“The First Word: Father, Forgive Them”
Luke 23:32-34 March 1, 2009
SI: Easter is seven Sundays away.
And we’re going to prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection,
by looking at a special portion of the Gospels.
We’re going to meditate on the words Jesus spoke as he was dying on the cross.
These are often called the Seven Last Words or the Seven Words of the Cross,
because Jesus spoke seven times.
All of Jesus’ words are important,
but isn’t often the case that we place great stock in a person’s last words,
and we especially cherish the last words of people we love.
So it’s wonderful that we have the last words of our Savior recorded for all time.
I preached the Seven Last Words seven years ago.
And I was so blessed by my study that I told myself I would have to
preach them again some day.
It seems like enough time has passed—seven years for seven words.
I’m looking forward to this.
I believe that the Lord is going to use it for good in our body.
INTRO: A few years ago a man who is not a member of this church asked if he
could see me about a personal matter. We met and he got right to the point.
He said: “I hate my ex-wife. My hatred is killing me. How can I forgive her?”
Went on to tell me about the night, three years before, when he confronted his wife
about his suspicions, and she admitted she had been unfaithful to him.
He said that his wife walked out on the front porch and he was alone in the house:
In that moment he had an impression so strong, almost like a voice in my head.
It said: If you forgive her, your marriage will be saved.
He said: I silenced that voice, because I didn’t want to forgive her.
I wanted her to pay. I wanted her to feel the same hurt she had done to me.
Went on to tell me how for the past three years,
even after their divorce, he had tried to make her pay.
Whenever he had to deal with her about their children, he would always remind
her that she was the one who had wrecked marriage. The one with bad morals.
She was the one responsible for their children living in broken home.
She had two failed romances after their divorce.
When he found out she was living with each of these men, he began to hope
that the relationship would fail and that she would be dumped and hurt.
And that’s exactly what happened, and he rejoiced.
He thought, now she’s getting just a little taste of what she did to me.
But it didn’t satisfy him and he continued to replay her unfaithfulness in his mind.
Then he began to recognize that his hatred for her was poisoning him.
His relations with other people, his whole outlook on life.
So he told himself, I’m just going to forget her.
She’s nothing to me. Who cares what she does with her life.
I’m not going to think about her anymore.
But that didn’t work, because these grooves of hatred had worn so deep,
he just couldn’t keep his mind from going down those paths.
So he had come to realize that the only way he could be free from his hatred,
was to forgive her. But he had no idea how. Didn’t know where to start.
He professed to be a Christian, but didn’t have a pastor or a church.
This was the passage I took him to—this word from the cross—
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
This week I’ve conducted a little survey.
I’ve asked a number of Christ Covenant folks what they think
about this word of Jesus, their immediate impressions.
I asked some individually and I hit up my Covenant Group Wednesday night.
And it was interesting that all of the comments fell into three categories.
First category of comments had to do with what this word tells us
about the character of God the Father. It shows the love and compassion
of the Father and his willingness to forgive our sins.
Second category of comments had to do with what this word tells us
about the person and work of Jesus Christ. He’s our High Priest.
He intercedes for us. His work is our forgiveness and this word assures
us that we are indeed forgiven.
Third category of comments had to do with what this word tells us
about the life we’ve been called to live as Christians.
Specifically, how we are to imitate Jesus
and forgive the people who have wronged us and look on them with compassion.
These are all intertwined. Can’t have one without the other.
But I want to focus on the third—what this word tells us about the Christian life.
As Christians, we ought to be experts on forgiveness.
We are forgiven people—that’s our identity.
We’ve been forgiven by God through Jesus Christ.
So we ought to know how to apply the forgiveness we have received from God
to the people who have wronged us.
There may be people in your life who don’t know how to forgive.
And just like the man I told you about—the self-pity and hatred is killing them.
You’re their lifeline. Show them Jesus and show them how to forgive.
And even closer to home, maybe you have been wronged.
And maybe you’re struggling to forgive and feeling the hurt of unforgiveness.
This word of Jesus from the cross can set you on a path of forgiveness
that will give you freedom and joy.
This word from the cross has two parts, let’s look at each.
1. First, “Father, forgive them” shows us that forgiveness is costly.
Second, “For they do not know what doing” shows us forgiveness is
MP#1 Forgiveness is costly
Jesus said: “Father, forgive them . . .”
His words show that forgiveness is costly.
Let’s think for a moment about the cost of forgiveness.
Suppose some kids are playing ball in your neighborhood—
one puts a baseball through your living room window.
He’s in your debt. He owes you for that broken window.
You can make him pay—or you can forgive him.
If you forgive him, the debt doesn’t disappear. The window still has to be fixed.
But you pay for it. You absorb the cost.
Let’s go a step deeper: What if someone has not just broken a window—
what if he has broken something much more precious?
What if he has broken your happiness by his betrayal or cruelty?
What if she has shattered your plans and dreams by her lies?
What if he has hurt your good name, or hurt people you love?
When a person wrongs you deeply, he’s in your debt. He owes you.
It’s not a monetary debt, but it’s still a real debt.
It’s the price of very precious things that often can never be recovered.
What if a child is abused? His innocence and happiness is broken.
There is no way to put a price on that in dollars but there is clearly a debt owed.
What does it mean to forgive someone who has wronged you like that?
What’s the cost that has to be paid?
Before we answer that, let’s go one step deeper.
Our sins are a debt we owe God.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that when some churches say the Lord’s Prayer
they say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Others: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Presbyterians say debts and debtors and that’s what I’m used to—but both in Bible.
Debts in Matthew, Trespasses in Luke.
Our trespasses are debts we owe God.
Jesus paid our debt in himself on the cross.
The debt didn’t just go away—he paid it.
When somebody wrongs you, you can try to make him pay, or you can forgive him.
When you forgive, the debt doesn’t go away—You pay it.
The way you pay is through an internal struggle that is like death.
You give up your desire for revenge,
and replace that with a desire for God to bless the person who wronged you.
When Jesus said: “Father, forgive them . . .”
he was giving up his right for revenge.
The Bible says: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Jesus Christ is Lord. As Lord he had a right to revenge.
Those mocking him said, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!”
He could have done it if He had wanted to.
He could have sent them all straight to hell.
But as 1 Peter says: “when they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate;
when He suffered He made no threats.”
When someone wrongs you, it’s natural to want that person to pay.
He took something from you.
He is truly in your debt. There is no denying that.
And the only way he can really pay is by suffering.
He has to suffer at least as much as you have suffered,
and he has to know he is suffering because of what he did to you.
But when you focus on how this person deserves to suffer for what he did,
it can take control of you. You start to fantasize.
You fantasize that he will lose his business and all his money.
You fantasize that she will fail in her new romance and be heartbroken.
You want a punishment to fit the crime.
Maybe you are prone to more theological fantasies.
You imagine the shock this person is going to get when he stands before God
and has to answer for what he did to you.
You might not admit it, but really fantasizing about this person going to hell.
These fantasies end up poisoning your soul.
Forgiveness means giving up all your desires and all your claims
that the person who wronged you must pay.
But it’s not enough just to give up your right to revenge—
positive side of forgiveness is that you must bless the person who wronged you.
Jesus didn’t get revenge, instead He prayed, “Father forgive them.”
He did the very opposite of revenge. He prayed for their blessing.
And that is the cost that you must pay. Blessings for curses.
There are so many powerful examples of this in church history—
Christians who have been deeply wronged
and who have prayed blessings instead of curses.
Darlene Deibler was a missionary in Indonesia.
When WWII started she and her husband were put in prison camps by Japanese.
The women’s camp was run by a Japanese officer name Yamaji.
He had a violent temper and would beat the women for the slightest provocation.
Darlene describes the brutal beating he gave one young woman
named Elise because she had not come to roll call quickly enough.
First he broke her wrists with his cane, and then, when she fell to the ground
he kicked her until she was temporarily paralyzed.
This is what Darlene wrote about her prayer that night:
“In weariness of spirit and emotionally drained, I stretched out on my rack, reviewing what had happened, still seeing Elise’s battered body and bruised face. Phrases from the Gospel of Matthew were going through my mind: ‘Love your enemies.’ ‘Do good to those who despitefully use you.’ ‘Pray for your enemies.’ All right, Lord, I’ll pray for him. I sincerely don’t want the man to be lost eternally—but I really would like it if you would curdle the food in his stomach tonight. How very much easier it is to be philosophical about and forgive the wrongs done to oneself than to forgive the injustices done to the people we love. With sufficient provocation, there is within each of us the potential to violence—but for the grace of Almighty God. With a prayer for God to have mercy on the man, I drifted off to sleep.”
I like the honesty of her words.
Because they show that there is a cost for forgiveness.
It’s not easy to bless those who have wronged you.
It’s a struggle and God sees your struggle.
C.S. Lewis wrote:
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
He wasn’t just being clever. In a letter near the end of his life, he commented that
he had finally forgiven a cruel schoolteacher who had darkened his childhood
when he was a young boarding student.
Forgiveness is not easy. It takes supernatural power.
That brings us to the second point . . .
MP#2 Forgiveness is divine
Forgiveness requires the work of the Holy Spirit in you.
He gives you a new way of looking at person who wronged you and at yourself.
That new perspective—that divine perspective, empowers you to forgive.
We see this in the second part of Jesus’ word from the cross.
What did Jesus mean when he said: “For they do not know what they are doing?”
It seems like they knew exactly what they were doing.
The Jewish religious leaders knew what they were doing.
They plotted for three years to kill him. They bribed Judas to betray him.
People in the crowd knew what they were doing.
Jesus had healed their sick and fed them bread and fish.
But they shouted for him to be crucified.
They knew what Roman crucifixion meant for a man.
Pontius Pilate knew what he was going.
He knew he was executing an innocent man to maintain his office.
That’s why he went through that whole charade about washing his hands.
Some of the older commentaries give this explanation:
Jesus was just praying for the Roman soldiers.
They were the only ones who didn’t know what they were doing.
They were just doing their job.
All the others responsible for crucifixion did know—Jesus not praying for them.
But that doesn’t sound right. Jesus taught us to “pray for those
who persecute” us and that seems to be exactly what he was doing.
So it’s best to understand that Jesus’ prayer included all responsible for his death.
But it still doesn’t answer the question—
In what sense did they not know what they were doing?
Jesus was looking at these people from a spiritual perspective.
He saw them as people blinded and enslaved by sin.
They were willingly enslaved, but enslaved none the less.
Jesus looked at these people spiritually.
He saw people made in the image of God who were blinded by sin.
And Jesus didn’t hate them for that. He had pity on them.
He said to his Father: Look at them. They are blinded by sin.
They are in bondage. They do not know what they are doing.
Have mercy. Father, forgive them.
Jesus able to see his enemies that way because he was filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Bible says he was filled with the Holy Spirit beyond measure.
As a man completely filled by the Holy Spirit, he had a spiritual perspective.
Able to look past the outside, look past pain inflicted and see the person,
and the enslaving power of sin.
Your sinful nature will never let you see people that way.
When they wrong you will simply focus on their offense and condemn them.
Then you will probably dehumanize them.
He is just a liar and a sorry piece of trash.
She is the most stupid, worthless individual I have ever known.
You consign that person to the garbage heap.
That is exactly what you will do—unless you are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Only by the Holy Spirit, ever going to be able to look at people spiritually,
be moved with pity for their condition, even when they are wrong you.
I had a seminary buddy who was a touchy person, very sensitive.
I hadn’t seen him for years and then I ran into him at General Assembly.
He started telling me about the church he had served in for six years.
It was in a small town, and one of the members of the church was the richest
man in town, and he liked to throw his weight around.
This man made life increasingly difficult for my friend and his wife.
I found it hard not to be indignant as he was telling me these stories—
and I kept expecting to hear some bitter condemnation come out of my friend.
But instead he expressed an amazing compassion for the man
and he concluded the story by saying: “We’re still praying for him.”
Then he changed the subject and started talking about his new church.
He had a divine perspective.
The Holy Spirit had enabled him to say:
“They do not know what they are doing.”
Do you see people as Jesus saw them? Ask him to help you.
There is something else that Christ’s word from the cross can teach you
but it’s a hard lesson and you might not be ready for it.
It’s that you are no different from the person who wronged you.
You are also a person made in God’s image and you are a sinner,
and there are times, even as a Christian, that you are blinded by your sin.
You remember the old Easter song, I think it’s a Negro spiritual:
It asks a probing question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
What’s the answer to that question? Were you there?
Yes, you were there. Your sins put Jesus on the cross.
When Jesus prayed, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do—
he was praying for you.
You may not like to hear that.
The man I told you about at the beginning was angry when I told him that.
He said: I would never do what she did. I would never be unfaithful.
Maybe that’s how you feel. I would never do what that person did to me.
Praise God that you feel that way about sin.
But remember, it’s only by His grace.
If His grace was removed from your life for a moment, you would, and worse.
And you have wronged God deeply many times.
So by the power of the cross you have to look at this person who wronged you
and say—He’s just like me.
He is a person made in God’s image, made to do beautiful things.
And he is a sinner, blind and enslaved.
And that’s what I was until the grace of God found me.
You believe this first word from the cross.
Believe what it says about the power of sin and the greatness of God’s grace.
And then, with that knowledge, you take little steps of forgiveness.
This man began to pray: Lord, help my ex-wife to find the love and
contentment that she couldn’t find in our marriage. Don’t let her be hurt.
Give her good relationship with our kids. When I see her next, say a kind word.
That cost him. But power to do it came from knowing that he had owed a great
debt, and been forgiven much, at great cost to Jesus Christ.
And that’s what you have to do—look at the cross—
hear the loving words of your Savior—pay the price,
and move ahead with forgiveness.
This is who we are—Forgiven people. It’s our identity.
And the man we love so much spoke first of forgiveness as he was dying for us.
By the power the Holy Spirit—let’s take his words to heart.
Our communion hymn is about the cross—about the cost he gladly paid.