This is the first of seven meditations from our Easter devotional. It’s not too late to download your copy and read along with us this week as we prepare our hearts for Easter.
“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they 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.”Luke 23:33-34
Jesus’ first recorded speech from the cross is a shocking prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners. The soldiers stripped him and pinned his naked body to a pole which they raised up so that people could mock him. They criminalized his goodness. How did the King respond? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
What Was Jesus Praying For?
We shouldn’t assume that Jesus is welcoming into his kingdom all of his persecutors. God grants pardon and forgiveness to those who repent and believe (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus’ killers are unrepentant and unbelieving. So his prayer is puzzling. “One would think that he should have prayed, ‘Father, consume them,’” look at their sin and take revenge.[i] But he does the opposite. What is he asking for, and why?
Jesus asked the Father not to exercise immediate retributive justice against his murderers. Father, forgive this sin, the worst sin ever committed. Please don’t let your wrath burn hot against them so that you consume them (Ex. 32:10). Christ considers the atrocity his father is witnessing and begs him not to do the most natural thing, but instead to glorify himself by showing startling forbearance. Imagine as a parent that you happen to see a bully beating your son who is curled up in the fetal position. You race to the scene with clenched fists. As you prepare to avenge the child he whispers, “Please, forgive him.” He isn’t asking you to adopt the bully any more than Jesus was asking his father to justify the Son’s executioners. Jesus’ request was for God to suspend his worthy wrath against sinners.
When vengeance is expected, lenience is surprising. Jesus’ prayer doesn’t fit our calculations. In fact, it might feel anticlimactic. In the days of Moses, the earth swallowed up traitors (Numbers 16). God burned up the prophets of Baal in their contest with Elijah (1 Kings 18). Why wasn’t God more aggressive when his Son was brutally murdered under false charges? Why wasn’t Jesus as angry as the men crucified on his right and left hand (Mark 15:32)?
Jesus’ request teaches us something unexpected about the God of justice: He is shockingly forgiving. At the moment in which we least expect to see God’s clemency, here it is! Isaiah prophesied that the Christ would make intercession for transgressors (Is. 53:12). But who expected Jesus to intercede for those who transgressed against him? What better way could God show himself ready to forgive than by pardoning his murderers?
Responding to Jesus’ Prayer: Repent of Your Sins
With his prayer Christ invites the worst sinners to seek and find pardon through his blood. If Jesus pitied those who spat in his face and drove nails through his hands and feet, he can pity you. If Jesus’ heart is inclined to show mercy even toward those who mock his salvation, who have no sense of the power of his blood, will he not be more merciful to those who seek his forgiveness? Jesus is far more willing to forgive than we are willing to be forgiven. We’re used to grudging, half-hearted, conditional forgiveness. Jesus’ forgiveness is the radical exception to that rule.
God is mercifully patient with the ignorant. But we’re not ignorant. When we sin against his will we can’t say, “I know not what I do.” We know that we’re polluted by sin. We also know that though God can overlook ignorance “he now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). So repent. Accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness now; don’t squander the day of grace and end up standing before the just judge lacking the covering of Jesus’ righteousness.
Responding to Jesus’ Prayer: Love the Ignorant
Penitent followers of Jesus–those who are transformed by his Spirit–develop a new Christ-like attitude toward those who “know not what they do.” Generosity doesn’t erase sin. Ignorance is not innocence. The Old Testament commanded repentance even for sins committed unwittingly (Lev. 5:17). But the truly wise person refuses to judge others on the basis of what they themselves know. Paul understood that the rulers of Jesus’ day crucified the Lord of glory because they misunderstood God’s wisdom (1 Cor. 2:8). Ignorance is powerfully blinding. Knowledge is good, but it can also be the ammunition by which we judge those with less of it. Who are your enemies? Which of your neighbors have aligned themselves with “the wrong movement”? Do you have friends who, from your perspective, are making ill-informed decisions? We follow Jesus by showing such people grace, mercy, and pity.
Jesus harbored no ill-will toward those who completely misunderstood him. He loved them. He was unwilling to write them off, to cancel them simply because they had a lot to learn. And he insisted that his followers teach the world to observe all that he has commanded (Matt. 28:20). Jesus never affirmed ignorance. In his first, short sentence from the cross, Jesus invites us to receive God’s amazing grace and extend it to others.
[i] Matthew Henry, Matthew to John, vol. 5, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Old Tappan, NJ.: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), 826.