There has been some discussion of Jesus’ statement ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) in a couple of threads on Open Source Theology (‘Tetelestai (devolved)’ and ‘Tetelestai’). It has raised some important questions, and I want to set out a bit more carefully how I think the passage needs to be read.
What does Jesus mean when we says, just before dying, ‘It is finished’ (tetelestai)? Is this a reference to the ‘mighty work of redemption’ that he came to do in ‘dying on the cross for the world’s salvation’ (L. Morris, The Gospel According to John, 815 n. 73)? There is nothing in the passage that would directly support such an interpretation, so this also becomes a general hermeneutical question: Is it legitimate to introduce into a text such as this a weight of theological meaning that may be recommended by dogmatic tradition but is not overtly required by the context? Or, to put the question the other way round: Is there anything in the context that gives us a clue to the meaning of Jesus’ statement?
These appear to be relevant observations:
i) The same form of the verb occurs in John 19:28: Jesus knew that all things have been finished (tetelestai). Then we are told that in order that the scripture might be finished (teleiōthē), he said, ‘I thirst’. The use of teleō for the fulfilment of scripture is unusual in the Gospels, so when we come to tetelestai in 19:30, we are bound to recall this preceding use of the word. It is not some act (eg., of salvation) that is finished but some argument from scripture.
ii) What that argument is is first indicated when Jesus, having seen a bowl of vinegar nearby, deliberately complains of thirst in order that the scripture might be finished. By doing so he evokes the narrative of Psalm 69 as a way of interpreting his death - the story of a righteous man, who is consumed by his zeal for the house of the Lord (9), who cries out to God to deliver him from his enemies (18), who is given vinegar to drink when he is thirsty (21), who is ‘afflicted and in pain’ (29), but who trusts nevertheless that God will hear the voice of the needy (33) and will restore Zion (35-36).
iii) The quotation of Psalm 22 in Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 (‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’) is also interpretive in this way. Israel’s king is hounded by his enemies to the point of feeling abandoned by God and almost to the point of death, but he believes that God will deliver. More than that: ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations’ (Ps. 22:27-28). John’s comment that the soldiers refused to tear Jesus’ tunic is an allusion to the same narrative: ‘They divided my garments among themselves, and they cast lots for my clothing’ (Jn. 19:24; cf. Ps. 22:18). This further reinforces the impression that ‘It is finished’ in John 19:30 points to the fulfilment of a story about the suffering and vindication of God’s holy one.
iv) Two passages from Luke should be mentioned. In Luke 12:50 Jesus says, ‘I have a baptism to be baptized and how I am pressed until it may be finished (telesthē).’ And in 18:31 he advises the disciples, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of man will be finished (telesthēsetai).’ Again the word points to the fulfilment of Old Testament narratives about a figure who suffers at the hands of Israel’s enemies but remains faithful, believing that YWHW will rescue and vindicate.
v) The verb teleō also appears in Luke 22:37. The words of Isaiah 53:12 are ‘finished’ (telethēnai) in Jesus: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ The word again points to the fulfilment of an Old Testament narrative about one who suffers but will be vindicated by YHWH.
The story of the servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 certainly includes the thought that the righteous one (or community) suffers because of the sins of Israel and for the sake of the wholeness of Israel. But this is not a universal motif. The overall impression given by these various cross-references is that Jesus understood his death to bring to completion an Old Testament narrative about the suffering of Israel through which God would vindicate and restore his people. Of course, it’s possible that John saw in the event a fulfilment of the words of John the Baptist: ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn. 1:29). But as the text stands, it is the story of Israel’s redemption that comes to a climax in Jesus’ utterance of the simple word tetelestai.