If we might for a moment push aside the weariness of our warfare, with its scars of past defeat and anxieties of present conflict. If faith would soar above the paralysis of guilt; if pettiness, prejudice, and party might be set aside; if righteous indignation and soul vexation might take a brief respite. The most blessed words ever uttered upon this earth might come to us again, a sentence so precious, a light so sublime, a love so pure. The words were spoken at the point of deepest, darkest blackness, at once the lowest and highest point of human history, gasped by a soul humbled, cursed, and tormented beyond description. These words would be like life from the dead. “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Understand that our Lord was not forgiving the Jews and Romans. This interpretation ignores and debases what took place on that hill that day. Yes, there were human instruments of cruelty and injustice at work, of spiritual blindness without equal but in hell. But our hands were nailing him there just as surely as those of the Romans at the instigation of the Jews. It was our treacheries and treasons that brought the Son of God, the Beloved of the Father, to such an end. It was our blindness and ingratitude – in the Garden and in life – that crucified him. It was our deception, pride, and self-love. The cross he bore – he put himself upon it for us, because the wages of sin is death, because the soul that sins must die, because he took upon himself the sword of divine justice for his sheep, for the world.
He said, “Father.” How can this filial confidence be reconciled with “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Like his person, his work was multi-faceted, deeply layered. As the burnt offering for sin, he was fully conscious of the separating reality of sin. God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity (Hab. 1:13). To bear away sin, to satisfy divine justice for sin, he had to become the sacrificial lamb and the scapegoat, at once the offeror and the offering, the priest and the victim. In one act, he had to suffer hell and endure the misery of eternal separation from the comfortable, life-giving presence of God. Unspeakable grief, agony of soul, pain of body: each he bore, more fully than we can ever know in those hours on the cross. Being fully God, which infinitely intensified the grief, agony, and pain, he himself was a sharer in the wrath of God, which must mean that the wrath was also self-inflicted. In a true sense, he was forsaken; he had to be forsaken. Sin subjects us to being utterly forsaken by God, which is the very worst the image-bearer of God can suffer. It would be easier to live without sunlight and air than to live without our God.
At the same time, and here we must bow before deep, unfathomable mystery, he remained confident of his Father’s love. “For this cause I have come into the world,” he said. He could still say “Father:” conscious of the eternal bond that united them in thought, work, and purpose, of the eternal love and fellowship, joy and glory they shared. Because he said “Father,” even here, even now, we may have complete assurance that the Father accepted the curse he bore for us, the forsaking he experienced, and the substitution he offered. The entire goal of propitiation, springing as it did from the infinitely rich mercy of God (Eph. 2:4), was to restore us to God as our Father – with all filial confidence, love, and joy, as well as consecrated service, fellowship, and hope. When he said “Father,” then, he said it for us. He was our Head, our Surety, our Covenant. By saying it, he gives us firm assurance that we are reconciled through his sacrifice. He is our “peace” (Eph. 2:14), and when our Peace moaned “Father,” we are at peace. There is no more condemnation because he took our condemnation upon himself.
Then, he said “Forgive them.” We cannot do justice to this glorious, imperative – for it was an imperious request, the Son’s justified demand on the basis of his perfect sacrifice – if we look primarily for a Jewish or Roman fulfillment of this. For whomever the Son seeks forgiveness, forgiveness is granted. Some of the Jews and Romans who crucified him are certainly included. Yet, we must connect this to the “sheep,” those whom the Father had given him before the foundation of the world (John 17:11,24), those for whom he laid down his life (John 10:15), his elect, those for whom he undertook to be their surety, their sacrificial lamb. It was for these alone he became the curse, for whom he perished – else we must say that Jesus petition failed. Coming as it did, at this moment, such a thought is abhorrent to every humbled, awe-struck soul. No, everyone included in that petition will be forgiven. In one important sense, we were forgiven at that moment, though the personal reception of that forgiveness awaited God’s regenerating grace, producing faith and repentance.
And whom did he tell the Father to forgive? Ah, here we reach impenetrable depths of mercy. He did not ask the Father to forgive his friends, for all had forsaken him. He had no friends at that moment. Even his disciples were in such confusion and despair that we can hardly call them his friends. No, it was his enemies for whom he pled forgiveness. It was for the very miserable sinners whose evil deeds crucified him. Even as he experienced such grief and agony – and only a completely righteous soul and a completely obedient man can ever know the horror of being forsaken by God, of having the sins of others imputed to him, of being cursed for sins not his own, of “becoming sin” – he claimed for us the right of forgiveness. All was done. Satisfaction made. Atonement secured. Everlasting righteousness brought in and sealed. Redemption accomplished. This “forgive them,” far from being the weak hope of a dying man, was a cry of victory – from the depths of human misery and from the heights of divine satisfaction. He knew. He had triumphed. He had secured. Therefore, “Father, forgive them.” None who look to him will ever be ashamed, have their sins held against them. By this cry, Jesus Christ hath forever cast our sins in the depths of the sea. They are covered by his blood, drowned in his love, wiped away by his satisfaction.
The last words – “for they know not what they do” – is not an excuse for those actually engaged in crucifying him. It is not an excuse for us. Jesus does not plead our forgiveness on the basis of ignorance. How could he who said, “If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father” (John 15:24), indict his own person and work by claiming that they or we were ignorant of who he really was and what he came to do? This would be a blatant contradiction and a denial of the clarity of him who was “the light of the world.” Yet, in another important sense, our sins are evidence of a deep-seated, willful, and antagonistic blindness to God’s claims upon our lives. Man’s ignorance – both those who actually crucified him and all other men – is culpable. It is an ignorance that has engulfed us in utter helplessness. All the schooling in the world cannot free a man from the chains of anti-God prejudice and furious pursuit of self-justification for the alienation he feels in his heart and mind. Thus, our Lord is having pity upon us by his statement. It is as if he had said, “They do not know what they are doing, for they have blinded themselves, and they are unable to do anything about their condition. They cannot but reject me, Father.” Such undeserved pity – do we deserve pity? No, we have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-19). We went astray from the womb speaking lies – about ourselves, about God, about the world in which we live. We have done all we could to flee from him and his claims upon us. Our willful blindness brought him to the cross. Rather than holding even this against us, he pleads that the Father might forgive us, his crucifiers. He prays that our eyes might be opened to who he is, that though we have no claim upon the Father’s mercy, that he might nonetheless extend it to us for the sake of the Son – the very One whom our blindness rejected and slew.
In a world of divisions and prejudices at every social, political, and philosophical level, we do well to remember our Savior’s words. If judgment and wrath were not his final words at the cross, they should not be ours in life. Yes, there will be a final judgment; the wrath of God will abide forever upon those who reject the Son (John 3:36). Yes, we must judge in terms of the truth of God’s word (John 7:24). Since the Son of God forgave us, however, his malevolent, sin-blinded tormentors, we ought to forgive others. We must point our fellow-crucifiers to the One who forgives, that through him they too might obtain mercy! And mercy shall prevail – not at the expense of divine justice but because the Lamb of God bore the judgment. The gospel of mercy and grace is not sentimentalism but blood-purchased security, not hedonistic love but justice-satisfying love, not smooth words of therapy but of saving power forged before the altar of divine justice. It did not spring from moral relativism or lowering of God’s just claims but from the strictest conformity to divine righteousness. This is the great hope of the world: that there is legitimate forgiveness from the Judge of all the earth because there was full and specific atonement made at the cross. Let us revel in forgiveness, in mercy so deep that it actually obtained our redemption, in love so efficacious that it celebrated its success and claimed its rights at the very moment of its deepest sacrifice.
How we must love him! How each fiber of our being must thrill to his “Father, forgive them!” How secure we are in his wondrous love! Having loved his own, he loved them to the end (John 13:1). Can we not love him? Do we not tremble before such love? Does it not satisfy us above all other loves, heal every wound, and calm every agitation of conscience? Can we not give ourselves to loving him in return, a love that must be like his because it is joined to his by covenant in a living union of grace and glory? This love will seek him, obey him, and delight in him above all else (John 14:15). All his blood-stained garments smell of myrrh and cassia to the sin-wearied soul. Truly, whom we have in heaven beside him and whom do we desire on earth beyond him? Everything we shall ever after receive flows from his love command: “Father, forgive them.” May his love be the banner of our lives!
And when we interact with others, should not like love be behind all our words, even words of warning? Should not there be a constant underlying sense of having received such mercy, so that we are merciful and charitable to others, even to our enemies? We are to forgive our enemies, love those which persecute us, pray for them, and seek to do them good? How? Why? Because this is the way the Son of God saved us, and his love, as we begin to understand something of its magnificence by the power of the Holy Spirit, is the way we are filled with the fullness of God, with the fullness of the Son of God. Yet, others are blind to their sins. So were we. They are wedded to perversity, statism, and self. We crucified the Lord of glory. They are utterly unworthy of being forgiven, being enemies of God and builders of the city of man. Fire should come down and consume them. We know not what spirit we are of. We were all these things. Yet, he forgave us, and the flow of history from those glorious words to the very end will be the triumph of God’s mercy in Christ over man’s willful ignorance, blindness, and rebellion. Is it any wonder, then, that all “bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking must be put away from us” (Eph. 4:31)? That kindness, tenderness, and forgiveness must dominate our entire being? These our Savior gave to us, and he shall triumph over the world of lost men because he forgave us, even at the moment we were crucifying him.