The First Word of the Cross: Luke 23:34a “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Over the next few weeks, I will be focusing on the words of the cross of Jesus Christ, devotionally. His 7 statements on the cross offer us a glimpse into his character, his work, his love, his humanity, and his future. The words of the cross are taken from three of the gospels and they have to be pieced together.
The first word of the cross is a word of forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When Jesus utters these words, he is in the process of being crucified. He just suffered the mockery of a trial before pilate. He was handed over to be flogged. This would have involved being whipped across his back with a whip containing pieces of bone in it. The crown of thorns had been made and placed on his head while he endured the taunts of those around him. After the beating, he was lead out to the place of crucifixion.
There, he was nailed to the cross beam of the cross. All the while, the last possession he had on this earth were divided among the soldiers. He was crucified naked, in a shameful, and humiliating way. In the midst of this bloody and cruel scene, With severed tendons, amidst great pain, what does our Saviour do? He prays to the Father. He prays, “Father, forgiven them.” This might not be the first thing that we think would come to mind when we have been falsely accused and are being murdered. But Jesus here gives and example to us, to pray in all situations. It doesn’t matter what is taking place, prayer is always a proper response.
Christ speaks directly to the Father, for Christ was in continual communion with the Father. Three times on the cross, Jesus prays directly to the Father. Twice he uses the words “Father” and once he uses the word, “My God, my God.”
Jesus says, “forgive them.” But, who exactly is Jesus praying for? The first and closest in Jesus purview would have been the soldiers who were nailing him to the tree. Next would come the Jewish leaders who condemned him. But there is more.
Jesus bore the weight of the sin of humanity. He bore our sin upon that cross. Jesus prayer for forgiveness would also involve us. We are the objects of the Saviour’s intercession before the Father. It was our sin that nailed him to the cross. In the well-known hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended” we sing, “Who was the guilty who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee. Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified Thee.” It was our sin that nailed our Saviour to the cross.
Christ’s prayer to the Father is that he forgives them. To forgive means to release from guilt, to not hold on their account or against them. When Jesus prays “forgive them” he is praying that God will withhold his wrath. God could send down 10 legions of angels to rescue Christ and punish those crucifying him. God could rain down fire and brimstone and consume the wicked and each on who spoke a negative word against the Saviour of the world. Jesus is praying to the father to relent, to hold back his wrath upon them.
But, dear friend, the Saviour did this for sinners. If you believe in Jesus Christ, then you can know that Jesus did this for you. Repent and believe in him.
Jesus’ petition to the Father is built in part upon the plea that they are ignorant of what they are doing. There is a different standard of responsibility. With knowledge, comes responsibility. The Apostle Paul says, “I would not have known what coveting what if the law had not said, “do not covet.”
For us, our bigger problem is the fact that we far too often don’t take sin as seriously as we ought. We often view it as something that can be toyed with or played with. Like boys playing with matches in the garage, raging inferno could soon envelop the house. Sin is like a wildfire which is blown by the winds of a worldly and fickle heart.
Do you want to see the seriousness of your sin? Look at the cross. Do you see the Saviour hanging there, naked and abused, forsaken by God and afficted by men? That is the price of your sin. That is what the punishment of God looks like and it is given to a sinless Saviour.
You need to find yourself in the “them” of the forgive them, for they know not what they do. Jesus doesn’t pray that the soldiers don’t know what they do, but they. That is a tremendous comfort. Spurgeon applied this personally when he said, “now into that pronoun “them” I feel that I can crawl. Can you get in there? Oh, by humble faith, appropriate the cross of Christ by trusting in it, and get into hat big little word ‘them.’” There is room for every sinner in that word, them.
This first word of the cross, prayed by the Saviour is the word of forgiveness. But, how serious was Jesus when he offered this prayer? The proof of its seriousness is the fact that he prayed this from the cross. He didn’t pray it in his morning devotions, he didn’t pray it on a relaxing holiday somewhere…he prayed it from the cross. He prayed it in the midst of pain and agony, with blood running down his back and nails piercing through his flesh. He prayed it while the scriptures were being fulfilled in their midst.
Look at the great difference between our Saviour and his enemies. The Jewish leaders conspired for years to shut the mouth of Jesus…to end his life. It angered them that the sign above the cross said, “king of the Jews.” But, that is what he is. As his enemies cried out “crucify” Jesus prayed “forgive.” That is the contrast between our Saviour and everyone who stands opposed to God.
This prayer was not simply a going through the motions. This prayer was heartfelt and intercessory. It wouldn’t take long for the prayer to be answered. The soldier who heard the prayer. In Matthew 27:54, the soldier said, “truly this was the son of God.” He would have been the first circle this prayer would have entailed. We also see the thief on the cross who believed in Jesus. At the final hour of his life, he believed and was saved. Jesus told him, today you will be with me in paradise. Jesus prayer was answered quickly. From a human perspective, we might conclude that that soldier needed to hear this prayer from the Saviour.
What we see our Saviour do upon the cross with this prayer is exactly what he had taught the disciples to do. In Matthew 5:44 he says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Once again, we have an example in the life of Jesus Christ of putting a sermon into action. To use the modern phrase, he practiced what he preached. We must make sure that we are doing the same.
Call upon the Lord while he is near and receive the forgiveness of sins that nailed our Saviour to the cross. Turn from sin and follow the Saviour. Let the song of our heart be the final verse of “O Sacred Head now wounded”…”What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest Friend, for this, thy dying sorrow, they pity without end? O make me think forever; and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.”