“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)
The pain was unbearable. Every word spoken would cost a lot of strength and pain. So, the words Jesus spoken while on the cross are of great significance.
Jesus had the authority to forgive, but here he asks the Father to forgive. This seems to be the only time in the Bible that Jesus asks for forgiveness. Not for Himself but for others.
Who is the ‘they’ Jesus refers to?
- the soldiers, who crucified them?
- Pilate, who washed his hands after agreeing that Jesus could be crucified?
- the people, who screamed, let Barabbas free, crucify Jesus?
- the religious leaders, who went to a lot of trouble to have Jesus crucified?
- Judas, one of the 12, who betrayed him and sold him for some pieces of silver?
- Peter, who denied knowing Him?
- the other disciples, who all fled after Jesus was arrested?
- the criminals next to him on the other crosses?
I would like to draw out some lessons from these words of Jesus and His words to the criminal.
Christ, who was betrayed, wrongly accused, publicly humiliated, terribly tortured just a few hours ago, was able to ask for forgiveness for the people who did these terrible things to Him. His first words were not: I will get you one day. You can laugh now, but the time will come when you will not laugh any longer. Don’t you realize what you are doing? That means that his heart was from anger, bitterness, hatred, revenge. All throughout the process he never justified Himself, and never defended Himself. There was nothing but love, and forgiveness.
On what basis what Jesus able to pray for forgiveness? His oppressors had done terribly wrong things to him. They deserve to be punished. It’s not fair that they get away with it. Someone has to pay for the wrong things they did, isn’t it? Yes, someone has to pay.
“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22).”
Without the cross, there would be no moral basis for forgiveness.
Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus prayed for forgiveness, while he was bleeding and dying. His praying for forgiveness coincided with Him fulfilling the only condition that makes forgiveness possible, by offering Himself as a guilt offering. The fact that He was crucified was the very basis on which he could say to a repentant criminal next to Him: today you will be with me in paradise.
Although Jesus had the ability to come off the cross, as people tempted Him to do, He didn’t use his power. Yes, it might have had quite an impact, for the moment, but it would not have lasting results. We would still be slaves to sin, we would still come under God’s wrath, we would still have to pay the price for our own sins. Something we could have never done. Jesus faced many temptations in his life, from the ones in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry and the one here on the cross at the end. And every time he restraint himself. He wanted to go the way of the Lord till the end. The Gospels indicate that this wasn’t always easy for Him to do. Even for the Son of God, the perfect man, obedience to God was sometimes difficult. But He was able to deny Himself and take up His cross. He didn’t want to prove that He was right and his accusers were wrong, He left it to God to vindicate him. He said ‘no’ to the desires of the flesh and ‘yes’ to God.
“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.”
Jesus’ attitude of love and forgiveness right to the end, was rooted in his belief that His life and all aspects of it were in the hands of His loving Heavenly Father. As He told Pilate a few hours before: ‘You would have no power over me, if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19:11), Jesus lived His life in the knowledge that His heavenly Father would care for Him. As He said: My food is to do the will of the One who sent me. He trusted His Father and was was able to leave the outcome of all that happened to Him to God. He believed that God would ultimately prevail.
Jesus intercedes on behalf of those who mistreat him. Jesus who prayed on the cross for His offenders, also prayed for Peter:
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” (Luke 22:31,32)
He intercedes for us:
“Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus (no !), who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:33,34)
The way Jesus dealt with difficult circumstances and with people who had treated Him badly, was a public affair. Many people saw Jesus hanging on the cross, weak, defenseless, naked, and brused. Some saw him as a victim of a wrong judicial system, of the jealousy of the religious leaders and of the weakness of Pilate’s rule, but in reality He was the victor. The resurrection that would follow was a visible manifestation of this, but He was a victor in the midst of terrible circumstances, while he was about to die. Although Jesus could be considered a victim of the schemes and prejudices, pride and sin of many people, he never saw himself as a victim. He was victorious.
Jesus public offer of forgiveness in stead of revenge, His attitude of lover in stead of anger, must have had quite an impact on the bystanders. We know that it had an impact on at least one person: one of the two criminals next to Jesus. While in Matthew we read that both criminals ‘heaped insults on him’, here we see that only one did so, while the other one asked Jesus to remember him. I might be that both criminals were insulting Jesus at first, but that one of them became touched by the love of Jesus and His willingness to forgive His offenders. As a result he repented (changed his mind) and was saved.
The words of Jesus on the cross and the attitude they express are an example for us, His followers:
Freedom -the result of forgiveness
It should encourage us to live a life of forgiveness. One of the results of forgiveness is freedom. Unwillingness to forgive keeps you in bondage. An attitude of unforgiveness grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30) Forgiving people not necessary changes the situation, but it cleans your heart of anger and bitterness. It allows the Holy Spirit to continue to dwell in you.
Offering -the basis of forgiveness
Forgiveness isn’t fair. Someone has to pay for the wrong done to you. Yes, but Someone has paid. To admit that Christ died for the sins of the offender is hard to accept, because we may still feel the offender has to pay a price for their sin against us. But then it’s important to remember that forgiveness is not just granting release for an offense. That’s the easy part. Forgiveness is also accepting upon ourselves the full consequences of the other person’s offense against us. That’s the way Jesus went and which He enables us to follow.
Restraining -the implication of forgiveness
Can we restrain ourselves when we are treated badly? Sometimes that means not defending yourself when wrongly accused, but also not pay back evil with evil. Not speaking badly about the person who speaks badly about us.
God-centeredness -the root of forgiveness
An attitude of God-centeredness is crucial for a healthy Christian life. Christ was able to leave the outcome of all that happened to Him to God. He believed that God would ultimately prevail. In his book ‘Crucified by Christians’, Gene Edwards, emphasizes that unless we see the difficult things that are happening to us, sometimes caused by fellow-believers, as ultimately coming from our Heavenly Father, who wants to use these difficult experiences to bring us closer to Himself, we will find no healing, but will be trapped in bitterness and anger. The ability to trust God, especially in the area of revenge, is a challenge even for the best of us; thus it is hard to forgive. Forgiveness is not foregoing punishment. It is transferring the offender over to God in our hearts, and saying good-bye, affirming our love or care for them, and then walking away free, purposing to live in love and liberty.
Intercession -the way to forgiveness
Interceding for those who harm us, is the best way to have God fill our hearts with love for our enemies. Praying for our offenders, will not only bless them, but also our own hearts. Praying for people we dislike is the best way to learn to love them
Visible – the public relations of forgiveness
Although forgiveness starts in the heart of the victim, or in the inner chamber, between the victim and the Lord, sooner or later it will become visible. In the glance and attitude of the victim, but also in the lives of others. Offering forgiveness to those who do not deserve, might cause their hearts to change and it might encourage others who are trapped in bitterness and anger to change their hearts.
Brothers and sisters, let us glorify Jesus who not only was crucified for our sins, but Who also has given us an example how to deal with situations when we are wrongly accused, humiliated, offended, treated unjustly and let us pray that through the same Spirit who is at work in our lives, we can follow Him in this.
Bert de Ruiter