"Father, Forgive Them"

April 4th, 2012

"Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

It is not surprising that these words—the first words spoken by Jesus from the cross—were a prayer. What is surprising, haunting, and, for some, disturbing, is what he prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Let’s begin our exploration of this prayer with a question: For whom was Jesus praying? Who was the “them” Jesus was asking God to forgive?

He was, of course, praying for the soldiers who cruelly tortured him and crucified him and who were preparing to gamble for his clothes. “Father, forgive them.”

He also was praying for the crowd who, even now, were beginning their verbal assault on him—Luke notes that they were deriding him, shaking their heads and mocking him. For them he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

Then there were the religious leaders who, from their own jealousy and spiritual blindness, conspired with the Romans to kill him, just as the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day had sought to kill him. For these hypocritical leaders he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

This is astounding! Can you imagine such mercy? That Jesus would pray for them as he hung on the cross is one of the most powerful images in all the Gospels.

But there is someone else included in Jesus’ prayer, someone for whom Jesus was pleading from the cross for God’s mercy to be extended: We are among the “them” Jesus was praying for as he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

There’s an old gospel hymn that asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The answer is that, in a profound spiritual sense, you were there. The entire human race was there at the Crucifixion. The death of Jesus was an event that transcended time. Jesus’ prayer gave voice to what Jesus was doing on the cross. He was offering himself to God his Father as an offering of atonement. In this moment he was both the High Priest pleading for atonement for the human race and the offering itself. This sacrificial act was for those who had come before and for those who would come after just as much as it was for those who heard his words that day.

You and I were there when they crucified the Lord. In a sense, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive Adam. Forgive (insert your name). Forgive those in our churches and those on the streets. Forgive those in the suburbs and those downtown. Forgive those in our country and those on the other side of the world. Father, forgive them. . . .” This is the power of the words Jesus cried out from the cross: They were prayed not only for those who stood by at the cross, but also for all of us— for all of humanity.

This article is excerpted from Adam's book, Final Words from the Cross, ©2011 by Abingdon Press.

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