Good Friday: “It Is Finished”

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

There are two mutually exclusive ways that we can read Christ’s sixth statement from the Cross. “It is finished.” We might read it as “it’s over,” the way that one might react after a grueling day or a long trip. In such cases, we celebrate the mere fact of overness. It doesn’t matter if we did well or poorly, or if we won or lost. The important thing is that it’s finished. When you get paid by the hour, your day is finished when the clock strikes 5.

Or, we might read it as something more like “my work here is done,” like a plumber who has come to your house, fixed a leak, and has no reason to stick around because the purpose of the visit has been accomplished. When you get paid by the job, you aren’t finished until the leak is fixed.

Both readings of “finished” are possible in the King James English version, but only the latter is possible in the original Greek. John has Christ use a single word to express his finishedness: τετέλεσται, or tetelestai, a conjugation of the verb teleo, which means “to complete” or “to accomplish.” This is the root of the English word “teleology,” which philosophers use to explain a thing according to its function, rather than its origin. A thing’s telos is its purpose, or its goal, and the present perfect tetelestai means something like “the purpose has been fulfilled.”

So what was the purpose? What was the thing that Christ had to do before he could leave the world and say “it is finished”? The job was to reconcile God and humanity, and nobody else could do it. Because he was divine, Jesus could do things that no other human could do. But because of his humanity, he could do something that even God could not do. In reconciling the divine and the human in his own nature, Christ healed the primordial breach between Humanity and Divinity.

Since the Fall (the story goes) God and humanity had been alienated from each other. And the pain of that separation went both ways. Human beings did not have a loving God who was involved in their lives. They had to make do with the growly, harsh, demanding Yahweh of the Old Testament, who sent bears to kill boys when they called a prophet bald. But God was also deprived of his children who, without his constant presence, frequently forgot all about him (as children everywhere tend to do when they leave their parents’ homes). Neither side could heal the breach because both sides were locked into their essential natures. Humans could not avoid sin, and God could not tolerate sinners.

The world from the Fall to the Atonement was fractured; humanity and divinity were at an impasse. Only someone with a dual nature—Son of Man and Son of God—could effect the reconciliation. This was the thing that only Jesus could do. This is what Paul explains to the Corinthians:

For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. (1 Cor 15:22-24)

Healing the breach between God and humanity was the job that Christ had to do. That was his purpose, his telos. When he says, “it is finished.” what he means is that the breach has been healed and the wholeness of the world has been restored. God and sinners are reconciled.


  1. Kristine says:

    My favorite (? it’s impossible to choose) moment from Bach’s St. John Passion is the bass aria that imagines the moment directly after Christ speaks these words. It interprets his head falling at the moment of death as an affirmative nod, so that the last word from the cross is “Yes.” As I get older, there are fewer and fewer pieces that reliably make me weep, but this one still does.

    Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen,
    My beloved Saviour, let me ask you,

    da du nunmehr ans Kreuz geschlagen
    since you have now been nailed to the cross

    und selbst gesagt: Es ist vollbracht,
    and you yourself have said : It is accomplished,

    bin ich vom Sterben frei gemacht?
    have I been set free from death?

    Kann ich durch deine Pein und Sterben
    Through your pain and death can I

    das Himmelreich ererben?
    inherit the kingdom of heaven?

    Ist aller Welt Erlösung da?
    Is this the redemption of the whole world?

    Du kannst vor Schmerzen zwar nichts sagen;
    You can indeed not speak for anguish;

    doch neigest du das Haupt
    but you bow your head

    und sprichst stillschweigend: ja
    and silently say : yes!

  2. Thanks Michael
    ‘… and he bowed his head’… verily verily words fail.

    Thanks Kristine – the aria makes me appreciate the depth of scriptural meditation here, a ‘real’ moment …

  3. Daniel Clyde Cummings says:

    The title is interesting: “Good Friday.” Most of the Christian world believes that Jesus was crucified on Friday, but that is incompatible with His most important statement on the subject: Matthew 12:40. Here He is challenged to show a sign to prove His divinity and mission. First of all He rebukes sign seeking as “evil and adulterous,” but He follows that by actually giving a sign of His divinity yet to come; He prophesies that He will be in His tomb (“the heart of the earth”) for 3 days and 3 nights.and then states that that will be the ONLY legitimate sign to be given. It is impossible to squeeze 3 days and 3 nights between Friday sundown and nighttime between Saturday sundown and Sunday sunrise. He was obviously not resurrected on Sunday morning, since visitors to His tomb very early on Sunday while it was still dark (not even twilight yet) found the tomb already empty, so His resurrection must have occurred during the nighttime. A Friday crucifixion has Him in the tomb for 1 full nighttime (after Friday sundown), 1 full daytime (Saturday), and part of a second nighttime (resurrected during the nighttime significantly before Sunday sunrise); this fails the only sign that He would give of His divinity and mission. Perhaps He was crucified on Wednesday instead if Friday; that allows a full 3 days and 3 nights in the tomb (before sundown on Wednesday until after sundown on Saturday). Is His total time in the tomb really important to know, or is misunderstanding of this matter not important? He said that His time in the tomb was THE ONLY SIGN that He would give, implying that it is a major determinant of true faith in Him.

  4. It is finished means far more than just healing an alienation between God and humankind. It meant the individual redemption of every person who ever lived upon the earth or who will yet come here. That could not be accomplished unless he paid the full individual price of each of our individual sins, meaning he felt the sum total of all of the suffering that each of us owes to justice for all of our sins. His total suffering exceeded all the suffering of all persons who have ever lived in this world, suffering so great that he hardly noticed the nails and crown of thorns. Elder Holland told us years ago that the suffering inflicted upon Him by the Roman soldiers could not have been more than a mere distraction compared to the suffering that He voluntarily took upon Himself, that He deliberately assimilated by some divine process. It was “an eye for an eye” in Gethsemane and on Calvary. His work was not finished until that sinful accounting was complete “to the last farthing.”

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