“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do . . .”
The first word of the cross, uttered by the crucified Saviour!
One of seven utterances He is recorded to have spoken as He lays down His life for His sheep!
Words, however, which are not to be interpreted as being merely the last utterances pressed from the lips of a dying man; which are intended to evoke your sympathy, or to command your condolence. Such perhaps might be the significance of the last sayings of an ordinary, and especially of a great man. But not so may we approach the last words of the dying Saviour. Rather, He enters into death victoriously. His life is not taken from Him, but He lays it down of Himself. And His words are those of life and power. They are intended by Him to be for His own a revelation of His atoning work.
Such is, without question, His intention in the first word of the cross. At the very moment that the nails were driven into His blessed hands and feet and He was affixed to the cross, He uttered this beautiful prayer for forgiveness.
Father, forgive them!
Forgiveness for what? Forgiveness for whom? And on what ground does the Lord utter this prayer?
These are the questions that demand our attention as we give consideration to this first utterance from the cross. There can be no doubt: that in this prayer Jesus is concerned about forgiveness of sin, and particularly now the forgiveness of the sin of the crucifixion.
It is to be noted that it was not merely an innocent man who was being crucified. O, He was that, to be sure! All His life testified to His perfect holiness. And all the trial He endured at the close of His life produced no other verdict than that He was innocent. Of this the Roman judge bore testimony repeatedly during the trial, and of this the washing of his hands was a sign. And, of course, to slay an innocent man, apart from any other considerations, would have been a terrible crime, and a diabolical sin.
But the sin of the crucifixion of Jesus was much greater. They were crucifying the promised Messiah. Still worse, they were crucifying the Son of God. Verily, it was the only begotten Son of God whom they made their victim. And to crucify God is a sin which defies all description. Very really on the cross wicked man demonstrates what he will do with God if God will allow him to get his hands on Him
Talk about the inherent goodness of man, or even of a certain goodness man may have due to a certain common grace of God,—ridiculous! There is surely no evidence of it at the cross. Yea, the very opposite is the truth. At the cross you see the awful extremity of the depravity of natural man. As we said, if God will allow Himself to be taken by the hands of depraved and natural man (and He did), then this is precisely what man will do with God,—crucify Him.
Even so, when you have said all this, you have not yet described all the sin which the Lord had in mind when He prayed as He did. Not only were they shedding the blood of the Son of God, but they were also shedding the blood of the covenant, and counting it an unholy thing. That blood of the covenant was the blood of atonement, the very blood whereby men must be saved. And to despise this blood and count it an unholy thing, is the greatest of all sin. Concerning the despising of this blood, the writer to the Hebrews informs us: “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 writer to the Hebrews answers his own question by informing us that for such there is no more offering for sin, there is no hope of forgiveness. (Hebrews 10:26, 29) It follows that if this sin were to be reckoned to the perpetrators thereof, no deliverance would be possible. Indeed, the crucifixion of Christ would have been the end of the world.
Therefore Jesus must pray at this moment this particular prayer.
Make no mistake about it, of this sin the whole world made itself guilty.
How naive we would be to conclude that only they who were immediately involved in the crucifixion of Christ were those, and those only, for whom Jesus prayed! Not only the Jews were guilty, who cried for His blood. Nor was Pontius Pilate the sole responsible party, though he gave sentence that He should die. Nor was it only the Roman soldiers who were nailing Him to His cross, though it cannot be denied that they carried out the sentence of the Roman governor.
But it was you and I who did it!
The whole world, all the sons of Adam, were responsible for this horrible crime!
Reverently speaking, therefore, if the Lord had not prayed as He did at this moment, the world would have perished. Christ would have died in vain, and no one would be saved.
Jesus must pray this: prayer!
Father, forgive them!
But what does that mean?
Does it mean, as some aver, that Jesus here prayed that the Father would not immediately destroy those wicked who were crucifying Him, in order then to give them another chance, because they did not know what they were doing? Did Jesus want the Father here in His leniency to postpone judgment, so that ample time might be given for them to convert, after the offer of the gospel might be proffered to them? Must the grace of God become evident both in the restraint of punishment, as well as in the general offer of grace in the preaching of the gospel?
Such an interpretation, beloved reader, would be contrary to all of Scripture. Forgiveness, in the Scriptures, never means delay of punishment.
Always forgiveness of sin means to wipe out the guilt. It means to lift; up the guilt of sin, to send it away, to blot it out so that nothing of it remains. And therefore it also means that where guilt has been removed, there remains no longer the punishment for sin. One who is forgiven is completely exonerated. All of his sin is blotted out, and forever. Nor should we conclude that the Lord is praying only for the forgiveness of this one sin. The Lord does not forgive one sin, and allow all the rest of our sins to remain.
Therefore we should understand here that when the Lord prayed as He did, He petitions the Father to lay also this sin upon the burden of sin He bore as He appears on the cross as the sin-bearer. Wicked hands were busy shedding the blood of atonement, and Jesus prays that they may be forgiven in the same blood; for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!
But did they not know what they were doing? Did not the Jewish council know that He was perfectly righteous, whom they had condemned? Did not the trial before Pilate make perfectly clear to Pilate and to the Jewish rabble that milled in his court-room, that Jesus was perfectly innocent? Did not the soldiers, who were immediately responsible for His crucifixion, but who had mocked Him, spit in his face, beat Him with their fists, ripped open His back with their leaded thongs, pressed down His thorny crown upon His noble brow so that His blood trickled down the lines of His face,—did they not know what they were doing?
Most assuredly, they all knew what they were doing! When the Jewish council summoned men to deliver a false witness, they knew full well they were dealing with one who was innocent. When they chose Barabbas instead of Jesus, they chose not unwittingly. When Pilate’s wife warned him not to have anything to do with this righteous man, but he sentenced Him to death anyway, he knew full well that he was violating justice. When the soldiers mocked and derided His kingship and He was apparently impotent to fight back, they wickedly took advantage of Him, The world, represented in the Roman government, and the church, represented in the Jewish council with its rulers and the people,—all of them knew without a doubt that they were crucifying a really righteous man.
But this one thing they did not know, and of it they were totally ignorant,—they did not know that they were shedding the blood of the covenant. They did not know that the blood of Jesus was the blood that must take away sin. They did not know that their victim was the very Prince of life. This they could not know, for the light of Pentecost had not yet risen over the cross and the resurrection. Therefore Jesus prays.
For they know not what they do!
Ground for the Lord’s prayer! Not for forgiveness!
It can never be so that forgiveness is granted on the ground of ignorance. Also here it must be true that ignorance excuses none. Guilty we are because of sin, though we do it ignorantly. It may be true that ignorance changes the character of sin, but it never can be the ground for forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness finds its ground in the atoning blood of the Saviour. And undoubtedly also here the Lord is pleading that the sin committed in the crucifixion be added to the burden of sin He bore when He came to the cross. But ignorance of the fact that it was the Son of God Who was being crucified, and the blood of atonement was being shed,—this is the ground or reason for the prayer the Savior uttered.
And this prayer will surely be heard! As the Lord informs us in John 11, His prayer is always heard, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always.” The sin of those for whom Jesus prayed will surely be forgiven. Not only the sin committed here, but all their sin. Father must forgive, on the basis of His atoning blood and sacrifice.
But for whom then did Jesus pray?
Was it for the Roman soldiers, who, perhaps more than any other, were ignorant of the act they were performing? Or, was it perhaps the Roman governor Jesus had in mind? Or, could we perhaps say that it was the Jewish nation, which was not ashamed to cry out: “His blood be upon us, and our children;” so that Jesus, is particularly concerned about His own kinsmen according to the flesh?
Let us stop asking such questions, and cease looking for particular individuals, or even a particular nation that moved the Lord to pray as He did!
If we keep in mind, as we mentioned above, that we all are guilty of the sin that needs forgiveness in His precious blood, then there is a sense in which the prayer of Jesus is universal in its scope. And that means that everyone in the whole world for whom Jesus prayed is included in this prayer.
But we hasten to add, that this prayer or any other the Lord may have uttered may not contradict the sacerdotal prayer the Lord uttered shortly before His crucifixion, and recorded in John 17: “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” You feel immediately this is a prayer for all the elect, those whom the Father had given unto Him to be saved by Him.
If you really want to know who they are for whom Jesus prayed, I refer you to the very next cross-word, spoken to the penitent thief. !n answer to-his penitent cry: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,” the Lord answers,: “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
I refer you also to Acts 2, 3, where the apostle Peter, after Pentecost, is speaking to a vast multitude, and charging them with the sin of the crucifixion. He informs them that they had delivered up and denied Jesus in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. He shows them that they had chosen a murderer instead of Christ. He charged them that they had killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead. And he concludes these charging statements with this notable assertion: “And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.” The result of this preaching was that they were pricked in their hearts, and cried out: “What shall we do?” And the apostle answered: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, . .” And three thousand souls were added unto the church. These are they for whom Christ prayed!
What is your reaction to the charge of guilt in the shedding of the blood of the Son of God, the very blood of the covenant whereby you must be saved?
Are you pricked in your hearts? Does it bring you to your knees in godly sorrow?
Then rest assured that not only this sin, but all your sin is graciously forgiven.
The Savior’s prayer finds its answer in your heart, in which you experience perfect peace!