Summary: An analysis of Jesus’ first word on the cross, as set forth in Luke 23:34, teaches us about forgiveness.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Herbert Lockyer, in his book titled, All the Last Words of Saints and Sinners, says,
"The last words of both saints and sinners about to enter eternity, what they had to say before their stammering tongues lay silent in the grave, demands our deepest attention and most earnest concern. If, when the soul is face to face with eternal realities, true character is almost invariably manifest, then we can expect the lips to express glorious certainty or terror concerning the future."
I want to look at the last words of neither a saint nor a sinner but at the last words of our sinless Savior, Jesus Christ. By studying the last words of Christ we shall learn a great deal about the true character of our Savior. After Jesus was nailed to the cross, he spoke seven short phrases before he died.
Luke 23:34 is the first of the seven last words of Christ, and this is what I want to study today.
The first word of our Savior on the cross is a prayer.
An analysis of Jesus’ first word on the cross, as set forth in Luke 23:34, teaches us about forgiveness.
Jesus’ prayer has two parts: a petition and a plea.
Let us now examine the first of Jesus’ last words on the cross, which is a word of forgiveness.
I. The Petition (23:34a)
The first part of the prayer is a petition: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them. . .’” (Luke 23:34a).
A. Jesus’ Petition Is Addressed to His Father
Note, in the first place, that Jesus’ petition is addressed to his Father. Jesus’ prayer begins, “Father.”
None of us will ever experience what Jesus experienced on the cross. Nevertheless, Jesus’ example is instructive. No matter how severe our trial or crisis, we must never lose confidence in our relationship to our Heavenly Father. When we are disciplined, as we must be (“for what son is not disciplined by his father?” [Hebrews 12:7]), let us continue to “submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” (Hebrews 12:9).
B. Jesus’ Petition Is Not for Himself
Second, Jesus’ petition is not for himself.
It is true that later Jesus does pray for himself in his lamenting cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). But here, in the first word, there is no mention of himself: “Father, forgive them. . .”
Jesus does not think of himself at all in this first word. One would expect a person, experiencing excruciating pain and knowing that his death is only moments away, would have first thoughts for himself. But Jesus’ first concern is for others.
Again, let this be our example. Look to others before we look to ourselves. Elsewhere, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), not “Love yourself as your neighbor.”
C. Jesus’ Petition Is for the Undeserving
Third, Jesus’ petition is for the undeserving.
This prayer was not merely for others; it was a prayer for the undeserving. And note that it was not a prayer for those who had wronged him years before, but for those who were in the very act of murdering him. Jesus did not pray for them long after the event, when time had a chance to heal. No. He prayed for them while his blood was still spurting from his veins. He prayed for them while his blood was still fresh on their hands and clothes. While they were still standing at the foot of the cross and looking at him, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The people murdering Jesus did not deserve his prayer. On the contrary, they deserved his curse. They did not ask him to pray for them. In fact, they probably scoffed and laughed when they heard Jesus praying. Yet, this text teaches us that Jesus prays for those who neither deserved his prayer nor asked for it.
You know, there are none on earth who deserve this petition of Jesus. He prays for no one on the supposition that they deserve his petition. But, in great mercy, he prays for his guilty, undeserving enemies.
Jesus still prays for the undeserving today. Jesus still prays for those who do not ask him to pray. Jesus’ elect, while yet dead in transgression and sin, are the objects of his compassionate prayer, and even while they scoff at the Gospel, his heart of love is entreating the favor of heaven on their behalf.
Some of you think that only deserving people are the objects of God’s love and grace. The truth is that none of us are deserving of God’s love and grace. And the beauty of the Gospel is that it is the undeserving who are the objects of God’s love and grace. Do you see that? Jesus loves the undeserving. Jesus prays for the undeserving.