Sayings of Jesus on the Cross: #1 “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

20 Jun

Father Forgive Them, They Know Not What They Do.” (Luke 23:24) | Canisius College Campus Ministry Blog

Man had done his worst.  The one by whom the world was made had come into it, but the world knew him not. The Lord of glory had tabernacled among men, but he was not wanted.

The eyes which sin had blinded saw in him no beauty that he should be desired. At his birth there was no room in the inn, which foreshadowed the treatment he was to receive at the hands of men. Shortly after his birth Herod sought to slay him, and this intimated the hostility his person evoked and forecast the cross as the climax of man’s enmity.

Again and again, his enemies attempted his destruction. And now their vile desires are granted them. The Son of God had yielded himself up into their hands. A mock trial had been gone through, and though his judges found no fault in him, nevertheless, they had yielded to the insistent clamoring of those who hated him as they cried again and again “Crucify him”.

When someone dies, a frequent question that people have is: “Did he or she say anything at the end?”  We want to know what the last words were.  We are hopeful that there will be a final acknowledgment that they understood how much we loved them.  We look for some word of insight, a wise truth, a word of hope.

Shakespeare once wrote in his play Richard II…The tongues of dying men–Enforce attention like deep harmony–Where words are scarce–They are seldom spent in vain–For they breathe truth–That breathe their words in pain.

When Jesus was dying on the cross, He gave seven important statements (commonly referred to as “The Seven Sayings From The Cross”).  These statements…the last of a dying man…enable us to see into the very core…the very heart of Jesus.

His final words from the cross will provide us some important theological principles and practical spiritual lessons.  Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at these last words of Jesus.

Think about the goodness and purity of Jesus Christ.  His compassion and love, deeds of kindness and healings.  His words of grace.  His preaching the glad tidings of the Gospel.  There has never been anyone so pure and good as He.

He never sinned. Never disobeyed His Father.  Never did violence.  Never broke any laws.  He was a Friend to all, even to wretched harlots and greedy publicans.

So, how could people hate Him?  What could have caused Pontius Pilate to agree with Herod to condemn Him?  And the chief priests and rulers of Israel to conspire with Judas?  (the latter betrayed Him, and the former mocked, spat upon and blindfolded and struck Him with their fists)  and what could have caused the multitude, who had formerly followed Him and heard him with admiration, to turn against Him and cry out for His death by crucifixion?

(Luke 23:32-38)  “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. {33} When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left. {34} Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. {35} The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” {36} The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar {37} and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” {38} There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

Not all the Seven Words of Christ from the cross are recorded in one gospel, therefore we do not have an automatic recognition of the order in which they were uttered.

There is in them, however, a progression of the will and purpose of God for the redemption of mankind. They seem to sum up in themselves the whole of the gospel.

To help us better appreciate these words, we must look at some prior events that had taken place.  Remember, before Jesus was nailed to the cross, we read that He experienced many terrible things.  He was flogged.  This was usually done with a whip that had bits of bone or metal embedded into it.  The effect was to tear up the back of the person.

 Following the whipping, we are told that the soldiers mocked and beat Jesus.  They dressed Him up as a king with a crown of thorns on His head.  Then they beat Him and spit on Him.  They hurled insults at Him.  What I want us to see is that Jesus was physically abused by His enemy.

Not only was Jesus physically abused, He was humiliated as well.  As you may recall, the soldiers made Jesus carry His own cross to the place of execution. This process was designed to humiliate.  Jesus was being showcased to the people as a vile criminal.

If that was not enough, Jesus was executed publicly. People stood around and waited for Him to die. Every gasp, every twitch from pain, every moment of struggle was watched by the crowd. He couldn’t even talk privately with His family and friends!

But there was yet one final insult. Even as He was hanging on the cross the guards were gambling to see who got to keep His clothes. This was worse than a family fighting about the will before someone has died. It’s like watching all your possessions sold before your very eyes. His dignity was gone.  Jesus was humiliated.


After being betrayed, falsely convicted, beaten, spat upon, and unjustly nailed to a cross to die an agonizing death, the Son of God harbored no hatred for His tormentors but instead we read that He offered them forgiveness…His first words from the cross were “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

The first three were uttered between the third and sixth hours (9 a.m.-12 noon).

This first of the seven cross-sayings of our Lord presents him in the attitude of prayer. How significant! How instructive! His public ministry had opened with prayer (Luke 3:21), and here we see it closing in prayer. Surely he has left us an example! No longer might those hands minister to the sick, for they are nailed to the cross; no longer may those feet carry him on errands of mercy, for they are fastened to the cruel tree; no longer may he engage in instructing the apostles, for they have forsaken him and fled. How then does he occupy himself? In the ministry of prayer! What a lesson for us.

In praying for his enemies not only did Christ set before us a perfect example of how we should treat those who wrong and hate us, but he also taught us never to regard any as beyond the reach of prayer. If Christ prayed for his murderers then surely we have encouragement to pray now for the very chief of sinners! Christian reader, never lose hope. Does it seem a waste of time for you to continue praying for that man, that woman, that wayward child of yours? Does their case seem to become more hopeless every day?

Jesus asked His father to forgive the very ones who abused, rejected, and humiliated Him.  These words from Jesus show us the compassionate heart of our Savior.

Jesus’ words were not just spoken for the crowds that were watching Him die.  They were also spoken for us to hear today.

 Here we see the fulfillment of the prophetic word.

How much God made known before hand of what should transpire on that day of days! What a complete picture did the Holy Spirit furnish of our Lord’s Passion with all the attendant circumstances! Among other things it had been foretold that the Saviour should “make intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

 Here we see Christ identified with his people.

On no previous occasion did Christ make such a request of the Father. Never before had he invoked the Father’s forgiveness of others. Hitherto he forgave himself. To the man sick of the palsy he had said, “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matthew 9:2). To the woman who washed his feet with her tears in the house of Simon, he said, “Thy sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). Why then should he now ask the Father to forgive, instead of directly pronouncing forgiveness himself?

 Here we see the divine estimate of sin and its consequent guilt.

Under the Levitical economy God required that atonement should be made for sins of ignorance. “If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance, in the holy things of the Lord; then he shall bring for his trespass unto the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flocks, with thy estimation by shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for a trespass offering: And he shall make amends for the harm that he hath done in the holy thing, and shall add the fifth part thereto, and give it unto the priest: and the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him” (Lev. 5:15, 16).

Sin is always sin in the sight of God whether we are conscious of it or not. Sins of ignorance need atonement just as truly as do conscious sins. God is holy, and he will not lower his standard of righteousness to the level of our ignorance. Ignorance is not innocence.

Here we see the blindness of the human heart.

This does not mean that the enemies of Christ were ignorant of the fact of his crucifixion. They did know full well that they had cried out “Crucify him”. They did know full well that their vile request had been granted them by Pilate. They did know full well that he had been nailed to the tree for they were eye-witnesses of the crime.

What then did our Lord mean when he said, “They know not what they do”? He meant they were ignorant of the enormity of their crime. They “knew not” that it was the Lord of glory they were crucifying. The emphasis is not on “They know not” but on “they know not what they do”.

And yet they ought to have known. Their blindness was inexcusable. The Old Testament prophecies which had received their fulfillment in him were sufficiently plain to identify him as the Holy One of God. His teaching was unique, for his very critics were forced to admit “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46).

And what of his perfect life! He had lived before men a life which had never been lived on earth before. He pleased not himself. He went about doing good. He was ever at the disposal of others. There was no self-seeking about him. His was a life of self-sacrifice from beginning to end. His was a life ever lived to the glory of God. His was a life on which was stamped heaven’s approval, for the Father’s voice testified audibly, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am wellpleased” . No, there was no excuse for their ignorance. It only demonstrated the blindness of their hearts. Their rejection of the Son of God bore full witness, once for all, that the carnal mind is “enmity against God”.

Here we see a lovely exemplification of his own teaching.

In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord taught his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Above all others Christ practiced what he preached. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. He not only taught the truth but was himself the truth incarnate. Said he, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). So here on the cross he perfectly exemplified his teaching of the mount. In all things he has left us an example.

Notice Christ did not personally forgive his enemies. So in Matthew 5:44 he did not exhort his disciples to forgive their enemies, but he does exhort them to “pray” for them. But are we not to forgive those who wrong us? This leads us to a point concerning which there is much need for instruction today.

Does scripture teach that under all circumstances we must always forgive? I answer emphatically, it does not. The word of God says, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee saying, 1 repeat, thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3,4).


The people who had beat Jesus, mocked Him, and nailed Him to the cross did not deserve forgiveness.  But Jesus through His kindness offered it to them.  The point is that forgiveness reaches out to the undeserving.

Chris Carrier of Coral Gables, Florida, was abducted when he was 10 years old. His kidnapper, angry with the boy’s family, burned him with cigarettes, stabbed him numerous times with an ice pick, then shot him in the head and left him to die in the Everglades. Remarkably, the boy survived, though he lost sight in one eye. No one was ever arrested.

Recently, a man confessed to the crime. Carrier, now a youth minister, went to see him. He found David McAllister, a 77-year-old ex-convict, frail and blind, living in a North Miami Beach nursing home. Carrier began visiting often, reading to McAllister from the Bible and praying with him. His ministry opened the door for McAllister to make a profession of faith.

No arrest is forthcoming; after twenty-two years, the statute of limitations on the crime is long past. In Christian Reader (Jan/Feb 98), Carrier says, “While many people can’t understand how I could forgive David McAllister, from my point of view I couldn’t not forgive him. If I’d chosen to hate him all these years, or spent my life looking for revenge, then I wouldn’t be the man I am today, the man my wife and children love, the man God has helped me to be.”

David McAllister didn’t deserve forgiveness.  He beat and tortured a little, precious child.  However, Chris Carrier had the Christ like heart to forgive him.

We must likewise forgive people who don’t deserve it. We are to forgive others just as God forgives us.

(Mark 11:25)  “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

(Ephesians 4:31-32)  “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

 Right now in your life, are you harboring any bitterness and anger against someone who did you wrong?  Do you wake up in the morning with hatred in your heart towards someone?  If you do, this morning is the perfect time to let go of your bitterness & anger and forgive the person who has treated you badly.

But you may want to say, “But they don’t deserve to be forgiven.”  But I say, “Did the people who put Jesus to death deserve to be forgiven?  No.  “Do we deserve to be forgiven by God when we sin against Him?  No.  But yet God still forgives us.  We must forgive because God forgives us.

Leonardo da Vinci painted the fresco “The Last Supper” in a church in Milan. Two very interesting stories are associated with this painting.

At the time that Leonardo da Vinci painted “The Last Supper,” he had an enemy who was a fellow painter. da Vinci had had a bitter argument with this man and despised him. When da Vinci painted the face of Judas Iscariot at the table with Jesus, he used the face of his enemy so that it would be present for ages as the man who betrayed Jesus. He took delight while painting this picture in knowing that others would actually notice the face of his enemy on Judas.

As he worked on the faces of the other disciples, he often tried to paint the face of Jesus, but couldn’t make any progress. da Vinci felt frustrated and confused. In time he realized what was wrong. His hatred for the other painter was holding him back from finishing the face of Jesus. Only after making peace with his fellow painter and repainting the face of Judas was he able to paint the face of Jesus and complete his masterpiece.

One of the reasons we may have a hard time accepting the forgiveness of God is that we find it hard to forgive others. That’s why Jesus said, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14,15). If you want your relationship with Jesus to be all that it should be, forgive your enemies and do all you can to demonstrate Christ’s love to them.

I realize that at times, it is hard to forgive…but we must.  We must forgive so that we can get on with our lives.  At this moment, if you need to forgive someone, do what Jesus did, pray…”Father, forgive them…”


Although Jesus could have easily forgiven these men Himself, why did He ask His Heavenly Father to forgive them?

The answer is…Jesus wants us to understand that forgiveness ultimately comes from the Father.  An offense against the Son was an offense against the Father.  A sin against any other person was – and is – a sin against God; like the prodigal son said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21).

When we sin against others, we are also sinning against God.  When we sin against another person, not only should we ask that person for forgiveness, but we should also ask God for His forgiveness.  Why?  Forgiveness ultimately comes from God the Father.


Do not think that it was because of the wicked plot of the unbelieving Jewish rulers that Jesus is now nailed to the cross.  Do not think that it was because of weakness that the Lord of glory has been arrested, tried, and condemned to die.  Do not think that the Roman military or governor was responsible.

For it was your sins and my sins which put Jesus on the cross.

And do not feel sadness just because this seems like an unhappy story filled with someone else’s pain.   Rather feel grief over your own sins, which Jesus Christ bore in His own body on the cross.

No, these men did not know nor understand just Who Jesus is.  He is the Son of God, Who came to bring you back into the love of God by suffering for your sins, and by taking your punishment.

And, consistent with love, and as the supreme example of love, Jesus prayed, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.  Among the deepest thought we can think, here, and the finest perception we can make, is that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has everything to do with the love of God for you, and God’s provision of forgiveness of your sins.

This morning, we have looked at the first saying from the cross… “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These words are inspiring and they teach us several wonderful lessons. Forgiveness reaches out to the undeserving. Forgiveness ultimately comes from the Father. I hope and pray that the words of the Lord have touched your heart.

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Posted by on June 20, 2022 in cross


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