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. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:33–37).
The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible translates the verb “to say” in the simple past tense. Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But this is not right. Our Lord didn’t speak in the past tense from the cross. He used the imperfect tense, which indicates continual, ongoing action. It should be translated either as “Jesus began to say” or “Jesus was saying.”
This might seem a little bit like splitting linguistic hairs, but it’s actually a really important point, and full of comfort. The prayer Jesus offered here from the cross, “Father, forgive them”, was not a one-time deal. This is the constant plea of the Son to His Father on your behalf. It’s a prayer the Lord continues to pray for you, even today.
The words of the petition are very straight forward: “Forgive them.” On the surface, Jesus is asking the Father to not to hold the sin of the people against them, from the unjust trial to the crucifixion. But there is more to His prayer than that. This is a prayer for forgiveness, and the only way there can be forgiveness is if Jesus dies on the cross. In other words, He’s praying that He be crucified rather than them.
The “them” of “Father, forgive them” is deliberately vague. It certainly refers to the soldiers, but it also includes the crowd that yelled “crucify,” along with Pilate and Herod, who gave the order. It also includes the Sanhedrin, his deadbeat disciples, and the criminals to his right and left.
“Forgive them” ultimately refers to every sinner who has ever lived or ever will live. When He prays “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” He is praying for you, and from that the very place His prayer is answered.
This recalls the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17, which God said was an “everlasting covenant”, made not only with Abraham, but also with his descendents. When Moses renews the covenant with Israel in Moab, he says,
“It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today,” (Deuteronomy 29:14–15).
Jesus prayer on the cross was no more limited to those who crucified Him any more than His death was for their sins only.
No one except Jesus and His Father really knew what was happening at the crucifixion.
- The soldiers didn’t realize they were sacrificing the Lamb of God on the altar of the cross.
- The devil didn’t realize that he is crushing his own head.
- The disciples didn’t know that Jesus was anointed as Christ for this very purpose or that He would rise from the dead even though they’ve been told so.
The whole world should fall down before the cross in reverent joy as the Son of Man is lifted up from the earth, but instead they are wailing, mocking, and gambling.
Nevertheless, the Lord prays for them, and for you. Even in the depths of His darkness, even when He is forsaken by God, even as He assumes our sin and guilt, He has compassion.
From the cross our Lord looks upon openly evil men and cowards and says, “Those poor sinners don’t know what they are doing. They mean it for evil but I mean it for good. They’re down there gambling for my clothes, but I have come to give them more than a seamless garment.” “Crucify Me, Father. Receive this payment. Open My side to let out the Blood and Water. Let them feast upon Me and make their hearts glad. Send Me to Hell in their place. Forgive them, re-open the gate to the Garden Paradise, and give them to Me as My inheritance.”
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. David Petersen; edited for Zion by Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 23:33–37
Wednesday of Holy Week, 2015: The First Word
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