Approaching Tetelestai: Thinking Biblically about Seasons of Change

Approaching Tetelestai: Thinking Biblically about Seasons of Change

Dec 30, 2014

Approaching Tetelestai: Thinking Biblically about Seasons of Change

 — Rev. Nicholas J. Kersten, Director of History & Education

A girl prays

This past May, I graduated from seminary, bringing a decade long journey to a close and ending a season of my life. As that season was ending, and as I have entered a new season in my life, I have spent a good amount of time thinking about “what it all means.” I hope that these reflections—both from my own journey and from the Scriptures—will encourage you to approach the seasons of change in your life with new enthusiasm and hope.


To begin, a question: can anything ever be truly finished in our world? This question is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. Certainly projects and tasks are completed. We hand in our assignments in school as children and receive a grade. We receive compensation and awards for work that is “done.” We have our chores and jobs that must be done as part of our daily life. But anyone who has ever mowed a lawn or washed laundry knows that such tasks are never really complete. Even in places like education where degrees are conferred, those degrees are really only benchmarks in a much larger learning process—they don’t communicate completeness, they communicate attainments of incremental standards. How many times has the thing we placed in our “done” pile crawled back off and demanded more from us? Aren’t most of the things we do in this life only ever “provisionally complete?”


In my own life, and especially as I journeyed through the early part of my seminary career, the realization that much that I thought was finished was not, led me to despair. I originally considered seminary like finishing school for Christians. You go, you do the work, they teach you the secrets that will unlock the universe and the answers to any question that could be put to you, and then you get a degree and go home a finished product. But I began to realize that no matter how much I worked to get things done, the tasks would never stop coming; that no matter how much effort I expended, more would be required. My life (and my faith) became

a grim parade of impossibility. I feared that nothing would ever be finished—that my life would be a long list of things I didn’t have the time or talents or courage or fortitude to ever complete. My tombstone would include an asterisk on my death date, and beneath it, the asterisk would denote a life “unfinished.” Depression settled over me.


Fittingly enough, it was the very seminary training which partially drove me to despair that provided the way out as well, in the form of studying the Biblical Greek of John’s Gospel (as odd as that may sound!). According to John, there is at least one thing which has really been finished. In John 19, John quotes Jesus’ last word prior to His death on the cross. The word is ‘tetelestai’ (Τετέλεσται) and it is used by Jesus in verse 30:


28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30 NIV, emphasis mine)


The three emphasized words above translate the single word “tetelestai” in the Greek of the New Testament. Much could be said about this word, but there is only

one thing about this I want to point out: it is in the perfect tense. The significance of that here is that Jesus really is saying it is done forever, never to be changed again.

He is pronouncing His earthly work complete, and completed for all time. Nothing more will ever need to bedone to finish the work of salvation accomplished on that

cross. While the root form of this verb is not uncommon, this exact form appears only twice in the entire New Testament, and they are both here, in verses 28 and 30.


As the decade of my seminary journey passed, I began to mine hope from this statement of our Lord. In the beginning, it was a promise of future comfort: one day everything would be done, even if I couldn’t complete anything. But as the truth of this passage soaked into the deep places in me, I realized that it was much more than it seemed to me at first.


The second layer of understanding this truth came to me gift-wrapped in the form of my work for the Historical Society. (I’m aware there is no longer any way for me to avoid the charge that I am a very peculiar person.) As I surveyed the enormity of God’s plan recorded in those old books, it became clear that God would be severely limited in the work He could do in our world if He was limited to doing only what one person could do in one lifetime. Instead, the Lord Jesus came Himself and lived and died and was resurrected to show another way. When we join in the work of His body through our local churches, our Conference, and other Christians in this world, we join in the fulfillment of God’s unfolding plan through all of history as He brings all things to completion in Himself.


Church history clearly demonstrates that God brings huge movements of His Spirit to completion through the work of His people, though sometimes these huge moves of God are completed in ways that would be unthinkable to individuals as they are happening. The world changes and believers are required to respond in ways that sometimes make them extremely uncomfortable. And yet, that change, and the discomfort which accompanies it, is part of the process that God uses to bring His plans to completion over decades, centuries and millenia. God called Moses to leave the life he knew and shepherd a people—and God called the people of Israel to leave their slavery to follow Him through Moses. Both Moses and the nation of Israel occasionally had extreme reactions to this calling to embrace the necessary change.

Yet it was the only way to achieve God’s plan for them as individuals, for the nation, and for the entire unfolding of the plan that was revealed after. Without extreme and violent political tumult in England in the 17th century, Seventh Day Baptists may never have existed. Without the spur of new colonization imposing distance between friends and families in post-revolutionary America, our Conference may never have formed. History repeats the lesson for us over and over: obedience and committed response to God in our changing world is part of how He is bringing His eternal plans to completion.


But there is a much more intimate application of this broad principle. When Jesus says on the cross that His work is finished, He is also making a promise to you if you believe in Him: one day, you will be finished. Despite the fact that we all go through seasons which sometimes include painful changes, one day, the seasons will cease, and because of His completed work on the cross, we too will be completed. We will find ourselves perfected and ready for eternity with Him. All of our following of Jesus in this world is leading to a time when we can lay it down and really be “done.” We are all“approaching tetelestai.”


My encouragement for you today as you read this is to avoid the temptation to despair about change and incompleteness in your life, your church, or our world by clinging to the promise and example of Jesus Christ.

Follow after Him as He leads you to work for His Kingdom’s completion and until He brings that work to completion in you on the day you depart to be with Him. If you draw breath, there is work to do! Be encouraged as you labor that your labor is not in vain—He is bringing all things to completion (Php 1:3-6), even as He makes all things new (Rev. 21:5-6).

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