This feeling ties in to the story given in all of the four Gospels of the supreme sacrifice of the Son of God on behalf of humanity. That had surely been a project a long time in the planning – from before the world was even formed (1 Peter 1:20). It had been over thirty years of the physical life of Jesus in the actual making: growing, building, preparing, patiently working toward the eventual goal of the sacrifice itself.
The sacrificial death of Christ is a somber and heart-wrenching thing to ponder, yet it seems more than likely that even as he perished in excruciating pain, there was for the Son of God a feeling of triumph and thankfulness at the very end. We know that even beyond the physical pain Jesus bore, because of the human sin he had taken upon himself, he endured the terrible feeling of being cut off from the Father – as can be seen in his almost final words: “Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 – and see Psalm 22:1). But we must always remember these were not his final words.
Putting the Gospel accounts together, we find that the last recorded words of Jesus – three small words in English translation, spoken directly before he died – show a much more positive ending to the story of the physical life of the Messiah. Those words, according to John, were simply: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). In the original Greek of the New Testament the expression is a single word (tetelestai), but the sense is certainly that of the three English words – “It is finished!” The positive nature of the expression becomes clear if we look at it closely.
The Greek word tetelestai carries a number of related meanings. In the English New Testament it is translated as “finished” (as with a job), “fulfilled” (as with a purpose), “accomplished” (as with a task), “performed” (as with a command), “completed” (as with a goal), and in other similar ways. But the central idea in each case is a positive one. While it is natural for us, as we come to the end of the crucifixion story, to think of “it is finished” as a negative expression – we see it as a supremely sad ending, almost like an admission of defeat – nothing could be further from the truth. When we translate the word tetelestai in any of the other ways it could be rendered, the meaning is much clearer. “It is fulfilled!” “It is accomplished!” “It is performed!” “It is completed!” These are not three words of defeat, but three words of triumph!
Despite the pain, the humiliation, and the anguish of his own impending death, the Son of God knew that he had succeeded – he had accomplished the very reason for his human life in a victory that would touch all human lives throughout all time. To that point in history no single event had accomplished so much good or incorporated such a victory. The last words of Jesus – “it is finished” – were surely the three most triumphant words ever spoken. They were equaled only by another three triumphant words spoken a few days later: “He has risen” (Matthew 28:6).
The Triumph of Trust
Ultimately, the lesson we can draw from the story of the last words of Jesus is one of trust. Jesus trusted God throughout his life and ministry and even throughout a slow and terrible death. He trusted that God was fulfilling his purpose when he was in pain, when he felt cut off from God, even as he felt his very life ebbing away. Far from being an expression of defeat, his words “it is finished” were the final and complete expression of his trust. The last words of Jesus were, in that sense, the fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the book of Isaiah: “The Lord Almighty has sworn, ‘Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will happen’” (Isaiah 14:24).
When we see the final words of Jesus in context, with the sense they really convey, we can rejoice that they can – and will – apply to our lives also. Just as Job wrote of God “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15), the last words of Jesus remind us that we too can trust that despite any and all appearances, whatever may happen in our lives, if we continue to trust God he will complete his purpose in us. That is a tremendous truth that can underlie our desire to follow in the steps of Jesus and to strive to learn lessons from his sonship, signs, sermons, service and sacrifice.