“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
As Jesus forgave others (including us), we should extend forgiveness to those who wrong us.
Jesus had a forgiving heart right up to the end, even after He had experienced a lifetime of mankind’s worst treatment. He came down to a world He had created, but that world rebuffed Him. Its inhabitants’ eyes were blinded by sin, and they could not see any beauty in Jesus. Almost immediately after His humble birth in a stable, King Herod sought to have Him killed (Matt. 2:13, 16–18). And the Jewish leaders on various occasions contested Christ’s teachings and looked for opportunities to seize Him and kill Him. The cross was just the culmination of a lifetime of persecution against Jesus.
Jesus’ death by crucifixion was one of the most humiliating, painful forms of execution the world has ever known. From a human perspective, we would have expected Him to plead with God the Father for mercy or to be enraged at God and denounce Him for allowing Him to be crucified. If we had written the original script for Jesus’ crucifixion scene, we probably would have had Him screaming threats of retaliation at His killers. But our Savior did none of those things. Instead, He asked His Father to forgive His enemies.
The Lord Jesus prayed for the most important need His executioners would ever have. They would never be able to enter the presence of a holy God if their sins were not forgiven. Christ was concerned that His opponents, who were ignorantly putting Him to death, have an opportunity to be forgiven rather than endure God’s vengeance.
Such an attitude of love and mercy should also be ours. We, unlike Jesus, are sinners ourselves who need constant forgiveness. Therefore, when we are wronged, our primary concern ought to be that God would forgive the one who has sinned against us. An excellent model of this attitude is Stephen, who prayed as he was being stoned to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). He followed Christ’s own example of love and forgiveness, and so should we.
Suggestions for Prayer: Pray that you may have a more consistently forgiving attitude toward others who wrong or offend you.
For Further Study: Read Matthew 18:21–35. What is implied in Jesus’ figurative expression “seventy times seven” (v. 22) regarding forgiving others? ✧ Ultimately, how much does it matter that we maintain a forgiving attitude (vv. 32–35)?
the merciful intercession of christ
But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (23:34a)
This is the first of the Lord’s seven sayings from the cross. One might expect that He would have pronounced judgment on those mocking Him, who were committing the ultimate act of blasphemy. Instead, in an act of mercy, He asked the Father to forgive those most wretched of sinners for their ignorant blasphemy, because, He said, “they do not know what they are doing”; that is, they were not aware of the full scope of their wickedness. “If they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).
Instead of seeking vengeance on His enemies, “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). Justice would eventually be served; judgment would fall on the rejecting, unbelieving nation. But in God’s grace and mercy, it would be delayed for forty years. Christ’s intercession on behalf of His tormenters is yet another fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Isa. 53:12).
Christ’s petition was in one sense a general prayer, revealing that there is no sin against the Son of God so severe that it cannot be forgiven those who repent (cf. Matt. 12:31–32). If forgiveness is available for those who crucified Him, it is available for anyone. But it is also a specific prayer that God would forgive those among the crowd whom He had chosen for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). On the Day of Pentecost, three thousand Jews in Jerusalem were converted to Christ and baptized and the church was born. Within a few weeks, another five thousand or more people in Jerusalem embraced the faith of Jesus Christ. Surely many of those who came to Christ in those weeks after the resurrection were there in the crowd that day at Calvary. The church was in large measure born out of those who stood there and mocked the Son of God in answer to this prayer. The centurion and the soldiers under his command also came to faith in Christ (Matt. 27:54), as did many of the priests (Acts 6:7), possibly even some of the rulers. Even one of the hardened criminals crucified alongside Jesus was saved, and it is to the story of that conversion that Luke now turns.
23:34 With infinite love and mercy, Jesus cried from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Who knows what a Niagara of divine wrath was averted by this prayer! Morgan comments on the Savior’s love:
In the soul of Jesus there was no resentment; no anger, no lurking desire for punishment upon the men who were maltreating Him. Men have spoken in admiration of the mailed fist. When I hear Jesus thus pray, I know that the only place for the mailed fist is in hell.
Then followed the dividing of His garments among the soldiers, and the casting of lots for His seamless robe.
23:34 forgive them. I.e., His tormentors, both Jews and Romans (cf. Ac 7:60). Some of the fruit of this prayer can be in the salvation of thousands of people in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Ac 2:41). they do not know what they are doing. I.e., they were not aware of the full scope of their wickedness. They did not recognize Him as the true Messiah (Ac 13:27, 28). They were blind to the light of divine truth, “for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”(1Co 2:8). Still, their ignorance certainly did not mean that they deserved forgiveness; rather, their spiritual blindness itself was a manifestation of their guilt (Jn 3:19). But Christ’s prayer while they were in the very act of mocking Him is an expression of the boundless compassion of divine grace. cast lots. See notes on Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24.
23:34 They cast lots to divide his garments is a clear reference to Ps. 22:18. Casting lots was sometimes used in the OT to discover God’s will, but here it is a form of gambling by the Roman guards. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Jesus fulfills his own teaching about loving one’s enemies (see Luke 6:35) and highlights the fact that his death was providing the very basis upon which those who crucified him could be forgiven (see Isa. 53:12). Jesus thus provides an example for all believers who would follow him (see Acts 7:60; 1 Pet. 2:21–24). “They know not what they do” does not absolve either the Jews or the Romans of their responsibility in Jesus’ death, but it shows that they did not fully understand the horrible evil that they were doing in crucifying the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) who was both the true Messiah and the Son of God.
23:34 Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing Several ancient manuscripts of Luke do not include this quote from Jesus, suggesting that it may have been added later based on early church oral tradition.
they cast lots to divide his clothes A reference to Psa 22:18. Psalm 22 is a lament psalm closely associated with the suffering and death of Jesus (see note on Psa 22:title–31).
23:34 forgive them. Both Jews and Romans. The mercy expressed in Jesus’ request to His Father will reappear in the dying prayer of Stephen, the first recorded martyr after Pentecost (Acts 7:60).
they know not what they do. The ignorance of the Jewish and Gentile conspirators against the Lord and His Messiah (Acts 4:25–28) does not excuse them, but it leaves the door to repentance open (1 Tim. 1:13–15; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8). This verse is absent in many early manuscripts (text note). See note on 22:43, 44.
his garments. The clothing of a crucified person was normally given to those who carried out the execution. In this way, Ps. 22:18 (cited in John 19:24) is fulfilled.
23:34 forgive them: Those who put Jesus to death acted in ignorance, not really understanding who it was they were killing. Jesus’ example of interceding for His executioners was followed by Stephen in Acts 7:60. divided His garments and cast lots: The language here alludes to the suffering Righteous One of Ps. 22:18.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. (2014). Luke 18–24 (pp. 384–385). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1455). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Lk 23:34). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2010). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
 Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Lk 23:34). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1838). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1302). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.