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TEXT: Luke 23:34
SUBJECT: Last Words #1: Father, Forgive
If you knew you were going to die at 5:15 this afternoon, what would you say between now and then? I don't believe you'd say much about the weather or about the fortunes of your favorite football team. You'd spend the six hours saying the things that matter the most to you.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, He had six hours to live, and during that time, He said the things that mattered the most to Him.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John record seven things He said on the cross. I don't believe the number is accidental: seven is often symbolic in the Bible, a number that stands for completeness. History begins with the seven days of creation; it ends with a series of sevens-seven angels, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven plagues, seven bowls. Jews who touched a dead body were unclean seven days; Christians are to forgive one another seventy times seven. There were seven churches in Asia and seven thousand who did not bow the knee to Baal. Seven (and its multiples) were significant to the men who wrote the Bible and the ones who first read it.
Our Lord may have said far more than seven things on the cross, but seven are put down in the Bible because they summarize all He said-and all He is.
Of His seven sayings, none is more revealing-or more encouraging-than the first one:
Father, Forgive them, for they
do not know what they do.
Every words of this prayer is pregnant with meaning. Start with the word, 'what'-Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.
What did they do to our Lord? They crucified Him, that's what they did. The physical aspects of His suffering are well known. He was deprived of sleep, manhandled and punched; He scourged with a cat-of-nine tails, beaten with a stick, and crowned with thorns. What might have killed other men was only the beginning of His sorrows. A heavy cross beam was laid on His back and He had to carry it uphill to the place He would die. Then long spikes were driven through His hands and feet. Then His whole body weight was lifted up on the four nails and there He hung for six hours drowning in His own fluids.
What's not so well known are His mental and spiritual sufferings. Think first of the openness of the crucifixion: He was not killed in private dungeon, but on a hill from nine o'clock in the morning till three in the afternoon, at the Passover, no less, when Jerusalem as jam packed with Jews from all over the world. Many thousands must have seen Him and said, 'He had it coming'.
Add to this the humiliation of being crucified naked. Whether His nakedness was complete or partial makes little difference in a conservative culture that valued modesty. Imagine an Amish girl who had never been seen outside without a bonnet, taken off the farm, dragged to a busy street corner in San Francisco, stripped bare, and made to stand there for six hours!
Then there were the catcalls. He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him.Even the thieves sang in the choir of scorn!
Remember the sign that was over His head: This is the King of the Jews, mocking Him in three languages.
Perhaps the meanest thing done to Him that day is found in the second half of our verse-
And they divided His garments and cast lots.
Clothes, in those days, were far more expensive than they are today. This means no wearable garments were thrown away; even the outfit a man was crucified in was torn in pieces and passed out to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. This was bad enough. But the Lord was wearing an expensive coat that day, and no one wanted to rip it up. So the soldiers, at the foot of the cross, gambled for it-while He was still alive!
I don't know what to compare this to. This is the best I could come up with. Suppose you were crossing the street one day and were hit by a speeding car. Half a dozen men run up to you and ask if you're hurt. You are, of course, hurt badly, fatally. As you lie there in your own blood, the men notice you're wearing a Rolex watch. One of them pulls out a deck of cards and says, High card wins the watch! No compassion, no sympathy, no nothing!
This is what happened to our Lord that day-part of what happened, I mean. Not content to kill Him, they had to torture and humiliate Him. The Latin word for cross is crux. The word was not spoken in polite company. Boys who said it were spanked and sent to bed without supper. The cross stood for everything ugly and obscene and filthy. This is what they had for our Lord: a cross!
The second word to underline is 'they'-Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do. Who is the 'they' He prays for? I suppose everyone has a part in His prayer, but chiefly, He's praying for the men who are behind the crucifixion and who approve of it. Who are they?
His own people. If the headhunters of Papua, New Guinea, cooked and ate Him, what would you expect of headhunters? But these were not savages-if only they were! They were the People of God, the children of the prophets, His own flesh and blood. John 1:11 loses something in the translation. It says,
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.
Perhaps a better way of putting it is something like this: 'He went home and nobody wanted Him'. Imagine a woman whose husband is taken prisoner of war. For five years he lies in a filthy cage, drinking dirty water and gnawing on rancid meat. The only thing that keeps him alive is the hope of getting home and seeing his dear wife. The war ends, the man is released, he comes home, and-the door is locked. He rings the bell and nobody answers. He knocks and knocks, and finally his wife comes to the door, but she won't open it. Maybe she doesn't recognize him after all this time, so he tells her who he is and calls her by the pet name only he knows. She answers by calling him every dirty name in the book! Heartbroken by her rejection, he cries and begs her to let him in. But then the cops show up and he taken off to jail. The man is cut to the heart: five minutes on his own porch have hurt him more than five years in a prison camp. Because it wasn't an enemy who rejected him, but his own flesh and blood.
That's who rejected our Lord: His own. Not the people who didn't know Him, but the people who did. Not the ones He didn't heal, feed, free from demons, and raise from the dead, but the ones He did. While the Rulers of Israel were guiltier than others, no one was innocent-the whole nation cried for His death-
Pilate, therefore, wishing to release Jesus, again called out to them, but they shouted, 'Crucify Him, crucify Him!'
The third word is also the shortest: 'do'-Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. If it's hard to forgive wrongs done to you in the past, it's even harder to forgive the wrongs being done to you in the present. But that's when He prayed for His tormenters-not after many years had passed, but while they were killing Him, and without a hint of remorse.
Later, they beat their breasts and went home, but only after He was dead. While our Lord was alive, He got no relief at all.
The most important word in His prayer is 'forgive'-Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do. While His enemies were taking His life, He was praying for theirs. Their sin was so appalling that God might have struck them dead on the spot-as He did with Korah and others who opposed a lesser man than Christ.
But the forgiveness He sought was not for the moment only; He wanted eternal pardon for them. In other words, He prayed for their salvation. Like Stephen a few years later, He prayed,
Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.
This says two things about our Lord. First, that He practiced what He preached. Two or three years before He told His disciples to love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you-and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.
It's not easy praying for enemies who are not really enemies. Maybe they're just donkeys who do stupid and hurtful things because they are donkeys! It's not easy praying for them. It is far harder to pray for real enemies, enemies who hate your guts and who would like nothing more than to see you tormented, humiliated, dead and burning in hell. These are the people our Lord prayed for. Not donkeys, but devils!
It also says He put others first. Paul says, in Philippians 2-Esteem others better than yourself. Asking me to put others on par with myself is like asking me to pick up an iceberg and carry it to the top of Mount Everest. But this is not what Paul asks me to do: put others on par with me. He asks me to put others ahead of me!
This is what our Lord did. Before praying for Himself, He prayed for others. This is not too common when we pray in church or in our own bedrooms. It's even less common of a cross! But that's from where our Lord prayed for others.
One reason He did this is because He understood sinners. Christians tend to be hard on sinners-listen to the way conservative Christians talk about homosexuals, for example! To be soft of sinners is taken to mean you're soft of sin. No one was ever harder on sin than Jesus Christ, but look at how generous He was to sinners!
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
Did they know what they were doing was wrong? Of course they did. Not long before, Christ challenged them: Which of you convicts Me of sin? Nobody said a word. Annas, the High Priest, knew the Lord was an innocent man, but thought it expedient that one should die for the nation. Pontius Pilate washed his hands. Everybody knew the fix was in; this was a crooked verdict and a shameful execution.
Despite their crookedness, the people did not know the magnitude of their sin. Both Peter and Paul say so,
Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did your rulers.
Which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.
How charitable the Lord's judgment was-and is! It's almost as if He'd rather pardon than condemn! As if He likes mercy more than justice!
We have not so learned Christ.
All this time I've given you the words of His prayer. Now let me spell out its message: God is eager to forgive you. Note the word, 'eager'-not reluctant or willing if He has to! The Lord doesn't have to do anything! He wants to pardon us; He wants to have mercy on us; He wants to cover our sins and forget all about them!
Why do I say this?
I say it for three reasons: Firstly, Jesus Christ is the Image of the Invisible God. He once said, Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father. In another place He said, The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do. In a third place, He has it, The Father who sent me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. Finally, He said, I and My Father are one.
All this means: Whatever Jesus Christ wants, God wants. And what Jesus Christ wanted back then-and still wants-is your pardon. That's the first reason I say God is eager to forgive you.
The second reason is what happened fifty days later. Our Lord prayed for the salvation of His People, the people who put Him to death. On the Day of Pentecost and after, His prayer was answered! Acts 6:7 is not read very well,
And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
The ringleaders of His crucifixion were the priests, and a great many of them received the forgiveness He asked God to give them!
Finally, I've got the whole Word of God to back me up. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they were not struck dead-as the devil thought they would be-but they were given a promise: The Seed of the Woman would someday undo the devil's work in the world.
The theme that began in Genesis 3:16 is carried on all through the Old Testament Scriptures, and then, the time is fulfilled, Christ comes, He dies for us, He rises from the dead, and sinners are really forgiven, reconciled to God, and fitted for glory.
God is willing to forgive you, whatever you've done and however often you've done it. This applies to both unbelievers and to believers. When witnessing to the lost, we're eager to tell them, 'the Lord will forgive you'. But when witnessing to ourselves, we wonder if He will forgive us. Will He? John thinks He will,
My little children, these things I write to you that you do not sin. But if anyone sins, he has an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.
'Propitiation' means 'appeasement' or 'satisfaction'. It means God is satisfied with us because of what Christ has done for us on the cross-and is doing for us in heaven!
John's word is God's word, but it you want to get even closer to the source, go to God Himself, and hear Him pray for the worst sinners who ever lived-
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
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