Summary: At the crucifixion of Jesus, human beings did their worst. The vileness of the human heart was displayed in all its ugliness. The creature executed the creator. At that dark moment, divine love triumphed and said, “Father, forgive them.”
Please turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 24 and follow along as I read the first part of v34.
34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
Amen. The word of God, thanks be to God.
John Adams (1735-1826) was one of that constellation of geniuses that founded the United States of America. He was also our second President. Following his presidency, he retired to his farm in Quincy and began a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Jefferson that lasted over twenty-five years. Then, in his nineties and gravely ill, he resolved to live until the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826. He got his wish; he died on that day. Apparently, as he was dying, he was thinking about the Declaration and his friend Jefferson, because his last words were "Thomas Jefferson still survives." But he was wrong; Jefferson had died earlier that same day.
When it comes to the last words people speak, we tend to pay attention, because we think those words are bound to be full of meaning, and sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not.
In 1891, when P. T. Barnum was dying, he asked, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” Apparently, he still thought that was important.
Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”
On the other hand, Napoleon Bonaparte’s last word was more touching. The great conqueror thought not of battles and nations. His last word was the name of his first wife: Josephine.
But I like the last word of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She also said one word, “Beautiful,” and she died.
As I said, we take a person’s last words seriously. That is most certainly true of the last words of Jesus. Traditionally there were seven “Words,” actually seven sentences, spoken by Jesus on the cross. The “Words” were spoken in pain and agony, but they still show how much he loved people.
For example, the crowd was mocking him and ridiculing him, and even one of the thieves who was crucified with him joined in the mockery, but the other thief rebuked the mocker, and said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom," and Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:41-43). Again, Jesus, remembered his mother, and gave the apostle John he task of caring for her, which John willing did (John 19:26—27), which shows us how much he loved his mother.
But traditionally the first Word Jesus spoke from the cross was Luke 23:34. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
Let us go back a bit. Earlier in the day, Jesus had been condemned by the Jewish religious authorities. They had then taken the case to the Roman Procurator and had wrung from Pontius Pilate reluctant consent for a crucifixion. About nine o’clock on that Friday morning, the Roman execution squad took him to a place called Golgotha, which means place of the skull. There he was crucified. The Roman soldiers fastened Jesus to the cross by driving spikes through his hands and feet. When we say Jesus was nailed to the cross, realize that they did not use nails as we know them today—which would have been bad enough. What they used was a kind of rough-hewn, iron spike. Then they raised the crucified man to an upright position. I have often thought that it would have been awful when they nailed Jesus to the cross, but can you imagine how it must have ripped his hands and feet when they raised the cross up and slammed it down into a hole?
And through all this, crowds of people were shouting at him, mocking him, hating him. And yet he said, " Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This word reminds us of Isaiah’s description of the Messiah. In Isaiah 53:12 we read “…he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus was classed as a criminal, a blasphemer and a rebel against the Roman Empire. He was “numbered with the transgressors.” And he “made intercession for transgressors.” He forgave them.
The Greek word translated as “forgive” is “aphiemi” which means to remit entirely or to completely cancel. It is total deliverance from a debt—in this case, the debt of sin. Through Christ our sin is so completely forgiven that both the penalty of the sin is removed and the guilt of the sin is removed. Now this is a hard thing for us to understand. When we are forgiven in Christ, as far as God is concerned, our sin are totally wiped out.