The Lord Jesus Christ spoke eight times from the cross. Three times He prayed, addressing Himself twice to His Father and once to His God. Three times He addressed people, speaking to His mother, to John the beloved disciple and to the repentant thief. His two remaining utterances were not addressed to anyone specifically, the first being an expression of suffering when He said “I thirst”, and the second being an expression of triumph when he cried “It is finished".
It seems that four of the Lord’s utterances were spoken before darkness descended at the sixth hour (twelve noon), and that the remaining four were spoken as and after the darkness was lifted at the ninth hour (three o’clock in the afternoon). They are as follows, arranged in what was almost certainly the order in which they were spoken:
1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, Luke 23. 24
2. “Woman, behold thy son”, John 19. 26 “Behold thy mother”, John 19. 27
3. “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”, Luke 23. 43
4. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Matt. 27. 46; Mark 15. 34
5. “I thirst”, John 19. 28
6. “It is finished”, John 19. 30
7. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”, Luke 23. 46
As we ponder these words we tread upon sacred ground, and we must approach them prayerfully and reverently. All the utterances were brief, as we would expect in view of the protracted torture which the Lord was enduring throughout these hours on the cross. The longest was that addressed to the repentant thief, so characteristic of the Saviour, who resolved to impart assurance and blessing to that contrite sufferer.
The Lord’s refusal of the stupefying drink which He was offered immediately before being crucified revealed his determination to retain control of all His faculties until entering into death. As a result, throughout some six hours of appalling suffering He remained in full control of Himself and His circumstances. These precious utterances make thai clear.
It is instructive to consider how each gospel writer contributes to our knowledge of the sayings. Matthew and Mark both record the same words and no other, namely the cry of dereliction. Their two gospels are in contrast. Matthew presenting Christ as the King, and Mark, Christ as the Servant. Though lacking the outward regalia of Kingship, His fitness to reign was seen in His wise and authoritative counsels, His power over demons and disease and death, His control over the elements, and His unfailing compassion for all forms of human distress. And this appointed Sovereign of men was also the chosen Servant of God. Mark describes His untiring industry as He did His Father’s will and spread His blessings abroad whilst pursuing His pathway to Calvary. All was perfect both in His kingly glory and His lowly ministry. Yet Matthew and Mark have to record that cry of unspeakable desolation, that complaint of mingled grief and despair wrung from the depths of His being as three endless hours of suffering drew to their end. For those two writers, this cry stands alone among the words from the cross. They record no other. Luke and John also wrote contrasting gospels. Luke emphasized the Lord’s humanity, John His Deity. Neither records the cry of dereliction but both record sayings omitted by Matthew and Mark. It is remarkable to observe how for this purpose each seemed to borrow the characteristic theme of the other. The sayings which Luke records afford us precious glimpses of the Lord’s Sonship and Deity whilst those in John’s account reflect especially His humanity. Thus Luke records the two sublime prayers spoken to the Father with which the Lord began and ended His time on the cross, and between, the authoritative saving words spoken with such calm assurance to the repentant thief. John omits the prayers entirely, and records the Lord’s tender words to His mother and to John, followed by the two exclamations “I thirst” and “It is finished”. This reversal in emphasis between the third and the fourth gospels suggests that in describing the events at Calvary, Luke desired to emphasize that Deity of the Holy Man on the centre cross, whilst John was led to underline the tender humanity of the divine Sufferer.
The Prayer of Intercession. Luke’s narrative strongly implies that the Lord spoke this prayer as soon as the cross was lifted up: “…Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, "Father, forgive them”. We would have thought it wonderful if, hours earlier in Gethsemane, the Lord had prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are about to do”, or if after His resurrection He had prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they knew not what they were doing”. But how much more wonderful it is that he interceded for men when the appalling torture was just beginning.
Like Abraham and Isaac travelling towards Moriah, the Father and the Son had approached Calvary together. And now the Son appeals to His Father for the forgiveness of His enemies. He had taught His disciples to do this, to pray for their enemies. He always practised what He preached. We should ponder the word “Forgive”. During His travels, the Lord had once asserted that He had authority on earth to forgive sins, and He had proved His claim by healing the paralytic of Capernaum, Mark 2. 1-11. But He is not using that authority now, for He is asking His Father to forgive. Why was this? Surely there is a sense in which men, by maltreating the Saviour, had made themselves especially accountable to His Father who had sent Him. It is well to remember that the Father had been watching men’s treatment of His Son – the injustice of their trials, the spitting and the blows, the journeys through the streets, the indignity of the gorgeous robe and the purple robe, the crown of thorns, the mockery of the soldiers, and finally the weight of the cross, the rise and fall of the hammer and now the indescribable torture of crucifixion.
Through the long preceding centuries men had done some dreadful things, and God had intervened in swift, decisive judgment, by flood and fire, plague and pestilence, storm and earthquake. But men had never done anything like this before, indeed it had not been possible before the incarnation. And the Lord Jesus knew that if ever men needed an intercessor it was now. That is what this prayer indicates. The Saviour (I mean no irreverence) was not praying unnecessarily. Men were in acute danger at that time. They had committed the ultimate human atrocity. They needed an intercessor and they did not know it. And who could be adequate for so immense a need? Abraham had interceded for Lot and his family. Moses had repeatedly interceded for backsliding Israel. Samuel had pleaded with God for the disobedient generation of his day. But who could intercede now? Only One! And He was the very One whose persecutors deserved judgment! And He met the need that day!
Clearly the Lord had already forgiven His enemies, for we cannot believe that His prayer amounted to “Father, forgive them; for I cannot”. Rather it would seem that in effect He was saying, “Father, forgive them; for I have”. These sublime words breathe out His love for wicked men. He longed and yearned for their blessing. Yet He knew that forgiveness was a costly thing. He knew that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission’. He had said to His disciples in the upper room, “this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins”, Matt. 26. 28. He knew that judgment must fall eventually. And it did fall. Here we discern the ultimate wonder of Calvary, for judgment fell upon the head of the sinless Intercessor. He became the sin-bearer. He bore the judgment, the object of His crucifixion. Having sustained the many cruel expressions of human hatred both subtle and brutal, He now proceeded to atone for it.
"Father, forgive them”. Forgive whom? The soldiers who had driven home the nails and dropped die tree into its socket? The officers who gave the orders? Pilate who knew that his Prisoner had been guiltless yet finally agreed to His death? The religious leaders who had coldly schemed and plotted the Saviour’s banishment? Judas, the follower-turned-traitor? The mob who had shouted for His blood in the teeth of all the evidence of His innocence? The disciples who had deserted the One who had been their Leader and Master? All had become involved in the guilt of His crucifixion. And of course they were our representatives. Responsibility cannot be restricted to the men of that generation only. The entire fallen race stands condemned by that decisive and ruthless rejection.
"For they know not what they do”. This teaches us that the Lord was praying that men might be forgiven for a specific crime, something being done that day. He was not praying that all the sins of men might be forgiven, though the atoning suffering which He was to endure later was going to make total forgiveness possible for believing sinners. This sublime prayer was the forgiveness of that one vast and ultimate act of wickedness which now involved the Lord in the appalling sufferings of the cross.
Finally, ponder the grounds of the Saviour’s intercession: “they know not what they do”. A careful reading of the crucifixion stories in the four gospels scarcely gives the impression that men did not know what they were doing. The stealthy arrest in the garden, the “rigged” evidence in the false trials, the evasions of Pilate and the callous brutality of soldiers and onlookers, it all makes dreadful reading but we do not feel that men were acting ignorantly or were making mistakes without meaning to. In what sense then did they know not what they were doing?
They did not know that they were the unwitting tools of the devil. And they did not know that they were fulfilling the purpose of God conceived in eternity. They never thought for a moment that they were preparing the scene in which the Son of God would undertake His mightiest work and accomplish His greatest victory. In their attempts to banish His Name, memory and influence from among men, they were unconsciously collaborating in events which would secure His universal fame throughout the coming centuries and on into the eternal day of God.
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