Tetelestai – A Good Friday Reflection

“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
John 19:28-30

‘It is finished.” In the Gospel of John, these were the last words of Jesus before he gave up his spirit. To appreciate more fully the significance of this phase, we need to reflect on the original Greek phrase it was translated from – “Tetelestai” (pronounced “Ter-tell-les-tai”). In other versions of the Bible, Tetelestai has also been translated as “It is accomplished”, “Paid in full”, or in Latin ”consummatum est” (“it is consummated”).

Paid in full

In Biblical times, when a person incurred a debt, a certificate of debt would be issued. On full repayment of the debt, the debtor would cancel the debt by writing “Tetelestai” on the debt certificate. By our sins, we too incur a debt. As Paul explains in Rom 6:23, “the wages of sin is death” – death by eternal damnation. By our sin, we incur a debt that we cannot repay. By His death, Christ repaid our debt, a debt that He did not owe. And He did not just make a down payment or a partial payment, He paid it in full. For as Paul explains in the same verse, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

Jewish Passover

The celebration of the Jewish festival of Passover requires the sacrifice of a Passover lamb. The lamb is to be unblemished, brought into the Israelite household on the tenth day of month of Nisan. In ancient Jewish custom, the priest would examine the lamb for blemishes; and on finding no blemishes, would declare “Tetelestai“. On that same day, the tenth day of month of Nisan, Jesus the Passover Lamb rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Days later, in the courtyard of Pontius Pilate, after examining the accusations levied against Jesus, Pilate declared “I find no case against him” (Jn 19:4) - Tetelestai.

The festival of Passover traces its root back to the Exodus days, when Moses led the Israelite people out of their bondage in Egypt. In the last and greatest of the Ten Plagues, God commanded the Israelite people to take an unblemished lamb into the house, kill it, dip its blood using branches of a herb and smear that blood on the doorposts. That night, a mysterious plague swept the land and struck down every firstborn in every household, except the Israelite homes where a lamb has been sacrificed. The plague passed over the Israelite household. The Passover lamb died in place of the firstborn. Tetelestai - paid in full.

As for the herb whose branches the Israelites used to smear the lamb’s blood on the doorposts, it is a common herb called the hyssop, the same herb the Roman soldiers used on Jesus in his last moment:

So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth” (Jn 19:29)

Tetelestai

As we reflect on Good Friday, let us remember Tetelestai. By His death, Jesus paid our debt in full. It is accomplished, finished. Three days later, Jesus was raised to life through the Holy Spirit – the Father’s Amen to the Son’s Tetelestai.


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