"Father, Forgive Them" (Luke 23:34)
“Father, Forgive Them”
(One Lord: No One Like You)
April 7th, 2019
I. A Man of Few Words
Would you describe Jesus as 'a man of few words'? Based on the Gospel accounts, especially something like the Sermon on the Mount, that 'mountain message' of Jesus, I'd be tempted to say “no”. Jesus had a lot to say... and we're thankful that he did, right?
But for the six hours that Jesus hung on the cross, the Gospel accounts, when taken together, tell us that he only uttered eight sentences, consisting of a total of about fifty words. When taken separately, the first two Gospels, Matthew and Mark, record the same information; that is, that Jesus only made one statement on the cross. But when we turn to Luke and John, each of those books record three statements from Jesus. Interestingly, they each include three different statements.
So two Gospels have Jesus making one statement from the cross. And the other two Gospels have him making three statements. No matter how you 'run the numbers', Jesus, as he hung dying, was 'a man of few words'.
But those words, the final sentences he spoke before his death, though they were few, they were extremely powerful. You see, one of the things that's interesting about these final eight sentences from Jesus is that half of them were directed toward God. They were... prayers. And what was so powerful about these prayers, these passion prayers, is what they reveal about Jesus.
Over the course of the next month, I'd like us to consider these four cries from the cross, AND consider what they tell us about the man who was nailed there. So, without further ado, let's look at what probably the first of these passion prayers. Turn over to Luke 23.
II. The Passage: "Forgive Them" (23:34)
Let's look at what Luke tells us, starting in verse 32...
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they [i.e. the Roman soldiers] crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
So there it was, the first of these passion prayers. But if we think carefully about that prayer in verse 34, it forces us to ask several questions about what Jesus is asking here. For example, when we consider that prayer, we need to ask about...
1. His Prayer: The Who
Who exactly is Jesus praying for here? When he asks, “Father, forgive THEM...”, who exactly does he have in mind?
Well, I think when we consider both the nearby and the broader context of this prayer, I think we genuinely have several options. First of all, the verse right before the prayer verse 33, tells us that the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus. That means they laid him on an upright wooden beam, spread his arms out on another beam (an intersecting, horizontal beam), and then proceeded to nail both his hands and feet to those beams. After affixing him to the cross, they would have lifted him up into the air, then dropped the upright beam into a hole in the ground, so that the cross would remain upright. So, given the context, it wouldn't be surprising if Jesus was praying in light of these brutal actions.
But if move backwards into chapter 23, we read in verse 24 that these soldiers were only doing what they were doing because Pilate, the Roman governor, had ordered Jesus to be crucified. But look at what verse 24 says exactly: So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. “Their demand”? Whose demand? Well one part of that answer is found in 23:4, 10, 13. Those verses talk about “the chief priests”, “the scribes”, and “the rulers”. Verse 7 even tells us about Jesus being sent to King Herod, since Herod had jurisdiction over Galilee, where Jesus grew up. So maybe, when Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them”, he was praying for these different leaders who, together, orchestrated his death.
But verses 4 and 13 of this chapter also speak about “the crowds” and “the people”. This seems to indicate the a larger number of Jews were present for Jesus' quote-unquote 'trial'. And what does verse 18 tell us about their part in the murder of Jesus? It says, But they all cried out together, “Away with this man...”
Now wait. Which one of these is correct? Who exactly is Jesus praying for here? Well, listen to what this same author, Luke, tells us in the sequel to his Gospel: the book of Acts. In 4:25-27, Luke records that the Apostles and the others follower of Jesus praise God saying...
[quoting Psalm 2] “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’— for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel...”
So I think if Luke were asked this question about 'the who' of Jesus' prayer, he would say, “all of them... He was praying for all the people who, in one way or another, were involved in his unjust suffering and ultimate crucifixion.
But that leads to a second question about Jesus' prayer for God to forgive these individuals. We should also ask about...
2. His Prayer: The What
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them...”. But forgive them for what?
Well, as we just talked about, I think the obvious answer is that Jesus was asking God to forgive them for the suffering to which they subjected him. But based on what Luke told us in Acts 4:25, 26, I think that's only part of the answer. When the believers there quote Psalm 2 in their praise to God, they are affirming that Jesus was, in fact, the Lord's “anointed”... that is, Yahweh's Messiah.
So the suffering to which they subjected Jesus was a consequence of their unbelief and their subsequent rejection of Jesus as the Messiah; as the coming king and savior.
But remember the second of half of Jesus' prayer. He prayed, “Father, forgive them...”, but what was the second half of that prayer? “...Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In one way or another, all of these individuals were acting from, to differing degrees, ignorance. Actually, this is how the Apostle Paul would later express it in one of his letters...
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (I Corinthians 2:7–8)
So “the rulers of this age”, specifically Herod and Pilate and the chief priest, were acting from a place of spiritual ignorance when they crucified Jesus. They certainly did not recognize him as, as Paul puts it, “the Lord of glory” (that seems to be a title for God from Psalm 24).]
So in light of this spiritual ignorance, with fresh blood running down his arms and legs, the Son asks his Father to withhold judgment, judgment for this heinous, heinous crime of murdering the the spotless “Lamb of God “(John 1:29), the “Messiah” of Israel (John 1:41), the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
And we know God heard this prayer. How? Because every one of these individuals was not immediately consumed by the wrath of God. For this one act alone, that would have been a just sentence. But when these Christ-rejectors and Christ-killers eventually stand before God in the end, they will not be judged for murdering Jesus. Without Jesus, they will be condemned for every other sin they've committed.
But I think there's one more question we can and should ask about this passion prayer of Jesus. I think we can and should also ask about...
3. His Prayer: The Why
Again, think for a minute about everything Jesus endured because of the choices of these wicked sinners: the humiliation, the lies, the injustice, the slander, the abuse, the violence, the physical agony. The soldiers, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, Herod, the people; had any one of these individuals or groups acted justly, acted courageously, Jesus would not have suffered like he did. But they also chose cowardice instead of courage, or envy instead of empathy, or duty instead of discernment.
So in light of all of this, their choices and his suffering, why in the world would Jesus pray as he does here? Is this simply Jesus offering, on their behalf, an 'insanity plea'? “...they know not what they do...” Did Jesus feel duty bound to seek a pardon for all the players involved?
I don't think the second half of Jesus' prayer in verse 34 is making excuses. I believe Jesus knew there was a lack of recognition in terms of his identity. But I don't think he believed there was a lack of responsibility in terms of these people killing an innocent man.
So again, then why pray for those responsible? Because, simply put, Jesus took pity on them. He took pity on these spiritually ignorant and spiritually bound sinners. And it is that fact, the fact that the heart of Jesus is on display here in all of its brilliance, the fact that the incomparable grace of God the Son is heard through this prayer, the fact that Jesus cares for callous and cruel sinners, it is that fact that makes this prayer so powerful.
III. Heart Knowledge
Brothers and sisters, friends, as we approach Good Friday and Easter, it is so important that we ask God to help experience the power of this prayer. What does that mean for you personally, I think it means we ask God for what we might call “heart knowledge”. In light of Jesus' prayer, do you have “heart knowledge”? Let me explain three different, but interwoven ways to understand this idea of “heart knowledge”.
First of all, we need “heart knowledge” in the sense we need to have knowledge of the heart of Jesus. Can you imagine witnessing all of the things Luke 23 records (the injustice, the humiliation, the violence) and then overhearing Jesus offer up this prayer to God? Can you imagine being involved in all the things Luke 23 records and then overhearing Jesus offer up this prayer to God, on your behalf? I think you would be undone by that kind of heart.
Oftentimes, in marriage counseling, when a couple has been constantly tearing one another down and allowing themselves to be ruled by anger, bitterness, and fear, oftentimes it is helpful to dig down, look for, and hopefully locate, the soft heart of his or her spouse. When a spouse knows that, in spite of their partner's hurtfulness, deep down, the other person really cares and wants things to be better, it can make all the difference.
Has the heart of Jesus, on display in this passion prayer, made all the difference for you? Will it? That's the very thing we should seek.
Second, we need “heart knowledge” in the sense we need a clear, honest, biblical knowledge of our own hearts.
Even though we've talked a lot about the historical actors involved in the death of Jesus, remember, Romans 4:25 tells us that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses”. Beyond the actions, the decisions, the words of certain people in first century Israel, it was ultimately your actions, your decisions, your words... my words, that sent Jesus to his death.
Do you accept that about yourself? Do you accept that God, through his word, tells us that our sins led to the death of Jesus? Therefore, do you accept, as hard as it is to hear, that God describes your heart of sin as the heart of a 'Christ killer'? In one way or another, all of us can be found in Luke 23; whether we're prideful, or hungry for power, or resentful, or legalists, we're all there... even those who were too afraid of man to speak up for God; too afraid of those in the wrong to speak up for what was right. We were all there.
This morning, some of you sit here under the spiritual ignorance that afflicted those who directly rejected and killed Jesus. You have no come to grips with your own guilt. You are in need of genuine understanding... because without Jesus, you remain condemned and, in the end, will be judged by God. Please remember the heart of Jesus,
Others of us, while we may have new eyes through the grace of God, we've allowed a kind of coldness to creep in; a coldness to the warmth of Christ's heart. We've taken it for granted. We've taken Him for granted. And as a result, the same God-rejecting, human sin on display in Luke 23, that same sin is influencing more and more of our thinking... more and more of our choices. In light of this knowledge of our own hearts, we need to remember again the heart of Jesus.
Third, we need “heart knowledge” in the sense we need more than head knowledge if we're ever going to experience the power of Jesus' prayer.
Sometimes we talk about a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. It's one thing to agree with certain statements about the compassion, the mercy, the grace, the love of Jesus. But it's quite another thing to emotionally embrace those qualities, to open yourself up to those realities, to be undone by them. That's not something you can manufacture, but it is something for which you can pray.
Brothers and sister, friends, God does want you to leave here with head knowledge about the heart of Jesus AND head knowledge about your own heart. But it can't stop there. Like seeds, those truths need to grow inside you, as they are combined saving faith. And from this knowledge of Christ's heart and this knowledge of our own heart, God wants to produce a new heart inside you, a heart that loves him, that looks to him, to be lead by him.
What have we seen this morning? We've seen how the heart of Jesus was and is on display in this simple, but shocking passion prayer. Though it describes something that happened two thousand years ago, we've learned that the heart of Jesus for his enemies is the heart of Jesus for his enemies now. Apart from God's grace. That's you... and me.
Please don't leave here this morning without knowing that the forgiveness Jesus sought for his persecutors back then points us to the forgiveness God offers each us this very morning. Have you received that forgiveness? And if you have, do you allow the heart behind it all to undo your heart each day?
Lastly, please remember this: Jesus will not pray for you in this exact way. Why? Because even if you hadn't before, this morning you have heard the truth about Christ and the truth about your need for Christ; “they know not what they do” does not apply to any of us. This has been made plain to you. All people stand condemned for what they've done in light of the knowledge they have. And now you know; if you hadn't before, now you've heard.
Brothers and sisters, friends, let's pray together in light of these things. And let's thank God for this passion prayer of Jesus; for the convicting and comforting and courage-inspiring reality it reveals.