Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34a
One of the outstanding features of Jesus’ ministry was His willing and wholehearted determination to do His Father’s will. Determined to do His Father’s will, Jesus “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), even though He knew that He would “suffer many things, and be set at nought” (Mark 9:12). Determined to do His Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). When the mob came with Judas to capture Jesus, He did not try to escape; rather, He willingly gave Himself up to them to be tried and condemned.
Similarly, Jesus willingly carried His own cross as far as He was able. No doubt, when the soldiers put hammer and nails to His hands and feet, He willingly submitted Himself to be fastened to the cursed tree. And, when the cross was dropped into its hole, Jesus prayed according to the same will of His Father, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
What a comfort to know that Jesus was expressing His great desire that the Father would forgive!
To forgive, according to its literal meaning in the Greek means “to dismiss” or “to send away.” Forgiveness is a dismissing of a debt such that the debtor is no longer liable for any of it ever again.
Jesus once told of a creditor who forgave a debt of ten thousand talents. Ten thousand talents—the equivalent of thousands of years’ worth of wages for a common laborer—could never have been repaid, no matter how hard the debtor had tried. If we ourselves had to make satisfaction for our sins, no matter how hard we tried, we could never pay the debt that was owed. Indeed, we would only daily increase our debt.
Jesus was praying that God would dismiss the debt of sin’s guilt and punishment. The guilt of sin makes us liable to the wages of eternal death under God’s wrath. The wages of sin is to hear the voice of Christ on the
Judgment Day saying, “Depart from me into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Forgiveness is the dismissing of that debt and the wrath that is due.
God gives a beautiful picture of sending away the debt of sin on the Day of Atonement celebrated by Old Testament Israel (Lev. 16:21–22). On that day, the high priest would lay his hands upon the head of the goat and symbolically transfer to the goat all the debt of the people’s sins. Subsequently, the goat was “dismissed”/“sent” far away into the wilderness bearing that debt of sin, never to be heard from or seen again. John the Baptist connected this picture to the reality when he pointed at Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away (literally, ‘bears away’) the sin of the world” (John 1:29). When God forgives us, He sends away forever the debt and punishment of sin.
Forgiveness is thus God’s promise never to bring up our sins against us. When God forgives us, He does not allow our sin to separate us from Himself. Instead, He says, Your “sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 10:17). Not that God actually forgets anything; but He deliberately chooses not to bring up the guilt and punishment that our sins deserve. “Father, forgive…” is Jesus’ prayer that God would not bring up our sins against us in wrath ever again.
What a glorious thing to have the guilt and punishment of sin dismissed!
For whom was Jesus praying when He said, “Father, forgive them”? He certainly was praying for some who were directly associated with His crucifixion. After all, He made this petition immediately after He was lifted up on the cross. Jesus must therefore be referring to some who did not realize what they were doing as they were crucifying Him (“for they know not what they do”).
There are those who imagine that Jesus prayed for all those who were in some way involved in His crucifixion. They take it that Jesus was praying for all the chief priests, all the elders, all who brought false testimony against Him, Pilate, all who chose Barabbas instead of Jesus, all who demanded that He be crucified, all the soldiers who mocked and spit upon Him, and all who nailed Him to the cross—even Judas Iscariot.
But, Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them” cannot mean that He was praying for all His persecutors head for head. If He had prayed that they all would be forgiven, His prayer that they receive this particular blessing of salvation would have failed for most of them. In fact, Jesus never prayed that all men would receive this particular blessing, or any of the blessings of salvation. In His high-priestly prayer, just before Jesus offered Himself on the cross, He prayed “not for the world” but specifically for those whom the Father had given Him (John 17:9). Jesus must, therefore, have been praying, not for all His persecutors, but for His elect among them, given to Him by the Father.
At the same time, we must not think that Jesus’ prayer was only for those responsible for His death back then; His prayer is also for us today. That is evident from the fact that we have the same sinful natures as did Jesus’ persecutors. Apart from the grace of God, if we had been in the same circumstances, we would have done just as the Jews and Pilate and the soldiers did.
In addition, we must know that our sins sent Jesus to the cross. We might be tempted to think that our sins are not as bad as the sins of those who put Jesus on the cross. However, the truth is, all sin is treachery against God. Every sin we commit says essentially, “We will not have this man rule over us” and “crucify Him.” All sin rejects Christ and His authority over us. Our sins are the reason that Christ went to the cross. Therefore, His prayer for forgiveness was not only for the elect back then who participated directly in His crucifixion. His prayer was for all His elect whose sins put Him on the cross—from every age and in every corner of the world!
That Jesus’ prayer was for His elect people is evident as well from the Old Testament Day of Atonement. On that day, the high priest first offered the atoning sacrifice; next, he offered up prayers at the altar of incense; and then, he went into the Holy of Holies. Borne on his breastplate as he made the atoning sacrifice, as he prayed before the altar of incense, and as he went into the holiest, were twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel, the chosen people of God. The atoning sacrifice and the prayers for forgiveness at the altar of incense were offered by the priest specifically for God’s chosen people. So too, as Jesus offered Himself on the altar of the cross and offered up prayers, His prayer was not for all men, but specifically for His people.
What a comfort to know that Jesus sought this blessing of forgiveness for us and all His elect!
Wonderfully, God answered Jesus’ prayer.
Already at the time of His crucifixion, some of His elect repented and rejoiced in the Father’s forgiveness. One of the thieves on the cross, who at first railed upon Jesus, later repented and was assured by Jesus, “to day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Jesus’ declaration to the thief implied He had forgiven all the sins the thief had ever committed, including his railing against Jesus as He hung on the cross. The Roman centurion in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion repented too and “glorified God saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.” The fact that he received this knowledge and glorified God implies that he also received the blessing of forgiveness. And, when Peter preached his sermon on Pentecost some fifty days after Jesus’ prayer, many who had been involved in Jesus crucifixion, having slain Him by their wicked hands (cf. Acts 2:23), repented and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). The elect among Jesus’ persecutors were brought to repentance, and in that way experienced the forgiveness Jesus sought for them.
Significantly, Jesus added an explanation to His petition. He not only says, “Father, forgive them,” but He also adds, “for they know not what they do.” Of course, Jesus was not saying “These men deserve to be forgiven because they are ignorant.” Sins of ignorance still deserve damnation and must still be paid for. Ignorance cannot be the ground of forgiveness.
Rather, Jesus adds those words to explain how it is that He was able to make such a request. He is able to petition His Father to forgive even that despicable sin of crucifying Him, because they had not committed the unpardonable sin described in Hebrews 10:29: “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” The elect who had been involved in Jesus’ crucifixion had not knowingly killed the Prince of Life. This is why Peter says, “And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). These horrible sinners must not wonder whether their sin of crucifying Jesus is beyond forgiveness. Ignorance keeps their horrible sin within the realm of sins that can and will be forgiven to God’s elect. God answered Jesus’ prayer to forgive His elect persecutors.
The elect who participated in Jesus’ crucifixion must know that there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ, even for that most dreadful of sins. That is why Jesus prayed out loud; He wanted the subjects of His request to be assured of forgiveness in Him. Jesus wanted His elect persecutors to know He had prayed specifically for them.
What glorious news that God answers Jesus’ prayer for us too! If Jesus prayed that His Father would forgive such a wicked sin committed by His elect people back then, His prayer “Father, forgive them” must also include the sins that we have committed against Him—all of them, including the horrible ones. Those sins the devil tempts us to believe cannot be forgiven were also included in Jesus prayer.
The reason we can be so sure of our forgiveness is that Jesus’ shameful suffering on the cross was the payment that God demanded for our sins. Jesus experienced God’s cursing wrath as He hung upon the tree in our place. At the very same time Jesus was giving His life to satisfy for our sins and sinfulness, He asked God to forgive the sins of His people. As if Jesus had said from the cross, “Father, I am now paying the debt for these dreadful sins of my people; I pray Thee now to dismiss their debt and never again demand its payment.” What a blessing that Jesus desired, and paid for, and now prays for our forgiveness on the basis of His obedience and sacrifice! May we ever look to Him to dismiss the debt of the guilt and punishment we deserve. And, may we live in thankfulness for such forgiveness.