The ESV translation of Luke 23:34 says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These were the first of our Lord’s final words upon the cross, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
An unlikely response to the matter at hand as Jesus, an innocent man (1 Peter 2:22), hanged condemned upon a Roman crucifix. Itself a method of death that historians can only sum up as the most humiliating, cruel, and wretched way to die.
What we see spoken in the midst of such things is a small, yet mighty, prayer. Its significance magnified as these words of compassion and pity reach the ears of Jesus’ own executioners — Roman Soldiers below who were unphased by the peripheral bodies, fatally traumatized and exposed.
Beyond those whose responsibility it was to carry out a death sentence, Jesus’ prayer was also spoken in sight of the very Israelites who plotted to take His life in the first place.
His own kinsmen who had just finished beating Him, mocking Him, and spitting in His face before handing Him over to the Roman guard.
Even though they were not the ones physically driving the spikes that affixed Christ to the cross, the Apostle Peter later says in Acts 2:23 that they indeed were the men who crucified and killed Him, continuing that their insistence was due to ignorance (Acts 3:17). For this reason, it is likely that Jesus also had them in mind as He said, “They know not what they do.”
Why Did Jesus Say, ‘Father, Forgive Them’?
In light of what is known about the process of ancient Roman crucifixion, it’s incredible to think that the world’s Greatest Defender was not once found to be defending his own innocence or even returning an angry word upon His deserving accusers.
Rather, the One who came to save, having Himself been forsaken by God in this moment (Mark 15:34), was found interceding for the souls that put Him there, pleading that they themselves would not also be found forsaken.
We need only look at the surrounding context of Scripture to see there are quite a few reasons Jesus would pray a petitioning prayer of forgiveness the way he did. Let’s look at some of them now.
It’s Who He Is
Jesus, born of God, into the flesh of man, was without the sin nature of man (Luke 1:35). One side effect of his truly holy nature, within His own humanity, was the fact that He did not and could not live within the bondage of things like resentment, bitterness, hatred, or even self-centeredness.
His prayer was the prayer of a free man, someone who isn’t controlled by an automatic sin-filled and emotionally charged response. This resulted in a prayer of unadulterated forgiveness, despite a lack of remorse or acknowledgment of sin from His offenders.
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:26).
It’s What He Does
Jesus, Himself, free from sin and its consequences, is forever an advocate of sinners (1 John 2:1), always living to intercede (Hebrews 7:25). And as the only mediator between God and men, it makes sense that Jesus does just that, by praying for those who had sinned against God (1 Timothy 2:5).
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
It’s Why He Came
Jesus came as a man with a purpose, which included doing away with the excuse of ignorance (Acts 17:30). Beyond that, He came knowing that He would suffer (Acts 3:18) and that He had to die for those who were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
The reason? Because it was only His blood that could fulfill what was needed to receive the everlasting forgiveness of God (1 John 4:9-10).
This was the kind of forgiveness Jesus was praying for from upon the cross — eternal reconciliation. Exactly what He was about to provide in the moments ahead. Not just for those before Him that day, but for all the world (1 John 2:2).
“For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
It’s What God’s People Were Waiting For
By interceding for His transgressors through this prayer, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy that was foretold by Isaiah, hundreds of years prior.
This prayer, from upon the cross particularly, would have been a confirmation of His identity to those awaiting their beloved messiah, as described by the prophets of God.
Because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12).
It’s What He Taught
Jesus’ prayer is one example of our Lord practicing what He preached. He didn’t actually teach anything that He wasn’t willing to live out Himself.
Some examples of Christ’s teaching we see displayed in His prayer would be that of loving your enemies and praying for those who abuse you (Luke 6:27-28).
Also, that one, we ought always to pray (Luke 18:1). These are themes we see repeated throughout the New Testament and put clearly on display as Christ prayed in the face of His enemies, and death itself.
For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:18).
It’s the Church’s Example to Follow
Of course, Christians do not live this out by their own power but only through regeneration, sanctification, and reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Such fruit, which can be seen right away in early church history. Particularly through a disciple named Stephen who was publicly stoned to death for preaching the Gospel of Christ shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection back to life, and final ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9).
Stephen’s story comes a few chapters later where, from underneath the crushing weight of rocks, he utters his final, yet familiar, words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).
Just like Stephen, many others have since been martyred for their faith, even doing so happily, following in the footsteps of their Lord and Savior. It appears that a path already taken is a path made easier to follow.
And in light of Christ’s resurrection and ascension — knowing that He is the first fruit of those who die in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:20), we can all take His words to heart, trusting completely when He says, “Fear not those who kill the body,” and “Blessed are you when others revile you…rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 10:28; 5:11-12).
Beloved, no one knew more about the joy that was set before Him than He who came from heaven. It was for this joy Christ endured the cross, doing so in love, through and through (Hebrews 12:2).
Primarily because of who He is and what He came to do, but also because His Church is called and empowered to do the same.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:12-16).
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Amy Swanson resides in Connecticut where she has recently discovered a passion for Bible study and writing. By God’s continued grace, she now enjoys helping others better understand their Bibles, while also being an advocate for biblical church integrity. As a mother of three and a wife of 13 years, she blogs less than she’d like to but shares Scriptural insights, encouraging truth, resources, and musings more regularly at Beloved Warrior.