Luke 23:34 – Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”
Just hours earlier, he was sitting at the dinner table, breaking bread with his disciples, his closest friends. He had washed their feet – a shameful task, reserved for servants – but Jesus did it, gladly. He ate with them, delighted in their company, and continued to teach them. And then just as he expected, one of his disciples betrayed him. Judas handed Jesus over to the angry crowd of men, which included the chief priest. They took Jesus into the home of the high priests, and the men who were guarding him began mocking him, and beating him.
After the beating, they brought him to Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea, claiming that Jesus was an insurrectionist, subverting the nation. Pilate sent him to Herod, the Tetrarch, who continued in Jesus’ humiliation as he, and his soldiers, mocked him too. But beyond mocking him, Herod didn’t know what to do with Jesus, and so he sent him back to Pilate. Pressured by the crowds, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death on the cross.
He was taken to the place called Golgotha, and hanged naked on the cross, as the Roman Soldiers gambled for his clothes.
The paintings and carved crucifixes that we see always show a scrap of loin cloth, as the artist shows deference to Jesus, the God-man. But the Roman soldiers, Jewish leaders and stirred up crowd showed no respect. Naked, tied to a plank of wood, in his most vulnerable state, they continued to jeer, mock, and hurt him.
And then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”
Why didn’t he forgive them? We know from the gospel accounts that Jesus, being God incarnate could forgive sin. He had forgiven others their sin, why not now?
Jesus cried out to the Father for the sake of the bystanders. You see, in this phrase, he did exactly what he had taught his disciples to do: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” He didn’t pray that they would stop hurting him, or that they’d be punished for their wrong. No, Jesus prayed that they would be forgiven.
Not only because of his great compassion for the lost, but because Jesus knew they did not know the depth of their actions.
They faced Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), in whose very image they were created, and they mocked him.
They stood before Jesus, through whom, and for whom (Colossians 1:16), all things were created, and cried out for the death of their creator.
Jesus who has woven together all of time, all of creation, all things – and the soldiers fought over his woven cloak.
They did not know what they were doing.
And if you believe that Jesus is God wrapped in human flesh; that He died on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins, and rose again three days later having conquered sin and death; and that He ascended into heaven and is coming back again, you too will find forgiveness in Jesus. For all of your sins.
For the sins that you’ve done, that you didn’t even know you were doing.
And perhaps, even more incredibly, for the sins you have willfully participated in.
Jesus will forgive. As the once-for-all, sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world, Jesus’ words still echo through history. Today, He still intercedes for us. He still intercedes for you, saying “Father, forgive them."
This article is available as a recording on the podcast, More Than a Cakestall, Season 3.