Monday, February 20, 2012

Father Forgive Them (Luke 23:33-34)

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This week, Christians around the world begin a season that leads up to Easter, the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection. Last year, I remarked to Dave Shafer that I planned had planned a series of sermons leading up to Easter, to which he said, “If you weren’t a Baptist, you could call it Lent.” Indeed, that is what most Christians in the world call this season of 40 days that begins this week on Ash Wednesday and culminates in Resurrection Sunday. Lent is a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. Baptists, as you know, have not typically held to these seasons and special days of the church year, and there are both positives and negatives associated with that. You may hear a Christian friend who belongs to another denomination speak of “giving up something for Lent.” I like to say that Baptists have for the most part just given up Lent. Yet, there is something to be said for spending time in reflection and introspection leading up to Easter. For some, this can be a good season to practice a fast of some kind, and if the Lord should so lead you, I would in no way discourage you, but it is a matter of freedom, so we must not consider fasting a requirement during Lent. If you are so inclined, I would recommend John Piper’s excellent book A Hunger for God as a good biblical guide to fasting. As we go through these weeks, I will be departing from our study of John to engage with the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross that are recorded in the Gospels. Matthew records one of them; Mark records the same one; Luke records three additional ones; and John records three more. Lehman Strauss has written,

I like to think of these seven sayings as windows through which we are able to look into the very mind and heart of God. On that darkest day in human history man needed windows through which the light of God could shine. Blessed be His holy name, that light did shine! … And wherever these sayings of the Savior are retold, men are privileged to peer into the mind of the world’s Creator and Redeemer and see the heart of the Christian Gospel.[1]

The first of these sayings of Christ from the cross is found in Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. This single sentence is a prayer that is as profound as it is brief. In fact, most of the prayers of Jesus are brief. This should remind us that much can be accomplished in brief moments of prayer. It is not our verbosity but our consistency, sincerity and intimacy in prayer that is effectual. Here in this one-sentence prayer, the Lord Jesus says more than any of us have ever said in the longest prayers we have prayed. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. This prayer helps us to understand the heart of the Lord Jesus toward a sinful world. We do well to consider the timing, the subject, and the basis of this prayer.

I. Consider the timing of this prayer, or when Jesus prayed this prayer.

Have you ever experienced moments in which prayer was extremely difficult for you? Often we are able to pray when things are going well and our hearts are filled with joy. But what about when things get difficult for us? In those moments, perhaps when prayer is most needed, prayer becomes most difficult. But we see here that Jesus’ first instinct in the most difficult moment of His earthly life is to retreat to the intimacy of His relationship with His Father in prayer. Verse 33 tells us that Jesus prayed this prayer at that place called “The Skull,” the translation of the word Golgotha, which we also know as Calvary, as He was being crucified together with two criminals on each side of Him. I have read numerous books on prayer which talk about the importance of finding a time and place conducive to prayer: a comfortable spot in a quiet place, free from noise and distraction. This was not that kind of place. In fact, if we are honest, most of the time when we need prayer the most, we are not in that kind of place. The place where Jesus prayed was filled with all kinds of hideous noise – violent screams from the victims of crucifixion, mocking taunts from bystanders. And comfort was nowhere to be found at the scene of crucifixion. It was the cruelest form of execution ever devised in the minds of sinful men. After carrying the heavy cross to the place of death, the victim of crucifixion would be stretched out, the joints being ripped from the sockets to add to the pain and misery and make the process of dying all the more excruciating. Then, nails would be driven through the wrists and the crossed ankles of the victim as they were raised up in public shame and humiliation. The death would be long and agonizing. In addition to the traumatic loss of blood and agonizing pain, the cause of death in crucifixion was almost always suffocation. As the body weakened, it was harder to draw in breath. The victim would fight for breath, pressing against the spike in the feet to thrust the body upward and outward to inhale. Eventually, exhaustion, pain, and complete agony would make breathing impossible. Most often, the victims would use what little breath they had to cry out in agony or to curse the scoffers and the soldiers around them. But Jesus did not do this. With His labored breath, He began to speak, but the words He uttered were words of prayer to His Father.

The verb tense that is used in verse 34 indicates that Jesus did not just pray this prayer once; He prayed it repeatedly. Over and over again, He cried out to His Father. After all He had endured, not only the cross but the agonizing torture of being scourged and beaten before the crucifixion, He was still able to pray, and in His prayer to call upon God as His Father. He does not question or withdraw Himself from the intimacy of His relationship with the Father as we are inclined to do in our suffering. He does not wonder if God is there, or if God’s love for Him has wavered. He speaks in the confidence that the God who is enthroned over the universe and sovereign over these very events is still His Father. The intimacy of His relationship with the Father is His refuge in prayer, even in the most horrific of circumstances.

Are you able to pray in the midst of your suffering? If not, we have to wonder if we are really able to pray at all, because so much of life in this fallen world will involve suffering. Some of us experience it for different reasons, from different sources, and at different intensities, but we all experience suffering on a regular basis in this life. If we can’t pray when we are suffering, then prayer is of no practical benefit to us. And in the midst of our suffering, are we able to look heavenward and see a God there who is a loving Father to us? Are we inclined to think that He loves us less because He is allowing us to suffer? Do we question or shrink from the intimacy of a personal relationship with Him because hardships have come our way? We must be able, in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances, to know that our suffering and our hardships do not mean that His love for us is any less than it has ever been. We must look to Him as our Father, not only in the good times, but in the bad times all the more. And knowing human propensity to shrink from affection toward God and to resort to prayerlessness in our suffering, we must be mindful to pray all the more for one another when we know that a brother or sister is going through hardships. We may be praying for them in way that they cannot, or will not, pray for themselves.

Look at the Lord Jesus here on the cross! The most intense and extreme suffering that any human has ever experienced pales in comparison to what He endured on the cross. Yet in the midst of it, He is able not only to pray, but to pray with confidence in His intimacy with the Father.

II. Consider the subject of this prayer, or for whom Jesus prayed this prayer.

The Gospel According to Matthew records for us a lengthy sermon of Jesus that we call “the Sermon on the Mount.” In this great sermon, Jesus spells out what it means to be His follower and how we are to live for Him. He also challenges some common misunderstandings that had been applied to the teachings of Scripture. For instance, He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” He does not say that these things are written in the Law, but that you have heard these things taught. And indeed, the Law did say that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, but nowhere did the law ever say that we were to hate our enemies. That was something that the scribes had attached to the Word of God. So, in His sermon, Jesus said, “You have heard this, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Now, if we were sitting there on that hillside on a bright, sunny afternoon with Jesus, and we heard Him say that, it would be really easy to say, “Amen,” at that point in the sermon. But it is much harder to say “Amen” when we are actually called upon to do it. Is it really possible to love our enemies and pray for them?

Similarly, when Peter asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” the Lord Jesus responded, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now by this, Jesus was not saying that we should keep a record of how many times we have been wronged by someone, and how often we have forgiven them, so that when we reach 490, we are no longer bound to forgive them. No in fact, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus was using figurative speech to say, “There is to be no limit on how many times you forgive someone.” Again, it is easy for us to read that and say, “Amen! Peter, you keep on forgiving that person over and over again!” But it is another matter altogether when we are the ones being sinned against. We have a hard time forgiving once, much less seven, or 490 times! It is one thing to say this, and to agree with it, and quite something different to practice it. But as we see the Lord Jesus on the cross, praying to His Father, we see that He practices what He preaches.

“Father,” He says, “forgive them.” Who are them? The immediate context makes it clear that Jesus is praying for the very people who are putting Him to death. And who, we might ask, is responsible for the death of Jesus? Certainly the soldiers who drove the nails into His hands and feet are responsible, though they might assert that they were only carrying out orders. Certainly Pilate and Herod are responsible, though they may assert that they were only trying to preserve the peace. Certainly the religious leaders of Israel were responsible, though they would assert they were driven to do so by their zeal to preserve their religion from blasphemy and idolatry. The Jews have a part in His death, the Gentiles have a part in His death. But when we remember that God is the one who has orchestrated all these things in His divine sovereignty, and we remember why Jesus died – to bear the sins of all humanity as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – we also are faced with the fact that we ourselves are involved in putting Him to death. So for whom is Jesus praying? He is praying for every person who has a hand in what John Piper calls history’s most spectacular sin – the brutal murder of the Son of God.[2] And whether we want to admit it or not, our sin is equally responsible with that of Pilate, Herod, the soldiers, the religious leaders, and all the others who cried out for Him to be crucified. He is praying for a world that has declared an all out war against God. He prays for His enemies, just as He instructed us to do.

Now there is a sense in which we might say it is easy to pray for our enemies. That of course, depends on what we are praying for them. We might find great ease in asking God to flood them with judgment and misery. We may wish to pray for their death or for revenge to be exacted upon them. But this is not how Jesus prays for His enemies, and it is not how He would have us to pray for ours. He prays, “Father, forgive them.” And the astonishing thing is that He does not pray, as one writer says, “after His wounds had healed, but while they were yet open. Words of forgiveness came from His lips when the nails were being driven into His body, when the pain was the fiercest, when the jolts of anguish were the sharpest.”[3] This prayer for forgiveness did not come when remorse had set into hearts of the guilty and they had returned humbly in repentance. It was prayed while the hammers were still pounding the nails.

Has anyone ever wronged you? Surely they have. Living in this world is like living in a den of porcupines. Sooner or later, you are going to get stuck. But what have you done with those hurts? Have you harbored them in your heart, allowing that grudge to fester into a cancerous tumor on your soul? The Lord taught me early in my Christian life that my refusal to forgive someone does not hurt them, but it kills me slowly and painfully. “But Lord,” we protest, “they have not expressed any regret or remorse for their sin! Why should I forgive them?” The Lord will only point us to the cross, where we see the Lord Jesus crying out while the nails are being driven in, over and over again, “Father, forgive them.” No one has ever done to you what they did to Him. And in the midst of it, Jesus is able to release these individuals over to His Father and plead for their forgiveness. Will you harbor resentment and grudges for sins of far less severity?

III. Consider the basis of this prayer, or why Jesus prayed this prayer.

“Father, forgive them,” Jesus says, “for they do not know what they are doing.” Did the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross know what they were doing? Surely they did, for they had done this countless times before. They knew of the cruelty of this kind of death, and they performed their task with experienced precision. Did the religious leaders of Jerusalem know what they were doing? Certainly. The depths of their deceitful plotting indicated that they knew. They had to resort to bribery and manufactured allegations to bring against Jesus in order to secure His execution. Did the crowds know what they were doing when they cried out for Jesus to be crucified? Indeed. Many of them had heard His teachings and seen His miracles. Earlier in the same week, some in this unruly mob had undoubtedly welcomed Jesus into the city with cries of “Hosanna!” They knew when they called for the release of Barabbas that they were giving the life of an innocent man in exchange for a guilty one. Did Pilate know what He was doing? Surely he did. After his investigation into the case of Jesus, he pronounced that he had found no fault in Him. Nonetheless, he ordered the crucifixion. It seems that each one who has a part to play in this scene did, in fact, knew what they were doing. Why then does Jesus say that they didn’t know? Because, although each one knew that there was wickedness at work in this evil deed, they did not know the magnitude of it. They knew that they were putting to death an innocent man, but they gave no thought to the notion that they were putting to death the Lord of glory. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:8 that had they known the wisdom of God, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Does their ignorance of this absolve them of guilt? No, even in their ignorance of the magnitude of their evil deed, it is still sin. So, the prayer of Jesus is not that it be overlooked or ignored in heaven, but rather that it be forgiven. In God’s infinite holiness and justice, there is no sin that can be merely overlooked or passed over. It must be reckoned with. And in order for the guilt of one party to be forgiven, it must be satisfied by another. And that is what Jesus is doing here on the cross. As He suffers and bleeds, and as He dies, He is bearing not merely the scornful treatment of a wicked world, but He is bearing the divine justice of the wrath of God as He becomes the substitute for sinners. His prayer is that the Father will be satisfied by the substitute of the death of the Son in the place of these sinners. And not these alone, but all of us as well. For you see, in a very real sense, it may be said of us that we need forgiveness for our sins because “we know not what we do.” Surely, in all of our sin, we are aware that we are making a choice to commit an act of unrighteousness, or to forego an act of righteousness. Surely we are aware that there is a wild sense of rebellion in our spirit that refuses to be tamed in surrender to the holiness of God. But we are unaware of the magnitude of our sin. We are unaware of the depths of the offense that is committed because we lack awareness of the majestic holiness of God. We are unaware of the dangers of our sin, its effects on our own souls and on the wellbeing of others. We are unaware of the drastic penalty that our sins require. To us it seems a small matter, a minor offense, a peccadillo, just a tiny fracture of God’s requirements. But how does God see it? Look at the cross. Until you see every sin that you have ever committed, or will ever commit, as the deed for which Christ died and bore unspeakable agony and shame, you have known not what you have done. Our only fitting response then is to bow before this cross in humility and repentance and plead to the Father, “Lord, forgive us, for we did not know the magnitude of our sins! Forgive us Lord, on the basis of this righteous substitute who bore our wrath in our place. Forgive us Lord, for had we known the depth of our own wickedness, had we known the extent of our offensiveness before You, had we known the effects that this sin would cause upon ourselves, and others, and yes, even upon the Lord Jesus Himself, we would not have done it.” And henceforth, it is our Christian duty to know, to be no longer ignorant of the depths and dangers of sin, and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit whom Christ has imparted to us, that we might resist and overcome sin in our daily lives.

In the moment of His most intense agony and suffering, the Lord Jesus is not silent. And what does He say? He cries out to His Father in this prayerful sentence: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! In these words, prayed as it was under these circumstances, prayed as it was for the likes of these, for the likes of us, we see that no one is beyond the bounds of forgiveness. You may think today that there are unspeakable horrors in your past that the Lord could never forgive. Hear Jesus praying for those who are putting the nails into His hands! “Forgive them, Father.” There is hope for you in those words. And there is hope for the one who has offended you. If God can hearken unto the prayer of Christ for these, then He is anxious as well to hear you release the power of His forgiving grace to those who have wronged you. And He longs to hear you call out to Him in the intimacy of a relationship with Him as your Father, and you as His child, even when your circumstances have become most bitter.
You may wonder, “Did God answer this prayer?” I tell you that He did. Within moments, one of the soldiers who was putting Jesus to death would step back and behold the Lamb of God dying in his place and say, “Truly this was the Son of God.” Within days, the disciples who had denied Him, forsaken Him, and doubted Him, would bow before Him and worship Him as Lord and God following the resurrection. Within weeks, those Christians would proclaim the good news of Jesus throughout Jerusalem, and thousands would be saved, many of whom were likely present at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, including a great many of the priests (Acts 6:7). And His prayer has been answered over and over again, every time a sinner looks to the cross and finds there God’s provision for the forgiveness of his or her sins in the person of Jesus. It might even be that God answers the prayer of Jesus in the life of someone you know today. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. This is the prayer that the Lord Jesus prayed for you. Have you turned to Him as Lord and Savior and received this forgiveness? May this also be our prayer for a lost and dying world today, and may we offer our witness to the Lord for His use in bringing about the answer to it.


[1] Lehman Strauss, The Day God Died (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 8.
[2] John Piper, History’s Most Spectacular Sin (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 5.
[3] Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross (Chicago: Moody, 2002), 36. 

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