The first saying from the cross - Luke 23 v 34.
During His ministry, Jesus used many pulpits. He preached from a boat. He preached on a mountain top. He preached in the streets of Tyre and Sidon. He preached in the fields near to Capernaum. He used many pulpits and yet, all these other pulpits fade into insignificance when compared to the pulpit He mounted just before His death. Because His final pulpit was to be the cross.
Now, from that pulpit, He was to preach 7 short, powerful sermons. They were short because they had to be. Crucifixion was such an agonising, painful death that it was difficult to breathe, never mind speak, And, therefore, every word He uttered from the cross---it cost Him something/it increased His suffering.
The sermons were short but they are powerful. Dying words are always important. And these 7 sayings / 7 sermons of Jesus from the cross are full of meaning and significance. Well, tonight, I want us to consider, what in all probability, is the first of the 7 sayings.
Luke 23 v 34 This is a prayer---Jesus is speaking to His Father---but as far as we are concerned---it is a sermon because there are profound truths in these words that we do well to consider. There are 3 things we shall notice:
1) THE CONTEXT IN WHICH HE PRAYED vs33-34a
Jesus began His ministry in prayer. Luke 3 vs 21-22 At His baptism/at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus engaged in prayer. And, can I say with reverence, that He began as He meant to go on. His whole ministry was bathed/it was saturated in prayer And so, it is no real surprise, that even as He hung upon a tree, He was still engaged in the ministry of prayer.
You see, for 3 years, His hands had healed the sick and fed the poor. For 3 years His feet had taken Him to Capernaum/Jericho/Jerusalem, preaching the Gospel/ministering to the needs of others. For 3 years His side had been the place where His disciples had found help and comfort. But not now. His hands are impaled to the cross. His feet are nailed to the tree. His side will soon be pierced by a sword. He can`t move. He can`t touch. What then can He do? Well, he can still pray. And that is precisely what He did do. Luke 23 v 34Well, a time may come when we are not able to serve as once we did. Because of age, or sickness or circumstances---we might feel that our days of active service are over. But, there is something we can still do. We can still pray. If Jesus could pray on the cross---we can pray, even though our situation might not be what we would desire it to be.
Some time ago, I was preaching at a church and in the congregation, there was a retired Methodist minister. He`d had a stroke. His speech was affected. he could not preach anymore. But, at the end of the service, he took me aside and said `John, you are one of three pastors I pray for every Sunday morning`. I was humbled and encouraged. He wasn`t bitter because he could not preach anymore. No, he was praying for those who could still preach. And who knows---any unction I might feel as I preach---it might be because of the prayers of that man.
Jesus was faithful in prayer. He prayed to His Father in heaven, even when nailed to the cross/suspended between heaven and earth.
2) THE CONTENT OF HIS PRAYING v34 Father forgive them
There are a number of remarkable things about this prayer. Let us notice some of them:
a) Jesus was praying but He was not praying for Himself. No, He was praying for others. Now, He could have prayed for Himself. Matt. 26 vs 52-54 On the cross Jesus could have prayed that prayer. He could have prayed for Himself and over 72,000 angels would have come to His aid. But He didn`t---why? The Scripture must be fulfilled. Jesus had submitted Himself to the will of God. He would not pray for Himself. He prayed for others.
b) But, who were the others for whom He prayed? `Father, forgive THEM---who? The mockers. The scoffers. The scribes. The Pharisees. The Roman soldiers. `Forgive them---my enemies, those responsible for my death. Remarkable that He should have prayed for others but even more remarkable that the others He prayed for were His enemies.
c) But there is a 3rd thing remarkable about this prayer. `Father---forgive them. Matt. 9 vs 1-6 Here, Jesus Himself pronounces forgiveness. `Son be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you` Jesus pronounced forgiveness. He did not have to ask his Father to do it for Him. Why then, does He ask his Father to do it now. v6 On earth but there is a sense in which Jesus was not now on earth. He had been lifted from the earth. He was hanging between heaven and earth as our Substitute, /Representative. All our sins/our iniquities were placed on Him. And He was so identified with us that just as we have no authority to forgive sins, so in those moments, He too had no authority to forgive sins. He had forfeited that right and had to ask His Father to do what He now could not do.
d) Ignorance is not innocence. They did not really know what they were doing but ignorance is not innocence. They still needed to be forgiven. You see Pilate knew that Jesus was no ordinary man but He perhaps did not know that Jesus was the Eternal Son of God. The chief priests knew there was something quite special about Jesus but they did not recognise Him as their Messiah. The Roman soldiers knew that Jerusalem had turned out to see Jesus die but they did not know He was the Saviour of the world. And so, in that sense, those responsible for His death ---in some measure they were ignorant. They were in darkness. They did not know what they were doing.
Well, in part, that is true of all who rebel against God/of all who despise the Gospel and reject the claims of Christ. They don`t know what they are doing because, if they did, they would not dare to rebel against God. They would not dare to reject the only way of salvation. They would not dare to reject the One who some day will be their Judge. They would not dare to do these things and yet they do them because they are in darkness. They are in ignorance.
But ignorance is not innocence. And, therefore, ignorant people still need to be forgiven. Eight or nine years ago, within the space of four days, I got two envelopes through the post and they both told me that I had been caught doing 35mph in a 30mph area. Now, I knew nothing about it. I was quite unaware/quite ignorant that I had done anything wrong. But, it made no difference. I had to accept the penalty. I had to pay the £60 fines because ignorance is not innocence.
Well, that is quite a thought, isn`t it? On the day of judgement no-one will be able to hide behind this text and say `I didn`t know what I was doing`. Ignorance is no excuse. And the fact is, of course, that no-one is in total ignorance. We have a conscience. We have the Word of God. We have the strivings of the Spirit. No-one is in total ignorance, even though they might not realise the enormity of what they are doing. The Context in which He prayed. The Content of His praying.
3) THE CONSEQUENCES OF HIS PRAYER.
To see the consequences of His prayer, I suggest you have only to move forward to v43 Jesus prayed `Father forgive them` and within minutes a criminal/a thief became the first beneficiary of His prayer. `Today. you will be with Me in Paradise`. A thief/a criminal was ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
But there is something important we need to notice here. You see there are those who teach universal salvation based on this prayer of Jesus. They say Jesus asked God to forgive/to cancel out the sins of all men everywhere. And it doesn`t matter what their attitude is---whether they are penitent or not. They don`t know what they are doing and so they will be forgiven.
Well, that is a complete misunderstanding of the prayer of Jesus. And I suggest we see that here. There were two thieves crucified with Jesus but Jesus did not say to both thieves `Today you shall be with Me in Paradise`. No, He said it only to the one thief who confessed his sin to/the one thief who recognised the perfection of Jesus/ to the one thief who cried out in repentance and faith. It was to that thief forgiveness was granted because forgiveness involves repentance/it involves a sorrow for sin The prayer offered by Christ on the cross--- `Father, forgive them, they know not what they do`-it is abundantly answered by God in all who repent and trust Christ.
In concluding, I want to suggest that there should be for us another consequence. Ephesians. 4 vs 31-32 For the past few years, I have had an itinerant ministry and as I have gone around many different churches, one of the things which has saddened me has been this. How hard, how bitter, how unforgiving Christians can be towards one another. But how can we justify it?
Paul here takes us back to the cross. He invites us to gaze upon the crucified. To hear His words `Father forgive them---they know not what they do`. And he says `when you see how God in Christ has forgiven you---how can you withhold forgiveness from anyone else? v32
I often see texts in churches/in Chrstian homes but I sometimes wish that I could see this one. But, can I say this. If the text is not written on the walls of your church or the walls of your house---make sure it is written on the walls of your heart. Because, written on the walls of your heart, it will make a real difference in your homes and in your churches. What an amazing prayer. `Father, forgive them for they know not what they do`.John Mollitt