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. Jesus had proven his ability to forgive sins in his healing ministry (5:24). He had taught that forgiveness comes only to those who forgive others (6:37; 11:4) and that forgiveness has no limits (17:4). He had called for love of enemies (6:27–28). On the cross he practiced what he had taught. He watched those who mocked him, played games with him, scourged him, and crucified him. Then he asked the Father to forgive them. He called for forgiveness because he loved his enemies, but the explicit reason was their ignorance. Neither Jewish accuser nor Roman executor fully realized the gravity of their actions. The Jews were protecting their religious establishment against this obnoxious newcomer who pulled the crowds away from them and demanded that they look at motivation rather than simple legal action. The Romans in the person of Pilate protected their political territory against one who proclaimed the kingdom of God was at hand. Both Roman and Jew acted defensively in putting personal self-interest and political and religious institutions above the call for justice. Blinded by self-interest, they never realized that they were executing an innocent man. They certainly were not aware that they were executing the Son of God who came to save his people from their sins. Jesus went beyond the call for justice to pour out grace on those who executed him.
Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness leads to a deeper question. Does God forgive sins of ignorance? This passage does not answer that question. It does show that God can forgive the most heinous crimes. It shows that God knows the complex causes of sin and the interplay of motivations that lead to the most horrible sins. It shows the need for victims of sin and crime to forgive and seek forgiveness for those who have misused, abused, and persecuted them.
As Jesus prayed for forgiveness, the Roman soldiers continued their mocking games, taking his clothes and casting lots for them. In this act they fulfilled Psalm 22:18, although Luke does not explicitly say so. Nothing the Romans or Jews did caught God by surprise. He knew his Son would die, suffering for the sins of the world (Isa. 53). He knew the Romans would gamble for his few earthly possessions.
34a. Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
On the omission of these words from certain manuscripts see the note on this passage on page 1040.
In all probability what we have here is the first of
The Seven Words of the Cross:
- From 9 o’clock until noon:
(1) “Father, forgive them: for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
(2) “I solemnly declare to you, Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
(3) “Woman, look, your son!… Look, your mother!” (John 19:27).
- The three hours of darkness: from noon until 3 o’clock; no words reported.
- About 3 o’clock:
(4) “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
(5) “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).
(6) “It is finished” (John 19:30).
(7) “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
It is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Luke’s Gospel that the three “words” in which the love of God as reflected in the Son is most emphatically set forth are found here (words 1, 2, and 7).
It is deplorable that so much opposition has arisen against this first saying. Some would exclude it entirely, and others try to tone it down.
The reasoning of some is as follows: those who killed Jesus were reprobates. God does not in any sense bless reprobates. Therefore Jesus cannot have asked that they be forgiven. Besides, the verb here used has a very wide meaning (this, by the way, is true). Conclusion: Jesus must have meant, “Father, hold back thy wrath; do not immediately pour out the full measure of thy fury.”
The true meaning of the earnest supplication is probably as follows:
- “Forgive them” means exactly that. It means “Blot out their transgression completely. In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully.”
- That this is the meaning is clear from the fact that the grammatical construction is exactly the same as in 11:4, “And forgive us our sins,” and as in 17:3, “If he repents, forgive him.”
- Is it even conceivable that he who insists so strongly that his followers must forgive every debtor, and that they must even love their enemies, should not exemplify this virtue himself?
- When Stephen, at death’s portal, clearly in imitation of the dying Christ, prayed, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” was he not giving us the truest interpretation of Christ’s supplication, “Father, forgive them”?
- Take special note of the word Father. What trust, what love! We are reminded of “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15, A.V.).
- Is it not marvelous beyond words that Jesus, in his earnest intercession for his torturers, even presents to the Father a special plea, an argument, as it were, for the granting of his petition, namely, “for they do not know what they are doing”?
It was true: the soldiers certainly did not know. But even the members of the Sanhedrin, though they must have known that what they were doing was wicked, did not comprehend the extent of that wickedness.
Did the Father hear and answer this prayer? Part of the answer may well be the fact that Jerusalem’s fall did not occur immediately. For a period of about forty years the gospel of salvation full and free was still being proclaimed to the Jews. Not only that but also: many were actually led to the Lord. On the day of Pentecost three thousand were converted (Acts 2:31, 42); a little later thousands more (Acts 4:4). Even “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Not the people as a whole, but many families and individuals were converted.
- By offering this prayer Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isa. 53: “Yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” See also on Luke 22:37.
23:34a / The earliest manuscripts do not contain the first part of v. 34 (“Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ ”). The saying may have been inserted as a parallel to Acts 7:60b where Stephen offers a similar prayer of forgiveness (see Fitzmyer, pp. 1503–4). If original (so Ellis, pp. 267–68; Marshall, p. 868; Schweizer, pp. 359–60; J. T. Sanders, p. 227), it presents Jesus as willing to forgive those who have committed an inexcusable crime against him. Jesus asks that they be forgiven on the grounds that they did not know what they were doing. According to Lev. 4:2 and Num. 15:25–29, atonement is possible for one who has sinned unwittingly. Perhaps this underlies Jesus’ prayer. Sanders (p. 63) thinks that the purpose of this prayer is only to make possible the initial offer of repentance to the Jewish people (as seen in the early chapters of Acts), an offer that is withdrawn after the martyrdom of Stephen. This line of interpretation is surely faulty. Since Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:60) closely parallels the prayer of Jesus, should not the same function be assigned to it as well? Why would Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness make possible the offer of repentance to Jews, while Stephen’s similar prayer would not? The Lucan prayers of forgiveness are not clever devices that are designed, as part of an anti-Semitic agenda, to advance the plot of the Lucan narrative (as J. T. Sanders maintains). These prayers represent a genuine desire for reconciliation. It is hard to believe that if the evangelist were truly anti-Semitic, as Sanders supposes, he would go out of his way to supply two prayers of forgiveness in behalf of persons who have been presented as wrongly putting to death Jesus and one of his followers. Had Luke truly hated the Jews, and believed that there could be no forgiveness for them, he could have adopted a much harsher biblical precedent. Consider the words of an angry Isaiah: “Forgive them not!” (Isa. 2:6, 9). Compare also the unforgiving words of the martyred sons of the Maccabean revolt: “For you [i.e., Antiochus IV] there will be no resurrection to life!” (2 Macc. 7:14); “Keep on, and see how [God’s] mighty power will torture you and your descendants!” (2 Macc. 7:17); “Do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!” (2 Macc. 7:19; cf. the parallel versions in 4 Macc. 9:9, 32; 10:11, 21; 12:12, 14, 18; 5 Macc. 5:17, 23, 46–51). Nothing is more out of step with these embittered expressions than the prayers of forgiveness we find on the lips of two significant protagonists in the narrative of Luke–Acts.
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: 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.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1455). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.