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The Death of the Cross Duncan Heaster  
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1-1-7 " Father forgive them"


18 Because the weight is on the arms, the crucified can't speak easily. The whole conversation between the thief and the Lord would probably have been whispered, with long intervals between words. The final two loud cries of the Lord must have been made with immense pain. It also explains why they confused His " Eli, Eli" with 'Eliyahu' (Elijah); He was probably speaking very quietly. There is no recorded reaction of the crowd to His prayers. Yet Ps. 22:1 speaks of His prayer as a lion roaring to God, and yet He felt that the abuse of the crowd was like the ravening and roaring of a lion (Ps. 22:13). It may be that they hurled abuse back at Him in response to the roaring of His prayers.

Note the Lord's appreciation of the Fatherhood of God throughout His passion: Lk. 22:42; Mt. 26:39,42,44; Lk. 23:34,46. Throughout the Gospels, the Lord calls God His Father around 170 times (109 of them in John, as if he noticed this as especially significant). This was a real paradigm breaker for the Jews, who even from the 15 Old Testament references to God as Father, only understood His fatherhood in a national, not personal, sense. Yet the Son's relation to the Father has been passed on to us (Mk. 14:36 cp. Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). The closeness of the Father to the Son, prefigured by that between Abraham and Isaac, is something to be wondered at. " Into thine hand I commit my spirit...thou hast known my soul in adversities" (Ps. 31:7).

The Sayings From The Cross (1):

" Father forgive them"

The Seven Last Sayings Of Jesus From The Cross Number of words in Greek
1."Father forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34) 12
2."Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Lk. 23:43) 9
3. " Woman behold thy son!...Behold thy mother!" (Jn. 19:26) 4
4. " My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34) 3
5. " I thirst" (Jn. 19:28) 1
6. " It is finished" (Jn. 19:30) 1
7. " Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Lk. 23:46) 8


The pain and difficulty of speech in the position of crucifixion was such that it is apparent that the Lord meant us to hear and meditate upon the words He uttered from the cross. Perhaps it would have been far easier for Him to have prayed those words to Himself, within His own thoughts; but instead He made the effort to speak them out loud. The passion of the Lord's intercessions on the cross is matchless. He roared to God in His prayer, regardless of whether there was light or darkness (Ps. 22:1,2). He reflected there that His prayer was offered to God " in an acceptable time" (Ps. 69:13). And yet this very passage is taken up in 2 Cor. 6:2 concerning the necessary vigour of our crying to God for salvation. That the intensity of the Lord's prayerfulness and seeking of God on the cross should be held up as our pattern: the very height of the ideal is wondrous.

It is worth noting that if the Lord's seven recorded utterances are placed in the conventional chronology, the number of words Christ actually spoke can be seen to steadily decrease until the final utterance (although it should be noted that in our reconstruction, saying 3 comes before no. 2).

Not only does this serve to illustrate the intensity of effort wrung forth from our Lord in His final utterance, but we also sense that He found physically speaking increasingly difficult. The picture of a man carrying his cross towards the place of death, the image of a man hanging upon a cross in his time of dying, these are images of a man who finds it increasingly difficult to carry on, a man who finds the way harder and harder. And yet these are the very images picked up by our Lord and applied to all those who seek to follow Him. The conclusion: life in Christ in a sense becomes increasingly difficult, it is increasingly difficult to truly hold on to the spirit of our crucified Lord. And yet as so many of us can testify, the possibility of turning back recedes further and further as the months and years go by. " Lord, to whom shall we go?" becomes more and more underlined in our Bibles.

" Forgive them"

" Father forgive them" were the first words said by the Lord Jesus as He hung on the cross. It seems from the context that they were said soon after the cross was lifted up into a vertical position and dropped down into the hole prepared for it. Physically, this would have been the time of greatest shock and pain, as the body of Jesus came to rest with its full weight upon the nails, as they tore into the flesh and sinews of His hands and feet. As His nervous system began to fully react, He was in great pain and shock. And yet immediately His thoughts went to forgiving those who had brought this upon Him; and, as we hope to see, His thoughts were immediately with us, with the possibility of our salvation and forgiveness. In this we see a matchless example of being so concerned for the salvation of others, so taken up with a desire to show love to those who hate us, that the physicality of our own sufferings, however immediately and insistently they press, becomes totally relegated.

We must face up to a fundamental question: Who was it that Christ was asking God to forgive? By eliminating who Christ did not pray for, we can come towards an answer. Christ did not pray for the world (Jn. 17:9), which in the context seems to refer to the unrepentant Jewish world (cp. Jer. 11:14; 1 Jn. 5:8) as well as the surrounding (Roman) world.

- Not The Romans

Forgiveness is related to repentance. There would seem little point in Christ praying for the Roman soldiers to be forgiven. It would be rather like a believer praying for some youths to be forgiven for vandalizing a bus shelter; to what point would this be? Would such a prayer really lead them towards salvation? Would it be an appropriate thing to pray for?

Throughout the Acts, both Peter and Paul accuse the Jews of having crucified Christ, even though the Roman soldiers physically did it. Peter even goes so far as to say that it was their hands which placed Jesus on the cross and nailed Him (Acts 2:23- notice how their physical contact with the Lord's body is stressed in Mk. 14:46,53). The Roman hands which did this were effectively Jewish hands. Psalms 22 and 69 outline in some detail the things done to Christ on the cross. Some were done by the Jews, others by the Romans. And yet the same pronoun " they" is used, as if these things were all done by the same group of people. This further suggests that the Spirit saw the actions of the Romans as being attributable to the Jews. There seems no reason to think that the Roman or Italian nation were held guilty by God for the part they played in the death of His Son.

Nor The Jewish Nation

The Jewish people generally were punished because they saw the Son of God coming to their vineyard, and yet they killed Him, despite recognizing who He was (1). " This is the heir" , they recognized (Mt. 21:38). Pilate therefore, because of the Jews, ordered the death of the Son of God (Jn. 18:40 cp. 19:1). They must take full responsibility for it. The Roman soldiers set Christ at nought (Lk. 23:11); but this very act (the same word is used) is counted to the Jews (Acts 4:11). The Lord Jesus shouted out to them that He knew that they realized who He was: " Then cried Jesus in the temple as He taught, saying, Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am" (Jn. 7:28). His allusion to the memorial Name (" I am" ) suggests that He recognized that they knew His Divine origin and manifestation of His Father's Name. Christ was responding to their claim that they did not think He was Messiah (Jn. 7:27)- by saying 'You do know, deep inside, that I am He; but you won't face up to your conscience about it'. It was in this sense that Jesus frequently said in John's Gospel that the Jews did not know Him nor His Father. However, this does not mean that they did not recognize who He was. To " know" Christ in the Johanine sense is to believe in Him, not just to give Him cognizance. It would be a massive contradiction within the thinking of Jesus for Him to ask God to forgive the whole Jewish people because they didn't realize what they were doing. According to His parable of the men recognizing the heir and killing him, they did know, perfectly well, what they were doing,

If indeed Jesus was praying for the entire Jewish nation, His prayer went unanswered. He had said Himself that if the Jews did not repent and believe in Him, they would die in their sins; He said that an impressive three times (Jn. 8:21,24).

Prayer For A Minority

It seems that Christ was in some way praying for those among the Jews who would later repent of what they had done. This suggestion must almost certainly have some truth about it because of the way Peter alludes to Christ's words: " Forgive them, for they know not what they do" . He seems to apply these words to the Jews, and uses them to encourage the Jews to repent and thereby take unto themselves the forgiveness which Christ's prayer had made possible: " And now, brethren, I wot that through (RV " in" ) ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers...repent ye therefore" (Acts 3:17,19). Paul makes a similar allusion in Acts 13:26,27: " Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham (Paul seems to be repeating Peter's style of 3:17)...they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers (cp. 3:17), because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him" .

There is a clear principle throughout God's self-revelation that ignorance does not atone for sin. " Father forgive them for they know not what they do" therefore does not mean that their ignorance plus Christ's prayer equalled forgiveness and therefore salvation. We have to conclude that He was saying 'They don't now know what they are doing, please forgive them on account of my death, they'll repent and realize later'. Despite Peter's allusion to Christ's prayer for their forgiveness, Peter still asks the Jews to repent so that they could be forgiven and saved. Therefore Christ's prayer for their forgiveness was not offered or answered in the sense that they would be forgiven without repentance. That forgiveness was only granted in prospect. They had to 'claim' it by their own repentance. However, it is still wondrously true that Christ understood that God was willing to grant forgiveness to people in prospect, even though they had not actually repented. If God is willing to do this, to forgive in hope of future repentance in response to such great grace, how much more should we behave likewise to each other (2). And yet we struggle with this, even though we each have received such grace ourselves.

" Them" - Us?

The death of Christ was fundamentally for the salvation of Israel (3). His prayer was gloriously answered in that soon afterwards, 8,000 Jews were baptized (Acts 2:41; 4:4). Such is the power of anguished, heartfelt prayer for others- even when it seems there is no chance it will be heard. And such is the power of prayer for a third party. The Lord’s attitude was not that they simply had to decide. He prayed they would be converted. It only applies to us insofar as we unite ourselves with the Israel of God. That minority within Israel who were crucifying Christ in ignorance (" they know not what they do" ) were the same category into which we fall. Christ praying on the cross for men to be forgiven ought to send the mind back to Is. 53, which prophesied that on the cross, Christ would " justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities" , be wounded for our transgressions, be bruised for our iniquities, make a sin offering for His seed, heal us through His stripes, achieve our peace with God through His chastisement, bear the sin of many, be numbered with the transgressors, be stricken " for the transgression of my people" , and make " intercession for the transgressors" . These are all broadly parallel statements. " The transgressors" are primarily " my people" , Israel, who despised and rejected him (53:3). And yet they also refer to us, insofar as we become identified with Israel in order to be saved. The prophesy that Christ would make " intercession for the transgressors" in His time of dying was surely fulfilled when He prayed " Father forgive them" . There seems no other real alternative.

And so we come to an awe-inspiring conclusion: Christ was lifted up on the cross, and immediately His mind was full of us, all those who would repent and become the seed of Christ, full of our need, of the huge weight of all our sins. And He knew that through His death all that sin would be forgiven. It was by the Lord’s one act of righteousness, one act of obedience, that we are justified (Rom. 5:18,19). He was obedient to the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8); and yet Heb. 5:8 and Phil. 2:8 RV imply that He only became obedient whilst He was actually on the cross. Was it that there, whilst hanging there, He more deeply perceived that really, this was indeed the only way to meet our need- and therefore He made that one-off act of obedience in death which Rom. 5:19 speaks about. And that supreme love for us, that willingness to die “for us", is still part of His wonderful character; for there He “loved us" [the love of Christ and the cross are so often connected ideas], and yet He still has that same “love of Christ" for us today (Rom. 8:35,37).

As soon as the cross was lifted up, despite the sudden searing pain, His mind was fixed upon our desperate need: " Father forgive them" . Each one of us who have now believed down through the subsequent years was forgiven then, in that moment, of all our sins we would ever commit. Through one act of righteousness [i.e. the cross], we were justified (Rom. 5:18 RV). There was such intensity of achievement in those moments of His death. Here on earth, on a mere speck of a planet in the outer suburbs of a galaxy that is only one of about a billion such galaxies in the observable universe, what happened on the cross determined the future of that universe. For all things both in heaven an in earth were reconcile by the blood of the cross. And yet throughout the Gospels Christ had taught that the Father would only forgive those who themselves live a forgiving life. Yet at that time we had not repented; " When we were yet without strength, Christ died for the ungodly...God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us...when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son" (Rom. 5:5-10).

Our Lord's prayer was heard; our sins, unrepented of, were forgiven, in prospect we were forgiven and saved. In the same way as Peter used the wonder of this to appeal to the Jews to repent, so we should heed the appeal. All our sins were forgiven as a result of that prayer, in prospect we were saved. God for the sake of that prayer of Christ forgave us all our sins then (Eph. 4:32), the whole concept of sin was ended in prospect (Dan. 9:24), one final sacrifice was offered for sins (Heb. 10:12). The result of this is that we should repent, search ourselves and confess as many of our sins as possible, knowing they have been conquered. And we too should forgive each other in the same manner as we have been forgiven (Eph. 4:32), not waiting for repentance, but learning the spirit of Christ and the attitude of our Father.

The extreme seriousness of our position prior to our reconciliation with God is easy to underestimate. We were " enemies...sinners" . We have seen that " Father forgive them" refers to both us and the ignorant Jews who were crucifying Christ. And yet in the first instance, the " them" referred to the Roman soldiers; they crucified Christ, they parted His garments; and it is in that context that Christ asked for " them " to be forgiven. There is a certain relevance of Christ's words to those ignorant soldiers. And yet we have seen that they really refer to us, to all those who will truly repent of their sins. It follows that those soldiers represent us, as the Jews who rejected and despised Christ in Is. 53 represent us too. Truly do we sing that " We held him as condemned by Heaven" , albeit in ignorance. The roughness and ignorance of those soldiers typifies our life before baptism. If we continue sinning, we crucify again the son of God, this time not in ignorance. The consequences of that are almost too fearful to imagine.

A guilt offering

Ignorance is no atonement for sin, as the Law taught. " Forgive them for they know not what they do" sounds as if Christ felt that He was the offering for ignorance, which was required for both rulers and ordinary Israelites (cp. how Peter and Paul describe both the rulers and ordinary people as " ignorant" , implying they had a need for the ignorance offering of Christ, Acts 3:17; 13:27). Indeed, Is. 53:10 NIV describes Christ's death as a " guilt offering" . And significantly, Heb. 5:2 describes Christ as a good priest who can have compassion on those (i.e. us) who have sinned through ignorance and want reconciliation. As we come, progressively, to realize our sinfulness, we need to make a guilt offering. But that guilt offering has already been made, with the plea " Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" .

Once we begin to appreciate these things, we see the intensity behind those words of Christ. " Father forgive them" was uttered with His mind on all our future sins, He foresaw them all, He felt them upon Him, He saw they could not be forgiven without repentance, and yet He asked the Father to forgive them as sins of ignorance, believing that we would repent in the future. No wonder Peter and Paul use these words of Christ as the basis of their appeal to Israel to repent! And if we appreciate them, we will be inspired to truly examine ourselves, to realize our secret sins, to search the word in order to reveal our sins to us, to ask God after the pattern of David to reveal our weakness to us, to truly confess our sins, knowing that each and every one of them was recognized by the Father and Son as Christ hung on the cross. Every one of them was a weight upon Christ, and every one of them was forgiven in the hope that we would later appreciate the wonder of such grace, and repent. This means that as with Israel in Acts 3, our repentance is what makes the cross of Christ powerful for us, it is what makes the victory of Christ all the greater if we accept it; for when we repent, " our unrighteousness commends God's righteousness" , in the language of Romans.

Christ's awareness of us on the cross

In some sense, then, Christ was aware of each of us and each of our sins as He hung there. " Forgive them" was wrung out of this deep appreciation. Just one word (in the Greek) expressed such intensity of appreciation of our need. It seems that as Christ hung on the cross He had a vision of the faithful. How this was achieved is hard to imagine, but it is not beyond the realms of Divine possibility that somehow Christ was made aware of each and every one of us, and each of our sins. Consider the following hints concerning the Lord's vision of His ecclesia on the cross:

- " When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed...he shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied" (Is. 53:10,11). " When" would suggest that Christ had some kind of vision of those He was offering Himself for, especially in their future, forgiven state.

- Psalms 22 and 69 describe Christ on the cross foreseeing " the great congregation" gratefully and humbly eating in memory of Him (cp. the breaking of bread), serving Him, inheriting Zion and declaring His righteousness and His victory on the cross to others down the generations. Let us remember this as we break bread and witness to Him (Ps. 22:30,31).

- On the cross Christ saw all His bones, which represented the future members of His body (Ps. 22:17 cp. Eph. 5:30).

- The Lord prayed just before His passion in a way which would almost imply that He had some heightened awareness of the redeemed as a group: " ...for them also which shall believe in me...that they also may be one" .

- " For the joy that was set before him" Christ endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). " Set before" can imply a vision, as if Christ saw something in front of Him as He hung on the cross. The spirit of Christ in Ps. 16:11 describes Christ looking forward to fullness of joy in God's Heavenly presence, because " at thy right hand are pleasures for evermore" . Christ is now at God's right hand interceding for us. Therefore we suggest that the joy set before Christ in vision as He hung on the cross was the joy of His future mediation for our sins as we repent of them and confess them in prayer.

As we have said, the intensity of feeling behind those words of our Lord almost defies exhibition through the medium of human words or language. Heb. 5:1-7 describes Christ on the cross as a priest offering up a guilt offering for our sins of ignorance. He did this, we are told, through " prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears" . This must surely be a reference to " Father forgive them" . Those were said with a real passion, with strong crying, with tears as He appreciated the extent of our sinfulness and offence of God. There is a connection between these words and those of Rom. 8:26,27, which describes Christ as our High Priest making intercession for us " with groanings" . " Groanings" is surely the language of suffering and crucifixion. It is as if our Lord goes through it all again when He prays for our forgiveness, He has the same passion for us now as He did then. Think of how on the cross He had that overwhelming desire for our forgiveness despite His own physical pain. That same level of desire is with Him now. Surely we can respond by confessing our sins, by getting down to realistic self-examination, by rallying our faith to truly appreciate His mediation and the forgiveness that has been achieved, to believe that all our sins, past and future, have been conquered, and to therefore rise up to the challenge of doing all we can to live a life which is appropriate to such great salvation.


(1) This issue is also discussed in Joseph: the fullest type of Christ.

(2) See Repentance and forgiveness.

(3) See " Why hast thou forsaken me?" later in this section