Today we celebrate the events that marked the beginning of Jesus’s life: The angelic announcement, the virgin conception, the difficult birth, the unexpected visits, the prophetic blessings. But even as we remember that Jesus came to live, we need to also remember that Jesus came to die. As we think about his birth we do well to think about his death.
Recently, one of my Patreon patrons asked if I would write about some of the last words Jesus spoke. While he was hanging on the cross, or perhaps even while they were driving the nails into his flesh, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Kent Hughes aptly sets the context: “The cosmic trauma had begun. There never had been such pain as physical and spiritual evil now came against Jesus in terrible conjunction. Body and soul recoiled. The initial shock of crucifixion had rendered him paralyzed and quivering. Physical disbelief screamed from severed nerves. And even greater spiritual horror closed in—he would soon become sin.” Here was a moment of grave injustice, the sickest, most twisted moment in all of human history as man put God to death. We would expect that in a moment of such injustice, in a moment of such extreme suffering, a person would cry out for vengeance. “Father, strike them down!” “Father, don’t hold them guiltless!” But Jesus cries out forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Who is the “them” and “they” in this sentence? To whom does Jesus wish to extend forgiveness? At the very least it is the Roman soldiers mocking him, driving the nails into his hands and feet. In all probability it is also the religious leaders who have convinced the soldiers to carry out this ugly task. Thus it is a word of forgiveness toward the people who demanded this sentence and a word of forgiveness toward the people who executed this sentence. By extension, it is a word of forgiveness for you and me, the people who necessitated such a sentence. For without our sin there would have been no need for an incarnation and no need for a crucifixion.
In Jesus’s words we see his character. Jesus was unstained by the sin that mars you and me. Perfectly perfect, his every word and every action was an expression of his unblemished character. He perfectly exemplified the obedience and submission God created humanity to express and display. Even in his moment of torment he displayed his love, his deep desire to bring glory to his Father.
In Jesus’s words we see his purpose. We see that Jesus came to bring forgiveness to the likes of you and me, to people who had sinned, who had called down God’s righteous judgment. Even here, at the pinnacle of his pain, Jesus remembers and reveals his purpose. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He came to seek and save them to very end.
In Jesus’s words we see his willingness. We see his willingness to forgive. Whatever we learn, we must learn this: Jesus is willing and eager for this Father to forgive even the ones who committed this great act of injustice, the ones who were unfairly, unjustly, grotesquely torturing him. Jesus is like his Father, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Jesus’ words do not absolve the soldiers and religious rulers of all blame, but it does demonstrate that they did not understand the world-shaking significance of what they were doing. It meant there could still be forgiveness for them and that they had not sinned beyond all hope of grace and forgiveness. In seeing his willingness to forgive even his executors, we must see his willingness to forgive us. Philip Ryken says it well: “The Savior’s words demonstrated his redemptive purpose in dying on the cross. If Jesus was willing for the Father to forgive the very men who murdered him, then what sinner is beyond the reach of his mercy? Surely anyone who repents will be saved. When his enemies said, ‘Crucify!’ Jesus said, ‘Forgive,’ and a man who says that is willing to forgive anyone—even people like us, no matter what we have done, as long as we come to him in faith.” Have you come to him in faith? If he is willing to receive them, he is willing to receive you.