As he hung on a cruel Roman cross late Friday afternoon some 2000 years ago, Jesus, “knowing that all things had already been accomplished,” declared, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). Although fully God, he was also fully human and therefore not exempt from human suffering and needs. And after drinking the sour wine, he declared, “It is finished!” (19:30).
The expression “It is finished,” is often correctly described as being one word in Greek. It is the verb τετέλεσται. As a matter of fact, τετέλεσται was used in verse 28 to highlight that “all things had already been accomplished.” There are two points about the verb however that are true but often overlooked. First, it is that the verb is a perfect tense. From the vantage point of aspect, the perfect tense is the tense form an author/writer uses to highlight a train of thought. When an author/writer is portraying background information to carry the storyline, he will use an aorist or present tense form. But when the author is building to the climax of his point in the argument, he will employ a perfect tense (See the chart at the end of this post).
Secondly, the verb itself (τελέω) has interesting lexical uses in Greek literature. Its lexical force carries three basic uses that are similar in meaning. First, it has the force, “to complete an activity or process,” hence bring to an end, finish or complete. Second, it means “to carry out an obligation or demand,” hence carry out, accomplish, perform, fulfill, keep. And third, “to pay what is due,” hence pay (BDAG). Which of these three usage categories is always a matter of what is the best fit contextually.
D. A. Carson notes,
As an English translation, It is finished captures only part of the meaning, the part that focuses on completion. Jesus’ work was done. But this is no cry of defeat; nor is it merely an announcement of imminent death (though it is not less than that). The verb teleō from which this form derives denotes the carrying out of a task, and in religious contexts bears the overtone of fulfilling one’s religious obligations. Accordingly, in the light of the impending cross, Jesus could earlier cry, ‘I have brought you glory on earth by completing (teleiōsas; i.e. by accomplishing) the work you gave me to do’ (17:4). ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them eis telos—not only ‘to the end’ but to the full extent mandated by his mission. And so, on the brink of death, Jesus cries out, It is accomplished! (John, PNTC, 621).
One could argue for the perfect tense verb τετέλεσται fitting any of these three categories, though perhaps the second one is best. However, it is the ways that the verb is used in literature that makes the most striking cases. For instance, we see in Matthew 17:24 the verb used for paying the two-drachma tax, and in Romans 13:6 for paying the tax that is owed. The idea of paying in full a debt is clear. And in this context, the force of what Jesus is declaring is that in regards to the purpose for his crucifixion, namely, to die for the sins of the world, the debt has been paid in full.
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!