While suffering on the cross for our sins on Golgotha, our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, spoke seven short, simple but significant sentences. These sayings reveal a great deal about the heart of the Lord Jesus. No one Gospel writer recorded them all. Certainly, the Holy Spirit was sovereign in this. He chose in His wisdom to give the four Gospel Writers the privilege of recording what He deemed best for their Gospel material. Mark and Matthew were given the privilege of recording only one of the seven sayings, while the remaining six sayings were shared equally between Dr. Luke and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Each records three sayings in their Gospel accounts.
These so-called seven sayings from the cross by our Savior, have been held dear by the Church primarily because they have opened to us a window into our Lord's heart and mind while suffering for our sins on the Roman cruel cross. The amazing thing about each saying is that they were spoken not in anger, resentment, bitterness, or with a complaining or vindictive spirit. In fact, each is a vivid expression either of His great care, concern, compassion and His sacrificial and selfless love for us, or of His dreadful but divine work of bearing our sin, or His final conquest and victory over sin and Satan.
The season of celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ is certainly an appropriate time to pause and ponder each of these sayings. I believe doing so will enhance and energize our spirits to worship Christ with a new sense of purpose and passion. Of course, meditating on these sayings should not be limited to Easter celebrations. It should be practiced all year long because Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins is key to our daily living and eternal future.
My purpose is to present each saying in an article in the order in which they were spoken by our Suffering Savior after He was nailed to the cross and before He died. I have entitled the first saying: "The Savior's Selfless Prayer."
Truly the love of Christ is selfless, sacrificial, and always seeks His very best for others, that is, sinners like you and me. Hanging on the cross between two criminals, our Lord did not focus on Himself. He had no thought for Himself. He displayed no sign of self-pity in His suffering. He did not even seek sympathy from others for the gross injustice that was being done to Him. In fact, earlier, while Simon of Cyrene was carrying His cross, a large crowd of people, and of women followed Him, mourning and lamenting Him. But our Lord turned to them and ordered them to stop weeping for Him (see Luke 23:26-28). Why? He didn't need their sympathy. Now on the cross, our Lord didn't complain about lack of sympathy for Him. His thoughts were on sinners and their greatest need in life. Our Lord knew that the greatest need in the lives of sinners is forgiveness of their sins. He knew that without forgiveness of our sins we would remain in our sins and be separated from the loving care and presence of a loving God for all eternity. And since His work would purchase and guarantee forgiveness for sinners, He prayed for that. Luke is the only Gospel writer who records our Lord's prayer for the forgiveness of His executioners. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). I would like to emphasis three things in our Savior's Selfless Prayer for Sinners. First, is the person our Lord addressed in prayer (Luke 23:34). Second, is the petition of our Lord (Luke 23:34c). And third, is the plea of our Lord (23:34d).
Person Addressed: "Father," (Luke 23:34b).
Please notice carefully the Person our Lord addressed in His prayer. He directed His prayer to the "Father." In all of His prayers before the cross, our Lord Jesus specifically addressed the Father. Praying after the seventy disciples returned from their short-term mission of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, our Lord addressed the Father (see Luke 10:21; cf. Matthew 11:25-26). Praying before raising Lazarus, our Savior directed His prayer to the Father (see John 11:41-42). Again, praying in Jerusalem after hearing that some Greeks who came to worship at the feast requested to see Him, our Redeemer lifted up His voice to the Father, to glorify His name (see John 12:20-28). Praying in the Upper Room after the Last Supper with His disciples, our Good Shepherd called on the Father. He addressed Him variously as "Father," "Holy Father," "Father," and " O righteous Father," (see John 17:1,5,11,24,25). Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord once again directed His prayer to the Father (see Matthew 26:39, 42). In Mark's account of His prayer in Gethsemane, He addressed "Abba! Father!" (see Mark 14:36).
Also, earlier in His ministry, our Lord taught His disciples to pray to the Father in His name (see Matthew 6:9; John 15:16). Now on the cross, our Lord once again addresses the First Person of the Triunity, that is, the one true God in Three Distinct Persons. Please take careful note of this! Jesus did not pray to Himself. He prayed to the First Person of the Godhead, that is, God the Father. Praying to God the Father affirms the Father's unique relationship with Jesus as His One and Only Begotten Son. Please take careful note of this! The same Father God the Son prayed to in His life here on earth is the same Father all true believers are exhorted to pray to. Do you know what an honor that is? Do you know what a blessing that is? What an awesome privilege! Our Father is a real personal divine being to relate to, to pour out our hearts to, to call upon in time of our own need or for the needs of others. He is not an impersonal force. He is a personal Father who cares, who is concerned for His believing children, and who shows them compassion. How tender and thrilling is this! How are you doing in your prayer life? Do you enter prayer convinced that your Father in heaven is waiting to hear your prayer? Do you come to God with reverence and confidence, as children to a father? Do you approach the throne of God knowing in your heart that God the Father is a real personal divine being to whom to direct your prayers? Or are you praying to an impersonal force to whom you can't relate? If so, I urge you to ask Jesus Christ to reveal the Father to you? He alone has been given the authority of disclosing the Father to whomever He chooses.
Petition: "forgive them;" (Luke 23:34c).
Our Lord's first words from the cross are not about the pain or the injustice He was suffering. They are a prayer for those who have just crucified Him-the very Son of God. Amazing! Selfless! Having addressed God the Father while hanging on the cross, our Lord's petition or request was for the forgiveness, not for Himself but for others. The Bible made it clear that Christ had no sin. No one could convict Him of sin (John 8:46). He knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). He is a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners (Hebrews 7:26). He committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth (1 Peter 2:22). As such, our Lord did not need to pray for forgiveness of His "sins." He had none. But He knew we are are in need of God's forgiveness. Notice our Lord was very specific in His petition of the Father. Forgiveness of sins is man's great need and Jesus asked His Father to do just that. His suffering and death on the cross would purchase and guarantee forgiveness of our sins. In other words, God's forgiveness is a free gift to sinners, but it cost the precious life-blood of His Son. Forgiveness of sins is not cheap. It is a costly venture for God. This should cause us to freshly appreciate God's forgiveness in our lives. This reminds me of the scripture in Psalm 130:3-4: "If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared." Forgiveness of sins should never be taken for granted. It is a gift of God and a blessing of God. King David experienced this gift and blessing in a personal and powerful way. His experience is recorded in Psalm 32:1-2: "How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity." Oh what blessing is forgiveness! This was what our Lord prayed for.
I personally thank God and will continue to thank Him for this simple, yet significant petition made by our Lord on our behalf. His love is patient and kind. His love is not self-seeking. His love keeps no record of wrongs. His love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4, 5, 7). Our Lord had no resentment, no anger, no bitterness, no lurking desire in His heart for God's instantaneous punishment upon the men who mocked, manhandled and mistreated Him. He alone had love for them. Oh amazing love! Our Lord did not petition the Father, "Father, consume them. Condemn them. Cast them into the hottest and deepest recesses of hell." Rather, moved by divine love that seeks God's very best for sinners, our Lord prayed for their forgiveness. The Greek word for "forgive" is "aphiemi." It also means cancel, remit, pardon. It speaks of the remission or the cancellation of the guilt (debt) of sin. It refers to the absolution of a person of his misdeeds. This is what Christ asked for with a heart that had no bitterness or resentment in it.
Actually, in the context of this verse, the pronoun "them" (Greek: autois) refers to those who crucified Him, the criminals who hurled abuse at Him, and the religious leaders who sneered at Him while hanging in excruciating pain on the cross. Hanging between two sinners and surrounded by sinners, our Lord prayed for their forgiveness. This is amazing love and amazing grace! This prayer is actually a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 where the Scripture foretold the Suffering Servant's intercession for transgressors. He "was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors."
Earlier, the night before His crucifixion, while instituting the Lord's Supper in the Upper Room, the Lord Jesus spoke to His disciples of pouring out His blood for forgiveness of sins. "And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins'" (Matthew 26:27-28). Now, after His precious blood had been shed at the cross, He prayed for forgiveness. So our Lord poured out His blood for forgiveness of sins and prayed for forgiveness of sins! What a precious thought!
John Stott eloquently captures our Lord's petition for forgiveness in these words:
Matthew Henry also writes with great insight:
Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, would later followed our Lord's example and prayed for the forgiveness of those who stoned him to death (Acts 7:60).
Our Lord's selfless prayer for forgiveness of those who wronged Him should serve as an example to His true followers. His life of forgiveness is a perfect model for us. But His teaching on forgiveness should serve as a motivation for us as well. He taught: "For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matthew 6:14-15). We should also be willing to forgive those who sin against us. We should not be like the man, described in our Lord's story in Matthew 18:23-35, who owed his master a great debt that he was unable to pay. Yet he was forgiven when he pleaded for mercy. However, he refused to extend mercy to a fellow servant who owed him very little compared to what he owed to his master. We should not only be willing to pray for the forgiveness of others, but also forgive them from our hearts. Do you keep records of wrongs? Do you harbor bitterness in your heart against those who wrong you? Do you resent them? Do you look for opportunity to avenge yourself of your wrongs? Or do you allow the Spirit of God to lead you to the foot of the cross to cast your hurts and pains at Christ's feet and pray for the forgiveness of those who have wronged you? Remember, we reflect Christ when we rely on the Holy Spirit to pray for the forgiveness of others. Remember, the great thing you must petition God for, both for yourself and others, is forgiveness of sins. Who do you need to forgive today? Pray to God to help you to forgive him or her. And pray that God will forgive them. May the Holy Spirit help us to be earnest with God in prayer for the forgiveness of the sins of our enemies, and those that hate and persecute us!
Plea: "for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34d).
In the words above, our Lord revealed to us His plea for His prayer. In the Greek, this part of our Lord's prayer begins with the Greek negative, "ou." Its position indicates that our Lord was laying a strong emphasis of not knowing. This then, was our Lord's plea to God the Father.
But the question is: what does our Lord mean by His words? Does He mean that those He was praying for were ignorant and therefore should not be held responsible? Does He mean that those He was praying for deserve forgiveness because of their lack of knowledge? Author and Bible Teacher John MacArthur writes in response to these questions:
You see, when our Lord was being tried by Pontius Pilate and he wanted to release Him, the people vehemently rejected Pilate's plan. They were kept in ignorance by their rulers. The religious leaders instilled their hatred and prejudice against Christ into the people. This hatred and prejudice led to their saying of Christ: "His blood shall be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). Had they really known what they were doing, that is, putting the holy Son of God to death because of their hatred and prejudice against Him, which were totally unjustified, they would have not attempted to do it. I am so glad and very thankful that Jesus knew better and prayed for their forgiveness.
Our Lord's first saying on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," reveals His selfless and sacrificial love for sinners. While in excruciating and indescribable pain, He had no thought for Himself. He had no self-pity. He had no bitterness in His heart against those who mocked and mistreated Him. He had no resentment toward them. He only had thoughts for others and sought God's very best for them. Addressing the Person of the Father, He petitioned God the Father for the forgiveness of their sins. His once-for-all sacrifice of Himself for sins would purchase, procure, and guarantee forgiveness for sinners for all time. A gift we should never take for granted in this life. May we constantly remember the words of the psalmists: "How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.... If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared" (Psalms 32:1-2; 130:3-4)!
Please understand that forgiveness of sins can only be experienced in your life by believing sincerely and wholeheartedly in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He prayed for your forgiveness. He purchased and procured your forgiveness through His suffering and sacrifice on the cross. He paid the full price for your forgiveness. His precious blood washes away your sins. Believe in Jesus today to experience the blessing of forgiveness in your life. If that is your desire, please pray this simple prayer:
The Savior's Selfless Prayer!
By Joseph Ametepe
We Proclaim Jesus.