Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).

What thrills us is that this first word of prayer that Jesus offered was not for himself. He did not ask for his own deliverance. He did not pray in that black hour for his loved ones, nor for his friends. He prayed for his enemies. He prayed for the soldiers and for the far more cruel churchmen who, having nailed him to the cross, were even then howling about him. It was around the bloody shoulders of these murderers that he flung the folds of this prayer.

As a man, he retains nothing but forgiveness and love. His whole life was an expression of love, and his death set the seal. This word points to his atoning and interceding love. Observe he does not pray for any forgiveness for himself. A fact impossible to account for, save on the ground that he was the Holy One of God.

That is humanity at its greatest. Men have their conceptions of human nature, and of what things make for greatness therein. These conceptions are very many and very varied. I submit that humanity has never been seen greater than in the Man Jesus, when he said, “Father, forgive them.” In the soul of Jesus there was no resentment, no anger, no lurking desire for punishment upon the men who were maltreating him.

As in numerous other instances, each of the Gospels gives only a few details from the story of the crucifixion and of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Thus no Gospel gives all the words spoken by him on the cross and we have to take the accounts of all the four Gospels together in order to get a sufficiently full picture. Luke was the only one to record the prayer of the Crucified One for his enemies. It is in perfect agreement with Luke’s predilection throughout his Gospel to let the light fall as brightly as possible on Jesus’ illimitable love for sinners and the forgiveness of God, that he particularly recorded these words. And how this prayer of the Crucified Redeemer reveals not merely his wonderful self-forgetfulness, but also his magnanimity and his earnest longing that his persecutors should be given another chance to repent before the otherwise inevitable judgment is executed on their sins! Even as the gardener prayed to the owner of the vineyard to give the fig-tree a last chance, so Jesus in this prayer besought a last chance for the guilty people.

Father, Forgive Them

This simple prayer is astounding; all interpretation will leave much yet to add. The climax of suffering is now being reached, but the heart of Jesus is not submerged in this rising tide—he thinks of his enemies and of all those who have brought this flood of suffering upon him. One should dwell here on the whole Passion history and that it meant agony for Jesus. He might have prayed for justice and just retribution; but his love rises above his suffering, he prays for pardon for his enemies. Such love exceeds comprehension, yet reveals the source whence our redemption and pardon flow. “Father,” Jesus addressed God, speaking even now as the Son, as accepting filially all that his Father is letting come upon him. His Father is with him and hears his Son say “Father,” and what this Son now utters will meet full response in the Father’s heart, for he so loved the world that he sent his own Son to die for the world, and this dying is now at hand.

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We cannot doubt, that at this time, when he was about to lay down his life for mankind, and when the act of crucifixion had taken place, and he was elevated on the cross, that the whole world of mankind filled his spiritual vision. The whole race were his crucifiers. The Roman soldiers were those who executed the deed. But all mankind were represented in that act, and shared by their own personal rebellion against God and his holy child Jesus, in the dreadful deed.


We are shown here the efficacy of prayer. This Cross-intercession of Christ for his enemies met with a marked and definite answer. The answer is seen in the conversion of the three thousand souls on the Day of Pentecost. I base this conclusion on Acts 3:17 where the apostle Peter says, “And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.” It is to be noted that Peter uses the word “ignorance” which corresponds with our Lord’s “they know not what they do.” Here then is the divine explanation of the three thousand converted under a single sermon. It was not Peter’s eloquence which was the cause but the Saviour’s prayer.


Sin Of Ignorance

The persons for whom this prayer is offered cannot be the Roman soldiers, who are blindly executing the orders which they have received; it is certainly the Jews, who, by rejecting and slaying their Messiah, are smiting themselves with a mortal blow (John 2:19). It is therefore literally true, that in acting thus they know not what they do. The prayer of Jesus was granted in the forty years’ respite during which they were permitted, before perishing, to hear the apostolic preaching. The wrath of God might have been discharged upon them at the very moment.

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It was argued by an acute Jew, that if Christ was truly Son of God his prayer would have been heard, and the Jews would not have been, as Christians admit they have been, punished for their sin. But this, like every other prayer, is offered on condition that its answer and fulfillment be in accordance with the divine order. It presents the sinner to God the Father as within the reach of pardon in view of Christ’s great sacrifice; it proffers that sacrifice in his death, and asks that pardon may be granted, in the resulting conditions of pardon. In order to that pardon, the sacrifice, the intercession, the Spirit of grace, and the sinner’s repentance and accepting faith, must all concur.


Under the Levitical economy God required that atonement should be made for sins of ignorance (Lev. 5:15, 16; Num. 15:22–25). Sin is always sin in the sight of God whether we are conscious of it or not. Sins of ignorance need atonement just as truly as do conscious sins. God is holy, and he will not lower his standard of righteousness to the level of our ignorance. As a matter of fact ignorance is more culpable now than it was in the days of Moses. We have no excuse for our ignorance. God had clearly and fully revealed his will. The Bible is in our hands, and we cannot plead ignorance of its contents except to condemn our laziness. God has spoken, and by his Word we shall be judged. And yet the fact remains that we are ignorant of many things, and the fault and blame are ours. And this does not minimize the enormity of our guilt.


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