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And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
More than 2000 years ago, Christ was hung on the cross to take away the sins of the world. The intensity of His suffering for His people reached its climax on the cross. Amidst the intense pain and shame on that cross, our Savior prayed to His Father. Unlike Samson’s in the Old Testament, Christ’s prayer was not for strength to destroy His enemies but for their forgiveness.
Think with me: our Lord was bruised, stricken, and smitten severely. The torture which He received from the Roman soldiers was intense and His strength was weak. Above that, He carried His heavy cross up to the hill of Golgotha with the crown of thorns on His head. And was nailed to the cross. Even after all these cruel and unjust treatments of the Innocent One by the hands of sinners, the very first words from the mouth of our Lord were not of vengeance. But a prayer for pardon. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. J.C Ryle described this remarkable response of our Savior, “…as soon as the blood of the Great Sacrifice began to flow, the Great High Priest began to intercede.”
Like Moses in the wilderness, our greater and better Moses stood between God and man as the mediator. And even at the climax of His suffering, our Great High Priest did not fail in intercession for His people.
In Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness, we see His compassionate heart on display. When He was insulted, mocked, and crucified, He had every just reason to pronounce doom upon them. The natural inclination of any man in such a circumstance would be to revile back. But instead, He prayed for those who had wronged Him. Even though He is truly man, He was not like us. Rather, He was far more man than any of the humans who had ever walked on earth. His response towards His enemy was kind and compassionate. He prayed for forgiveness on their behalf.
When our Lord mentioned, “for they know not what they do,”, it shows the blindness of His crucifiers. Indeed, they knew what they did was not right. They knew that they were crucifying someone innocent. They knew that he was crucified unjustly. They knew that they were wrong to free Barabbas. This was evident first when Pilate pronounced our Lord’s uprightness (Mark 15:14; Luke 23:4) and later from the very mouth of the centurion at the sight of crucifixion (Luke 23: 47). But what they did not know was that they were crucifying God, the Messiah whom they had been waiting for to redeem them. They did not know that because of their spiritual blindness and ignorance, they were committing the most heinous sin by shedding the innocent blood of the Son of God. Their ignorance did not lessen the atrociousness of the sin they have committed. Yet, our merciful Savior and Lord prayed to His heavenly Father for the forgiveness of their sin. He made intercession for the transgressors (Is. 53:12).
Where does this prayer of our Lord for forgiveness leave us but in awe of His great mercy towards sinners like you and me? Though He was nailed, hung on the Roman cross, and pierced by Roman soldiers, it was our sin that killed Him. He poured out His soul to death for us and in our place. The holy and blameless God-Man was numbered with transgressors because of sinners like you and me and He bore our sins on that cross because the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Is. 53:6).
Christ’s prayer for forgiveness was answered by His father through the conversion of one of the thieves who were crucified with Him, and later on, on the day of Pentecost when 3000 people were saved after listening to the Gospel preached by Peter. And many similar stories continue since the answer to our Lord’s prayer was not defined at a specific point in time. Our Lord prayed not only for the crucifiers on that day but also for all who will one day come to Him for forgiveness by faith and repentance.
Not only does Christ’s prayer for forgiveness leave us in awe, but it also sets before us a great example for us Christians to imitate His heart of compassion towards His enemies. When we are persecuted for our faith, our response should be compassion rather than vengeance. Stephen imitated our Savior when he was stoned to death for the cause of the Gospel. He prayed for his killers’ forgiveness (Acts 7:60). If we find ourselves struggling to imitate Christ in this area, we should beg for grace and strength from God to give us the heart of Christ who compassionately executed His ministry of intercession at the peak of His suffering and shame. If we struggle to forgive our fellow brethren who wrong us, we should look at this moment of our Lord’s prayer for His enemies. For we know that none of the wrongs that our fellow brethren have done against us is even worth comparing with the degree of wrong each of us has done against our Savior. So, we should strive to prepare our hearts to be ready to forgive the sins of our brothers and sisters when they repent and confess and not harbour bitterness towards them.
Christ’s prayer for forgiveness gives us Christians assurance to come before His throne of grace when we fail. For He is our eternal Great High Priest and His intercession for us is still occurring before His Father from His throne. May we be confident of this great truth that Christ is still praying for us who are saved sinners. Having this confidence in Him, may we confess our sins to Him who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Lastly, Christ’s prayer for forgiveness also gives us confidence and hope in our preaching of the Gospel to the lost. Christ prayed for all His people from all nations at all times. He came to seek and save the lost. He came to die so that man can be forgiven of his sin. He came so that even the worst sinner can be saved. To grant the grace of forgiveness to them if they would come to Him by faith and repentance. And this truth is proven more by His prayer for forgiveness on the Cross. So, when we preach the Gospel to the lost, we can assure them of their forgiveness from God if they would come to Him through Christ. He will not hold any sin against those who will come to Him in repentance and faith.
Dear readers, remembering our Savior’s prayer for forgiveness, in awe, may we learn His compassionate heart towards those who do evil against Him. May we imitate Him. May our love for Christ be renewed and our gratefulness towards Him grow even more. May we have the assurance of the forgiveness and sanctification we have in Him. And May our confidence and hope in His prayer for forgiveness fuel us to preach the Gospel to the lost who are around us and to the places where Christ is not yet named. For, the forgiveness Christ prayed for us is for our joy, sanctification, world missions, and all for the highest glory of God.
- J. C. Ryle, Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (Luke), Zondervan, Anniversary Edition, p.467
- I borrowed this idea from John Gill’s Commentary on Luke, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/geb/luke-23.html.