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Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

You can learn volumes about a man by watching him die. Time is more precious than ever. It’s no occasion for small talk; only the most important words are worth his dying breaths. What are his priorities in these final hours? What wisdom needs to be shared before it cannot be shared anymore? What feelings must be revealed before it is too late? What legacy will he leave in his last words?

On Calvary

Jesus had received his sentence. Pontius Pilate had made a feeble attempt at justice, but in the end he caved to the mob and handed Jesus over to be crucified. Jesus carries his cross until he can’t. Then with some assistance from a passerby, he comes to the hilltop. His cross is laid on the ground, and he is laid upon it. A hardened soldier picks up three spikes and a hammer while others prepare to hold him down. They expect him to kick and scream and curse like so many others before him. Except . . . he doesn’t do any of that. Even as the nails pierce skin and tendons and grate against nerves, this dying man reveals what is front and center in his mind. It’s not the pain or the humiliation or the injustice.

The first strikes clang at the impact of hammer on spike, but soon the report becomes more of a dull thud as flesh and wood dampen the sound of the blows. We have no idea what was on the minds of the executioners. We aren’t told whether they enjoyed this part of the job or were dutifully detached, at least moderately numb to human suffering by their years of experience in this morbid task.

On the other hand, we know what Jesus is thinking, because he tells us. With eyes closed tight, he winces at the pain. But even then, he doesn’t fight against those tasked with putting him to death. Instead, his anguish-weakened voice speaks softly, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

This man is all about forgiveness. He lives for it. He dies for it. His great victory seems so far away now, but he will rise again to assure us that all of this was part of the plan. Still, it hurt. In addition, we can only imagine the temptation to be angry about everything that led up to this moment: the betrayal, denial, and abandonment by his friends. What about the travesty of a trial at the hands of Israel’s highest spiritual leaders? The injustice of it all! If ever there was a case of an innocent man wrongly suffering, this was it. Jesus deserved none of it. It was not fair.

In one sense, forgiveness never is. That’s why we have such a hard time with it. We sometimes stew in our own private rage at how people have wronged us. How are we supposed to forgive them? They don’t deserve it. They haven’t earned our forgiveness. Most of the time, they don’t ask to be forgiven or even acknowledge the damage they’ve done. On some occasions, they may not realize they have hurt us at all. In our self-focused anger, our forgiveness so often fails.

Father, forgive!

Back to the dying man. Remember his words and know that they aren’t just for a few executioners. Jesus speaks, and Luke records it by divine inspiration, so that all of us can know what Jesus considers the most critical issue. Just before he is lifted up from the ground so that the weight of his body can suffocate him as he hangs there, Jesus places himself between earth and heaven as the mediator who bears the deadly weight of our guilt, our shame, our sentence. He approaches the Almighty—his Father and ours by grace—and he pleads for forgiveness. The true High Priest (not Annas or Caiaphas) offers the sacrifice, the one sin offering that could truly atone for all humans—past, present, and future. The Passover Lamb bleeds to avert our doom and destruction as those who are “by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

Ordinarily this certainly seems like it would be a time for wrath. To be sure, God’s holiness necessitates a reaction of wrath at every act of disobedience. Still, at this very moment, the Father chose to look on as sinful men put his eternal, beloved Son to death in a most brutal fashion. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:10,11). God sent his Son, and the world rejected him. God extended his love to the world in the One who would take on flesh to teach, heal, and restore humanity. Humanity killed him. None of us can argue that God should not be enraged by what happened on Good Friday.

Yet his Son pleads for forgiveness for those who kill him. “Father, forgive them,” our Great High Priest intercedes, speaking up in the defense of sinners. The reason for forgiveness isn’t found in us—in good intentions or best efforts or even ignorance of what we do wrong. Forgiveness isn’t fair; forgiveness isn’t earned. But forgiveness is given, because forgiveness is won by this dying man. He doesn’t just say it; he seals it. He doesn’t just pray for it; he pays for it. And the Father listens to his dying Son. He declares us all holy, justifying us when the justice of God’s wrath falls upon our substitute.

So, what is our takeaway as we hear Jesus’ first words from the cross? Remember, you can learn volumes about a man by watching him die, and this man is all about forgiveness. His focus on the assigned mission never wavers. His willingness to suffer reveals a heart of compassion for all who would suffer eternally without his sacrifice. He gives what we could never earn—the very forgiveness he prays for. Our greatest takeaway is eternal, because that will be how long this forgiveness lasts. Jesus restored peace with the one we too may now call Father. Forgiveness is ours forever to cherish and share.

When we hear and see that Jesus is all about forgiveness, doesn’t that make us rethink our relationships here on earth? Will we let the forgiveness we have been given overflow into our interactions with fellow sinners? How could we refuse to forgive one another when we have been forgiven so much? We do not need to excuse, minimize, or enable sin in order to forgive. Instead, we imitate our Savior’s desire that others might know God’s love and forgiveness through the ways we communicate and act. Like Jesus, we seek, savor, and speak forgiveness as our highest priority.

Jesus’ first words from the cross reveal that he is all about forgiveness. May God’s grace to us move us to live and die in the forgiveness he prayed for and paid for!

Author: Eric Schroeder
Volume 109, Number 03
Issue: March 2022

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This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series the seven words

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