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Cries From The Cross

A Cry Of Pardon

Erwin W. Lutzer | February 18, 2001

Selected highlights from this sermon

Think about this. While on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is the only time in all of the Gospels that Jesus asks the Father to forgive someone, He usually did it Himself. But here, beaten to the point of being unrecognizable, He sets aside His rights as deity and asks the Father to forgive those who did this to Him.

And as Pastor Lutzer explains the almost incomprehensible, it was only through Jesus’ own death that His own prayer could be answered.

Would you be as willing to pray for forgiveness in your most tormented hour?

“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Those are the words of a man who chose to become a victim of history’s greatest crime.

Jesus began His ministry in prayer, and He ends His earthly ministry in prayer. And these words from the cross should be noticed. They should be thought about, and they should be accepted by us for a couple of reasons. First of all, in these words are our own deliverance, for we are invited to be forgiven for our sins. Second, this is a model for the way in which we also should pray. And thirdly, it’s another reminder of the accuracy of Scripture because the Scripture predicted in Isaiah 53:11 that He was numbered with the transgressors. He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors. So He did.

What I want you to do is to take your Bible as we turn today to the 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and we shall read the text and its context. And then we’re going to move through this prayer and better understand it and its application and transforming power to our own lives.

Luke 23. I pick it up at verse 32: “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’”

Three of the sayings from the cross take place before mid-day. The context in which this prayer is given is one of great suffering. Jesus has been laid on the cross and, so far as we can determine, even when He was still horizontal and the nails were being put through His palms or His hands (and by the way, the Romans did prefer nails to being tied), and as that was happening, Jesus already then apparently began to say (because that’s what the text means— “He began saying”) … He was saying, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.”

When was this prayer prayed? It was prayed at the very time His nerves were not yet dulled. This was the time when the pain was the freshest, when the jolt of anguish that went through His body was the sharpest. It was at that time that He prayed for His enemies.

He prayed at a time when He was being jeered. We can visualize the cross. The crowd gathered. Attention was attracted, and as a result of that, some were there because they were so glad to see Him dying. This was their greatest day. Others were there because they actually were just part of a curious crowd. They wondered who was being crucified. They were looking at the statement that was put above the cross. And others were just walking by, but the text says that the rulers were sneering at Him, and they said, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is Christ, the Son of God.” They did not realize that by their sarcasm they were making a tremendous compliment to Christ. By saying that He saved others they were admitting that He actually was so selfless in His ministry that they couldn’t help but notice.

What they didn’t understand was that if He were to save Himself, they, and we, would not be saved. In being willing to not save Himself when He was on the cross, not calling the legions of angels, a redemption was purchased at high cost. How selfless He was.

So I want us to visualize that we are standing at the cross now. There is so much jeering and so much talking going on. We look at Christ at a distance and we notice that His lips are moving, so what we need to do is to get closer because we can’t hear from back where we are standing. And so we come close to Jesus, and we look up at Him, and we notice that indeed He is speaking, but what is He saying? What’s coming out of His mouth? Is it simply anguish because of the pain? Is He cursing those who were crucifying Him? Were they words of self-pity? “Why Me after all the good I’ve done?”

Were the words of Jesus words of vengeance? “Boy, when I am resurrected from the dead, I’ll get even with you and I’ll set this issue straight, and I’ll bring justice to this situation.” Is that what we are hearing in the midst of this excruciating experience? No! “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”

It’s very interesting. Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus ever ask the Father to forgive somebody. He was offering the forgiveness Himself. “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” He would say to people. But on the cross, no, no. Because while He’s dying there on the cross, He exercises no prerogatives as God. He so fully identifies with us that He is willing to assume the role of a servant. And servants have no rights. Servants have no abilities. Servants simply do as is being done to them. And He’s hanging there, and so He appeals to the Father, and says, “Father, forgive them.”

Three times here on the cross He prays to God. We will come to it in this series of messages when He cries up and says, “My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?” and then at the end (the last message in the series) when He says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

Let me ask you something today. Jesus could have very easily thought to Himself, first of all, “This is so unjust.” He could have said to Himself, “Why is it that the minute I need my friends, they are gone?” They are not there because all the disciples forsook Him and fled. John hung around, but Peter and all the other heroes could not be seen. They departed the scene. And so Jesus could have been angry with that.

Pastor Wiersbe asks this question: “Is your faith shaken by the wickedness of sinners or the weakness of saints?” When people aren’t around and should be around, when you are going through your crucifixion, are you angry and bitter? Or let me ask you this question: When you are being crucified, can you say, “Father?” In fact, let me ask you another question. Can you pray for those who are crucifying you and say, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing?” What is the context of this prayer? It is one of great suffering.

Now let’s look at the content of the prayer itself. “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing?” Does this mean they did not know that they were doing something wrong? It couldn’t possibly mean that. Judas knew right well that he was betraying a good friend, and he understood the divine ministry of Jesus. He knew what he was doing. Pilate, when he was there trying to decide what to do with Jesus when the mobs were crying… Pilate’s great problem is he couldn’t find anything against Him. He said, “He’s innocent. I’m going to deliver Him to you, but I find no fault in Him,” and still Jesus ends up going to the cross. Do you mean to say Pilate didn’t know that what he was doing wrong? Of course he did. What about the Jewish Sanhedrin? They had to trump up charges. They had to pay off false witnesses to get this guy onto the cross. They knew right well that they were doing wrong.

What then did Jesus mean when He said, “They know not what they do?” What Jesus meant was they had no understanding of the enormity of their crime. They don’t understand this. They think it was a matter of lies. They think it was a matter of trumped up charges. They think that it was just getting rid of somebody who was irritating them. They think that it was just that, and they knew that they did that wrong, but they had no idea. And that’s why the Bible says in the book of 1 Corinthians 2: “No, we speak the wisdom of God, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for had they understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” They didn’t know that they were part of the greatest crime that could ever possibly be committed.

And so Jesus is saying, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.” There’s a part of what they are doing that they are ignorant of. There’s part of it that they know right well that they are doing. A part of it was also ignorance.

In the Old Testament, there were various kinds of sins and different sacrifices for sins. There was, for example, the sin of the high hand, sometimes referred to as a presumptuous sin. That’s the sin that you commit where you are shaking your fist at God and you say, “I know exactly what I am doing but I am going to curse you and go my own way.” For some of those sins there was not even any forgiveness—you committed that and you were to be put to death.

But there’s also, in Leviticus 5, what is known as the sin of ignorance. It is sinning unintentionally—where you do something and you may not understand the full import of what you are doing. And so special sacrifices were available also for those sins. But don’t miss the bottom line. Just because you don’t know what you are doing, or you may be partially ignorant, does not mean that you don’t need forgiveness.

“Father, forgive them.” In the Old Testament, you had to bring a sacrifice. I read the passage this morning in Leviticus where it says, “Bring a ram, or if not, then bring something else, but be reconciled to God.” You need forgiveness, and so bring it.

Here’s Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them.” Why? You know right well that if you go through a stop sign and you say, “Well, officer, I have to tell you, in all candor, that I didn’t see the stop sign…” I have a friend who has very, very bad eyesight, and an officer stopped him for going through a stop sign, and he was going to say to him, “How in the world do you expect me to see it? I don’t have good eyes.” The officer would say, “Well, you are off the hook because it was done in ignorance.” No! You are guilty.

But listen to me very carefully. I want you to know that we are not as ignorant as these people. These people did not know that after the crucifixion there was going to be a resurrection. They did not know that the New Testament would be written that would explain all that Jesus Christ came to do and the fulfillment of prophecies. They did not know that a Christian church would be born on the Day of Pentecost that would transform the world. We know all that, and therefore, I plead with you today, those of you listening to this message. You will not be able to plead ignorance at any time, and certainly not after you have heard God’s Word. We are not as ignorant as they were back then.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is needed for sins done unintentionally. And, of course, Jesus here is praying. Wherever you open the Gospels, Jesus is praying, isn’t He? And what is He doing today in heaven? It’s hard for me to get my mind around this theologically, but in the book of Hebrews it says that He is there, interceding for us. And that’s why Wesley wrote:

Five bleeding wounds He bears,
Received on Calvary.
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly plead for me.
Forgive him, oh forgive they cry.
Nor let that ransomed sinner die.

Jesus is pleading for His enemies.

The context of the prayer is suffering. The content of the prayer is forgiveness. But now I have to ask you a question about the answer to the prayer. Was it answered? Of course, it was answered. You know, it is unthinkable that Jesus would pray a prayer to the Father that would not be answered. Even John 17, where He prayed that the church may be one (That they may be one, Father), is a prayer that is answered, and we are to keep the unity of the Spirit. But, my dear friend, the Bible says that if we ask something according to the will of God, we know that He hears us. Would anyone know the will of God better than Jesus Christ, the Son of God? He would understand the will of God with clarity and pray always within the will of God. You say, “Well, what about Gethsemane?” Notice what He said at Gethsemane. He said, “Father, take this cup from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wills.” He was saying this: “Father, this is My desire, but at the end of the day I set My desires aside and say, ‘Thy will be done.’” Yes, His prayer in Gethsemane was answered as the book of Hebrews also showed.

So how was this prayer answered? Well, let me show you the different ways in which it came about. For example, in Matthew chapter 27…you need not turn to it but I want you to listen to it very carefully. There’s a very interesting statement about those who will watch Jesus die.

Matthew, chapter 27, I am reading verse 54: “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and they exclaimed, ‘Surely, He was the Son of God.’” Apparently not just one centurion, but a whole group of them were saying, “Surely, He was the Son of God.” To me that’s saving faith. They finally recognized who it was that they had crucified, and they acknowledged that He was the Son of God, and if you confess Jesus as Lord (if you confess who He is) it shows a recognition of your own need. I expect to see some of those folks in heaven, bless them, standing there at the foot of the cross.

But there’s another way in which it was answered, and that is found in the book of Acts. You say, “Well, you know those Jews who crucified Jesus, the Sanhedrin and those who wanted to make sure that He was put away, surely we can’t say that they were ignorant.” Well, I want you to know that Peter felt differently about that than we might.

Listen to what the book of Acts says in chapter 3:
“The God of Abraham, Isaac, the God of our Fathers has glorified his servant, Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the Author of life, but God raised Him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith, in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus, in His name, that faith comes to him who has given this complete healing (He’s talking about the healing or the man who was crippled), as all of you can see.”

Verse 17: “Now brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” Isn’t it remarkable that the people who cried and said, “His blood be upon us and our children,” meant “Let responsibility for His death rest upon our shoulders,” and that Jesus would take that very blood and have it applied to their hearts so that they would be granted forgiveness? How many of them believed?

The Day of Pentecost Peter preaches (Acts 2). Three-thousand souls are added to the Lord. He preaches in chapter 3 the message that I have just read a part of, and what do we read in chapter 4, verse 4? “But many who heard the message believed and the number of men grew to about five thousand in the city of Jerusalem. Five thousand men! Now listen to what it says in chapter 6, verse 7: “So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” When Jesus was hanging there on the cross, God the Father heard His prayer and answered it.

You say, “Well, was everyone forgiven?” No, of course not. Everyone was not forgiven. There’s no such thing in the Scriptures as those who are forgiven, and they don’t want forgiveness, and they are ignorant, and God somehow simply makes their slate clean. There’s no such thing like that in the Bible. Jesus was not praying for those who didn’t want forgiveness. He was praying and saying, “Father, I pray that you might forgive those who seek it, and I pray that there might be many people who seek it, that You might grant to them the gift of repentance.” Because there’s a part of what they knew they were doing and they knew about, but there’s another part they didn’t know about. They did not understand the extent of their crime. “Forgive them.” And at least, minimally, five thousand were forgiven.

By the way, I am blessed with this observation. How did Jesus Christ (how did God) make them aware of the enormity of their crime? He sent them a preacher, and the preacher (Peter) preached, and said, “You crucified the Holy One,” and soon everything began to come together in their minds and they said, “Oh, we didn’t know. We knew that He was unique. We knew that He claimed to be the Son of God, but we didn’t believe His claims. And now we finally see the extent of our sin. What must we do to be saved?” And they cried up to God, and Jesus Christ’s prayer was answered.

What observations are necessary for us to understand the import of this word, this cry from the cross? First of all, no sin (listen to me carefully) is too great to forgive. If they could be forgiven for crucifying the Holy One, if there can be forgiveness for nailing the Son of God to the cross, and jeering Him, and mocking Him, and saying, “His blood be upon us because we hate Him,” if that can be forgiven, why do you think that your sin can’t be forgiven? What sin have you committed that is greater than that?

All of us know that a Japanese vessel was overturned by an American submarine. It was unintentional. Now, maybe there was not a lot of concern regarding safety procedures. That’s another thing, but nobody there intended that nine lives would be lost. But someone in Japan said that what happened is (quote) unforgiveable. We can understand how we might feel if it was our child that drowned in the water, but I want you to know today that what is unforgivable by men is forgivable by God. There is no such thing as a sin that is unpardonable except those sins that we commit for which we do not want pardon. The sins that we write off, and we may say, as a young man wrote to me and said, “I have blasphemed the Holy Spirit, and because I have blasphemed the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God has left me and I cannot be forgiven.” I wrote back and said, “How badly do you want forgiveness? That’s the key. If you want it, if you desire it, that shows that the Holy Spirit still has some ministry in your life. Come to Christ.”

Come to Christ, those of you who are listening. And some of you will listen to this message in prison. I’m speaking now to criminals, not just in prison but possibly in this congregation today. If the truth really were known and if reality became evident, some of you have done some very, very terrible things. But I say to you today, it’s forgivable. What men cannot forgive, God can forgive.

Second, Jesus died so that His own prayer could be answered. The reason He was hanging on the cross was so that His prayer could be answered. Listen, if Jesus had not died, there’s no way that He could have said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He couldn’t have said it. Why? It’s because there’d be no basis for forgiveness. God can’t just wipe people’s slate clean. If you wonder whether or not sin is serious, you look at the cross. You stare there at Jesus. You look at His suffering, both physical and spiritual. As we shall see when we get into this series of messages, we will discover the excruciating agony of Jesus. That’s all because of sin. And the Bible says that if God offers us grace, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? If you don’t accept the only way that God has provided for you, what hope is there for you? The answer is zero.

Just last week I was with a friend of mine who told me this story. He was on a plane witnessing to a woman about God’s saving grace, and she said, “Well, the reason that God should let me into heaven is because I am good enough.” And he said, “Well, what if you weren’t good enough?” And do you know what she said, belonging to this post-Christian self-centered era? She said, “If I’m not good enough for Him, He ought to lighten up.” That was her answer. That’s the modern view. “If I’m not good enough for Him, He ought to lighten up.” That lady has not seen herself in the presence of God’s holiness and she does not understand the cross. Listen to me very carefully. God never lightens up, and He never accommodates Himself to our own ignorance. That’s why, yes, we are guilty for those things even done in ignorance. Without forgiveness, even at that point, we are lost. Jesus died so His own prayer could be answered.

Thirdly, Jesus is a model for how we should treat our enemies. I find this wonderful that Jesus said, “Do good to those who persecute you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” And so that’s our model, and we say to ourselves, “Well, you know, it’s one thing to say that.” Those of us who are preachers are sometimes concerned about that. It’s one thing to preach a message. It’s one thing to tell people what to do, but what do you do when you are in the middle of the situation? Jesus says, “Here’s the model for you folks. Throughout all generations I am being unjustly crucified. All of my rights are being taken away—my civil rights, my personal rights, my judicial rights. Everything is being taken. Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.” And that’s the way some of you need to talk about people who have deeply wounded you.

Some of you don’t forgive, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, you say, “Well, if I forgave him, it would deny the seriousness of his sin.” No, it would not. What you need to do is to let God determine the seriousness of the sin because, you know, you cannot ultimately forgive somebody. You can only heal personal relationships. At the end of the day, they have to deal with God in their sin—so they’re not off the hook.

You say, “Well, it places so much responsibility on me.” I’ve had people say, “Why should I be the one who is forgiving? What have I done? Look at…” And then the whole list comes. The simple fact is, my friend, that Jesus could have done that. “Why should I be the one who is asking them to have forgiveness, because, after all, what have I done?”

This past week I was counseling someone who is not a member of our church, who belongs to another fellowship, but she was talking about her husband who has become evil, and how she should relate to that. And I reminded her of 1 Peter where it says, regarding Jesus, “Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again.” He didn’t say, “You throw a spear at me. I’m going to throw it back.” No! What did He do? He kept committing Himself onto His Father who judges righteously. He just kept saying, “Father, this is your situation. It’s your situation. They have to deal with you.” And that’s what you must do too.

You must heal that personal relationship even without the cooperation of the other person by simply saying, “Grace means I give you something you don’t deserve. You don’t deserve my forgiveness, but I give it to you just like I’ve been given grace.” That was the point of the parable that Jesus told about the man who owed ten thousand talents. Multiply that by about $1,000 a talent. What are we talking about? We’re talking about ten million dollars.

And he says, “Oh, have mercy on me. I will pay you all.” And the king knew that this man obviously had no idea what he was talking about, so he forgave him the debt. The king was out ten thousand talents when he was doing his books at the end of the fiscal year, so the man leaves the presence of the king and he finds someone who owes him, what was it, twenty pence? It’s about twenty dollars. He takes him by the throat and says, “Pay it up.” The man says, “Have mercy. I’ll pay you.” “No, I want it right now.”

You remember the forgiven servant was thrown to the tormenters. It doesn’t mean hell. It means that he was tormented because there’s nobody who is tormented as much as someone who says, “Well, I hang onto my bitterness because I have a right to. Don’t you see the justice of it all? Can’t you see how I’ve been wounded? Can’t you see that it’s somebody else’s fault? What’s wrong with you?” And so as a result of that, all of that is held in, protected, and guarded. What an awful way to live.

Jesus, on the cross, was willing to say, “Father, I’m going to let them deal with you about this. I die without bitterness. Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

That’s what some of you need to say to people who are even in this room today. You need to say, “Forgiveness needs to be extended.” And some of you have never received the forgiveness of Jesus, have you? There is no other way. Please don’t plead ignorance. Please don’t say that there is some other way. You look at the cross and you say, “My Savior bled that I might be reconciled.” And even throughout the ages His prayer is still being answered by people who ignorantly turn away from Him because by faith the Spirit works in their life, and they finally say, “By faith I see that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and I embrace Him.” And some of you have to do that today.

Whatever God has talked to you about, you must do.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we do want to thank you today for your grace that has been given to us so wondrously. We thank you for the cross. We thank you, Father, for the grace that was extended to us so undeservedly, and having been forgiven, teach us to forgive. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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