READ : Luke 23:34
“When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him . . . and Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’” The first word from the cross, like the last, is a prayer.
The traditional service of worship for Christians on Good Friday lasts for three hours, from noon until three o’clock, marking the three hours of darkness that descended upon Golgotha as Jesus died on the cross. It is also customary to meditate during this service on the seven last words that Jesus spoke from the cross. These seven words are:
- Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
- Woman, behold your son . . . . behold your mother.
- Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
- I thirst.
- Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
- It is finished!
One of the characteristics of the four gospels that testifies to their authenticity is the way they are selective in the details they report about Jesus’ life. This is especially true when it comes to the account of the climactic events of Jesus’ career, his death and resurrection. If the life of Jesus was invented, the gospel writers would have copied one another to make sure their reports were consistent. They would have gotten their stories straight, in other words. They would have agreed upon all the details. The fact that they don’t, that there are minor differences in the way they report the events of Good Friday, is evidence that these four books are really what they claim to be: historically reliable, eyewitness accounts.
So each gospel writer was selective in what he chose to write, emphasizing some details and omitting others. In order to get the full picture of what took place during those last hours of Jesus’ life, we need to put all four gospels together. This is especially true when it comes to determining what Jesus said on the cross. The seven last words of Jesus are a composite drawn from the four gospels. No evangelist recorded all of them: Mark, repeated by Matthew, has one; three are from Luke; and three others come from John.
THERE THEY CRUCIFIED HIM
The writers of the gospels are very restrained when it comes to describing the physical details of Jesus’ crucifixion. They narrate the events leading up to it, including the drafting of Simon of Cyrene to help carry Jesus’ cross, the drugged wine that was offered to Jesus just before he was crucified (which he refused), the soldiers who stripped him and then gambled for his clothes. But the act of execution itself is passed over almost in silence. All Luke says is this: “When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left” (Luke 23:33).
“There they crucified him.” That’s it. That’s all the gospel writer says about the act of crucifixion. We are left to fill in the details with our own imagination. The Romans, who were always quick to imitate a good idea when they found one, had adopted crucifixion from their old enemies the Carthaginians. It was an especially sadistic and gruesome form of execution. You’ve probably heard about the whole horrible business, beginning with the spikes through the victim’s wrists, which fastened his arms to the cross. (If they were driven through the palms, the weight of the body would tear the hands free.) Next the cross-beam was hoisted up and fastened to an upright post to make the cross, with a third spike pinning the feet. And finally the horror of a long, slow, agonizing death, which came eventually from shock, loss of blood, and asphyxiation. Sometimes when a strong man was crucified, he would hang naked on the cross for hours or even days in terrible anguish, until death mercifully came.
A PRAYER FOR FORGIVENESS
“When they came to the place called the Skull,” Luke says, “there they crucified him.” And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 33-34).
The first word from the cross, like the last, is a prayer. And as with all of Jesus’ prayers, it is offered to God as “Father.” The word Jesus actually spoke was Aramaic, “Abba,” his personal form of address for God, the word he taught his followers to use. A few hours earlier Jesus had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, if it is possible, spare me from this ordeal; let this cup pass from me.” But it was not possible. So now he prays, as the spikes are hammered in and the cross is lifted up, “Abba, forgive.”
A prayer for forgiveness? That in itself wouldn’t surprise me. It isn’t all that unusual in the circumstances. If I were facing death, I’m sure I would pray for forgiveness too forgiveness for myself. I would confess my sins as best I could and plead for God’s mercy. No, what’s surprising, startling, even shocking about Jesus’ prayer is that he asks nothing for himself. It was sin that brought him to the cross, but not his own sin. He had no sin that needed forgiving. The forgiveness for which Jesus prays is for his killers.
And there was much to forgive. As I mentioned, the gospels are sparing when it comes to describing the physical sufferings of Christ on the cross. But although we are not forced by them to dwell upon the physical horrors of crucifixion, it’s hard not to imagine them and to cringe at the thought of the pain Jesus had to endure. Crucifixion was a gruesome and abhorrent way to die, combining maximum pain with maximum shame and prolonging both to intolerable lengths.
But for Jesus there was even more to forgive than just the torture. Gross injustice added to the cruelty of his crucifixion. He hung on the cross as an innocent man. He was betrayed by a close comrade, deserted by his best friends, caught up in the intrigue of a jealous hierarchy who hated him for his sheer goodness. As the Roman soldiers raised Jesus up on Golgotha he was mocked and spat upon by the very crowds that he had taught and healed. He was tortured by the agents of law and justice, and finally condemned by a crooked judge who admitted Jesus was innocent even as he passed sentence upon him. In the face of all of this, Jesus prayed that all might be forgiven.
Now as you sit and contemplate the cross and see Jesus hanging there and hear him praying for his tormentors, for his betrayers and executioners, all to be forgiven, ask yourself just one question, “What has anyone ever done to me that was as bad as this? Is there any injury in my life, any injustice, that compares to what Jesus suffered? And if Jesus forgives his enemies, what should I do about mine?”
SINS OF IGNORANCE
Jesus prayed for all who hurt him that day. But not for them alone. We must reflect further. When Jesus asked his Father to forgive, whom did he have in mind? For whom all was he praying? He was praying not just for the Romans, the Jewish leaders and the crowds. He was praying for us as well.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” asks the old spiritual. Well, yes, you were there and so was I. We were there because we too are responsible for his death. It was because of us that he went to the cross. An old German passion hymn tells the truth about us and about Jesus’ crucifixion.
Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended,
that mortal judgment has on you descended?
By foes derided, by your own rejected,
O, most afflicted!
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?
It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you;
I crucified you.
There’s the truth. It wasn’t just the Romans or the leaders or the crowd. It was us. We were responsible, all of us, for the death of Jesus Christ, God’s holy and compassionate Son, our Savior and our Lord.
Jesus added a qualifying statement to his prayer. Do you remember? “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” So is ignorance an excuse for sin? Well, partially. It was certainly true of all those who were immediately involved that day. The Roman legionnaires knew their ugly business well, but they didn’t know what they were doing. Like soldiers everywhere with nasty jobs to do, they simply were carrying out orders. Soldiers aren’t supposed to think about their orders, just obey them. On this particular day those orders involved them in the crime of the universe putting God to death. But they didn’t know that. To them, Jesus was just another subversive, and his execution was all in a day’s work.
The same is true for those in the wider circle of responsibility. The leaders and the people of Jerusalem didn’t know Jesus was the Son of God and their Messiah, or at least they didn’t believe it. They thought he was a blasphemer and a sinner. “I know you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers,” Peter would say to the Jerusalem crowd several weeks later, after Jesus had been raised from the dead (Acts 3:17). And Paul, who may very well have been a member of the group that engineered Jesus’ crucifixion and one of those that screamed for his blood, wrote years afterward of himself that “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:12).
You and I have acted ignorantly in unbelief too, haven’t we? If we had known what we were doing, if we had realized what it would cost Jesus when we told that lie or stole that money or hurt that person or defiled our conscience, we wouldn’t have done it would we? Nevertheless, ignorance is not the same as innocence. It is still blameworthy. Those who sin in ignorance still sin and need to be forgiven. We don’t deserve it. And if we are forgiven, it is because of the mercy of God purchased by the blood of Christ. “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” All of them, all of us. Our hope is that the Father will grant his Son’s prayer.