Last night the guys of M2 had a hall meeting and in addition to getting the latest hall news, eating fantastic homemade cookies, running the gauntlet, and waking half of campus with our Rufio war cries, our RA shared a fantastic devotional regarding the significance of Jesus' statement on the cross "It is finished". I liked what he had to say so much that I decided to pursue it a little farther, did some research, and ended up writing out a good bit more than I anticipated......
On the cross Jesus utters the powerful words “It is finished”1; words that ring throughout history as the sign that man's sin is forever defeated and the power of death broken. However, much of the significance of this statement is actually lost when the Greek is translated into English. When Jesus cries out “it is finished” on the cross, the Greek word used is “tetelestai” which means to bring to a close, to complete, to fulfill.2
What makes this exclamation truly unique however, is the Greek tense that Jesus used. (Verb tenses are the most important and most communicative part of the Greek language.3 This also is sometimes necessarily lost in translation.) Jesus speaks in the perfect tense, which is very rare in the New Testament and has no English equivalent.4 The perfect tense is a combination of two Greek tenses: the Present tense, and the Aorist tense. The Aorist tense is punctiliar: meaning something that happens at a specific point in time; a moment. The Present tense is linear: meaning something that continues on into the future and has ongoing results/implications.
The combination of these two tenses in the perfect tense as used in John 19:30 is of overwhelming significance to the Christian. When Jesus says “It is finished” (or completed) what he is actually saying is “It is finished and will continue to be finished”.
The first element of the perfect tense: the Aorist, punctiliar, point in time statement “It is finished” is powerful. Mathew Henry captures all that is finished at that exact moment: “It is finished; that is, the counsels of the Father concerning his sufferings were now fulfilled. It is finished; all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, which pointed at the sufferings of the Messiah, were accomplished. It is finished; the ceremonial law is abolished; the substance is now come, and all the shadows are done away. It is finished; an end is made of transgression by bringing in an everlasting righteousness. His sufferings were now finished, both those of his soul, and those of his body. It is finished; the work of man's redemption and salvation is now completed.” This is overwhelming in and of itself.
But there's more! The Aorist tense is only half of the perfect tense! The second element of Jesus' statement is the equally important: the Present, ongoing, linear “and will continue to be finished” component of the perfect tense. This indicates the ongoing nature of our salvation. This is so important because it indicates a condition, a state of being, a resting place.
In conclusion, in Jesus' statement “It is finished” we have a declaration of salvation that is both momentary and eternal, Aorist and Present, linear and punctiliar. We are saved at a specific point in time, “it is finished”, our debt is paid, we are ransomed from the kingdom of darkness, and then we confidently rest in the reality that “it will continue to be finished” because we are in a position of grace and stand justified for all time before God. One Greek word, tetelestai, spoken in the perfect tense, by Jesus on the cross, and it was finished at that moment, and for all time.
1 John 19:30
2 “1) to bring to a close, to finish, to end 1a) passed, finished 2) to perform, execute, complete, fulfill, (so that the thing done corresponds to what has been said, the order, command etc.) 2a) with special reference to the subject matter, to carry out the contents of a command 2b) with reference also to the form, to do just as commanded, and generally involving the notion of time, to perform the last act which completes a process, to accomplish, fulfill 3) to pay 3a) of tribute” Strong's Bible Encyclopedia
3"No element of Greek language is of more importance to the student of the New Testament than the matter of tense. A variation in meaning exhibited by the use of a particular tense will often dissolve what appears to be an embarrassing difficulty, or reveal a gleam of truth which will thrill the heart with delight and inspiration. Though it is an intricate and difficult subject, no phase of Greek grammar offers a fuller reward. The benefits are to be reaped only when one has invested sufficient time and diligence to obtain an insight into the idiomatic use of tense in the Greek language and an appreciation of the finer distinctions in force." (Dana & Mantey, pgs 176-7)
4 “The perfect tense has to do with the completed progress of an action and its corresponding finished results. That is, it shows a present state of affairs (from the writer’s perspective), based upon an action in past time (when using the indicative mood). There is no tense in English that has this same meaning. Oftentimes the student of English will fail to realize the importance of the perfect tense and will tend to blend it with the aorist in translation. This is mainly due to English idiom and the customary practice of translating the Greek perfect as the English perfect. This can be a big mistake and can blur the point or emphasis of a New Testament passage. Since the perfect tense is used less frequently than other tenses, it is exegetically more significant. When it does occur, there is usually a definite and deliberate reason it was chosen by the writer. The emphasis may be on the culmination of the action's progress or on the resulting state of affairs brought about by the action.”