This afternoon I would like us to step back a few minutes during the events of the crucifixion. And let’s leave Matthew in the process. There is an invaluable lesson in these few words. Not only do we learn a little more about the Lord Jesus, but we have an example which needs to be applied to ourselves. “Father forgive them.”
How many times have you looked at the moon during your life? I have lived through more than 24,000 nights. How many times have I, deliberately or casually, looked at the moon? 2,000; 3;000 – 5,000? Just a couple of weeks ago, Judy glanced up and then asked me, “Do you remember how Sahalie would look for the moon whenever she could?” She would say, as we were driving home from church, “Look the moon is following us.” She didn’t know a lot about the moon, but it fascinated her nevertheless. And how much do you know about that moon that you’ve looked at so many times? You probably know a lot more than a four-year-old, but there is still a lot more to learn.
In a similar sort of way I have looked at the crucifixion of the Lord many times. I have no idea how many accounts and commentaries about Calvary I’ve read during the last fifty years. One thing amazes me as I read some of other people’s descriptions of the crucifixion – Some writers leave the impression that there are no mysteries left to them – they have all the answers. For me, there is a great deal that I do NOT KNOW about all this. And that is one reason we are spending so much time on Matthew 27 and these other scriptures.
This afternoon I’d like us to think about just one aspect of one of my many questions. But believe me when I say that I’m not preaching any of my doubts today – I believe what I read here. It’s just that I’m not able to fully explain what I believe. This is Jesus’ first utterance from his throne on Golgotha. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I’ll use three headings to guide us in our examination of this statement – Ignorance, Interest and Intercession.
We begin with IGNORANCE.
By the way, with this I’m referring to the ignorance to which text refers – not to my own. And yet isn’t it true that we all begin with ignorance; we begin in ignorance? Scripture says that “the natural man receiveth not the things of Spirit God.” “There is none that understandeth, that seeketh after God.” We all begin in that natural, fallen state – we being with absolute ignorance of everything God.
As the pain of the cross was just beginning to wrench through the Saviour…. As the Lord’s blood began to ebb from His body, we find Him in prayer to His Father. When Jesus first began His ministry He was baptized by John the Baptist. And Luke 3:21 says that the Lord Jesus was in prayer as the water went over His body. He was in prayer throughout the days of His earthly sojourn. Prayer is appropriate at the time of birth and the time of death – it is always appropriate. And on this occasion, Jesus’ prayer mentioned the ignorance of the people – “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What prompted this request of Christ? Why did He pray in this way referring to their ignorance? It wasn’t so much the men’s ignorance, as it was the ignorance of their ignorance. They were in the dark before the final eclipse forever took away the light. And as is often case, their ignorance and stupidity was the mother of the rest of their sins. And yet they were totally blinded to their blindness – completely ignorant of their ignorance.
But of WHAT were they ignorant, and of what where they aware? They were all certainly aware of the simple fact that they were taking away the life of another human being. But beyond that – they knew that this man was the famous Jesus of Nazareth. They probably all knew that some people had said He was Israel’s Messiah. They probably had heard that he had worked a few inexplicable wonders. And they all understood the pronouncement which had been nailed above Jesus’ head. But there were many general things that they didn’t understand – didn’t want to understand. There were more important things about Christ which were farther above their heads than Arcturus. And there were things, related to Christ, which they didn’t understand about themselves. They probably didn’t grasp the nature of sin, their own sin. They were ignorant of the Mercy of God that was even then raining down around them. Wednesday in looking at Uzzah, we saw Jehovah strike a man down for touching the Ark of the Covenant. These men were laying their filthy hands upon the anti-type – the fulfilment – of that Ark. These were dead men walking. On some days you meet so many stupid people you’re amazed there’s enough ignorance to go around. And that spring morning was one of those days.
But Jesus’ prayer specifically said, “Forgive for they know not what they DO.” What where they doing? Sure, they were crucifying the eternal son of God. They were blaspheming, cursing, despitefully abusing the Saviour. But they were also carrying out part of the eternal counsel of Jehovah. They were a gear in the great wheel of redemption. They were unaware that it was the Lamb of God they were nailing to cross. Paul said in II Corinthians that if they had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
To how much more of their ignorance does Lord refer? Could He be speaking of the incredible wrath of the Father that they were treasuring up for themselves, because of their hardness and impenitent hearts? There were angels on that hill that day yearning for authority to squash those villains like so many filthy roaches, but of this, like Elisha’s servant, they had no idea. To how much more of their ignorance does Jesus refer?
And another question is: What role does ignorance have in subject of forgiveness anyway? Not even in common American jurisprudence is ignorance of the law any excuse. If you drive down 12th avenue towards my house at 35 mph you might get a ticket. I know that there are no speed limit signs east of Spokane street, declaring the official speed limit, but it is a city ordinance that unless otherwise posted, residential streets are all 25 mph. Just because you are unaware of that speed limit makes it makes no difference to the police officer. Does Jesus’ prayer mean that God will listen to our pleas of ignorance or spiritual insanity? You can put that out of your mind…….it will never be. No, whatever this is, these are a special set of circumstances.
And it really doesn’t matter much as far as we are concerned anyway. Because the fact is we have far less ignorance than any of those executioners that day. If you are condemned, it will be in the midst of a flood of knowledge and your possession of the Bible. “How much sorer punishment suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God and hath counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing?” With any lost person among us today, it is not question ignorance, but rather outright rebellion and rejection.
Think about Jesus’ unbelievable INTEREST in these people.
“I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarine, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean. O, how marvelous, O how wonderful….”
With the word “interest” I refer to whatever it was that prompted Jesus’ prayer for these people. Without question there was a serious spiritual need among these people. But that is true of all people everywhere – not just those at Golgotha. “For there is no difference for all have sinned and come short of the glory God.” Those people were all sinners and the wages of sin is eternal death – always has been – always will be. But again, I wonder if because these filthy hands have touched the hands of Christ– if there is not a greater need among them than among us who only read about Lord? There is such a thing as some being beaten with more stripes than others. There is such a thing as degrees of punishment in Hell. Anyway, there was undoubtedly a great need among those people. Just as there is a great need among us.
But of course, it was the love of Christ that prompted this prayer. Christ didn’t hate those murderers any more than He does the lost today – He didn’t even rebuke them. The love of God cannot be overthrown by any sinful military revolution within the Kingdom of God. But, can anyone explain to me WHY the Lord loves sinners? Can you go beyond the most childish and foolish answer? So often when you ask a youngster why he did something that he shouldn’t have done, his only reply is: “Just ‘cuz.” Why did the Saviour love these people enough to pray for their forgiveness? I don’t have a much better answer than to say: “Just because He did.” It is the nature of Christ to love; it doesn’t make much more sense than that. “Why should my Saviour to Calvary go? Why should he love me so?” Yes, I know that there is a special love for His elect, but what about His love for the world in general?
But what exactly was the NATURE of His intercession?
Can we be any where close to exact? I notice that Jesus continued to acknowledge His claim to eternal Sonship. “Father” He said, referring to that special relationship which they possessed since before Creation. His suffering and imminent death had no way of breaking the relationship between them. What did Isaac say as Abraham raised the knife to slay him? He said “father?”
Was there anything special in asking the “Father” to forgive these people? Remember that earlier, Jesus himself had gotten into “trouble” because He directly forgave a sinner. No man has any right or authority to forgive the eternal effects of man’s sin. The absolution of sin by men calling themselves priests is a mockery of Bible. But Christ forgave sin because all sin is committed against Him as part of Trinity. He has the right to forgive sin and an exclamation point it placed on that thought with the crucifixion. And yet at this time Jesus didn’t say, “Sons, thy sins be forgiven thee, go in peace.” Why did Jesus ask the FATHER to forgive? I think that probably Jesus already had forgiven those people in His own heart. He held no personal malice towards any of those people. It wasn’t stubborn wrath which kept Jesus’ tongue from rebuking them or from immediately judging them.
So WHY did Jesus ask the Father to forgive? Could it be because God the Father was livid with rage against those whose hands which were so brutal against His son? Or could this be an accommodation to our weak intellects, revealing some divine emotion which we couldn’t understand any other way? God may have been on the verge of destroying those people, but then the Son asked Him to delay their deaths.
Then again perhaps here is an almost logical answer to the question: As Christ hung on the Cross, He shed every last remnant of His innate deity. He refused to display or use even the very least of any prerogative of God. Jesus, the Son of man, died upon that cross. He died as the perfect vicar; the complete vicarious substitute. He felt every ounce, erg, or volt of the pain that was inflicted upon Him. His divine nature didn’t cover or deflect any aspect of His death. There wasn’t the least bit of divinity shielding His soul from the penalty which our sin place upon Him. He abdicated His position of divine authority to forgive His chosen people. Could this be the explanation? Could He have voluntarily given up His divine right to forgive these people?
But then comes another question: About whom does this prayer apply? A.W. Pink said that 3,000 were saved from sin on Pentecost, because of this prayer and John Gill agrees. But J.C. Ryle says it applied to all the people who were gawking at the Lord on hill. Were all those blasphemous witnesses saved because of Christ’s prayer? A related question is this: what does this forgiveness entail? Does this forgiveness imply redemption and salvation? How many of those soldiers are now in glory, redeemed by the blood of the lamb? If so, does that mean Pilate, Caiaphas and Annas, plus the nail drivers were all saved? It would be good for them if I was wrong, but I sincerely doubt the salvation of all this bunch.
Then what does this forgiveness entail? Could it be a plea not to bar the door to further conviction of sin and eventual salvation? “This is not the unpardonable sin, Father, don’t treat it as such.” “Now Lord, begin to reprove these men of their sin, and also of righteous and of judgment.” I sincerely hope that God’s grace did overcome some of these wicked men. I hope to meet some of these very same people in glory when I arrive there soon. Did this prayer paved the way for that meeting in the air. Do you suppose that Saul of Tarsus was present there that day?
It might be argued that forgiveness is the highest of all of God’s blessings and our greatest need. And there is only one place to receive it – right there where Jesus died. There can be no genuine forgiveness of sin, until the penalty of sin is paid. That is what the cross was all about. Is that what Jesus’ prayer was all about?
There once was a minister of Christ in Scotland named Brownlow North. He was considered to be one of the holiest men in the nation and a fine preacher. But when he visited one large church in view of preaching the gospel of Christ, a note was handed to him signed by a man out of his past. The letter challenged him, stating that if he arose to preach, the writer would divulge how wicked, licentious, debase and immoral North had been before his salvation. “I know about your past; I followed you to Europe. I know what you did in Liverpool. I challenge you to stand in a Christian pulpit and try to preach, I dare you.” Tearfully, Brownlow North went into the pulpit and began by publically reading the letter. He added to the text exactly what some of the sins were that he had committed. He said, “My friends, it is all true and good deal more than this. But I want you to know that there came a day in my life when I heard the Saviour’s voice saying, ‘Brownlow North, go in peace: thy sins are forgiven thee.’ Brethren, if there is mercy for me, there is mercy for all of you here.”
Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I began this afternoon by saying that there is much that I don’t understand, and I’m sure that this message is proof of that. But I am convinced that no prayer of Christ has ever been refused or rejected. And I am convinced that even if a sinner worse that Brownlow North, were to claim Jesus’ statement, while repenting before God and trusting Jesus’ sacrificial blood, then Christ Jesus’ prayer would be applied to him. Christ is faithful and just to forgive you of your sin and to cleanse every spot stain.
Now, having said all that, let’s move on to our second sermon of the afternoon – what does Jesus’ prayer teach His saints about their forgiveness of others?