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Please turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 24 and follow along as I read the first part of v34.
34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
Amen. The word of God, thanks be to God.
John Adams (1735-1826) was one of that constellation of geniuses that founded the United States of America. He was also our second President. Following his presidency, he retired to his farm in Quincy and began a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Jefferson that lasted over twenty-five years. Then, in his nineties and gravely ill, he resolved to live until the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826. He got his wish; he died on that day. Apparently, as he was dying, he was thinking about the Declaration and his friend Jefferson, because his last words were "Thomas Jefferson still survives." But he was wrong; Jefferson had died earlier that same day.
When it comes to the last words people speak, we tend to pay attention, because we think those words are bound to be full of meaning, and sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not.
In 1891, when P. T. Barnum was dying, he asked, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” Apparently, he still thought that was important.
Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”
On the other hand, Napoleon Bonaparte’s last word was more touching. The great conqueror thought not of battles and nations. His last word was the name of his first wife: Josephine.
But I like the last word of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She also said one word, “Beautiful,” and she died.
As I said, we take a person’s last words seriously. That is most certainly true of the last words of Jesus. Traditionally there were seven “Words,” actually seven sentences, spoken by Jesus on the cross. The “Words” were spoken in pain and agony, but they still show how much he loved people.
For example, the crowd was mocking him and ridiculing him, and even one of the thieves who was crucified with him joined in the mockery, but the other thief rebuked the mocker, and said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom," and Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:41-43). Again, Jesus, remembered his mother, and gave the apostle John he task of caring for her, which John willing did (John 19:26—27), which shows us how much he loved his mother.
But traditionally the first Word Jesus spoke from the cross was Luke 23:34. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
Let us go back a bit. Earlier in the day, Jesus had been condemned by the Jewish religious authorities. They had then taken the case to the Roman Procurator and had wrung from Pontius Pilate reluctant consent for a crucifixion. About nine o’clock on that Friday morning, the Roman execution squad took him to a place called Golgotha, which means place of the skull. There he was crucified. The Roman soldiers fastened Jesus to the cross by driving spikes through his hands and feet. When we say Jesus was nailed to the cross, realize that they did not use nails as we know them today—which would have been bad enough. What they used was a kind of rough-hewn, iron spike. Then they raised the crucified man to an upright position. I have often thought that it would have been awful when they nailed Jesus to the cross, but can you imagine how it must have ripped his hands and feet when they raised the cross up and slammed it down into a hole?
And through all this, crowds of people were shouting at him, mocking him, hating him. And yet he said, " Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This word reminds us of Isaiah’s description of the Messiah. In Isaiah 53:12 we read “…he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus was classed as a criminal, a blasphemer and a rebel against the Roman Empire. He was “numbered with the transgressors.” And he “made intercession for transgressors.” He forgave them.
The Greek word translated as “forgive” is “aphiemi” which means to remit entirely or to completely cancel. It is total deliverance from a debt—in this case, the debt of sin. Through Christ our sin is so completely forgiven that both the penalty of the sin is removed and the guilt of the sin is removed. Now this is a hard thing for us to understand. When we are forgiven in Christ, as far as God is concerned, our sin are totally wiped out.
As human beings, when we forgive, we sometimes want the person we forgive to still feel some of the sting of guilt for awhile. We may forgive them, but we want them to continue to have some guilt, because we are not really done with their sin yet. God does not act that way. When God forgives, God is totally done with that sin. Having forgiven a sin, God never brings up that sin again. That is the kind of forgiveness, Jesus offered “them” from the cross.
So, we ask: Who are the “them” that he forgave? Who are the “transgressors?” We think first of the Roman soldiers who did the actual work of crucifixion. In the last part of v34, we are told that the soldiers, having completed their bloody task, were sitting at the foot of the cross throwing dice for the clothing of Jesus. They were the ones who whipped Jesus and mocked him with a crown of thorns. They nailed the nails and raised the cross. They killed the Son of God, the Savior of the world, but they had no clue as to any of this. They did not know what they had done. This Word of Jesus seems most appropriate for them. He forgave their ignorance.
Again, we think of the people who plotted Jesus’ trial and death. Caiaphas, Annas, Judas, Pilate, the temple guards who arrested him, the howling mob who screamed “crucify him.” They all conspired to serve the devil and kill the Lord, and he forgave them.
But there is an even wider circle of guilty people to which this Word of Jesus is addressed. Ultimately, Jesus went to the cross because of human sinfulness. He died for the sins of the world. He suffered the agony of crucifixion for my sin. Indirectly, we all put Jesus on the cross—by our transgressions against God.
Perhaps we did not entirely know what we were doing. We sinned because we were weak or thoughtless or careless, or for a hundred other bad reasons. We did not think about what a price would have to be paid for our sins. We did not think about Jesus dying for our sins. But we knew we were sinners, and we knew something was wrong with our relationship with God because of our sins.
About 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic monk was feeling terribly alienated from God. He was being crushed by his sense of sinfulness, and was trying to find some way to ease the pressure. He tried to do more good works, but discovered that he could never do enough. He tried confession. He frequently confessed his sins, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a stretch. But he could never be sure that he had confessed everything, and often he would remember additional sins as he was walking out of the confessional. He felt entirely corrupt before God; he was in despair. Then this monk opened the Scriptures and experienced a breakthrough. He discovered that the God who judged him and rightfully damned him for his sins was the same God who graciously sent Jesus Christ to save him from his sins. The way to be saved, then, was to grasp this one who offered forgiveness. What the monk found was that only one thing was capable of grasping the forgiveness of Christ: faith. In the original words of this monk named Martin Luther, sola fide, faith alone, can bring us to Christ. When Luther the monk went public with this breakthrough, he started the Protestant Reformation. Sola fide, faith alone, enables us to receive the forgiveness Christ offered from the cross.
All of us have things in our hearts that can leave us convinced that we are somehow unforgivable, we think we are unqualified for God’s forgiveness. Maybe it is something like an abortion that happened a long time ago that we would rather leave buried. Maybe it is some criminal deed that we think no one knows about. Maybe it’s a long-term struggle with a particular sinful or way of living.
For whatever reason, we have a suspicion that there is something in our souls that is unforgivable. As long as we think that way, we are right, when we think we cannot be forgiven, we cut ourselves off from God, we burden ourselves with a load of shame and condemnation that prevents us from having an effective relationship with God.
Hear the gospel. Forgiveness is offered. All that we have to do is to reach out in faith to the cross, and forgiveness is received. We may worry about whether we deserve to be forgiven. That is human thinking.
Jesus forgave not because we deserve forgiveness. Jesus forgave not because of who we are but because of who he is. In a Dennis the Menace cartoon, Dennis is walking away from the Wilson’s house with his friend Joey. Both boys have their hands full of cookies. Joey asks, “I wonder what we did to deserve this?” Dennis says, “Look Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we’re nice, but because she’s nice.” God forgives us and loves us not because we are nice but because God is nice
God forgives because God loves. Now it is true that in this God does not act like most people. Most people when they are mistreated want to strike back, they want revenge. If the world crucifies them, they want to crucify the world. We see an example of worldly ways of thinking in the story of Samson in the book of Judges. Samson was captured by his enemies, and they gouged out his eyes and chained him to the pillars of their pagan temple. Samson prayed for revenged. Judges 17:28 says, “Then Samson called to the LORD and said, "Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes." Then Samson pulled down the temple of Dagon upon himself and his enemies.
That is the way the world thinks. That is not the way God thinks. Samson prayed for revenge upon his enemies. Christ prayed for forgiveness for his enemies. Samson in his rage wanted to kill, Jesus in his love wanted to save. It was not nails that held Jesus to the cross. It was love.
Now only did Jesus forgive on the cross, Jesus keeps on forgiving. This was not a one-time prayer request. When the nails tore through His tendons, sending jolts of pain rushing through His body, He closed His eyes and prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the cross dropped into place between two criminals, He cried out, “Father, forgive them.” When they divided up his only earthly possessions below the cross, he exclaimed, “Father, forgive them.” As the rulers sneered at Him He replied, “Father, forgive them.” When the soldiers mocked Him, he shouted, “Father, forgive them.” Down through the ages, when every sin of a human being drove another nail into his cross, Jesus sighed, “Father, forgive them.”
Now I mentioned that one problem we have with sin is we sometimes feel unforgiveable. That is not the problem most people have. The major sin problem is blindness. This is a very strange blindness. We can see sins all around us. We can see other people committing sins. Our blindness consists of not seeing our own sins. We have this problem on a national level. We got terribly worried that Iraq might have “weapons of Mass destruction,” but we see nothing at all wrong with the United States having a nuclear arsenal that can blow up half the planet.
But we are not really talking about national sins today. It is our own sins with which we are concerned. We need to overcome this sin blindness and realize that it is my sins that stand in the need of forgiveness.
Several years ago, President Bush called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the “Axis of Evil.” The real axis of evil is me, myself, and I. That is the “axis of evil” I need to be concerned about. If I am concerned about the sins of the world, I need to start doing something about the world’s sin by doing something about my sin.
What am I to do? I turn to the cross in faith and receive the Word of Christ. I am forgiven.
This is the triumph of divine love. At the crucifixion of Jesus, human beings did their worst. The vileness of the human heart was displayed in all its ugliness. The creature executed the creator. At that dark moment, divine love triumphed and said, “Father, forgive them.”
This prayer was answered when the Roman centurion put his faith in Christ at the foot of the cross and when one of the crucified criminals next to Him called out for salvation. This prayer was answered on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:41 when 3,000 people were saved in one day. This prayer was answered when Paul, the persecutor of the church, met Jesus on the Damascus road. This prayer is answered today when people turn to the Lord in faith and believe that salvation is through Jesus Christ.
This prayer is for you. Have you received the forgiveness of the cross, have you believed in Jesus? Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/21/05