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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:The Word of Forgiveness
Text:Luke 23:34a (View)
Occasion:Easter (Good Friday)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 69:1,7
Psalm 51:1,2 (after the reading of the law)
Hymn 25:1-3, 7
Hymn 35
Hymn 26

Reading:  Luke 23:26-49
Text:  Luke 23:34a
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Perhaps you have heard of The Hunger Games.  It has been popular in the broader culture and a bit controversial among Christians.  The story involves a young woman named Katniss Everdeen. It’s set in the future, in a time when the political landscape of North America has radically changed.  It’s now a country called Panem and there are twelve districts governed by a central region known as the Capitol.  In years previous there had been a revolution.  The revolution was violently overthrown by the Capitol and now as retribution each year the districts have to send two young people to the Capitol.  The young people participate in a reality TV show that involves mortal combat.  Only one can survive.  There are all sorts of ways to view this story – which is to say there are many classic themes of literature. 

For many people, one of the most moving moments in the story is right at the very beginning.  It takes place at what they call “the reaping.”  This is where the two young people are chosen by a draw.  Katniss Everdeen’s little sister Prim is chosen.  The choice means certain death for Prim.  She’s young and won’t stand a chance in the Hunger Games.  So Katniss steps forward and takes her place.  She essentially offers to die for her sister.  She is the substitute.  This is one of those classic themes I just mentioned – something that’s always resonated with audiences.  Especially with those who have some familiarity with the gospel and the Saviour who offers himself as a substitute for sinners.

But very much unlike the Saviour we see in our text, Katniss Everdeen is partly driven to survive by her rage against the system that brought her to the Hunger Games.  Yes, she wants to survive for her sister and she tries to help others survive too – she has a sympathetic heart for the weak and helpless.  But for her enemies in the Hunger Games she has no sympathy.  Moreover, she also hates the people in charge and is filled with spite for them.  She wants to destroy them.  In this sense, she is a true daughter of fallen Adam and Eve.

What a difference from Christ as he hangs on the cross as our substitute!  On this Good Friday, we’re considering the first of his seven sayings on the cross.  This is often called the Word of Forgiveness.  Let’s look at this text closely and we’ll consider:

1.      What Jesus prays

2.      Why he prays

3.      How he prays

When describing the actual crucifixion of our Lord Jesus, Luke is extremely brief.  Verse 33 simply says that when they had come to Golgotha (the place of the skull), “there they crucified him.”  Luke wrote his gospel for a man named Theophilus.  Luke takes it for granted that Theophilus knew what this involves.  He lived in the Roman Empire and he surely knew the drill for Roman crucifixion.  Luke didn’t need to go into the details.  He didn’t need to tell of how the rough cross was laid out on the ground, of how Jesus was thrown down on to it and nailed to it.  Luke didn’t need to tell of how the cross was then lifted up, with Jesus nailed to it, and then dropped into a previously dug hole in the ground.  Theophilus knew all that.  People were crucified by Rome all the time. 

As you might expect, it was customary for those who were crucified to die with some pretty foul words on their lips.  The crucified would usually curse the Romans for their cruelty.  They would usually curse the crowds watching and jeering.  Under the best circumstances, someone might just die quietly without saying a word.  But that would have been unusual.  The more typical crucifixion involved crude words filled with hatred and anger.

Realizing this makes Jesus’ first words on the cross all the more remarkable.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Now as he hangs on the cross, he does the very thing that he taught.  Even at this moment, he is being obedient to the will of God and doing so in our place.  Yes, he’s suffering to pay for our sins, but he is also still actively obedient in our place.  There’s overlap here between what theologians call the passive obedience of Christ (his suffering obedience) and his active obedience.  But the thing to keep in the front of your mind here is that this is not just a tidbit of Bible trivia:  Jesus prayed for his enemies, for those who persecuted him.  It’s something that he did for you, in your place.  His righteousness here too is imputed to you, credited to your account.  This is personal.  Don’t let that slip by you here.  There’s gospel encouragement in that for people who have failed in following God’s will in this.  After all, it’s hard to love your enemies and pray for those who attack you.  You may have failed in doing that, but Jesus didn’t and God looks at you through him.  Your Father sees his Son and he sees you in him.  Wonderful, isn’t it?  This isn’t just okay news, this is good news.  This is grace.         

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Lots of questions come into our minds as we hear these words.  Let me try and answer as many of them as I can.  As we do, the wonder of grace here should become more apparent.  First of all, who are “them” and “they”?  Who is Jesus speaking about?  Our thoughts would first go to the Roman soldiers who are standing by and getting their hands dirty in all this crucifixion cruelty.  Certainly they had no idea what was happening, they had little (if any) clue that they were torturing and killing the Lord of glory.  Jesus asks the Father to forgive the Roman soldiers.  But does he also have the Jews in mind?  To answer that, we could turn to part 2 of Luke’s historical work for Theophilus.  In Acts 3:17, the apostle Peter tells a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem, “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.”  Peter says that they did not know what they were doing.  They understood it at some level, but in a real way they were just driven by what John Calvin called “inconsiderate zeal.”  They were led on by their emotions.  Perhaps there were some in which there was a wicked spirit and premeditation.  With some there may have been knowledgeable intention, but not all.  Many were caught up in the mob mentality.  So, yes, it’s fair to say that Jesus had Jews in mind too.  As he was being crucified, many of the Jews and their leaders stood round to watch.  Verse 35 even says it, “The people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at him…”  So Jesus is asking the Father to forgive both the Romans and the Jews involved in his crucifixion, for they were sinning in ignorance and not with what the Old Testament called the uplifted hand. 

But what does it mean that Jesus asks the Father to forgive them?  Can he even do that?  And does that mean that this sin was forgiven?  In the Bible forgiveness is a transaction which removes an obstacle in a relationship.  It involves a promise that the sin committed will never be brought up again and will never be used against the person who committed the sin.  When describing God’s forgiveness, we find these powerful images in the Bible of God casting our sins into the depths of the sea and removing them as far as the east is from the west.  God forgets our sins, which is to say they are no longer a barrier to covenant fellowship.  That’s what Jesus is asking for.  But in order for that to happen, there will have to be repentance.  There will have to be a turning from the sin committed.  That’s what happens in Acts.  When the Jews hear the preaching of the gospel at Pentecost and other occasions, some of them are cut to the heart.  They ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…”  We can say that this happened because of the preaching of the apostles, we can say that this happened because of the work of the Spirit, but we can also say that this happens because of the prayer of Christ on the cross in our text.  Jesus asks the Father to forgive them, which means that he was asking the Father to set the wheels in motion so that all the pieces would later fall together so that they would repent and believe.  And many did – thousands, in fact.  They repented and sought the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Jesus and received that forgiveness from God. 

Now probably another burning question has to do with what we are to do with this.  Can we pray to the Father for the forgiveness of those who hurt us?  To answer that we can also turn to Acts, to chapter 7.  When Stephen is being stoned, as he is dying, he echoes Jesus’ words.  He prays to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.  Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  He prays in the same way as his Saviour.  He has a forgiving and gracious spirit.  His heart has been touched by God’s grace in Christ and he cannot die like so many others, with words of bitterness and cursing on his lips.  Christ prayed for his enemies, Stephen prayed for his enemies, Christians are to pray for their enemies, to pray that they would be brought to forgiveness through the blood of Christ.  Loved ones, the Word of God calls us to this stance of grace towards those who might hate us and would hurt us.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Why did he pray this?  In the first place, it was to fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  Isaiah 53:12 speaks of substitution, “For he bore the sin of many,” but then it also speaks of prayer, “and he made intercession for the transgressors.”  Our Lord Jesus knew this prophecy and he knew that this was what was needed.  He made intercession for sinners, spoke up on their behalf before the throne of God.

That brings us to the second reason why he spoke these words:  to magnify his grace and love for us.  Jesus is portrayed here as the priest making intercession for sinners still lost in their sin, still under sin’s condemnation.  That reminds us that he cares about us long before we make any moves towards him.  Scripture even tells us that Jesus prays for those who do not yet believe.  Sometimes we have this idea that at the right hand of God, Jesus’ ministry of intercession only involves people who already believe.  That he only prays for Christians and speaks up on their behalf.  But that’s unbiblical.  He said in John 17:20 that he also prays for those who will yet come to faith through the preaching of the gospel.  When did Jesus begin praying for you?  As soon as you became self-consciously committed to him, whenever that was?  No, loved ones, he has been praying for you all along, praying along the same lines as what we find in our text, praying that you would find grace and forgiveness in his sacrifice once offered on the cross!  You see, his grace is far more amazing than we often realize.  He spoke these words on the cross to bring us to the realization of that.  For us today to see the deep, deep love of Jesus, so that we would love him in return and want to live for his glory. 

A third reason why he prays here has to do with where he is in his ministry.  He is at the end of his three years of preaching and teaching.  It began with prayer back in Luke 3 and now it ends with prayer.  In fact, it has to end with prayer.  There’s nothing else he can do.  That hands that healed are nailed to the cross.  The feet that travelled from town to town preaching are nailed to the cross.  There’s no more room in any synagogue for him and certainly not in the temple.  What’s left for him?  He can only pray and that’s what he does.  When he can’t do anything else, he prays.  And that is powerful enough.  When everything else is stripped away, there often still remains the possibility to pray.  And prayer should never be underestimated.  Jesus’ prayer was answered beautifully in the book of Acts.  We are in Christ through faith, and as we pray, we can also do so with the hope and expectation that our prayers will be answered.  There may not be anything else we can do but pray, but God will hear and answer.  Maybe not always in the way we asked or expected, but his promises are sure.  He always hears and answers prayer offered in the name of Christ.  You can count on it.      

That brings us last of all to consider his manner in this prayer.  I can be even more brief on this point, because it’s obvious from all that I’ve already said.  This prayer is drenched in grace.  Even if his oppressors are ignorant of what they’re doing, even if they don’t fully comprehend the extent of their evil, they’re still violent and bloodthirsty.  What do these Roman soldiers deserve from God’s hand except his wrath?  What are the wages for the sin of these Jewish crowds and their leaders?  Don’t they deserve death?  Couldn’t Jesus justly call down bolts of lightning from the sky to fry them on the spot?  He could stop the wind and the waves, couldn’t he do the reverse and call in a tornado to give these sinners a taste of what they have coming?  They deserve all that and worse.  They deserve the cup of hell he is drinking.  But instead, he utters words of mercy.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  It’s amazing when you stop and think about it.  Forgiveness prayed for those sneering, for those mocking, for those nailing, for those stripping him naked.  Grace for those hurling insults and taunting him.  Mercy for those whose commitment to him flags and fails.  For me.  And you.  He does not return evil for evil.  What a Saviour, brothers and sisters!  My Saviour, yours. 

Now you may be thinking, wasn’t this the same Jesus who preached woes against the Jews in the Olivet discourse?  In passages like Mark 13, Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the covenant curses that would fall on the Jews for their unbelief.  How does all of that tie into our text for this morning?  Well, consider this.  The fall of Jerusalem didn’t take place right away.  In his mercy, God gave the Jews some forty years to hear the gospel of grace.  They were given time to repent and believe.  And, as mentioned, some did.  They found forgiveness in the blood of Christ and while the covenant curses raining down around them affected them, they were not directed at them, nor did they have any relationship to their eternal destiny.  But the key thing to remember is that God gave time, he gave room for the preaching of the gospel to be heard among all the Jews following Pentecost.  The covenant curses fell on those who remained in unbelief.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Loved ones, this first word from the cross is a word of grace.  In this prayer, you get to see what your Saviour is all about.  As he enters into the darkness, he says, “Remember that I practice what I preach.  I preach grace and I embody grace.”  His grace and mercy are for you.  He uttered these words in obedience for your benefit, so that you are declared righteous by God and can stand before him without fear of condemnation at the Day of Judgment.  He also spoke these words to show us who are united to him how we are to be a gracious people, even with those who seem to have it in for us.  We see grace here and how to respond to grace with more grace.  And all of that results in praise and glory for the God of grace and our Saviour.  AMEN.           



We thank you for your holy Word of truth.  We thank you for the grace we’ve seen in our text this morning.  We praise you that our Lord Jesus didn’t respond in the way we might have and the way many others did.  Thank you that he prays for his enemies.  We thank you that he’s even been praying for us all along, even before we have drawn near to you.  We are amazed at the love and grace shown to us in our Saviour.  Lord Jesus, we praise your name and we love your gospel.  With your Holy Spirit, please continue to transform us into gracious and loving people.  Help us to be people who share your love and kindness with all, especially with those who are undeserving.  Please help us to reflect your image in us as we relate with one another and with unbelievers.  And we pray that because we want you to be exalted and praised by us and others.  We want others to stand in awe of your grace too. 


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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