“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
How fitting that the first “word” of Jesus from the cross is a word of forgiveness! It creates a striking picture of what the cross is about: forgiveness.
Who is the "them/they" that Jesus refers to? The context is this: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right hand and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them . . .” (Luke 23:33-34).
We can see more information that pertains to this question in Acts where Peter says: “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:17-18). The Jewish and Roman leaders did not realize who Jesus really was. And what happened to Jesus was really part of God’s plan in the first place. I think perhaps Jesus was asking God to forgive, not only the Roman soldiers, but all who had a hand in his crucifixion.
Isn't that great? Of course, Jesus would offer forgiveness to all, regardless of their sin. That's the point of the cross! And we can't forget that Jesus was also asking forgiveness for you and I since it was also our sins that put Jesus on the cross.
What a lesson for us - we too ought to forgive our enemies no matter what they have done against us! We have been called to be imitators of Christ and this of course includes the call to forgive one another just as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). Are there people in your life that you need to forgive? Are you living broken relationships because of unforgiveness? If we are seeking to imitate Christ, then we should be like Stephen whose final words before dying were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
A Prayer of Reflection
O Jesus, as I reflect on this first word, I think of those who put You on that cross: Roman soldiers who were simply following orders, Jewish leaders who perceived You as a threat to their power, and most of all, Pontius Pilate, who alone had the authority to order Your crucifixion. None of these realized who You were. None realized what they were doing. They saw You as a pest, a threat, a rabble-rouser. You were someone they needed to get out of the way, once and for all. Yet they had no idea what they were doing.
They had no idea that You were the Lord of Glory, the Word of God Incarnate. They had no idea that Your creative design bound the atoms of Your cross together. They didn't know that You should have been lifted up, not in execution, but in praise. They didn't know that You had the power to snuff them out in a moment, but refrained out of obedience to the Father. They had no idea what they were doing.
The people who crucified You had no idea, Lord Jesus, that Your death on a cross would bring life to the world. They had no idea that your crucifixion would soon be the center of the best news ever proclaimed. They didn't know that as You hung there in front of them, you were bearing, not just the sins of the world, but the sins of the very ones who stood there, jeering and laughing at You. And they never imagined that Your death was God's way of saving the world, including me.
They had no idea, dear Jesus, that Your death would not be the end of your influence, but only the beginning. They never imagined that in a few hours You would be raised triumphant, having defeated sin and death. They would never have believed that before long Your name would be proclaimed throughout the world as Lord and Savior. Those who crucified You would have been astounded to know that someday images of Your cross would be found on every continent, gloriously proclaiming Your victory over the powers of darkness.
As You prayed for their forgiveness, Jesus, those who killed you didn't realize that You were dying so they themselves might be forgiven. And, though I was not there on that day, my sin helped put You on that cross. No doubt I sometimes sin in ignorance, not knowing what I'm doing. Yet all too often I know exactly what I'm doing, and I do it still. How immensely grateful I am that Your forgiveness extends, not only to those who err in ignorance, but to those who knowingly sin. All praise to You, Lord Jesus, for bearing my sin upon the cross, so that I might be forgiven. What can I offer you in response but my gratitude, my worship, my love, and my life in service to you? You deserve it all, Lord, all that I have, all that I am.