Why did Jesus pray 'Father, forgive them' from the cross?

Jesus spoke several times during His crucifixion. One of His statements is recorded in Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Jesus, in praying "Father, forgive them" from the cross, was practicing what He preached. In Matthew 5:43–44, Jesus had taught, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Jesus did not lash out in anger against His tormentors, but He left us an example of how we should respond to persecution. In the very midst of brutality, He prayed that God would forgive His murderers. "If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:20–21).

Jesus' prayer "Father, forgive them" made a lasting impression on His followers. Not too long after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, we see that Stephen followed Christ's example when he was being stoned. "And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:59–60).

The prayer "Father, forgive them" reveals the purpose of Jesus' death: to provide atonement so that sins could be forgiven. "Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38–39). It was normal for a person who was being executed to confess his sins, but Jesus had no sins to confess. Rather than ask for forgiveness for Himself, He requests forgiveness for the ones responsible for His death.

The full quote from Jesus on the cross is found in context in Luke 23:33–34: "When they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' And they cast lots to divide his garments." The immediate context might suggest that Jesus's statement "they know not what they do" refers to the Roman soldiers who were simply carrying out orders. They would have had no idea who He was. For all they knew, He really was a criminal like the thieves on either side of Him. While they may have been cruel, they may not have known that He was an innocent man, much less the Son of God.

But the ignorance Jesus mentions covers more than the soldiers on execution duty that day. The Jewish leadership also acted in ignorance. They certainly showed malice in turning Jesus over to Pilate, but they did not know that Jesus was the Messiah. They should have recognized Him, but they did not: "For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed" (Acts 13:27–28, emphasis added).

The apostles later preached that both the people and the leaders could be forgiven for their sin. Peter says, "And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, 'The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people'" (Acts 3:17–23, emphasis added).

Showing the great grace and mercy of God, Jesus prayed that those who were responsible for His crucifixion would be able to be forgiven. We see God's forgiveness extended to one of the criminals on a nearby cross; he started out by mocking Jesus but later had a change of heart and received salvation (Luke 23:39–43). Among the Jewish leaders, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea followed Christ (John 19:38–40). Even among the soldiers at the foot of the cross, a centurion uttered a statement of budding faith (Luke 23:47).

Jesus' prayer "Father, forgive them" did not grant forgiveness without repentance and faith, but it does show the compassion and kindness that was inherent in Him. And the timing of the prayer is as startling as the content. As Spurgeon pointed out, "It was not a prayer for enemies who had done him an ill deed years before, but for those who were there and then murdering him. Not in cold blood did the Saviour pray, after he had forgotten the injury, and could the more easily forgive it, but while the first red drops of blood were spurting on the hands which drove the nails; while yet the hammer was bestained with crimson gore, his blessed mouth poured out the fresh warm prayer, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'" (from Sermon No. 897, October 24, 1869, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newington, London).

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