For the last couple of years, I’ve been using an absurdly long hashtag in some of my posts on social media, #approachingtetelestai. The words for me have taken on deep meaning as I have journeyed through the decade of my seminary odyssey, and now that I’m about done with the educational part of my journey, at least for now, I feel compelled to explain why these two little words have become so important to me. Yes, I’m letting you in on the secret.
First things first. The word ‘tetelestai’ is a transliteration of a New Testament Greek word (Τετέλεσται) used by Jesus on the cross in John 19:30:
28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30 NIV, emphasis mine)
These three highlighted words above translate the single word “tetelestai” in the Greek of the New Testament. Much could be said about this word if this was that kind of blog, but there is only one thing about this I want to point out right now: this word is in the perfect tense. There is some debate among New Testament scholars about the exact significance of the perfect tense, but those debates only give shades of meaning to one core truth: Jesus is pronouncing his earthly work complete, and completed for all time. Nothing more will never need to be done to complete what Jesus completed that day on the cross. Some translators of the Greek say that the perfect refers to a present action with ongoing results. Others say that the verb doesn’t refer to time at all, but rather refers to the aspect from which Jesus is saying it–that he is referring to the act as timeless. Either way, you get the drift: nothing will ever be the same, and nothing more will ever be required to finish what He pronounced as complete on that day. While the root form of this verb is not uncommon, this exact form of this verb appears only twice in the entire New Testament, and they are both here, in verses 28 and 30.
I have completed a few seasons in my life to this point. There was high school graduation: the sense of achievement when “Pomp and Circumstance” was played and I walked down the aisle. I hated middle and high school, and so finishing up my high school career felt like being released from prison: I was finished. But then I started all over again in college, and went through the same process again. I enjoyed college, much more than my compulsory public school education, and so I didn’t feel like I was being set free from prison, but nevertheless when I graduated college I was relieved and was ready for the next thing: I was finished. But then came trying to get a job, and seminary. By the time I was starting seminary, it occurred to me that all of these completing cycles weren’t really leading to anything actually being finished. I would achieve one set of objectives, celebrate for a second, and then almost immediately, be pelted with another set of objectives, ad infinitum. The thing about seasons is, completion of one season really only heralds the arrival of another. There is no season that ends and doesn’t usher in the next. The order of them is prescribed, and they follow logically along a set pattern. (Unless you’re in a Monty Python movie.)
As I headed to Denver for seminary back in the late summer of 2003, I was beginning to understand that as long as we live, we never really get to be finished. There was always, seemingly, something else. That knowledge was just beginning to settle in for me when I started taking Greek. The Greek of John’s New Testament work is some of the easiest, and so many beginning Greek students begin with John’s gospel or letters. That was the case for me. And about the time we were learning about verbs and tenses, I had a professor mention in passing that Jesus used the perfect tense in the passage I’ve described above. As I learned more about the significance of the perfect tense (from both of the perspectives I alluded to above, first at Denver and then at TEDS), I began to view Jesus’ words in this passage as rather extraordinary. Only God could honestly and truly make such a proclamation and actually have it stick. No mere human could ever say such a thing and have it be true. The fact that Jesus was saying it as his last words (at least as described by John) made it even more significant. Jesus reached the end of the line for his project of mercy and grace, knew it was done, and was able to look at it all, in total, and proclaim that it was well and truly finished.
“It is finished,” is truly a rare and elusive thing in this life. Most people don’t find their way to ”it is finished” even as they are departing it. I had the privilege and heartbreak of watching my mentor and predecessor in my current position in the last days of his life. During my last visit to him, even as he struggled to form complete sentences through the haze of painkillers as he laid in his hospital bed, this wonderfully godly, hardworking, gentle and brilliant man could not escape from the fear that his work wasn’t done yet. He spoke of several projects he wanted to complete, and while I suspect that if he had not been on the painkillers the situation likely would’ve been much different, in the deep places of his soul, he was clearly concerned about what wasn’t finished. I do not think that he would be alone in that state of affairs, if we all were to be honest.
However many of our projects we find are “provisionally complete” as we move from season to season of our lives, we are never really “finished.” As I went through the “dark night of my soul” and left Denver to move home, I started to view “finished” like mathematicians view infinity–you can approach it, but you can never actually reach it. ”Finished” is out there somewhere, but it isn’t ever really achievable. Not being able to finish was depressing. I had goals! I had plans! And as many of those goals as I achieved, they would never stop coming. They would just be the gate between one goal and the next. There would never be any rest. The futility of striving nearly crushed me, and I strayed dangerously close to the Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 3 where he coyly suggests that toil is meaningless, ultimately, and the best a person can hope for is to enjoy their toil, even as they know it is useless and fleeting. It was a bleak picture.
Happily, I slowly found hope grown in the soil of my historical work and the ash of my seminary burnout. As I studied the tapestry of God’s work among an enormous number of people unfolded over decades and centuries, I saw huge themes developing. God was at work to bring completion to things that a single person could never complete on their own, no matter how skilled they were or how grandiose their vision was. And he was using individuals banded together in the church to do it. Enormous undertakings spanning hundreds of years were brought to “finished” as individuals obeyed His call on their lives. Those believers who came before me had invested in a future where all things would really be finished, and now it was my turn to make the same investment. As I continued in my work, I recovered from my crash, and saw beauty and hope spring from my former despair. I began to understand that “not being finished” was okay.
What is the “it” Jesus is referring to in the passage I’ve noted above? It is fine to say that Jesus knew his work was completely finished, but if we don’t know what work he is talking about, that knowledge doesn’t do us any good. He is likely talking at least about the affectation of the plan of salvation through his perfect and sinless life and his near death, but is He talking about more than that? I am not sure that it is explicit in the text of John, but I have started to understand the promise that is built into these words of Christ. God’s work in me is certainly not finished, so at least one aspect of his work has not reached its full completion. But there is a day coming when it will be finished. The God of the universe will proclaim about my life that “it is finished.” And on that day, I will receive the reward of that finish–eternity with God in Christ. That finishing is the last door, and after that door, there are no more doors, just blessed rest in a place where all is as it always should’ve been. No more seasons. No more disappointment. No more “provisional completion.”
Every season of my life now is an opportunity to approach that final “it is finished.” The passing of days moves us all closer to the moment when Christ returns and all the work of the universe will also be finished. I take tremendous comfort and inspiration now from the fact that we are all approaching tetelestai. Each day, we wake up and can embrace the day and the opportunity of life in such a way that we move closer to the one who has and will make all things complete, finished and final. The days of our lives are limited. But the impact of our acts of incremental finishing do not have to be.
Have you ever been crushed by the weight of your goals and dreams and callings?
Have you wondered about the significance of your life “under the sun?”
Have you ever wondered if anything you did matters?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, I implore you today in light of the Gospel to come to Jesus and ask him to free you to live in such a way that you are constantly moving closer in your approach to “it is finished.” You will experience in your life the truth expressed in the great hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”:
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
In a couple of months, the Lord willing, I will walk across a stage in Deerfield, Illinois, and I will flip my tassel from one side of a ludicrous hat to the other. An unexpectedly long and difficult season of my life will draw to a close. It will be finished. And another season will be just getting started. I’ve thought a lot about what I would say on social media to celebrate my graduation. I think just a couple of words will do:
It is finished. #approachingtetelestai
1 Timothy 6:11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.