As Jesus hangs between two criminals, Roman soldiers scoff. Those passing by shake their heads at what just happened to this so-called ‘son of God.’ Many watched as Jesus’ miraculous ministry was halted by political propaganda and a miscarriage of justice. The disciples witnessed their hope nailed to the cross, fleeing in despair. It so felt as though a promising career had ended in the dark defeat, as if a flickering light got snuffed out at twilight. Then thick and impenetrable darkness closed in on Christ. As his life drained out with blood dripping from his outstretched hands and feet fastened to the tree, Jesus uttered three words that would shock the watching world: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).

Jesus Embodied And Exhorts Forgiveness

Jesus’ prayer is consistent with Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as the forgiver of sins. For instance Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic who was lowered through a roof (Luke 5:17-26). The Pharisees and teachers of the Law rightly noted that Jesus claimed to be God by forgiving sin. Also, when Jesus forgave a sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50), many asked: “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”

Forgiveness was central to Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus showed his divinity by forgiving sin, but he also commanded his disciples to forgive their offenders. In Luke 11:4, Jesus teaches his followers to seek forgiveness for their sins from God but premised such divine forgiveness on their forgiveness of others (also Luke 17:3-4). Thus, Jesus showed that forgiveness was central to his ministry, a reason to believe his prayer for his enemies was genuine.

Forgiveness Was Countercultural Then, Even More So Now

But we should not take Jesus’ forgiveness for granted, as though it was a common cultural practice in his days. While the Greeks had a strong sense of justice, their concept of forgiveness was weak. Kenneth Dover notes that “Greek gods do not command us to forgive on an extravagant scale, if at all.” Thus, as Zsuzsanna Várhelyi writes, by Jesus’ time, “seeking divine forgiveness came to appear almost countercultural,” and the angry gods in Roman literature “were unlikely to be open to practicing forgiveness.”

Given this context, we can imagine how Jesus’ prayer must have shocked the Roman soldiers squatting nearby, dividing his garments. Christ’s crucifixion was a public disgrace and a kangaroo court for which the Greco-Romans would expect Jesus’ justifiable reaction to be rage and revenge. Jesus shocked them.

Our generation too emphasises justice so that the idea of forgiveness is growingly unthinkable.

Our generation too emphasises justice so that the idea of a victim forgiving their offenders is growingly unthinkable, even abominable. Timothy Keller’s essay The Fading of Forgiveness notes how “most of us have been formed by a culture that nourishes revenge and mocks grace.” Many today find forgiveness oppressive and harsh on the victims who should rather exact vengeance.

Yet, Jesus used his last breath and blood to forgive his murderers. From his excruciating pain ensued his liberating pardon. Thus “Father, forgive them” is captivatingly countercultural. The unjustly crucified one extended forgiveness to those who didn’t even think they wronged him. And he commands us to do the same.

You Need God’s Forgiveness First

When Jesus says: “Father, forgive them,” who is the “them”? I can see the Roman soldier chuckling: “who, me? Why do I need your forgiveness? I am merely doing my job.” None of those involved in Jesus’ death would think they needed forgiveness. For they didn’t know what they did (Luke 23:34). And I can imagine some reading this article wondering, “why do I need God’s forgiveness?”

First, we need forgiveness because we are all guilty rebels. Despite Christ demonstrating his divinity through his deeds, people rejected him out of personal convenience. Pilate preferred power, pride, and praises. So did the Jewish leaders. Those passing by didn’t care that Jesus innocently died, while the soldiers cared more about “doing their job,” than truth and justice. We join the chorus of Christ’s crucifiers as we trade God, righteousness, justice, and truth for convenience. Thus we too are guilty rebels.

We join the chorus of Christ’s crucifiers when we trade God for personal convenience.

Secondly, we need forgiveness for exchanging God for garments and goods. The soldiers busily cast lots for Christ’s garments while blood drained from his veins. And we all have exchanged the life of God for life’s goods: jobs, riches, glory, and entertainment. But the things we pursue drain the life out of us, the life which only the blood-bought forgiveness of Christ can restore.

Finally, Christ’s forgiveness grafts us into God’s family. It was no mistake that when the thick and impenetrable darkness closed in on Christ at the cross, he prayed to the Father. Forgiveness proceeds from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. Without divine forgiveness, we cannot ultimately belong. The blood-bought forgiveness of God’s Son makes us sons and daughters who share the Father’s life and love. That forgiveness is still there for you. Receive it in Jesus’ name.

Christ’s Cry Reveals God’s Heart

Christ’s unique and countercultural forgiveness reveals the heart of the God who treats us better than we deserve. We all merit judgment and desperately need forgiveness. The Christian hope is that God in Christ grants mercy to all. For he, in Christ, bore the consequences of our sin against him. Because Christ endured our sin in his body on the cross, he can justly forgive us. The cross displays God’s salvation. Christ died for his murderers, buying our freedom by his blood. “Father, forgive them” is Christ’s prayer for you. Receive it by faith in Jesus.