34 “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Let me introduce you to Christian de Cherge. He was a Trappist monk, the prior of the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria. In 1993, Christian de Cherge and his brothers refused to leave Algeria after the rise of Islamic radicals and the very real threat of death. And he did die. He and seven other French monks were kidnapped by Muslim radicals on March 26-27, 1996. On May 31st, their heads were founds. They had been brutally murdered.
After his death, it was discovered that Christian de Cherge had left a letter with his family that was to be opened if he was killed. The letter is quite amazing. In it, the monk tells his family not to listen to those who will use the occasion of his death to depict him as foolish or naïve for not leaving. He points out that “such people should know that my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity.” He then goes on to speak to his coming executioner, the man who would murder him. He writes that he wishes to thank the man. He then tells the man that, when he executes him, “he will not know what he is doing” and says that he hopes they might one day meet in heaven.
It is a powerful thing, these words of forgiveness offered to an executioner. It is powerful because it is so rare, and also because it is counterintuitive. It goes against what we instinctively imagine doing in such a situation. What we imagine doing, of course, is cursing or condemning those who would inflict an unjust death upon us. We imagine using our last words to seek to level the playing field, to mete out some kind of justice in our last moments. That is our natural inclination.
For instance, somebody posted a provocative question on a public forum online and asked, “What would be your last words to someone you hate?” The responses were telling.
“If the paranormal exists, expect me.”
“I hope you die slowly, painfully and alone.”
“I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your life”
“I wish everything you did for me comes back to you twice over.”
“I hope your day is as pleasant as you are.”
This has always been the natural, instinctive reaction of man. For instance, when the Maccabean martyrs, a woman and her seven sons, were murdered by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, they cried out against their accusers:
Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!…But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!…
But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all mortals, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God.
Now that, we understand. Forgiving the ones who have wronged us is a whole other matter. And yet, some have done this. Christian de Cherge did it. Before him, in the Bible, Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church and the first martyr, did this. In Acts 7, we read this about Stephen’s last words as he is being stoned to death:
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Of course, there was one who did this before Stephen did it. In fact, Stephen was merely saying aloud the words of Jesus from the cross as He was dying. Traditionally, the Church has spoken of “the seven last words of Christ from the cross.” That is, Christ made seven statements while on the cross, and each of them carried a power and insight into the nature of God that we need to hear and consider and accept.
The first word of Christ from the cross was, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We are going to frame our consideration of this first word by looking closely at the first three words that comprise it: “Father forgive them.” Here we see three words, three realities, and three characters in the great story of redemption: “Father forgive them.”
Father: the Almighty God who desires to forgive
forgive: the merciful Savior who enables forgiveness
them: us, the ones who need forgiveness
We will deal with the first and last words, then the second.
Father: the Almighty God who desires to forgive
We first see the Father. This is Jesus’ address to Father God. His attributes are numerous and awesome, but one that we should consider foremost is God’s holiness. The word “holy” appears over 600 times in the Bible. When it describes God, it is describing His otherness, His transcendent majesty, and His majesty and glory as they are revealed in and throughout the earth. His holiness is his perfection. He is holy.
In Exodus 3:5, the presence of God in the burning bush renders the very ground holy.
Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Throughout Leviticus, we see God’s holiness repeatedly proclaimed. Thus, in Leviticus 11:44a-45; 20:7,26:
For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy…For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God…You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
Similarly, we find in1 Samuel 2:2; 6:20a that God is utterly unique in His holiness.
There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.
Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?
The psalms are replete with the holiness of God, as we see, for instance, in Psalm 3:4; 5:7; 22:3; 77:13.
I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?
The last book of the Bible provides us with one of the most beautiful statements on divine glory. We see this in Revelation 4.
1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. 4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, 6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
R.C. Sproul has appealed to [Rudolf] Otto’s “special term for the holy. He called it the mysterium tremendum. A simple translation of this concept is the ‘awful mystery.’” That is a fitting phrase, for His holiness is what most highlights His otherness and distance from us. Sproul also noted the uniqueness of the Bible’s attribution of God as “holy, holy, holy.”
Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, that the whole earth is full of His glory.
This is not to privilege holiness above His other attributes. Rather, it is to say that holiness is, in a sense, foundational, that it is critical to our understanding of the divine nature, that it cannot be jettisoned without doing great damage to a proper understanding of who God is.
them: us, the ones who need forgiveness
Jesus first points us to God who is above and He lastly points to man who is below. “Father forgive them.” Between the Father and the “them” there is a staggering gulf and distance, for man is, at heart, a rebel. Man is the crucifier of the One God sends. He always has been.
The writer of Ecclesiastes was not optimistic about the nature of man in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Paul said the same in Romans 3:23 when he wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That is a well-known passage, but before Paul wrote that he offered a more thorough indictment of human sinfulness.
10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
The fundamental tragedy of human sinfulness is the way in which it fractures our relationship with God. God will not live peacefully with a rebellious creation. One of the most jarring examples of this can be found in God’s determination to destroy the earth with water in Genesis 6.
5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
In the starkest possible of ways, even given the Lord’s promise after His flooding of the earth that He would not do so again, this text demonstrates the ugliness of sin and the fact that God will not forever abide human wickedness. The contrast, then, between “Father” and “them” could not be starker, for the “them” refers to wicked humanity, rebellious humanity, sinful and lost humanity…and the “them” is “us.”
“Them” is all of us.
“Father forgive them” is Christ’s word before the Father concerning the world
Not everybody agrees with this interpretation. A.T. Robertson, for instance, felt that Jesus “evidently is praying for the Roman soldiers, who were only obeying, but not for the Sanhedrin.” According to Robertson, “them” does not include all of them, for, he suggests, only the Roman soldiers could be said to be acting in ignorance. “They know not what they do,” in other words, is hard to apply to the Jewish religious establishment for the Jews plotted their dastardly deed and presumably knew what they were doing.
However, against Robertson’s interpretation is the fact that ignorance is in fact ascribed to the Jews later in the New Testament. For instance, Peter, in Acts 3, said this:
17 “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.
Similarly, Paul preached this in Acts 13:
26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed.
This would suggest that Jesus’ “for they know not what to do” was understood by the apostles to apply likewise to the Jews who handed Jesus over to the Romans. To be sure, this ignorance does not remove culpability, for Peter still calls upon the Jews to repent in Acts 3:19, and so must we. We must repent and receive the forgiveness of God in Christ, but the crucial point is that Christ called for forgiveness for those who committed this crime…that is, for us, for it was our sins for which He died, and it was our sin He became on the cross that warranted Him the judgment of God in our place.
Christ cries out to the utterly holy Father and Christ points Him to utterly sinful humanity. And this should cause us to tremble, for we know that God will not dwell in peace with a rebellious humanity that is intent on mocking Him.
It should cause us to tremble…but then we see the second word of the first word from the cross: forgive.
forgive: the merciful Savior who enables forgiveness
Here we see the amazing beauty of the gospel: “Father forgive them…” The 16th century reformer Miles Coverdale said of these words:
The last words which Jesus spoke on the cross should be written by all faithful believers in their hearts, and they should diligently keep them there…O, the wonderful and great lenience of our Lord Jesus Christ!…Who will despair of God’s mercy, even if they are now in sin, when the great offenders who crucified and killed the giver of all remission found such great grace and goodness.
In the 4th/5th century, Augustine wrote this of these words:
He prayed as man, and as God with the Father, he heard the prayer…They were raging, but he was praying. They were saying to Pilate “Crucify,” be he was crying out, “Father, forgive.” He was hanging from the cruel nails, but he did not lose his gentleness.
Yes, “the wonderful and great lenience of our Lord,” as Coverdale said, and “his gentleness,” as Augustine said. We see these displayed in beautiful glory in this first word from the cross: “Father forgive them.”
Jesus could have said, “Father destroy them…Father annihilate them…Father judge them…Father avenge Me!” But he did not. No, “Father forgive them.”
The cross therefore becomes the place where the reality of human sinfulness is shown most clearly but it is also the place where the grace and mercy of God is shown most beautifully.
A wonderful depiction of this twin reality can be seen in Rembrandt’s 1633 painting, “The Raising of the Cross,” that he completed for Prince Frederick Henry of Orange.
In many ways it looks like just one of any number of crucifixion paintings, and one of the better ones. It is powerful and evokes the somber reality of the cross. However, there is something interesting in this painting, something that, in terms of raw history, does not fit the chronology. If you look at the center of the painting you will see a small Dutchman wearing a blue hat. He is not wearing clothing from the time. He is wearing clothing from the time of Rembrandt.
He is doing so because the man in the painting is Rembrandt.
He painted himself in this scene of the raising of the cross.
Why? Because Rembrandt knew that it was his sin that put Jesus on the cross. Thus, it was Rembrandt who helped to raise the cross. But he also put himself in the painting for another reason. He put himself in the painting because he knew that Christ died for him and that back there on Calvary Jesus was thinking of Rembrandt and all of us. So the inclusion of a self-portrait was a statement on human sinfulness but also a statement on divine grace.
Dear Church, dear friends and guests, Christ died for us. What unexpected and unbelievable good news this is! What a beautiful gospel we have presented to us here in this first word from the cross.
Christ has purchased forgiveness and life for us all and He has offered it to us all. It was not cheaply purchased but it is freely offered. If you will humble yourself before the crucified and risen Christ and receive this gift into a repentant heart, you will be saved. You will live.
Behold the glory of the crucified Christ! “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
 Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), p.31-33.
 Clinton E. Arnold, gen.ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.492.
 Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), 19.
 R.C. Sproul, Holiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), p.41.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. II (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.285.
 Beth Kreitzer, Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), p.464-465.
 Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed., Luke. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p.361.