Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 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. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
Luke’s description of the crucifixion of Christ is remarkable for its absence of commentary. He keeps his personal feelings to himself. The language is matter-of-fact. He presents the objective details, the actions and reactions of those involved, allowing (and expecting) us to weigh them carefully and provide our own response.
The focus is first of all on the actions of the soldiers. They led out Jesus, together with two real criminals and crucified them, driving nails into their limbs. They cast lots for his clothing. No doubt they had done this kind of thing before, perhaps many times. As far as they were concerned there was nothing special about this occasion. They had no idea of the real significance of what was happening.
Luke then turns his focus to Christ himself. In the midst of the brutality and excruciating pain a voice was clearly heard. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Amazing words. There isn’t a hint of bitterness or desire for retaliation. Jesus had often spoken to the disciples about loving their enemies and praying for those who treated them badly. Now he was demonstrating it in the most extreme of circumstances.
Let’s notice precisely what he prayed, because sometimes this prayer is taken and applied far beyond its original intention. Jesus didn’t simply pray, “Father forgive them” but “Father forgive thembecause they don’t know what they are doing.” That was the truth. The soldiers had no idea that the person they were crucifying that day was the Son of God.
This is not a prayer that applies to any and every situation where a person has sinned. To pray forgiveness for someone who knows exactly the wrong he or she is committing and who has no intention of repenting – that would be immoral and would seriously devalue not only the sin itself but the person committing it.
Some weeks later when, in Jerusalem, Peter was speaking to the crowd about the killing of Jesus, he reminded them that they had disowned the holy and righteous one and had killed the author of life, but he added, “I know that you acted in ignorance.” That was true. They had acted in ignorance. But they couldn’t claim ignorance any more. The resurrection had demonstrated that they had been wrong about Jesus. So what now? Peter was very clear: “repent and turn to God so that your sins will be wiped out.”
The astounding news was that God had forgiveness even for those responsible for disowning and killing his Son. Perhaps more amazing and certainly totally unexpected, he was offering this forgiveness freely, as a gift. Moreover, this gift of forgiveness was offered on the basis of the very sacrifice of Jesus, which, humanly speaking, they had caused. But there was no automatic forgiveness. They now knew exactly what they had done. Peter called on them to repent and turn to God so that their sins would be wiped out. To refuse to admit that God was right and that they had been wrong about Jesus meant to reject the offer of forgiveness.
God offers forgiveness as a gift to all. But forgiveness is not something that can be forced on anyone. It must be received. And to receive forgiveness, we must first acknowledge that we need it and turn to God in repentance.
Christ meant exactly what he prayed for those men. They had no idea that they were crucifying the Son of God. This would not be held against them. And all of us fall in so many ways. So tainted are we by sin that we do all kinds of things that are wrong without knowing that they are wrong. But not all sin is in that category. We also knowingly sin. We know exactly what we are doing but we do it anyway. To expect (or encourage) forgiveness in this context, if there is no repentance, is to distort forgiveness, undermine true morality and remove the moral responsibility of the person who has chosen to sin. God will never do that and he will never call upon us to do it either.