It is hard to forgive; it is harder to forgive one who intentionally sins against you.
I know of no story that better illustrates that statement than the account of Kevin Tunell. On New Year’s Day, 1982, 18-year-old Susan Herzog was killed in a car accident when her car was struck by one driven by 17-year-old drunk driver Kevin Tunell. He was later convicted of manslaughter. Herzog’s parents filed a civil suit for $1 million against Kevin, but settled out of court for $936 — to be paid $1 per week for 18 years, to remind him each week of what he had done. Tunell repeatedly missed payments because he said he was tormented by her death and the payments. At the fourth hearing over those missed payments, the judge found Kevin to be in contempt of the court but also questioned the parent’s persistence in bringing him to court. Susan’s father, Lou Herzog, then said, “I suppose to forgive is divine, but unfortunately Lou Herzog is just an average guy.” It is hard to forgive.
One writer captured the essence of this difficulty when he wrote,
“When you suspect that forgiveness is not fair, you worry that the people who hurt you are not getting what is coming to them. But you worry, too, that you are getting a bad deal: you get hurt and do not get even. Forgiving may not seem fair to the people who must do the forgiving.”
What then will we make of Jesus’ first words from the cross? (Lk. 23:33-34)
- He has agonized before His Father in prayer as He anticipated the cross.
- He has already endured the farcical trial in which neither Pilate nor Herod wanted to condemn Him but they were less willing to resist the religious establishment and frenzied crowd.
- He has suffered a brutal beating and scourging from the soldier’s whips. He is so wearied by this beating that He is physically unable to carry His crossbeam to the place of crucifixion.
- He has watched the disappearance of His disciples (except John) and the denial by Peter.
- And now He is being nailed to the cross. And let’s not forget the agony of that cross.
Simon is ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus is quickly thrown backwards with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement. The patibulum is then lifted in place at the top of the stipes [the vertical beam].…
The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The Victim is now crucified.
As He slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode, in the brain—the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves. As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet.
At this point, another phenomenon occurs. As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward.…Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one small breath. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen.…
Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is tom from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber: Then another agony begins. A deep crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.…
It is now almost over—the loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level—the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues—the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air.…
The body of Jesus is not in extremis, and He can feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues.…His mission of atonement has been completed. Finally He can allow His body to die.
It was while He was being affixed to the cross on the ground and about to be lifted into the air that Jesus likely uttered these words: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. At the moment when most men would be screaming in pain or cursing in anger, He petitioned for forgiveness.
“As the blood of the Great Sacrifice began to flow, the Great High Priest began to intercede.” [Ryle]
So what then was He praying? He not only prayed for forgiveness, but was saying means He kept repeatedly asking (modeling what He commanded Peter and the disciples to do in Mt. 18:22; cf. also Eph. 4:31-32).
What does Jesus want for those who have crucified Him? Forgiveness. Forgive them. Here is a demonstration of the statement, “But God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). On the cross, Jesus prayed for His enemies, modeling the very thing He commanded the disciples to do (we have no concept of this kind of enemy) —
- Matt. 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
- 1 Pet. 2:23 “and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously”
But what is this forgiveness that the Savior is seeking for His killers? Simply said, “Forgiveness is the lifting of the charge of guilt and a promise made never to hold that sin against him in the future.” Scripture pictures God’s forgiveness in a variety of ways:
- Ps. 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
- Is. 38:17 “Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.”
- Is. 43:25 “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins.”
- Mic. 7:19 He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, You will cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea.
This forgiveness that Jesus desires for His killers is a removal of the stain of the sin and it is also the removal of the sin itself and from all the legal consequences of that sin; and for the NT believer, it is also a liberation from the power of that sin (Rom. 6:14ff).
Notice also, however, that Jesus asked God for forgiveness rather than granting forgiveness (Lk. 7:48) because at this time He was the sin-bearer, carrying the burden of sin (2 Cor. 5:21), enduring the curse of the cross (Gal. 3:13), and hanging before God as the representative of sinful humanity. And here is a great irony — it is because Jesus was bearing sin on the cross that the offer of forgiveness could be made. God could forgive sin because Jesus was in the place of sinners. He was put there physically by the sinners themselves. And He was put there spiritually by His obedience to God’s will that ordained Christ’s death on behalf of sinners.
We also say that Jesus is asking for these to be forgiven because forgiveness is always conditioned on repentance (Lk. 17:3; 1 Jn. 1:9). So we might paraphrase this request, “Cause them to repent so that You can forgive them.” To be forgiven, they still had to ask for forgiveness.
But the amazing part of this request is that it is an offer of forgiveness to anyone who repented. Any of those who were involved in the crucifixion could have sought forgiveness and God would have granted it; this was the very desire of Christ Himself (who desires all men to come to repentance, 2 Pt. 3:9).
One reason Jesus sought their forgiveness was that they do not know… = This does not mean they didn’t know the crucifixion was an injustice. They did know they were being unjust. Pilate knew of His innocence (Lk. 23:4) — in fact Pilate declared Him to be innocent three times (John 18: 38; 19: 4, 6); and the Sanhedrin knew He was innocent (Mt. 26:59).
So what does Jesus mean? He means that they did not know the magnitude of the affront of sin to God (nor do we when we sin against Him).
- 1 Cor. 2:7-8 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;
- 1 Tim. 1:13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief;
One final question we have to answer from this verse is, for whom was He praying? Likely the Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers and the taunting crowd. All those make sense in the context.
But He was also praying for me. After all, my sins put Him there too (Is. 53:6; 1 Pt. 2:24)
- Is. 53:6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
- 1 Pet. 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
At time of great pain, Jesus first thought not of friends & family, but provision of forgiveness for sinners (i.e., me)! Astounding!
Is. 53:12b And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.
What was the result of Jesus’ prayer? We don’t know if any of the Sanhedrin or Pharisees repented and received forgiveness that night. But we do know that some Roman soldiers ultimately were forgiven (e.g., Acts 16:31ff; Rom. 16:10-11 [possibly?]), and even one of the soldiers at the crucifixion appears to have become a believer (Lk. 23:47). And we know that some Pharisees and priests ultimately were forgiven (e.g., Acts 6:7 and Saul, who is better known as Paul). And we know that a great many others have been forgiven as well, including you and me and every other believer since that day. We are not only recipients of an answer to this prayer; our lives are dependent on this prayer being prayed and answered.
“We have probably not the least idea how many of the conversions to God at Jerusalem which took place during the first six months after the crucifixion, were the direct reply to this marvelous prayer. Perhaps this prayer was the first step towards the penitent thief’s repentance. Perhaps it was one means of affecting the centurion, who declared our Lord ‘a righteous man,’ and the people who ‘smote their breasts and returned.’ Perhaps the three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost…owed their conversion to this very prayer….We may be sure that this wondrous prayer was heard.” [J. C. Ryle, quoted in Boice and Ryken, 14 Words from Jesus.]
When you look to the cross and hear the words of Christ, hear the message of salvation — He is a forgiving Savior who is eager to forgive those who sin against Him.