Words are so fascinating, especially as they intersect with our lives. Words have a way of defining our lives, even long after our deaths. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is indelibly etched in our minds, and defines for all time who the civil rights leader was. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” is forever identified with John F. Kennedy. Even in our own families, certain words and phrases conjure up memories of a loved one long gone. The words we speak can say a lot about who we are.
But, of all the words we utter in our lives, often it is the final words we speak before our deaths that can reveal the most about us – sometimes exposing our weaknesses, at other times revealing profound wisdom and insight. But all the time – dying words are remembered and cherished. Here are just a few examples:
When a priest was attending the dying comedian Charlie Chaplin at his bedside, he said “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Chaplin is reported to have replied “Why Not? After all, it belongs to him.”
Before Lady Nancy Astor passed away, she woke up long enough to see all her family standing around her bed. Her final words: “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”
As Voltaire lay on his deathbed, he was encouraged to renounce Satan. His dying words? “Now, now, my good man, this is no time to make enemies.”
As the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova, neared the end, she told those caring for her, “Get my swan costume ready.”
When the great Groucho Marx was told he was near death, he quipped: “Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!”
As the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, took his final breath, he said, “The best of all is: God is with us.”
Unfortunately, not all of us can be so cleaver or wise as we face our dying. The Mexican revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, is reported as saying, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
Yes, when we know a loved one is dying, we take special note of everything he or she says. We keep vigil by the bed so we won’t miss a word that might pass from their lips. As they struggle to form the words, we lean in close to try to make out what they are attempting to say. We instinctively know that every word they speak is important and precious.
This evening, we are beginning a seven week sermon series in which we will be considering the final words spoken by the most important person to ever walk this planet. As Jesus hung on the cross of Calvary, scripture records seven final utterances that, in many ways, sum up his life and ministry.
These – Jesus’ parting words to the world and to us – inspire and challenge us. As his “last will and testament,” we lean forward to listen carefully to his words and take them to heart. They are important and precious.
So, beginning this morning, and continuing each weekend through the season of Lent, we will take each statement of Jesus from the cross one at a time, draw close, and listen for what our Savior was dying to tell us.
This evening, we are considering the first words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
If you had just been flogged to within an inch of your life, forced to drag your own cross to the place of your execution, and then felt the spikes driven through your hands and feet, what do you suppose your first words might be? I dare say, we couldn’t repeat them in worship, or in polite company! I’d like to think I’d be a magnanimous as Jesus was, but I rather doubt it. I imagine that I would let loose with blood-curdling screams and language that would make a sailor blush (not that I know any of those kind of words, mind you!).
That’s how you and I would probably react. But not Jesus. Scripture records Jesus first words as a prayer.
Now, after I screamed and cursed a blue streak, it might actually have occurred to me that I ought to pray. But what would I pray for? What would you pray for? I might pray a prayer of vengeance like some of the ones we find in the Book of Psalms, calling on the righteous anger of God to punish those who have caused my suffering. Or I might pray for a miracle, that somehow God would come rescue me, that I might continue to live. Or maybe I would be resigned to my dying, and pray that God would at least ease my pain and allow me to die quickly.
But does Jesus pray for any of those things? No, Jesus’ prayer is not self-serving at all. Even at this most extreme moment of his life, when we might actually forgive him for lashing out in agony or anger, Jesus refuses to do so. Instead his prayer is for others. And not just for any old “others” – Jesus is praying for “them.” “Father, forgive them…”
Jesus pleads with God to offer forgiveness – to the very people who brought about his crucifixion! From the cross, as Jesus’ blood has begun to flow – the very blood shed that brings forgiveness of sins, Jesus offers a prayer of intercession on behalf his tormenters.
You see, Jesus came as the Suffering Servant foretold by the Prophet Isaiah – that God would send One to suffer for our redemption, that we might receive forgiveness from our sins. In the words of Isaiah: “He poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Is. 53:12 NRSV)
Jesus’ first impulse on the cross was to pray for his transgressors. It’s is one of the most remarkable moments in all scripture, because with his words, spoken at the very moment he, the Lamb of God, is being sacrificed for the sin of the world, Jesus is verbalizing the miracle taking place. Forgiveness though his blood is available for all, even for “them.”
But, then the question arises: “Who is them?” Who is Jesus including in this petition?
Was Jesus looking down on the soldiers who had bloody hands, gambling for his clothing? Was he praying for “them?”
What about the Roman officials who ordered his execution? They gave the command – the soldiers were only doing as they were told.
Did Jesus’ prayer include those Jewish leaders who conspired to have him killed? Was he asking God to forgive them, too?
Maybe Jesus had in mind the fickle crowd. The same people who cheered as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday cried “Crucify Him” on Friday.
Is it possible that he had Judas and Peter in mind – Judas who had betrayed him and Peter who had denied knowing him. Could the grace of God extend to them?
And what about the rest of the disciples. All but John deserted him in his hour of need. Could they be included in the “them” of Jesus’ prayer?
Who was the “them?” All of the above, I believe. In his prayer Jesus prays “Father, forgive them.” But he doesn’t stop there, does he. He says, “forgive them (why?), for they know not what they do.”
I’ve always thought that was a strange thing for Jesus to pray. It makes sense for Jesus to ask God to forgive those who have done him harm – but this second phrase seems odd, indeed. What did Jesus mean by excusing the sin of his tormenters by saying “for they know not what they do?” That’s patently untrue. (Now, don’t get too upset – I’m not calling Jesus a liar.) It just doesn’t make sense.
Of course, they knew what they did! The soldiers weren’t in a trance when they were pounding spikes into the body of Jesus. The Romans officials and Jewish leaders had very carefully conspired to have Jesus put to death. The crowd wasn’t sleepwalking when they demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. And all the disciples were very aware of how they had failed Jesus. They knew precisely what they were doing – each one sinned against Jesus deliberately.
Then what did Jesus mean, “for they know not what they do?”
John MacArthur, in his book, The Murder of Jesus, explains it this way: “The phrase, ‘for they do not know what they do’ does not suggest that they were unaware that they were sinning. Ignorance does not absolve anyone from sin. These people were behaving wickedly, and they knew it. Most were fully aware of the fact of their wrongdoing… Their ignorance itself was inexcusable, and it certainly did not absolve them of guilt for what they were doing. But they were ignorant of the enormity of their crime. They were blinded to the full reality that they were crucifying God the Son.” 1
Or as Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians (2:8), “Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.”
In fact, you could make the case that those who were guilty actually believed they were doing what was right, or at least that they were choosing between the lesser of two evils – the soldiers were only doing their job, the Roman officials were trying to keep the peace, the Jewish leaders were attempting to guard the purity of Judaism, the crowds were obediently following the instruction of their religious leaders. Even Judas believed his betrayal of Jesus would force Jesus to call down angelic armies to bring in God’s Kingdom.
Because they didn’t recognize who Jesus really was, they only could see their own selfish agendas. They were blind to the fact that God’s Kingdom was in their midst.
In his book, From the Cross: The Seven Last Words, Gaius Atkins makes this astute observation: “Because (Jesus) is crucified for a cause worth the whole of life, he knows how stupid they are who think they can end his cause by ending him, how there are issues no nails can fasten to any cross.”2
They were more than sinners – they were fools. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. Jesus was aware of their shortsightedness and stupidity, and so he asked God to have mercy on them for their foolishness. He asked God to forgive them.
But that brings us to another question raised by this first word from the cross: Are there any conditions placed on this forgiveness? Or is Jesus offering a blanket amnesty for all those who participated in his crucifixion in any way?
There are those who say yes – that because of their ignorance and stupidity, all those who sinned against Jesus get a pass.
But I don’t know if I agree with that view, because it runs counter to everything else we find in scripture about grace and forgiveness. Yes God’s forgiveness is offered to all, but it must be claimed through repentance. As John MacArthur put it, “It is important to understand that Jesus’ plea for his killers’ forgiveness did not guarantee the immediate and unconditional forgiveness of everyone who participated in the crucifixion. He was interceding on behalf of all who would repent and turn to Him as Lord and Savior. His prayer was that when they finally realized the enormity of what they had done and sought the heavenly Father’s forgiveness for their sin, He would not hold the murder of His beloved Son against them.”1
And if we look at the rest of the Biblical story we see that God answered Jesus’ prayer in miraculous ways: One of the criminals dying next to Jesus comes to faith and is granted entrance into heaven; one of the Roman soldiers who participated in crucifying Jesus is converted and proclaims Jesus as the Son of God; weeks later, the Jerusalem crowd that called for Jesus’ death heard a sermon by Peter, and 3,000 came to faith; In the Book of Acts, chapter 6, we are told that even a great number of the temple priests confessed Jesus as Lord. And the disciples who had each in their own way deserted Jesus were restored as followers as the risen Christ appeared to them and commissioned them to be his Apostles to the world.
Yes, Jesus’ prayer was answered in a powerful way. He asked God to forgive “them” – and God did! The good news is that God is eager to forgive and restore repentant sinners – even those who are guilty of murdering the Son of God! Now that’s amazing grace!
But you know what? When Jesus was praying that God would forgive “them,” I don’t believe he was only speaking about those who were players in the Passion drama. I believe that the “them” reaches down the centuries to each one of us, who has conspired against, betrayed, deserted, and denied Jesus – in small and big ways – every day. You and I continue to crucify Jesus. We have his blood on our hands, and stand in need of God’s forgiveness, just as much as those who participated in killing Jesus.
As the second verse of one of the great Lenten hymns of the church so powerfully states it:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee!
The good news is that Jesus continues to plead our case before God, that we might receive forgiveness through his blood. As it is written in the Book of Hebrews (7:25): “(Christ, our Great High Priest) is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
I am so thankful that Jesus was thinking of you and me as he offered his prayer from the cross – and that even right now at this very moment he continues to be our Advocate before God. In spite of our selfishness, our shortsightedness, and our stupidity, you and I can receive forgiveness when we confess our sins and claim the power of the blood of Christ in our lives.
1 The Murder of Jesus, by John MacArthur (a major source for much of this sermon).
2 From the Cross: The Seven Last Words, by Gaius Glenn Atkins. Harper c 1937