Sermon preached on Luke 23:34 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Good Friday Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/6/2012 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Father, Forgive Them”
Think of the setting. He had been wrongfully arrested in the middle of the night. He had been put through sham trial after sham trial. He had been unjustly condemned to death. They had beaten him. Mocked him. Finally they had crucified him. He hung there, an innocent man, numbered with the criminals. The people had set themselves against Jesus. The Jewish leaders had initiated all of this. The crowds followed their lead. The Romans executed the official punishment. All these had set themselves as enemies against Jesus in the most brutal way. And yet despite all of this, what are the first recorded words out of Jesus’ mouth as he hung there on the cross? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Not what you would expect from the average man. But, as soon as you hear it come from Jesus, it strikes you as completely in character for him. Surely the average man would have went to the cross cursing his enemies. Trying to strike back any opportunity that he had. Spitting in the face of his accusers. Even an innocent person falsely accused, you could imagine them shouting out at his enemies. Shouting how wrong they are, and how one day God would judge them because of their evils. But that’s not the kind of character Jesus demonstrates here. No, Jesus prays for them. “Father, forgive them,” he prays!
Let’s begin this evening by analyzing the first part of verse 34. The “Father, forgive them,” part. Then we’ll look at the second half after that. Well, when we look at this first part, we have to ask, who is he asking God to forgive? Is this directed toward his Roman executors? Or is it directed toward the Jews, especially the religious leaders? Well, certainly both are good options. The Roman executors are the most immediate people in view in the scene. And yet there is also good reason to think he has the Jewish people in mind too. Part of that reason comes out in Acts chapter 3. There, Peter is preaching to a Jewish audience just after Pentecost and he brings the accusation that they had killed the Messiah. But in Acts 3:17 he acknowledges that they had did this in ignorance. Students of the Bible can’t help but see a relationship with Peter’s words there in Acts 3 and this verse. Peter says that they killed Jesus in ignorance, just as Jesus prays that his killers would be forgiven, for they did know what they were doing – acknowledging their ignorance. And so Jesus doesn’t tell us if his prayer is for just the Romans or just the Jews. I think if you had to pick just one, I would lean toward the Jews in light of Acts 3. But ultimately I don’t see a reason to have to pick just one. I think we can see Jesus’ prayer here in the broadest sense to include all those who are involved in putting him to death.
And yet, that’s really the point to notice here. The people he is praying for is the people responsible for putting him to death, in one way or another. This is not directed toward his disciples. It’s directed toward his opponents. Toward his enemies. He’s praying that his enemies would be forgiven. And yet, we are not surprised. Jesus had earlier taught his disciples to be doing this. He taught us to be forgiving in general. But also to forgive our enemies. Jesus was the one who taught us to turn the other cheek. To love our enemies. To bless those who curse you. To forgive, and that seventy times seven.
But Jesus’ forgiveness of his enemies here is not only consistent with his teaching. It’s also consistent with why he was hanging there dying on the cross. He had come to the cross so that he would have the authority to forgive sins. All true divine forgiveness rests on that foundation. On that act of Christ winning the forgiveness of sins on the cross. Of course we get a picture of that significance even by the fact that Jesus is praying for this forgiveness. Don’t miss that. Remember on multiple occasions before, Jesus did not ask the Father to forgive someone. No, Jesus just forgave them. Like he said in Mark 2:10 – that he had the authority to forgive sins. But now his tone changes. Now, he asks the Father instead for their sins to be forgiven. Well, surely it’s because of what he was now doing. Before he forgave sins out of his divine authority. Now, as he hangs on the cross, he’s not bearing this punishment and suffering from the vantage point of his divinity. No, the Son of God was made a man so he could suffer the pain and agony of the cross. Now, he hangs there representing humanity in the fullest way. It’s fitting then that he prays like this. As he identifies with sinful humans, he prays as a human. And as such, he sets a model for his disciples. That’s a model that people like the martyr Stephen would later follow in Acts 7. As the martyr Stephen dies from persecution, he too calls out asking for divine forgiveness for his killers.
And so Jesus sought forgiveness for his enemies, and it set a model for how we too are to seek the same thing. Let’s turn now to consider the reason Jesus gives here. That’s the second half of verse 34. “For they know not what they do.” That’s an interesting reason Jesus gives. There’s something about their ignorance for which Jesus gives as a motivating rationale for his forgiveness request. This is interesting, because it’s a tension we see elsewhere in Scripture as well. It’s the tension of ignorance concerning the things of God versus our accountability related to that ignorance.
You see, in Scripture we find this kind of ignorance sometimes cited with regard to accountability. Like Jesus here, how he uses it as a motivation in his prayer for their forgiveness. There’s a tension in Scripture between ignorance and accountability. For example, in Matthew 11:23 and Mark 6:11, Jesus talks about how the ancient city of Sodom had not received the sorts of revelation and signs that people of Jesus’ day were receiving. Jesus says it will be more tolerable on the Day of Judgment for Sodom in comparison. What’s interesting there, is that some aspect of Sodom’s relative ignorance is said to mitigate the amount of judgment they will receive at the end in comparison. And yet, of course, either way Sodom will face judgment on the final day, even if a lesser judgment than others. And so ignorance in Scripture does weigh into God’s judgment, but not so as to totally excuse a person from all unrighteousness. It seems the reason for that is in Romans 1 and 2. There, Paul is very clear. No man is truly ignorant when it comes to the existence of God and his moral laws. Every man deep inside himself knows that he ought to worship God, even if in sin he has suppressed that knowledge. Paul says in Romans 1:20 that this leaves man without excuse. In other words, a defense of ignorance is not alone a reason to spare someone from all judgment. Yet at the same time, it is brought into some consideration in God’s just judgment. Jesus shows that right here. It seems the point is that no one is ultimately ignorant of God, though they can be ignorant over certain specific things of God.
But please don’t misunderstand me on this. Our relative ignorance does not ultimately turn away our guilt. It may be a consideration in some sense, but it doesn’t make someone guiltless just because they committed a sin in ignorance. Rather, I’d point you back to the Leviticus 5:15-16. There it describes the process for the priests to offer a sacrifice for someone when they commit a sin in ignorance. It specifically describes that as being done in order to atone for that sin. The point being that even in the Old Testament it acknowledged that sins done in ignorance still bore guilt; guilt that needed to be atoned for through a sacrifice. And yet isn’t that what we see here? That helps us to understand Jesus’ prayer here all the more! That explains what Jesus is doing here! He’s praying for their forgiveness even as he as the priest is giving the offering. He is that offering of atonement. Even for sins committed in ignorance.
To help further appreciate this, let’s understand what kind of ignorance Jesus is describing here. What is Jesus saying the people are ignorant about here? Well, surely they are not ignorant of the bare fact that they have been beating Jesus, mocking Jesus, and now crucifying Jesus. Surely that’s not what they were ignorant of. Rather, it seems they were ignorant of a greater understanding. They didn’t really know the import of what they were doing. That they were crucifying the Lord of Glory. That Jesus really was the Son of God come in the flesh to save fallen humans. That this was the wisdom of God from before the foundations of the world to save his elect through the cross. Paul acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 2:8 and said that none of the rulers who crucified Jesus knew this. Paul says there, that if they did, then they wouldn’t have crucified him. You see, that’s the ignorance Jesus is talking about here. They were ignorant of who Jesus really is and the significance of putting to death an innocent man. And so what did they not really know? They didn’t know Jesus. They didn’t truly know Jesus, who he was, and what he had come to do. That’s the ignorance that they had. And in that, Jesus prays for their forgiveness.
Well, how did such people ultimately find this forgiveness? How did the people who ignorantly killed Jesus find the forgiveness that Jesus’ prayed for here? Well, I again draw your attention to Peter’s preaching to them in Acts 3. When Peter preached to these same people in Acts 3, and told them that they had acted in ignorance when they killed Jesus, he gave them a response they could do. Acts 3:19, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” For them to truly find the forgiveness Jesus prayed for, they would need their ignorance to be solved. For them to come to realize who Jesus really is, and struck with that, to repent and turn to Christ. For as Peter goes on to say in the next chapter of Acts, “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Jesus is the way for those in ignorance to find atonement for the guilt of their sins. Even for those sins committed in the ignorance of not truly knowing the Lord.
This then is what we find in the New Testament. A call to turn to Christ from our former life of ignorance. 1 Peter 1:14 describes the life before we became a Christian as the time of our “former ignorance.” Or in Ephesians 4:18, Paul talks about how the non-Christian is one whose understanding is darkened, alienated from God, and has this ignorance we’ve discussed today. In a similar vein, Paul tells the men of Athens in Acts 17:31, “That these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.”
Friends, we are here this evening on Good Friday because this word from Jesus on the cross was not something just for the people of that day. For those who have not grown up always knowing the Lord, we have been in this state of ignorance. We have not known Jesus. Jesus died on the cross for you, so that you could be forgiven of all your sins, even your sins committed in ignorance. But even more so – that your ignorance could be changed. That you would go from not knowing the Lord Jesus Christ, to knowing him in a personal relationship. And all of us who are Christians, are then growing in that relationship. Even those who have known Jesus all their lives. Each of us are growing day by day to know more and more our Lord. To know his love for us better. To know the full extent of his forgiveness in our lives. Opportunities like Good Friday especially highlight this.
And so make no mistake. The forgiveness Jesus prayed for in this word, was a forgiveness for enemies. That too characterizes our lives apart from Jesus. That too characterizes our salvation. Romans 5:10 says we were yet enemies to God when his Son died on the cross to bring reconciliation. You see, Jesus practiced what he preached. He showed what it meant to turn the other cheek and to love and forgive enemies. This word on the cross speaks forth that. But his action of going to his death on the cross shows it in the most profound way. Jesus always backed up his teachings by what he said and did. And we rejoice that it’s the very heart of God to show love and forgiveness to enemies. Because we have been those enemies. And we have experienced this love and forgiveness. It’s what Good Friday is all about. That’s why we call such an otherwise horrible day, “Good.”
And so then, if there is anyone here this evening who does not know the Lord, it’s my hope and prayer that this ignorance would change tonight. Repent and believe in Jesus, and you will be saved. You will find the forgiveness Jesus prayed about here. And then to all of us tonight, it’s my hope that we will each find in Jesus’ word here, a call for us to have that same forgiving attitude toward others. To follow Jesus, is to follow even his example. Ephesians 4:32 says that we ought to forgive one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven you. And yet, let us not just forgive our friends and loved ones. Let us look to forgive even our enemies.
One of the questions that comes up when we think about forgiving our enemies is do we need to forgive them even if they don’t ask to be forgiven? Scripture presents two different pictures on this. I believe they are complementary pictures. On the one hand you have Jesus and Stephen praying for their enemies to be forgiven when those people haven’t asked for forgiveness. On the other hand you have passages like Luke 17:3 that binds up our forgiveness of someone with their repentance. There is a truth and an application in both. Real reconciliation between two people is only going to come through those in the wrong repenting. If someone sinfully sets themselves as an enemy against you, you won’t be truly reconciled if they aren’t willing to turn from that and seek your forgiveness. And yet at the same time, Jesus’ example here shows that we should be nonetheless seeking their forgiveness, and having a forgiving attitude toward them. I do believe there is a way you can forgive someone in some sense, even if they haven’t asked for forgiveness. It won’t result in the same reconciled relationship as if they had. But it certainly will grant a lot of peace in your own heart. And it is the example illustrated by Christ.
One of the reasons why we might not be quick to have this forgiving attitude toward someone is that we can say things like this: “How could they have done that to me; they should have known better.” That becomes a reason why we won’t forgive them. And yet, just analyze that thought compared to Jesus’ word here on the cross. Jesus is willing to forgive these people because they acted in ignorance, he says. And yet, shouldn’t those people have known better? Shouldn’t they have known who Jesus really is after all his teachings and miracles? Yes, they should have. You see, Jesus’ forgiveness of these people here is so clearly undeserved by them. And yet that’s what makes this so Jesus. You see, instead of taking it personally, Jesus saw that these people had a deep spiritual need. He saw even this as a ministry opportunity. Surely that’s why God had people like Peter be preaching in the opening chapter of Acts to these same people. Surely it was Jesus’ prayer that led so many in those opening chapter to become believers and be saved. To be turned from their ignorance and find the forgiveness Jesus prayed about for them.
Do you see the point? When we are angry at someone who has wronged us, when we find someone acting as an enemy toward us, there’s two responses we can have. We can justify our anger toward them and say they should have known better. Or we can have our hearts broken toward them as we see that their actions reflect a spiritual need in their life. Then instead we should put on a forgiving attitude toward them, and start praying for them. Which of these two responses looks more like Jesus? That’s a rhetorical question of course. Let us be forgiving toward our enemies, and let us pray for them. See their spiritual need and intercede to God on their behalf. Pray that they would come to know the harm they have done, and especially that they would come to know the Lord.
And so let us on this Good Friday be confronted by the radical forgiveness that we’ve received. Forgiveness that involves Christ’s prayer for us. His radical grace that has shown his light into our lives so that we could truly know him. Grace highlighted in his death and resurrection! Then, as those who know Christ, let us look by his grace to live like Christ toward others. Especially in showing forth radical forgiveness and prayer for those who would be our enemies. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.