Tetelestai.


Introduction: derivation and pronunciation
'telō', 'telōs'

This is arguably the most important single word that Jesus spoke during his life on earth. It is, in fact, the sixth of the seven “words”, or utterances, that he spoke from the cross, and is often quoted in Greek by preachers who know little if any Greek apart from this. With its three ‘t’s and three ‘e’s it is indeed a memorable and striking word, but its significance derives from much more than this, and we need to look carefully at the verb of which it is a part, telō, and its associated noun, telōs. There are, in fact, 13 Greek words in the New Testament which derive from the tel- stem, and it is tempting to think that the many English words beginning ‘tele-’ (about five columns’ worth in my dictionary) are all derived from this Greek root; tempting - but wrong! They are actually derived from a very similar Greek word, tēle, which means ‘at a distance’, so that a telescope and television both enable us to see things that are far away, whether it is the craters on the moon or test matches in Australia. The few words derived from the noun telōs, one of whose meanings, as we shall see, is ‘purpose’, are much less familiar: ‘teleology’ and its variants, which means ‘studying the purpose of things’, rather than their causes. This confusion is worse confounded by the way we have come to pronounce the English words: those derived from ‘tēle’ (long first ‘e’) are all pronounced ‘telly-’, while ‘teleology’ is usually given a long ‘e’, despite driving from ‘telōs’ with a short ‘e’.

Let us, then, focus our attention on the two most basic and most common of the ‘tel-’ words, the verb telō, which occurs 28 times in the NT, and the noun telōs (42 times). Tetelestai is the third person singular of the perfect passive of telō, and so means, at its simplest, ‘it has been finished’; but as we look at the ways in which these two words are used elsewhere in the New Testament we shall find that tetelestai has several other possible meanings and interpretations.

1. 'telō'
[a] to 'finish' (i) in Matthew
Matt 7.28. 11.1, 13.53, 19.1, 26.1

As we have just seen, the basic meaning of the verb is ‘finish’, ‘complete’, or ‘bring to an end’. Matthew uses it in this sense five times in his gospel, each one marking the conclusion of a significant section of Jesus’ teaching, and preparing us for the next phase of his ministry. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (7.28), “Jesus finished these words”. Chapter 10 describes the sending out of the twelve disciples and the instructions and teaching Jesus gave them; chapter 11 begins: “When Jesus had finished instructing the twelve disciples” - he moved on. Chapter 13 contains 7 parables, beginning with the parable of the sower; at the end (v. 53), “when Jesus had finished these parables” - he moved on. In chapter 18, Jesus answers two questions, the first from the disciples, the second specifically from Peter, each with a parable and supplementary teaching; chapter 19 begins: “when Jesus had finished these words” - he left Galilee and moved on, towards Jerusalem. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is described in the first part of chapter 21; the remainder of this chapter through to the end of chapter 25 recounts Jesus’ teaching in the temple courts and their surroundings in the final week of his life. There are three distinct sections. First, Jesus answers four questions from the Pharisees and Sadducees, before asking one himself of them; these debates are interspersed with three parables pointing to the apostasy of Israel. Secondly, chapter 23 is devoted to the ‘seven woes’ directed at the religious authorities of Israel. Finally, Jesus, moving away from the temple, answers his disciples’ questions about the end of the age (chapter 24), and in chapter 25 tells three parables relating to his second coming. Chapter 26 begins: “When Jesus had finished ALL these words ---”; this marks the end of his teaching ministry, and leads into the events of his passion. It seems, then, that the clause “when Jesus had finished” is one of the main structural pivots of Matthew’s gospel.

(ii) in Revelation
Rev 11.7, 15.1, 20.3, 7

There are some similarities to this in the way that telō is used (8 times)in Revelation; but whereas in the gospel it is Matthew who is imposing some order on his material, in Revelation it is God himself ordering the timetable of events leading to the end of the age. A few examples will make this clear. Chapter 11 describes the two witnesses: for 1260 days (i.e. 42 months, or 3 1/2 years) they are inviolable, and their enemies are consumed with fire. But “when they have completed their testimony” the beast overpowers and kills them. Chapter 15 introduces the seven angels with the seven plagues, the bowls of God’s wrath; “no one was able to enter into the temple until the seven plagues were completed”. And in chapter 20, Satan is thrown into the abyss, unable to deceive the nations, “until the thousand years are ended” (v. 3); but “when the thousand years are ended”, he is freed from his prison (v. 7) - only to meet his final destruction (vv. 9-10) in the lake of fire.

[b] to 'complete', 'fulfil'
(i) the righteousness of the Law
Luke 2.39, Rom 2.27, James 2.8

telō also means ‘finish’ in the sense of ‘complete’ - i.e. do all that needs to be done, or ‘fulfil’. At first sight, Luke’s use of the verb in 2.39 is very similar to Matthew’s formula described above: Joseph and Mary, “when they had finished everything the law required returned to Galilee”. This sums up events in vv. 21 - 38 and marks the transition to the next stage in Jesus’ life, from birth in Bethlehem to childhood in Nazareth (the intervening exile in Egypt in mentioned only in Matthew). Luke has described two events in these earlier verses: Jesus’ circumcision after eight days (v.21), as prescribed by the law in Leviticus 12; and his presentation in the temple to offer the sacrifice of redemption for a firstborn son, as set out in Exodus 13. Luke, then, is making it clear that Jesus, through the agency of his obedient parents, has “fulfilled all the requirements of the law”. There are two other instances where telō is used in this sense of “fulfilling the law”. In Romans 2. 27 Paul talks of those “physically uncircumcised (i.e. gentiles) fulfilling the law”, and putting to shame circumcised Jews who break it; and James (2.8) urges us to “fulfil the royal law: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ ”.The NIV’s translation here, “really keep”, is an attempt to do justice to the sense of completeness inherent in telō.

(ii) unrighteous desires
Gal 5.16

It is worth adding here that this same usage of telō is found in exactly the opposite context in Galatians 5.16, where Paul writes: “Walk in the Spirit, and you will certainly not fulfil the sinful desires of the flesh”. Just as we can fulfil God’s law by the decisions we make and the actions we take, so also we can all too easily fulfil our sinful desires by acting them out - but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of holiness, can strengthen our wills so that we make the right decisions, and so take righteous actions.

[c] to 'fulfil' prophecy
Luke 18.31, 22.37, Acts 13.29, John 19.28
'teleiō'

Luke also uses telō to refer to the “fulfilling” of prophecy. Jesus tells his disciples (18.31) that they are going up to Jerusalem, where “all that is written in the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled”. A little later (22.37), at the end of the Last Supper, Jesus warns his disciples that “this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘he was reckoned among the lawbreakers’ ”. Finally, in Paul’s sermon in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13.29) , he says that the Jewish authorities, in persuading Pilate to have Jesus crucified, “fulfilled all that was written about him” - although these prophecies were read to them from the scriptures every Sabbath. These references, of course, are in line with many other occasions in the gospels where the evangelists point out that events in Jesus’ life have “fulfilled” Old Testament prophecies, though verbs other than telō are used to express this. One particularly relevant example occurs in John 19, immediately before the cry of tetelestai that we are considering. John comments (v. 28): “Jesus, knowing that all was now ‘finished’ (tetelestai), so that the scripture might be ‘fulfilled’ (teleiōthē) , said ‘I thirst’”. The word for ‘fulfil’ here is a close relation of telō, begotten by a sort of linguistic interbreeding: telō produces the adjective teleios, meaning ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, which in turn gives birth to the verb teleiō, meaning ‘make complete’ or ‘perfect’, and so ‘fulfil’. By using these closely related verbs so close together, John seems to be implying that Jesus knows he has one last prophecy to fulfil - or perhaps two - and that his cry of “I thirst” (the fifth word from the cross) is prompted as much by his obedience to the scriptures as by his natural human desire to alleviate his agonising thirst. John has already pointed out (v. 24) how the casting of lots for Jesus’ robe fulfils Psalm 22.18; and both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ?”, which is a direct quotation of the first verse of that psalm - which also has several other details prophetic of the crucifixion. The word (one word in Greek) is not a direct quotation, but reflects the symptoms of thirst mentioned in v.15; more significantly, perhaps, by accepting the vinegar he is offered in response to his utterance, (vv. 29 - 30) Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Psalm 69. 21: “they gave me vinegar for my thirst”.

[d] to 'complete'
2 Tim 4.7, Luke 12.50

telō is also used, twice, to mean to ‘complete’ an allotted task or course. Paul’s self-obituary in 2 Timothy 4.7 shows that he had followed faithfully in the footsteps of his Master: “I have fought the good fight, I have completed my course, I have kept the faith.” The word for ‘course’ here is dromos (whence ‘hippodrome’, aerodrome’, etc.), which means either the racecourse or the race itself; so Paul is like a marathon-runner claiming, with justified pride, that he has ‘finished’ the race and ‘completed’ the course - all 26 miles 385 yards of it! Appropriately enough, the words for ‘fought’ and ‘fight’ in the first part of this verse are the ones from which we derive the word ‘agony’. This leads us to the other usage of telō in this sense, by Jesus - one of the most self-revealing statements recorded of him: “I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how I am constrained until it is completed.” (Luke 12. 50) As we know from Paul’s teaching on baptism (Romans 6. 3) it dramatises first death, then resurrection - at least, baptism by total immersion does: the new Christian goes down into the waters of death, identifying with his crucified Saviour, before emerging into a new life with Christ. For Jesus, though, his baptism cast a long, dark shadow before it, for the death it involved was all too real, and he is ‘constrained’ by the terrible ordeal which he knows lies ahead of him before he can emerge triumphant from the tomb. He, too, is like a runner whose course is marked out for him, not by lane-lines but by the law and the prophets of the OT scriptures. He is ‘hemmed in’ (another possible translation of the Greek verb used here), and cannot turn aside down any by-way that takes his fancy. So “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51), his finishing-post, knowing that only there, just outside the city walls, at the ninth hour on Good Friday, would his race be run.

[e] to 'pay'
Romans 13.6, Matt 17.24

Finally, there are two instances of telō meaning to ‘pay’ - a meaning common in classical Greek. Paul, in Romans 13. 6, tells his readers that governments have God’s authority, and “for this reason you pay taxes”. Even Jesus paid his taxes - perhaps the ultimate indication that he was truly human! Matthew records (17. 24 ff.) that the tax-collectors approached Peter as Jesus and his disciples were entering Capernaum and asked him: “Doesn’t your teacher pay the two-drachma temple- tax ?” Jesus pointed out to Peter that a king’s subjects had to pay tax, but not his children: as children of the King of kings, they were free of tax. Still, so as not to ‘scandalize’ the authorities, he told Peter to catch a fish, and he would find a stater in its mouth. This was a coin worth four drachmas, so that Peter could pay both Jesus’ tax and his own.

[f] to 'make perfect'
2 Cor 12.9

The ‘finally’ at the beginning of the previous paragraph could, in fact, be regarded as a Pauline usage, for there is one more example of telō that I want to consider. (It might be worth saying, incidentally, that Paul’s repeated “finally” in Philippians is a Greek phrase unconnected with the tel- stem.) Having just quoted Romans 13. 6, one of my least favourite verses (I repeat it to myself through clenched teeth when I receive my council-tax bill), I cannot miss the opportunity of quoting one of my favourite verses, 2 Corinthians 12. 9, even though the sense of telō here does not seem relevant to the tetelestai we are considering. Paul tells us that three times he prayed to the Lord to relieve him of a “thorn in the flesh” which was tormenting him. The Lord answered his prayer, but not in the way that Paul was hoping. He spoke to him these wonderful words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (NIV). A fuller translation might read: “for my power only becomes fully effective in human weakness”. Had God answered Paul’s prayer by doing what he asked, we would have been denied this lovely promise, which has brought comfort and reassurance to countless Christians down the ages.

2. 'telōs'
[a] (i) an 'end' or 'outcome'

Luke 1.33, Mark 3.26, Matt 26.58, James 5.11, Rom 6.21-2

Most commonly, telōs simply means ‘end’. At the annunciation, Gabriel tells Mary that her Son “will be King over the House of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1. 33). By contrast Jesus, when accused of casting out demons by the power of the Devil, replies that if Satan is so divided his house and kingdom “cannot stand but must come to an end” (Mark 3.26) - the end, as we have seen, described in Revelation: the lake of fire. We saw, too, how Matthew used the verb telō to mark the end of sections of Jesus’ teaching; just as a sermon must have an end (a fact we sometimes need to cling to in the face of all the evidence), so a sequence of events, or a story, has an end, or an ‘outcome’.. Peter follows Jesus “at a distance” into the High Priest’s courtyard “to see the outcome” of his story (Matthew 26. 58) - though whether he also followed him to Calvary and there heard his final cry of tetelestai we do not know. Similarly, James uses the story of Job to encourage his readers to show the same endurance in suffering as he had, and then reminds them of the ‘happy ending’ which God in his mercy provided to his story (James 5. 11). So the life-story of each one of us must come to an end, and the bible makes it clear that only two endings are possible. The alternatives are most clearly set out by Paul in his letter to the Romans (6.21 and 22): in the past they were slaves of sin, and the ending of a life of sin is death; but now, set free from sin and slaves of God, the end they can look forward to is “eternal life”: for a Christian, the end is more truly a beginning.

(ii) the 'end' of the age

1 Peter 4.7, Matt 24.6, 13,14, Rev 1.8, 21.6, 22.13

As with the use of the verb in Revelation that we looked at above, the noun is often used to refer to the end of the age and the second coming of Christ, most simply in Peter’s stark statement “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4.7), but most frequently in Jesus’ own teaching about the end times, in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. In Matthew’s version, “you will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but the end is not yet” (v. 6); only when the gospel has been preached to the whole world, so that all mankind has had a chance to repent and believe, will the end come (v. 14). We do not know exactly when that end will be; not even Jesus himself knew
(v. 36). But we do know, from Jesus’ teaching here, and from Revelation, that God has his timetable fully worked out, and that all human history is under his control - it is ‘his story’, as has often been said. There are two more things we can be sure of. Firstly, “he who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 13, and also 10. 22) The word for ‘endure’ here is also used of Job in the passage cited above (James 5. 10), and, even more significantly, of Jesus himself, who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12. 2): all those who “endure to the end” are following in the footsteps of their crucified Lord. The second thing we can be sure of is that, at the end, Jesus himself will return, to end the age just as he began it. Our confidence rests on a threefold statement by the risen and glorified Jesus in Revelation (1. 8, 21. 6 and 22. 13): “I am the beginning and the end.” Both Genesis and the gospel of John open with the words “in the beginning”. In the magnificence, and the familiarity, of the Genesis creation account, it is easy to overlook the fact that the first thing God created was time. Just as Jesus, so John tells us, was instrumental in the creation of time, so will he be instrumental in its ending. Once time has ended, ‘end’ will have no more meaning - except in the negative: “of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

[b] 'fulfilment' of the Law
Rom 10.4

There is, I believe, a single example of telōs meaning ‘fulfilment’ in the context of the law, to match the examples of the verb cited in [1b] above. This occurs in Romans 10. 4, which most translations render “for Christ is the end of the law”; this seems hard to reconcile with Matthew 5. 17: “Do not think that I have come to put an end to the law (NIV: “abolish”); I have come not to end it but to fulfil it.” ‘Fulfil’ here is not telō but plērō, which literally means to ‘fill full’: Jesus uniquely kept the law in full, and so is fully righteous. I believe Paul’s words here could be translated: “Christ is the perfect fulfilment of the law, so that every one who has faith may be credited with his righteousness.” This is in contrast to the Jews mentioned in v. 3, who are seeking to establish their own righteousness by keeping the law, which they cannot achieve.

[c] 'fulfilment' of prophecy
Luke 22.37

There is also, much less controversially, a single example of telōs referring to the fulfilment of prophecy. We have already looked at Luke 22.37 in 1 [c], for it contains the verb as well. After saying that Isaiah’s prophecy (53.12) “he was reckoned among the lawbreakers” must be fulfilled in him, Jesus continues: “for indeed, what is written about me must have its fulfilment”. The two Greek words I have translated ‘for indeed’ (kai gar) are regularly used in classical Greek, as here, to express a generalisation of which the preceding clause is an example. Jesus recognises that it is not just this prophecy that must be fulfilled, but all of them; this, as we saw in an earlier verse from Luke (12.50) is what “constrains” him and controls his course. In a very real sense, Jesus is living out a script written for him centuries before by the prophets in the drama of salvation planned by his heavenly Father “before the foundation of the world”. (1 Peter 1 20)

[d] 'aim', 'purpose'
1 Tim 1.5

As mentioned at the beginning of this study, telōs can also mean ‘aim’ or ‘purpose’, the meaning from which ‘teleology’ is derived. The one example of this usage is in 1 Timothy 1.5. Paul reminds Timothy that he “commanded him to command certain people not to teach an alternative gospel”. (As Paul himself had written to the Galatians, “there is no alternative gospel”, not even if “an angel from heaven should preach one” (1.6-9). He then goes on to say that “the aim of this command is love” - presumably Timothy’s command to the false teachers. Those who engage in theological debates and disputes should always remember this verse: their aim should be not to win the argument, still less to antagonise their opponents; their goal should be love.

[e] 'payment', 'tax'
Matt 17.25, Rom 13.7

Finally (yes!) telōs, as is common in Classical Greek, can mean ‘payment’ or ‘tax’, and is so used in each of the passages we have looked at in 1 [e]. Jesus asks Peter (Matthew 17. 25): "Do kings receive taxes from their sons or from others ?”; and Paul tells the Romans: Pay every one what you owe them”, and the subsequent lists includes “tax to the tax-man”. Let us hurry on.

3. 'tetelestai'
Luke 23.46, John 19.30

In the light of these various usages of telō and telōs we can now explore the full meaning and possible implications of Jesus’ great cry of tetelestai (John 19.30) Both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus “cried out in a loud voice” before dying (Matthew 27.50, , Mark 14.37). Luke’s version literally reads: “having cried out in a loud voice, Jesus said , ‘Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit’”(Luke 23.46). This the NIV translates: “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father ---’”. This is a reasonable translation of this verse in isolation, but taken with the other three gospel accounts, it seems more likely that tetelestai was the loud cry for all to hear, and not, therefore, a muttered admission of defeat or despair, while the prayer to his Father was “said” more quietly and personally.

[a] i: 'it's over'

[a] i
At its simplest, and at the human level, this is a cry of relief: “the ordeal is over”. For six hours Jesus had endured the agony of crucifixion, but now the release of death is only a breath away - a dying breath that he breathed out in prayer to his Father (Luke 23. 46).

ii: 'the time is completed'
2 Cor 5.21

But the real agony that Jesus suffered on the cross was not physical but spiritual. All three synoptic gospels record that “from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over the whole earth”, and Matthew and Mark tell us that it was when these three hours were over that Jesus “cried out with a loud voice: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ?'” (Matthew 27.45-6, Mark 15 33-4). During these three hours, Jesus “became sin for us”, as Paul so starkly and strikingly puts it (2 Cor 5. 21), and so inevitably was cut off, for the only time in all eternity, from the sinless holiness of his Father - and to be cut off from God is to be in hell. We have seen how both telōs and telō are used elsewhere to mark the ending of a fixed period of time on God’s timetable. Just as we cannot fully understand how time and eternity could intersect at the cross, so we cannot tell why God should ordain a period of three hours for the bearing of the sin of all mankind by Christ. But at the ninth hour Jesus knew that the divinely appointed time of his suffering and sinbearing was now over (John 19.20), and so cried out “tetelestai: the time is completed”. The darkness of hell lifted from him, and he could now pray to God as his Father, just as he had prayed “Father, forgive them” before the sixth hour (Luke 23.34). It seems that Jesus died, primarily at least, not because his pain-racked body could endure no more, but because he knew that God’s time had finally come: the curtain had fallen on one act of the drama of salvation, and the next was about to begin. The Old Covenant had been terminated (tetelestai) and the New Covenant, initiated the previous evening at the Last Supper, now that Jesus’ blood had been shed has been fully inaugurated.

[b] 'the Law is fulfilled'

Matt 3.15, 1 Peter 2.21, 1 John 2.1, Phil 2.8, Heb 10.7

Jesus may also have been implying that ‘the law has been fulfilled’. This was certainly true of his own sinless life: he had been both a good Jew and an obedient Son, observing the law completely and carrying out his Father’s will to the end. We have seen how, through the faithfulness of his parents, he was circumcised and presented in the temple as an infant; his recorded visit to Jerusalem at the age of twelve was in fulfilment of the law’s requirement of an annual pilgrimage to one of the three great festivals, and so presumably typical of his family’s regular religious observance. He began his ministry by insisting that John baptize him, saying that it was proper for them “to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3.15). We read of his regularly attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, and going up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles and for the Passover. But to keep the externals and the rituals of the law was quite possible - the Pharisees did as much; Jesus uniquely “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”, as Peter testifies of him, having spent three years in his company (1 Peter 2. 21), while in his first letter (2.1), John refers to him as “Jesus Christ the righteous one” - to which we can add the testimony of the centurion at the crucifixion: “Truly this was a righteous man” (Luke 23.47) ; he spoke even more truly than he knew! Ultimately, to be righteous is to do the will of God; for the Jews this meant keeping the law, but Jesus’ obedience was tested way beyond even this exacting demand. The writer to the Hebrews sees the words of Psalm 40 prophetically uttered by Jesus: “Here I am; I have come to do your will, O God.”; and that obedience was fully tested in Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed that “this cup may be taken from me”, but finally yielded freely to his Father’s will: “Nevertheless, may not my will be done but yours” (Luke 22. 42). So it was that Paul could write that “Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.8); that is, obedient to his Father, rather than “obedient to death”, as some translations misleadingly put it.

i. righteousness accredited
John 19.23, Is 61.10

This sinless righteousness and perfect obedience of Jesus has two wonderful consequences, each as amazing as the other. Firstly, all those who are “in Christ” have his righteousness attributed to them, so that when God looks at us he sees not our wretched sinfulness but Jesus’ glorious holiness. Brief mention was made earlier (1c) of the fulfilling of prophecy in Psalm 22.18: “They divide my garments among them, and cast lots for my clothing”. John tells us that, while the soldiers divided up the rest of Jesus’ clothes into four equal shares, they decided to “cast lots” for his tunic, or robe, since it was “seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom” (19. 23). Many have seen this robe as a symbol of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, which he bequeaths, as it were, to all who put their faith in him. This image is in harmony with a lovely verse in Isaiah (61.10): “I delight greatly in the Lord, for he has clothed me with garments of salvation, and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.” One may also link this with the “wedding garment” in the parable of the marriage feast in Matthew 22. 1 - 14: the guest who went in wearing his own clothes rather than accepting the robe offered by his host was thrown out into “outer darkness” - the darkness of hell which Jesus endured for us so that we would never need to endure it for ourselves.

ii. sin forgiven
1 Peter 1.19

But we cannot put on the robe of Jesus’ righteousness until our own sin has been dealt with. The second consequence of Jesus’ perfect holiness was that he was able to be the sinless sinbearer and sacrifice “without spot or blemish” (1 Peter 1.19), the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). The writer to the Hebrews (10. 1 - 14) makes it clear that the elaborate sacrificial system set up under the Mosaic law “is only a shadow of the good things that are coming”; of itself it is ineffective, for “it is impossible for the blood of goats and bulls to take away sins”. Only the blood of Jesus can do that. He set aside the old covenant to establish the new, in which “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The sacrifices of the old covenant had to be repeated day after day, year after year; Jesus’ sacrifice was “once for all”. In this sense, too, then, Jesus fulfilled the law, and brought completion to the sacrificial system. So tetelestai could be interpreted: “the final sacrifice has been offered”.

[c] 'scripture is fulfilled'
Psalm 22, Isaiah 53

It could also mean “scripture has been fulfilled” - both Law and Prophets. We have seen how John attributes Jesus’ utterance of “I thirst” to a desire to fulfil prophecy as well as the desire to quench his thirst. We have just seen, too, how Jesus’ sacrificial death made sense of the Old Testament law of which animal sacrifice was such a central part. To read Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, if nothing else, is to see the extraordinary detail with which “scripture has been fulfilled”.

[d] 'mission accomplished'
1 John 4.4

Another possible interpretation, or paraphrase, would be “mission accomplished” - a cry of triumph. What was Jesus’ mission? “The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John 4. 4); Jesus knew what this mission would cost him: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to be a servant (a suffering servant), and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20.28). In the three hours between the sixth and the ninth Jesus fulfilled his mission by taking our sins upon himself, and paying the ransom for our redemption - which leads us on to our last point.

[e] 'paid in full'
Matt 6.12,14, 18.25, Luke 7.42

As we have seen, telō can mean to ‘pay a price’, so that tetelestai could mean “the price is paid - in full”. Jesus himself taught us, in the Lord’s prayer, to ask our Father to “forgive us our debts”; then, in his explanatory comment on the prayer, he substitutes the word “transgressions” for the word “debts”. The Greek word for “debts” used here is derived from the verb meaning to owe; in English we tend to use ‘owe’ to refer to money, while we use ‘ought’ to refer to moral obligations, though the essential idea is the same, as it is in the Greek word. So every time we do what we ought not to do, or fail to do what we ought to do, we fall further and further into God’s debt, a debt we cannot repay. God’s standard of holiness is absolute, so that even if we could achieve it for a day - or an hour - that would merely be giving him what was his due, what we ‘ought’ to do, for that day or hour, not atoning for past failures. If the overall pass-mark for an exam is 100%, getting full marks on the subsection of one question cannot compensate for errors elsewhere. To underline this fact, Jesus told two separate parables about debtors who owed great sums of money, one to a king, the other to a money-lender. The two evangelists are reporting different parables told in different contexts, but they both use virtually the same expression: both debtors “had nothing to pay back the debt with” - they were bankrupt (Matt 18.25, Luke 7.42). So are all of us in the face of God’s demand for righteousness; our only hope is to pray “forgive us our debts”, and they can only be forgiven because “the price has been paid - in full” by Christ on the cross.

Tetelestai!