We will be posting a series of devotionals for the 7 days of Holy Week, leading up to Resurrection Sunday. Each is a reflection on one of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
I’d like to reflect briefly on three aspects of this first of Jesus’ words from the cross that are not obvious at first glance.
How often did Jesus pray this prayer?
Probably the most accurate way to understand the original meaning is this: “As they were crucifying him, he was saying…” It’s likely, then, that as the soldiers were carrying out the horrible task of nailing Jesus to the cross, he was repeatedly saying throughout the ordeal, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.” Think about it – how could Jesus have possibly endured this horror if he were not constantly talking to his Father?
Who is “them”?
Most immediately, the ones doing this to Jesus were the Roman soldiers. Surely he was praying for them, but they were merely tools, carrying out the decrees of their superiors and the wishes of the Jewish leaders. So Jesus undoubtedly prayed for forgiveness of the Jews who fomented the plot and the Romans who authorized his execution. But Jesus was also praying for all of us, because we all had a hand in the greatest crime ever committed. As Isaiah 53:6 says, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
If they don’t know what they are doing, why do they need forgiveness?
Jesus is not implying, “Because they are not aware of what they are doing, they are not guilty.” It’s true that the Romans and Jews did not understand the enormity of their sin, but that did not absolve them. Jesus had said earlier to Nicodemus, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).
But Jesus loved his enemies and longed for them to see their error and turn to him for forgiveness. And he was pleading for a “stay of execution” for his murderers on the basis of their ignorance. Isaiah prophesied this when he said, “Yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
The Father did in fact give the Jews a 40-year reprieve before Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. And we have good reason to believe that many who were complicit in Jesus’ death did in fact receive forgiveness and eternal life at the Pentecost mass conversion event, or sometime after that. And how many millions more have been forgiven by the Father since then, through Jesus’ sacrifice, in answer to his prayer!
Jesus forgiving his killers as they are putting him to death is a powerful example. He shows what he means by enemy love. He did not teach forgiveness simply as a virtue, as the thing a good or noble person ought to do. He deeply desired the restoration of sinners back to the image of God so that they could be fit for endless worship and enjoyment of everything that God is. We are told in Hebrews 12:2 that it was “for the joy that was set before him [that he] endured the cross.” The night before he died he had expressed his longing for that joy in his prayer recorded in John 17: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
How does this affect me?
Tim Keller once said, “If you see Jesus dying for you, if you see Jesus forgiving you, if you see Jesus looking down at you and dying anyway, when that reality hits you’ll be able to forgive. When that reality hits, you’ll be changed.”
I want to look at anyone who could conceivably be considered an enemy – someone who dislikes me, who hates what I stand for, who engages in what I consider to be morally repugnant beliefs or behaviors – the way Jesus looked at his enemies. I want to not only forgive any real or imagined offenses, but like my Lord, I want to desire that they find full forgiveness from God through Jesus, leading into a life of growing fellowship with him.