When I heard what Jesus said just before He breathed His last breath on the cross, it shook me to my core. Some historical background is helpful. During Jesus’ day, if anyone went to jail for a crime, a piece of paper was nailed to that person’s cell door. This piece of paper listed each of the ways he had violated Roman law. This piece of paper was called a certificate of debt. It documented the person’s debt to the Roman government for violating the laws of that society. When the person had completed his sentence, the Roman judge would write a word across the certificate of debt. This word was tetélestai, often translated, “It is finished.” Another translation is “paid in full.” It signified the person’s debt to society was cancelled because the penalty had been paid in full.
When Jesus hung on the cross, the second to last thing He said was, “Tetélestai”—paid in full.cite Those who were standing near Him were very familiar with the term and knew it meant a debt had been paid in full. I’m sure they wondered of what debt He was speaking. Whose debt? The entire New Testament was written as a celebration that the debt He paid in full was yours and mine.
In the Bible, the apostle Paul said, “Having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees (judgments of the court for laws broken) against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.cite Just like the man whose certificate of debt was nailed to his cell door, each one of our certificates of debt was nailed to the cross. Our certificates of debt list all of the ways we have violated His law/Ten Commandments by our thoughts, words and deeds. Each law violated carries with it the decree (charge of the court) of guilty and the penalty of death: spiritual separation from God. The significance of our certificates being nailed to the cross is that the guilt of each of our sins was being transferred to Him. The picture given to us by this passage of Scripture is of God reaching down through the corridor of time (past, present and future), removing each man’s certificate of debt from his cell door and then nailing it to Jesus’ cell door—the cross. He was willingly declared guilty of every sin (every law broken) listed on every certificate of debt of every man who has lived or ever will live. Not only was He taking our guilt upon Himself, He was also taking our sentence: the penalty of death.
(See note L and note M)