Luke 23:32-34 (Good Friday)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
April 2, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is recorded in Luke 23:
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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.
Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. But it is His first word that He uttered while hanging on the tree that receives our attention on this Good Friday: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As we engage God’s Word, perhaps a question or two has come to mind. The natural questions that we might ask about Jesus’ first word from the cross are, “Who does Jesus mean when He says ‘forgive them?’” and “Who is the they who do not know what they do?”
Perhaps the answer seems too simple or obvious to us that we don’t need to spend much time on it. We could easily say that Jesus was praying for those who had crucified Him—the Roman soldiers who were simply carrying out orders. They really didn’t know that they were killing the innocent Son of God by nailing Him to a cross. So Jesus’ prayer was for them.
Yes, it was. Jesus was praying for the Roman centurion and the soldiers who were assigned to crucifixion detail that Friday morning. Jesus asked His heavenly Father to forgive those men who had driven the nails into His hands and feet. He asked the Father’s pardon for those soldiers who sat at the foot of the cross casting lots for His clothing. Jesus prayed that the Father would not let the sin remain of these men who mocked Him, offering Him sour wine, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
But was Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for these Romans alone? Who else should be included in the them and they of Jesus’ prayer? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive also Pontius Pilate, who had consented to hand Jesus over to be crucified. As Pilate questioned Jesus about the trumped up charges that were brought against Him, Pilate knew that it was out of envy that the Jewish religious leaders had delivered Jesus up to be crucified. “Besides, while Pilate was still sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.’” (Matthew 27:18-19) Pilate didn’t know what to make of Jesus. He knew that He was innocent of the charges that had been brought against Jesus, but as to being the Son of God, Pilate couldn’t say. He didn’t know; he didn’t understand. “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” (Matthew 27:24) Nevertheless, Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. “He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.” (Luke 23:24) Jesus’ prayer on the cross was for Pilate too.
But was Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for just the Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate? Who else should be included in the them and they of Jesus’ prayer? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive the Sanhedrin, the scribes, the Pharisees, the rulers, and the chief priests. It was they who sought opportunity to have Jesus’ arrested and killed because He didn’t fit in to their way of thinking. How could He be the Anointed One that God had promised? He claimed to be a Messiah that they were not interested in. He only got in their way, this upstart prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. We read in John 11, “So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’” (John 11:47-48) The Jewish religious leaders didn’t know what they were doing. They were clouded by greed and envy and misunderstanding of God’s Word. They were steeped in ignorance and unbelief. Yet in their anger and hatred and unbelief, they did have Jesus sentenced to death. So Jesus’ prayer was for them.
But was Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness for just the Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate, just for the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, and rulers of the people? Who else should be included in the them and they of Jesus’ prayer? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Take a look at yourself and the people sitting around you. Take a look at the people on the street, in the malls, in our workplaces, and in our schools. Take a look. Jesus was praying for us and for them when He first spoke from the cross. Jesus’ first words to His Father in heaven to forgive them are not limited to first century Romans and Jews. When Jesus prays, this ultimately includes the entire human race, since all people are responsible for His death. In the hymn we sing today, “Upon the Cross Extended,” we confess this biblical truth: “Who is it, Lord, that bruised You? Who has so sore abused You And caused You all Your woe? We all must make confession Of sin and dire transgression While You no ways of evil know. I caused Your grief and sighing By evils multiplying As countless as the sands. I caused the woes unnumbered With which Your soul is cumbered, Your sorrows raised by wicked hands.” (LSB 453, sts. 3, 4) All people, in ignorance and unbelief, have rejected Jesus. All people are responsible for Jesus’ sentence of death. Jews and Gentiles are both indispensably involved in Jesus’ condemnation and sentencing.
But even more important is the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion and death is God’s preordained plan for the forgiveness and salvation of the whole world. With St. Paul we confess that “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1Timothy 1:15) Jesus Himself declared, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) In His nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, our Lord Jesus told us, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)
The answer to the questions, “Who does Jesus mean when He says ‘forgive them?’” and “Who is the they who do not know what they do?” is the answer to this question, “For whom did Jesus Christ die on the cross to win forgiveness?” For you, for me, for Pilate, for the soldiers, for the Jews, for the criminals crucified with Him, for Barabbas, for Peter who denied Him, for Judas who betrayed Him, for all who have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God! The Father’s forgiveness flows from the cross to you and me and to the whole world. The Father’s forgiveness streams to us all from the full and complete atonement Jesus accomplished for the sins of the whole world as He spoke this very word, “Father, forgive them.”
How fitting it is that Jesus’ first word from the cross is a world of universal forgiveness. Jesus was crucified and died that you and I and all people may be spared the coming judgment, hear His word of forgiveness, and enter into paradise with Him. So the day that Jesus Christ died is truly a Good Friday. Our Lord shed His blood and gave up His life into death on a cross so that we can stand here today completely forgiven, sins paid for in full, eternal life in heaven guaranteed. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” From the cross, Jesus prayed for you. Amen.