Reflection for Good Friday – ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

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33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, 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. ~ ‭Luke‬ ‭23:33-34‬ ‭(NIV‬‬)

A reflection, from Luke 23:34, on one of Jesus’ last words. 14th April 2017

Looking past the long weekend, the eggs, and the hats, Easter is an opportunity for us to remember the death and resurrection of a Jewish teacher that occurred almost 2000 years ago. Today, on Good Friday, we have a chance to stop and reflect on the murder of an innocent man and what it means for us all.

The text before us sees Jesus being brought by Roman soldiers to a hill called the Skull, where they crucified Him. The Jewish leaders and crowds had demanded His death, and it was granted to them as seen by His being nailed to two planks of wood. Crucifixion was a perfected method of execution that the Romans came up with in order to maximise the suffering and pain that a victim experienced before dying by blood loss, shock, or suffocation. (The pain was so bad that we have derived a word to describe it: excruciating). But as Jesus was crucified on a cross, he said this:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus prays to His Father in Heaven and asks that He forgive the actions of the Roman soldiers and Jewish crowds who were there to murder Him. And He gives His Father a reason, namely that they did not know what they were doing. Amidst the trickling blood and the gasps for breath, Jesus found it important to pray that these people would be excused for some lack of knowledge. What does this mean? I want to ask three questions of this saying of Jesus:

  1. What did they think that they were doing?
  2. What did Jesus know that they were doing?
  3. Why does their ignorance excuse their actions? In particular, I want to see what the implications of the answer to this question are.

Firstly, what did they think they were doing?

In the hours that led up to this point – this time of crucifixion – the Jews had accused Jesus of calling Himself the Christ, the Son of God, and the Son of Man (Luke 22:66-71). In other words, the Jews were roused up to action because they heard Jesus claiming that He was the King of the Jews – the King of Israel. This was a threat to their authority. This was a threat to their tenuous peace agreement with the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. This was a threat to their influence over the Jewish people. If this man continued going around and people believed He was the King of Israel, the Roman powers in the land would see this as a political uprising and respond with force. In fact, this had been a common occurrence in the previous centuries, where Jewish revolutionaries claiming to be ‘Christs’ would try and overthrow the Romans.

Meanwhile, the Roman soldiers thought they were just following orders to kill a criminal and keep the peace among the Jewish crowds. They were doing as they were told – just another day with another set of criminals being executed. So, the Jewish leaders thought that by murdering Jesus they were serving the people of God by protecting their interests and peace. It’s very clear to them – get rid of this Jewish madman who claims to be God’s Christ and the King of the Jews before He causes anymore trouble. The Romans thought they were satisfying the demands of the Jewish crowds and killing a common criminal.

But secondly, then: what did Jesus know they were doing?

There are two answers to this question. In Acts 3:13-15a we see the Apostle Peter preaching to a Jewish crowd where he reminds them of what they did at the Skull:

13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life…

The Jewish leaders, and the people by association, far from serving the people of God and protecting their interests and peace had disowned God in the flesh Himself. They sinned against God, rebelling against Him. Instead of serving God they killed God. They took the life of the one who gave them life. Both the Jews and the Romans were murderers in the highest order, and guilty of the greatest condemnation.  They committed cosmic treason, regicide against the ruler of the cosmos.

However, back in Luke’s Gospel, we see another answer to this question. In Luke 9:22a, Jesus told His disciples:

22 …”The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed…”

Jesus knew that this scene was going to happen. He knew that the Jewish leaders would reject Him. He knew that He would suffer greatly and die. And He knew that it must happen. Jesus knew that the Jewish leaders and Romans were doing what God had already known and foreordained they would do.

So we have seen two answers to this question of what Jesus knew the Jewish leaders and Romans were doing. Jesus as the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Christ, must suffer, be rejected, and killed because this is God’s known and foreordained plan for the King of Israel. The Jews and Romans were acting in accordance with what God knew would happen, and yet they were also committing the greatest crime ever accomplished by humanity. How can this be? Isn’t there a paradoxical situation here? If God knows all things that will happen, and knew this would happen to Jesus, then how can we hold those people responsible accountable? Hold that thought. We’re going to come back to it shortly. For now, let us turn to the third question.

Why does their ignorance excuse their actions?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

What does this mean?

  • Maybe it means that since God already knew what the Jews and Romans were going to do they bore no responsibility whatsoever for their actions. Does this mean that whenever we hurt someone else, or sin against God, our actions are excused because God knows everything we are going to do anyway?
  • Maybe it means that since the Jews and Romans didn’t know the full impact of their actions then they can be excused. Does this mean that whenever we hurt someone else, or sin against God, but are largely unaware of the impact of our actions then we are obligated to be excused?

Beloved, maybe you who struggle with anger, disobedience to parents, and envy should be excused because God knows everything that you will ever do and you can’t be held accountable! Beloved, maybe when you accidentally hurt someone with your harsh words, or unknowingly gossip about something you weren’t meant to, should not worry about your actions because you didn’t know exactly what you were doing! Is this really what Jesus is getting at when He prays that His Father should forgive because they do not know what they are doing?

Beloved, the answer is no.

Notice that I’ve continued to use the word ‘excuse’ when it doesn’t show up in Jesus’ saying. He uses the word ‘forgive’, and this is the key difference. When we ‘excuse’ someone we imply that they have not really done something wrong. But when we ‘forgive’ someone for something, the underlying assumption is that they really have done something wrong. This is why it can be offensive to someone if you say that you forgive them. “Forgive me? For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.” In-built into the idea of forgiveness is a condemnation of some action. Forgiveness is only necessary when a wrong has truly been committed against someone. It involves the condemnation of a wrong, and then a gracious removal of the consequences of that wrong. Instead of letting a wrong keep two persons apart, forgiveness removes the barrier and allows them to be reconciled.

The fact that Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those responsible for His death isn’t meant to draw our focus to the removal of guilt of His murderers – instead, it’s meant to draw our focus towards the heart of the suffering king who prays for grace for those who do not deserve it. We never find out whether or not those responsible are forgiven (and we know that not every prayer of Jesus was answered e.g. when Jesus prayed that the cup of the suffering and death would be taken away from Him). But that’s not the point. The point is that Jesus looks at these before Him who have committed the greatest crime in the history of creation and prays for forgiveness. That’s the heart of the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man. He desires mercy even though we deserve judgement.

We see God’s sovereign knowledge and human responsibility lying behind the events of the cross.  Some of us may not have thought about this before. Many of us have, and many of us have struggled to understand it. But just because we may not understand something it does not mean that it is not true. There are many paradoxes in the world around us, but our inability to resolve them in our intellects doesn’t mean that they are false (e.g. wave-particle duality of light). Despite the knowledge that He would be rejected and killed, Jesus still prayed for those whom He was murdered by. And this should drive us to the cross ourselves. Consider this: if God’s sovereign knowledge weren’t a reality then it is possible that a sin that you commit, or a wrong you perform, could surprise God. It is possible that when Jesus calls you to deny yourself and follow Him, He doesn’t really know what He is getting. But because God knows all that you have done and all that you will do, we can trust that nothing we ever do can surprise Him.

Beloved, what do you do when you sin? What do you do with your anger, your disobedience to your parents, your envy, your harsh words, your gossip, your lust, your pride, your greed, your lies, and your theft? Before God, we are rightly condemned for our actions. But we serve a Saviour who is not surprised by anything that we will ever do. We glory in a Saviour who gives us grace even though we sin against Him. Friends who do not follow Jesus: what do you do with your guilt? How do you process it? How do you live with it?  If you are a Christian you have complete assurance that in Christ there is no condemnation for anything you have done or ever will do. If you are a Christian, you can trust that nothing you ever do can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When you sin, instead of running away from God and looking down at your wrong, look up. Look at the cross and see the King who suffered, was rejected, killed, knew every sin that you would ever commit, and still offers you forgiveness. Praise God! It really is a Good Friday.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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