It’s one of the most arresting scenes in the history of literature. It’s filled with instruction and intrigue. But it doesn’t stop with my mind; it also gets after my heart and my will. Every time I read it I am humbled and compelled to change.
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'” (Luke 23:34a)
Jesus here is on the cross. He is being executed because of the false charges levied by the jealous, blood-thirsty religious leaders. The Roman authorities, keen to make gains in political capital, obliged to accommodate this public execution. All the while Jesus maintains the highest dignity and love for others. He prays for his enemies, asking his Father to forgive them.
Think about this for a minute. When we peer into this scene, our natural reaction is not one of forgiveness. Instead, like Peter, we want to fight back and bring judgment (John 18:10). But even more, when we try to emulate Jesus, as his followers, we must admit this is quite difficult. It is not easy to forgive, but especially when people are mistreating you. When I sense that I’ve been wronged, I tend to feel the most justified in being ugly with people. This feels like the time for self-vindicating judgment, not self-sacrificing forgiveness.
This again is where Jesus is so different from us but also so attractive to us. Here on the cross through these surprising words, he reveals God’s enduring patience, mercy, and grace toward his enemies. Even amid the most heated and intense opposition, Jesus shows his heart of mercy and pleads for forgiveness.
When we remember the truth of our identity, then we are greatly helped in this pursuit. Prior to conversion to Christ, we were in fact enemies of God (Rom. 5:10). And, we were not dormant in this hostility toward God, but actively opposing his rule (Col. 1:21). We belittled his glory and turned creation in upon ourselves (Rom. 1:18, 24-25; Titus 3:3). But, it was precisely here when “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We were unlovely and unloving. But God was gracious. He forgives his enemies. He forgives us.
When I read of what Christ did upon the cross—his surprising prayers for those who wanted him dead—I am arrested. It confounds my mind. How could a man live and love like this? But it also gets in and invades my heart, that is, what I love. Because the cross tells me who I am and what God has done for me. And this is the portal into life. We can only begin to demonstrate this type of Christlike living when we wrestle with the implications of Christ’s death. By the grace of God, we can grow to be people who are willing to forgive others even in the most heated times because we worship a Savior who does this very thing. Jesus is the model and motivation for our forgiveness.