************ Sermon on Luke 23:34 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 1, 1998
"The First Word of the Cross: Forgive"
Our Lord is upon the cross. And there He hangs — silent. But then His pain-lined lips are seen to move. Is He crying out in pain? No. Is He asking for pity? No. Is He pronouncing a curse upon those who crucified Him? No.
What then? He is praying — for His enemies! "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
I Our Lord Prays
A Our Lord is upon the cross. He is praying. How significant! How instructive! Christ's public ministry opened with prayer (Lk 3:21), and here we see it closing in prayer. Surely He has left us an example that we should do as He has done.
Our Lord is upon the cross. No longer can His hands minister to the sick, for they are nailed to the tree. No longer can His feet carry Him on errands of mercy, for they are fastened to the wood. No longer can He instruct His disciples, for they have forsaken Him and fled. But one thing He can do, and does — the ministry of prayer!
Perhaps there are some here this morning who think they have nothing to offer and no purpose in living. But like the Lord there is one thing you can still do — even in the last hours of life — and that is to engage in the ministry of prayer. Perhaps God may use your ministry of prayer to accomplish more for His church and kingdom than was accomplished by all your past service.
B Our Lord is upon the cross. He prays for His murderers. In doing this, He shows us, He teaches us, that no one is ever beyond the reach of prayer. He shows us, He teaches us, to never give up, to never abandon hope, to keep on praying. Does it seem to you a waste of time to keep praying for that man, that woman, that wayward child or grandchild of yours? Does it ever seem to you as if they are beyond the reach of God's mercy? Does their case seem to get more and more hopeless every passing day? In such times of discouragement think of the cross. Remember that Christ prayed for His enemies, for those who made Him suffer the agony and torment of the cross.
C We should never look at this first word of the cross, this prayer for Christ's enemies, without also looking at its answer on Pentecost. Remember what happened then? The Spirit was poured out, Peter preached a powerful sermon, and three thousand were saved. Who are these three thousand? Peter clearly identifies them as those who put Jesus to death by nailing Him to the cross (Acts 2:23b,37; cf 3:13-15,17 and the 5,000 of 4:4). What we are to realize, congregation, is that the prayer of Christ on the cross for His enemies was given a most definite answer. The answer is seen in the conversion of the three thousand souls on the Day of Pentecost.
We are being taught here, aren't we, about the power of prayer. As James tells us, "the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16b). So pray, congregation. Pray for those loved ones who seem to you to be outside the kingdom of Christ. Pray for these wayward ones, knowing that no one — not even those who crucified our Lord — are beyond the reach and power of prayer.
Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
II Prophecy Fulfilled
The Old Testament Scriptures foretell this word, this prayer, for the forgiveness of Christ's enemies. I think of the wonderful prophecy of Isaiah 53. This chapter foretells at least ten things about the humiliation and suffering of the Messiah. One of them is that He would make "intercession for the transgressors" (vs 12). According to Isaiah, He would do this at the time of His crucifixion, at the time He "was numbered with the transgressors" and "bore the sin of many" (vs 12).
In Isaiah 53 we have the prophecy: "and made intercession for the transgressors" (vs 12). In the first word of the cross we have the fulfillment: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
III Jesus Prays to the Father
A In this first word of the cross Jesus prays to the Father: "Father, forgive them ..." On no previous occasion did Jesus ever make such a request of the Father. All other times Jesus forgave on His own authority. To the paralytic lying on a mat Jesus said, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven" (Mt 9:2). To the woman who washed and perfumed His feet in Simon's house Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven" (Lk 7:48). Why then should Jesus now ask the Father to forgive, instead of directly pronouncing forgiveness Himself?
B Forgiveness of sin is a Divine prerogative. The teachers of the law were right in thinking "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mk 2:7). Yes, Jesus was and is and always will be God, so His is the right to forgive sins. But in this instance Jesus is on the cross. He is on the cross in our place and as our representative, and as such the glory and the power of the Godhead that are His may not be exercised. For instance, it was well within His power to have called ten thousand or more angels to His rescue. He could have let loose thunderbolts of wrath against those who crucified Him. He could have caused the earth to open her mouth so that His torturers would go down alive into the pit of hell. It was well within His power to do all of this, but then His suffering would no longer be as one of us, in our place, and as our representative.
Upon the cross as our representative, Jesus was no longer in the place of authority and power. He was there as a sinner — as one with us, and one of us, and one for us — totally dependent upon the grace and mercy of God. So He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
IV Jesus Lovingly Prays for Forgiveness
A Jesus is upon the cross suffering unspeakable anguish and torment of body and soul. But even then Jesus does not engage in self-pity or concentrate on personal survival or respond in anger and hatred. As He did all His life He looks in love beyond Himself to others. "Father, forgive them ..." That was the triumph of redeeming love.
Remember Samson's dying hour? He used His mighty strength to kill many more of His enemies when he died than while he lived (Judges 17:30). But in His last hours Jesus displayed the strength of His love by praying for the forgiveness of His enemies.
Even Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith, failed to fully follow Christ's example. Stephen's first thought was of himself, and then he prayed for those killing him. While his enemies were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:59,60). But with Christ the order was reversed: He prayed first for His enemies, and then for Himself.
What matchless, wondrous love our Savior displayed when His first word from the cross was for the forgiveness of His enemies.
B "Father, forgive them ..." said Jesus out of love. "Forgive" is a word borrowed from the world of commerce and finance. It is a money word. In the secular Greek world it meant the cancellation of a debt, the pardoning of a loan. That reminds me of a college friend of mine who borrowed money from her parents in order to study at Calvin. When she graduated, her parents canceled her debt, they pardoned her loan, they forgave her.
Jesus prays for forgiveness. He prays for the cancellation of a debt, the pardoning of a loan. He prays for the cancellation of the debt of sin.
C The cancellation of a debt is always something unexpected and undeserved. My college friend certainly didn't do anything to deserve having her debt canceled by her parents. The cancellation of the debt of sin is an act of grace, of undeserved favor. Nothing is done to earn this forgiveness. It arises purely out of love.
Jesus acts and speaks out of love. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
V Jesus Prays for His Enemies
A Who is the "them" Jesus is praying for? He is praying for Judas who betrayed Him. He is praying for the Jewish leaders who had Him falsely arrested, who hit Him, spit on Him, and said lies about Him. Jesus is praying for the crowd who yelled, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Jesus is praying for Pilate who found Him innocent yet still gave Him up to be crucified. Jesus is praying for the soldiers who whipped Him, mocked Him, spit on Him, and nailed Him to the cross. Jesus is praying for all of these: "Father, forgive them ..."
B Jesus is also praying for you and me and every other sinner. Don't forget, He is upon the cross as our — as your and my — representative. He is there as one of us, one with us. He is there because of our sins. There is a song we sing which expresses this so very clearly:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?So for us too Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you.
'Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied you;
I crucified you.
VI The Need for Forgiveness
A What is it that Jesus is praying for? This first word of the cross, this prayer for forgiveness, is clearly about sins of ignorance: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Under the old covenant God required that atonement be made for sins people were not even aware of, sins they did not realize they had committed. In Leviticus 5 we read,
When a person commits a violation and sins unintentionally ... he is guilty and will be held responsible ... (and) the priest will make atonement for him for the wrong he has committed unintentionally. (Lev 5:14-19; cf Num 15:22-25)
We see here that sin is always sin in God's sight, whether we are conscious of it or not. Sins of ignorance need atonement just as much as do sins we wilfully commit. God is Holy, and He will not and cannot lower His standard of righteousness to the level of our ignorance. Ignorance is not innocence.
Today, ignorance is more blameworthy than it was in the days of Moses and Jesus. It is an unacceptable excuse today because God has given us His Word and Spirit so that we can clearly discern His will.
And yet the fact remains that we are ignorant of many things. Many times we do not realize the sin we do. Often we do not realize how much we have hurt each other. Yet, the fault and the blame are ours.
So Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
B We are given a glimpse here of the blindness of the human heart, the total depravity of the human will, and the corruption of the human mind.
You see, congregation, Judas, the Jewish leaders, the crowds, Pilate, even the soldiers, ought to have known that it was the Lord of Glory they were crucifying. Their blindness was inexcusable. The Old Testament prophecies which Jesus fulfilled clearly identified Him as the Holy One of God. His teaching was so unique that even His enemies were forced to admit "No one ever spoke the way this man does" (Jn 7:46). His miracles — the healing of the sick, the multiplication of loaves and fish, the casting out of demons, the walking on water — all amply demonstrated that He was the Son of God. The voice from heaven at His baptism and transfiguration clearly demonstrated He had God's approval and favor. And what of His perfect life?! No, there was no excuse for their ignorance. It only demonstrated the totality of sin's defiling power.
How sad to know this terrible tragedy is still being repeated. Today, there are many who know better, many who know that Jesus is Savior and Lord, yet they also neglect or reject Him. I become terrified for those people when I think about the words of Hebrews 10:
(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, (27) but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.How dreadful it will be for those who knowingly oppose Christ and His truth and refuse to repent.
In this first word of the cross Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who act in ignorance or unbelief — even if they ought to have known better. Again we see the extent of His grace and love. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Finally, we have to ask on what basis does Jesus pray to God for forgiveness in this first word of the cross? How is it that Jesus can presume to ask God to cancel our enormous debt of sin, whether those sins be committed willfully or unknowingly?
At heart, it is the cross which is the basis of Christ's prayer for forgiveness. What irony here: we need forgiveness for the cross; yet, without the cross there is no forgiveness.
So upon the cross, suffering in body and soul the anguish and torment of hell, Jesus prays for grace, for forgiveness.
What love! What wondrous, matchless love.
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
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