transcribed by Alan G. Smith, inspired by the Holy Spirit
Do you hear it? What you ask? “Tetelestai” I can hear it even now. It beckons to me through the wind. I can tell you are looking at me strangely.
Let me go back and explain why this word is so pregnant with meaning for me. I had never seen anything remotely like that day. In my time spent with the Legion in Jerusalem; I had helped perform many executions, but this one was different. This day there were three young men condemned to die. The sentence proclaimed on each of them had been death by crucifixion. At the palace, we tied the large crossbeams of rough hewn wood across the backs of each of the condemned. Their arms were outstretched on the wood demonstrating to everyone throughout the city what was going to happen to them. We took “the parade route” through town. We wound down every street to warn the people that the Roman Empire was serious about crime. Everyone knew where we were headed. There was this hill called “The Skull” where we performed the executions. As we wound down the streets, the weight of the beams dug into their back.
Several splinters from the rough wood slivered deep into their skin. The first man hollered curses at the crowd. There was no remorse there, only bitterness. I can still hear his angry voice yelling at the top of his lungs. The bitterness came out with his words and hung around him condemning him yet further. He made no appeals for mercy. I guess he was holding onto the only thing he had left. His strength had been robbed from him in the prisons. I had to prod him with my sword several times to keep him moving.
The second man was almost the opposite of the first. In his tears, he cried out for mercy. He mentioned his child and tried to tell a heart-rending story to the crowd. But all they did was jeer back. I had to wonder about the wisdom of killing this repentant man. But mine was not to wonder, mine was to take orders.
As the third man came by, I heard the whispers and murmurs going through the crowd. I overheard that this was Jesus. I figured this must be the guy that had whipped the city into a frenzy and the reason why we were having this execution so quickly. He didn’t look like the criminal he was supposed to be. Also on his head, there was a wreath of thorns. Each one had dug deeply into his flesh encircling his head with blood. His olive skin was hanging in strips on his back. He was so badly beaten that the pain had to be unbearable. I glanced at him and saw such a peaceful look in his eyes that I couldn’t help but stare. This peace didn’t make sense. Did he not realize that he was about to die one of the most gruesome deaths possible? Did he know that he would die from lack of air as he started to lack the strength to pull himself up by his nail pierced wrists and finally his lungs would fill with liquid? I was absorbed by this man, when he stumbled. The weight of the cross seamed to be unbearable for him. I grabbed one of the young men standing by and shouted at him, “CARRY HIS CROSS!” This man looked like he was going to hesitate, but as I went for my sword he lowered his head in submission. I strapped the cross to him and we continued to march.
After an eternity of marching, we approached the site of execution. The sound of a hammer hitting a nail echoed throughout the countryside as we connected the crossbeams to the posts. As we finished each one we would lift the post up and into the hole in the ground. As we slid the cross with Jesus on it into the ground, he asked for forgiveness for us. For us??
Why in the world did we need forgiving? Even more importantly, how come he didn’t hate us like every other condemned man. Did he not realize that we were killing him? I wandered away with some of the other soldiers while we waited for the condemned to die.
About three hours later, the entire land went dark. This was an unusual dark. It wasn’t like night. It was a stifling darkness. This day was getting weirder and weirder. I just wanted this execution to be over with so I could go my own way.
Then about three hours later, the darkness left and I heard Jesus scream out “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani” I wondered what he was screaming. I heard someone say that he was calling Elijah. But then I heard someone else correct them and say that what he was saying was Hebrew for “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” The cry was with such agony that I can still hear it in my ears. It was not merely a physical agony. It went much deeper. It was the agony of a heart breaking. I recognized that cry as one that I could never quite understand. Finally something that made sense from this man. I was used to seeing a sense of desperation from these men watching their life slip away.
I was thinking about this when he screamed out his final word, “Tetelestai”
It covered the countryside. It was long and drawn out and obviously painful for him to say. Roughly translated that means “It is finished.” But that alone would make sense. Truly it was finished, after all he was dead after he uttered it. But “Tetelestai” means more than that. It means that it is utterly and totally complete and that nothing else could possibly be done to add to it. My curiosity could take it no longer.
I went up to the cross and asked a woman there who this Jesus was. She broke down in tears, and I couldn’t understand her through her sobs. But the man with her explained to me a fanciful story of Jesus. He tried to tell me that Jesus was the Messiah. But I wouldn’t listen. After all, if Jesus was truly the Son of God then we wouldn’t have been able to kill him, right??
Before I left we went ahead and broke the legs of the two other criminals, but we didn’t waste our time with Jesus. He was obviously dead. One of the other soldiers ran a sword through Jesus’ side and blood and water flowed. I had heard of these “tears of the heart” before but I had never seen it. I left that site and tried to go about my day.
Well the next week as I was going around town, I stopped in my tracks as I saw this guy that was in the spitting image of Jesus. I figured it must be his brother or something. But as I stared I saw the nail marks still in his wrists. As I stood there staring, he called me to him. With a slight smile, he said, “I AM He” He had read my mind, I bowed down. He could read my heart as well. He raised my head and told me, “What I had completely finished was paying for your sins. Go and sin no more, for you are a new creation.”
Now as I go everywhere, I hear “Tetelestai” It is God’s way of reminding me that sin is no longer my master. After all, nothing else could have been done. I hear the word echoing in the breeze as the birds sing. It is a subtle sound even in the hubbub of the crowd. Whenever I stop listening with my ears, I can hear it again. “Tetelestai” Can you hear it? Listen closely. There it is. Yes, it is finished. Jesus could have done nothing more to reconcile you with God. That is the great news!! As you hear “Tetelestai”, remember once again that you can be a new creation. The old will be wiped away! Shout it in praise to Him, “Tetelestai.” And when someone asks you what you are saying, you can tell them about this man that died not only for me but for you and them as well. “Tetelestai!”