tests. The news was bad, as bad as it gets. Michael Landon had pancreatic cancer—inoperable and basically untreatable. His life was measured in days and weeks, not months and years. He died last Monday, leaving behind a wife, 9 children and millions of fans. Unfinished business? Plenty. No one plans to die at age 54.
That may be our worst fear … that we will die before our time. But it happens all the time.
We die too young … .
Or we die too soon …
Or we die with our work unfinished …
Or we die with our dreams unfulfilled.
Living an Unfinished Life
We all know what it’s like, don’t we? All of us have unfinished things cluttering up the highway of life.
—the half-mowed lawn
—the half-read book
—the letter started but never sent
—the abandoned diet
—the degree we never finished
—the phone calls never returned
But it can be much more serious than that.
—the abandoned child
—the job we quit in a fit of anger
—the wrecked marriage
—the bills never paid
—the promises never kept
All of us go through life leaving behind a trail of unfinished projects and unfulfilled dreams. How few there are who can come to the end of life and say, “I finished exactly what I set out to do.”
A Dying Man’s Final Words
Only one person in history never left behind any unfinished business. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the only person who could come to the end of his life and say—with absolute and total truthfulness—”I have finished everything I set out to do.”
It is Friday in Jerusalem and a huge crowd has gathered at the place called Skull Hill. It was on the north side of the city, just outside the Damascus Gate, and located by the side of a well-traveled road. The Romans liked to hold their crucifixions in public places. Killing people in public had a salutary effect on the masses.
This particular crucifixion started at 9 A.M. For three hours everything proceeded normally. Then at exactly 12 noon, the sky went black. Not overcast, but pitch black, so black that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It wasn’t anything normal like an eclipse. The darkness seemed to pulse and throb, almost like the darkness was a living thing, an evil mutant creature escaped from some science fiction movie.
Only this was no movie. What happened was real. For three hours darkness fell across the city of Jerusalem. There were screams, hideous cries, moans, and other unidentifiable sounds. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the darkness lifted, disappeared, vanished, and sanity returned to the earth.
One glance at the middle cross made it clear that this man Jesus would not last much longer. He looked dead already. His body quivered uncontrollably, his chest heaving with every tortured breath. The soldiers knew from long experience that he wouldn’t make it to sundown.
Then it happened. He shouted something—”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Someone in the crowd shouted back to him. Moments passed, death drew near, then a hoarse whisper, “I thirst.” The soldiers put some sour vinegar on a sponge and lifted it to his lips with a stalk of hyssop. He moistened his lips and took a deep breath. If you listened you could hear the death rattle in his throat. He had less than a minute to live.
Then he spoke again. It was a quick shout. Just one word. If you weren’t paying attention, you missed it in all the confusion. Then he breathed out another sentence. Then he was dead.
What was that shout? In Greek it is only one word … Tetelestai … “It is finished.”
Was, Is And Always Will Be
Tetelestai comes from the verb teleo, which means “to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.” It’s a crucial word because it signifies the successful end to a particular course of action. It’s the word you would use when you climb to the peak of Mt. Everest; it’s the word you would use when you turn in the final copy of your dissertation; it’s the word you would use when you make the final payment on your new car; it’s the word you use when you cross the finish line of your first 10K run. The word means more than just “I survived.” It means “I did exactly what I set out to do.”
But there’s more here than the verb itself. Tetelestai is in the perfect tense in Greek. That’s significant because the perfect tense speaks of an action which has been completed in the past with results continuing into the present. It’s different from the past tense which looks back to an event and says, “This happened.” The perfect tense adds the idea that “This happened and it is still in effect today.”
When Jesus cried out “It is finished,” he meant “It was finished in the past, it is still finished in the present and it will remain finished in the future.”
Note one other fact. He did not say, “I am finished,” for that would imply that he died defeated and exhausted. Rather, he cried out “It is finished,” meaning “I successfully completed the work I came to do.”
Tetelestai, then, is the Savior’s final cry of victory. When he died, he left no unfinished business behind. When he said, “It is finished,” he was speaking the truth.
What Was Finished?
When you read these words of Jesus, only one question grips the mind—What was finished? As you survey the commentators, you find that each writer has his idea of the answer to that question. In fact, the answers are as varied as the writers themselves.
This week as I prepared for this message, I pulled my green commentary by Matthew Henry, who lived and wrote over 300 years ago. Although many have surpassed him in details of exegesis, his work endures as one of the greatest devotional commentaries ever written. In his remarks on this saying of Jesus (volume 5, p. 1201), he lists 8 things that were finished or completed when Jesus cried out “It is finished.”
1. The malice of his enemies was finished. By nailing him to the cross, they had done their worst. There was nothing more they could do to the Son of God.
2. The sufferings ordained by God were finished. Many times during his ministry, Jesus spoke of “the work” he was sent to do and of the “hour” of trouble that was coming. He once spoke of a “baptism” of suffering he must undergo. All those things were ordained by God. None of them happened by chance. Even the evil plans of the Jews fit somehow into God’s greater plan to save the world through the death of his Son (Acts 2:23). But those sufferings were now at an end.
3. All the Old Testament types and prophecies were fulfilled. Matthew Henry lists a number of examples—He had been given vinegar to drink (Psalm 69:21), he had been sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12), his hands and feet had been pierced (Psalm 22:16), his garments had been divided (Psalm 22:18), and his side was pierced (Zechariah 12:10). There are many other prophesies surrounding his death. All those had been or very soon would be fulfilled.
4. The ceremonial law was abolished. As Romans 10:4 puts it, Christ is “the end of the law.” It finds its completion and fulfillment in him. Therefore, all the Old Testament rules concerning animal sacrifices are set aside. And the rules and regulations concerning the priesthood are out of date since the Greater Priest has now laid down his life for his people. Those laws pointed to the cross. But once Jesus died, they were no longer needed. “The Mosaic economy is dissolved, to make way for a better hope.”
5. The price of sin was paid in full. Do you remember the words of John the Baptist when he saw Jesus? He called him “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) That “taking away” of sin was accomplishment by the death of our Lord.
6. His physical sufferings were at an end. “The storm is over, the worst is past; all his pains and agonies are at an end, and he is just going to paradise, entering upon the joy set before him.”
7. His life was now finished. When Jesus cried out “It is finished,” he had only a few seconds to live. All that he had come to do had been fully accomplished. His life and his mission came to an end at exactly the same moment.
8. The work of redemption was now complete. This is undoubtedly the major meaning. Matthew Henry expands on what Christ’s death accomplished in four statements, each one beginning with the letter F. The death of Christ provided a …
A. Full satisfaction for sin
B. Fatal blow to Satan
C. Fountain of grace opened that will flow forever
D. Foundation of peace laid that will last forever
Paid In Full
But there is more to the meaning of tetelestai. It means all of the above, but it especially applies to the price paid for the sins of the world. Merrill Tenney (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, IX, 185) notes that the verb
was used in the first and second centuries in the sense of “fulfilling” or “paying” a debt and often appeared in receipts. “It is finished” (Tetelestai) could be interpreted as “Paid in full.”
“Paid in full” means that once a thing is paid for, you never have to pay for it again. In fact, “paid in full” means that once a thing is paid for, it is foolish to try to pay for it again. That point came home to me several weeks ago when we visited our good friends Grant and Fern Brown who live in Norwood, Colorado. Grant is the distinguished pastor of the San Miquel Basin Christian Fellowship. We knew each other in Texas because he served as my song leader at Northeast Bible Church while he was a student in seminary. For the last five years he has had a very fruitful ministry in the remote West End of Colorado.
Because we are good friends, whenever he and Fern and the girls come through Chicago, they stay with us. And several years ago we stayed with them in Colorado. So he was delighted when I phoned to say that we would be passing through Norwood on our way back from Arizona. He said fine, they would be glad to put us up. I assumed that we would be camping on sofas or whatever for the night—which was fine with us—but when I called him from southern Utah to let him know we would arrive in 3 or 4 hours, he said that he had a room for us at the local hotel—the Back Narrows Inn. I thought he was kidding. First of all, I didn’t think Norwood was big enough to have a hotel. Second, I just thought it was a joke. But he was serious. “Our house isn’t big enough (they had moved since we came through a few years ago), so we’ll put you up in the hotel.” When I protested, he said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve worked it out with the owner and I’ve already taken care of the bill.” That was that. We were staying at the hotel and he was paying. And nothing I could say would make the slightest difference.
We got to the Back Narrows Inn about 10 P.M. and found it to be a small, turn-of-the-century building that had been converted into a 15 or 20 room hotel. When we arrived, the owner greeted us, handed us our keys, and said, “Your friend has taken care of everything.” Indeed he had. We didn’t even have to formally check in. No credit cards, no filling out forms, no “How will you be paying for this, sir?” It wasn’t necessary because my friend Grant Brown had personally paid the price in full. All that was left to us was to enjoy our rooms, provided free of charge to us by virtue of a friend’s hospitality.
Name Your Sin
So let me ask you a personal question. What sin is keeping you from God today? Is it anger? Is it lust? Is it a hard heart of unbelief? Is it alcohol abuse? Is it an uncontrollable temper? Is it cheating? Is it stealing? Is it adultery? Is it abortion? Is it pride? Is it greed?
Let me tell you the best news you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t matter what “your” sin is. It doesn’t matter how many sins you’ve piled up in your life. It doesn’t matter how guilty you think you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been doing this week. It doesn’t matter how bad you’ve been. It doesn’t matter how many skeletons rattle around in your closet.
All of your sins have been stamped by God with one word—Tetelestai—Paid in full.
Anger … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Uncontrolled ambition … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Gossip … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Drunkenness … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Fornication … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Embezzlement … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Lying … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Disobedience … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Slothfulness … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Pride … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Murder … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Bribery … Tetelestai … Paid in Full
Those are just examples. Just fill in the blank with whatever sins plague your life. Then write over those sins the word Tetelestai because through the blood of Jesus Christ the price for “your” sins has been Paid in Full.
Three Abiding Principles
1. Since Jesus Christ paid in full, the work of salvation is now complete. That is what “It is finished” means. The debt was paid, the work was accomplished, the sacrifice was completed. And since the verb is in the perfect tense, it means that when Jesus died, he died once for all time. The sacrifice was suffi-cient to pay for the sins of every person who has ever lived—past, present or future.
And that explains what theologians mean when they talk about the “finished work” of Jesus Christ. That’s not just a slogan; it’s a profound spiritual truth. What Jesus accomplished in his death was so awesome, so total, so complete that it could never be repeated. Not even by Jesus himself. His work is “finished.” There is nothing more God could do to save the human race. There is no Plan B. Plan A (the death of Christ) was good enough.
2. Since Jesus Christ paid in full, all efforts to add anything to what Christ did on the cross are doomed to failure. A few years I found a great passage tucked away in the Doctrinal Statement of Dallas Theological Seminary. In Article VII, “Salvation Only Through Christ,” I found three rather long and involved sentences. I quote them here because they speak directly to the point at hand.
We believe that, owing to universal death through sin, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless born again; and that no degree of reformation however great, no attainments in morality however high, no culture however attractive, no baptism or other ordinance however admini-stered can help the sinner take even one step toward heaven; but a new nature imparted from above, a new life implanted by the Holy Spirit through the Word is essential to salvation, and only those thus saved are the sons of God.
We believe, also, that our redemption has been accomplished solely by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made to be sin and was made a curse for us, dying in our place and stead; and that no repentance, no feeling, no faith, no good resolutions, no sincere efforts, no submission to the rules and regulations of any church, nor all the churches that have existed since the days of the Apostles can add in the very least degree to the value of the blood, or to the merit of the finished work of Jesus Christ. (italics added)
I submit to you that that statement is absolutely correct. It says it all. You can’t add anything to the value of what Jesus did on the cross. You are doomed to failure if you try.
Let me put it very simply. If Jesus paid it all, you don’t have to. If you try to pay for your salvation, it means you don’t think he paid it all. There is no middle ground between those two propositions.
God is not trying to sell you salvation. He’s not offering salvation at half-price. He’s not offering to go “Dutch Treat” with you. He’s not offering salvation on an installment plan.
God is offering you salvation free of charge. That’s what Tetelestai means. Jesus paid in full so you wouldn’t have to pay anything.
3. Since Jesus Christ paid in full, the only thing you can do is accept it or reject it. A few years ago a Nigerian pastor gave me a hymnbook entitled “Sacred Songs and Solos.” When you open to the title page, you find that it was compiled by Ira Sankey (D. L. Moody’s songleader) almost a hundred years ago. This hymnbook—though very old—is still used by the churches of Nigeria and contains many hymns we in America would consider out-of-date. But some of them are gems. These are the words to number 142:
Nothing either great or small—
Nothing, sinner no.
Jesus did it, did it all,
Long, long ago.
“It is finished!” yes, indeed.
Finished every jot:
Sinner, this is all you need—
Tell me, is it not?
When He, from His lofty throne,
Stooped to do and die,
Everything was fully done:
Hearken to His cry.
Weary, working, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing; all was done
Long, long ago.
Till to Jesus’ work you cling
By a simple faith,
“Doing” is a deadly thing—
“Doing” leads to death.
Cast your deadly “doing” down—
Down at Jesus’ feet;
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
They don’t write hymns like that nowadays. There’s enough good theology in those six stanzas to save the entire world. Just consider these two lines—”Cease your doing; all was done long, long ago.” It’s true. “All was done” when Jesus cried “It is finished.” It was finished then, it is finished now, and to the glory of God, after a million times a million years have passed, it will still be finished.
Thanks be to God that Jesus left no unfinished business behind. He finished what he came to do, and in finish-ing his work he paid in full the price for your sins. As the hymn says, “Sinner, this is all you need. Tell me, is it not?”