Text: Luke 23:34
“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.”
Like nowhere else, here the teaching of Jesus ceases to be theory and becomes reality! In the “Sermon on the Mount,” our Lord commands us to “love our enemies;” on the Cross, He obeys His own command! In the “Sermon on the Mount,” our Lord teaches us to “do good to those who spitefully use us;” on the Cross, He follows His own teaching! In the “sermon on the Mount,” our Lord instructs us to “forgive wrongs done to us;” on the Cross, He illustrates His own instruction! If ever I could doubt the divinity of Jesus Christ, all that doubt would disappear at this passage! I can understand how a man might doubt Jesus in spite of His virgin birth… I can understand how a man might doubt Him in spite of His wonderful miracles… I can understand how he might doubt Him in spite of His marvelous deeds of mercy and healing… but I cannot understand how anyone could stand at the foot of His cross and hear this beautiful word of forgiveness and not confess with the pagan captain in charge of the Crucifixion: “Truly this was the Son of God!” We have two great truths contained in this “first word from the Cross.” They are: the Christian understanding of man and the Christian understanding of God.
I. The Christian Understanding of Man – “They know not what they do.”
To whom was our Lord referring in this statement? Where can we draw the line on forgiveness? Was He merely speaking of the Roman soldiers who blindly and obediently “did their duty” of executing a prisoner of the State? “Forgive them… they don’t know what they are doing!” Or was He praying for the Priests whose jealous plotting caused this gory scene? “Forgive them… they didn’t realize that their horrible scheming would eventually come to this!” Or was He praying for the crowd that sat by indifferently to watch Him die? “Forgive them… they don’t comprehend the seriousness of this Crucifixion!” Oh, no! Look at this word closely. There are no limits to be put on it! It includes all men everywhere! And it is the divine revelation of human nature as it really is: “They don’t know what they do!”
It was Plato who first defined “sin” as “simply ignorance.” He said that the reason why men do wrong is that they do not know what is right! He concluded (and many after him have done the same) that if you want men to do right, then you must teach them what is right! The only effective remedy for sin is education. Of course, all it takes is a hard, honest look at our own hearts to know that this theory is too simple and easy. There are times when we “sin” from ignorance—we might do better if we understood better. But, if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that most of the time we do wrong, we do it with a perfect understanding that it is wrong! You see, sin is not basically “ignorance;” sin is basically “rebellion!” The ancient Israelites knew this and had two different sacrifices for wrong-doing: the “trespass offering” for sins of ignorance, and the “sin offering” for sins for willful disobedience.
But then, was Jesus mistaken when He said: “They know not what they do?” What did He mean? I think that He hit upon a basic fact of human nature. There is an “ignorance of the mind” which makes mistakes because it lacks information: this ignorance we can remedy! But Jesus is talking about a deeper “ignorance of the soul” which comes, not from lack of information, but from lack of salvation! And from this ignorance, apart from Christ—no matter what our school training—we all suffer! In the deepest and most tragic sense of the word, “We do not know what we do!” And what a destructive thing this ignorance of soul is!
First of all, it destroys ourselves! Every lent we tongue-lash the Jewish priesthood for crucifying Christ. Yet, if we could have interviewed Annas or Caiaphas on Saturday following Good Friday, these pious gentlemen would have given a perfectly reasonable explanation for their conduct! And, what’s more, if you and I had worn their robes we would probably have done the very same thing with the same conviction that it was right! You see, we’ve lost all sense of proportion in the universe! We do not know what we do because we do not know who we are! And we generally crucify those who try to tell us—and thus destroy ourselves in the process!
But, what is even worse, we destroy others also. I am always amazed at what little awareness people have of the contagious quality of sin… until I stop to consider how little awareness I have of it myself! If I want to sin, I think that it’s my business! But I am so wrong! Once I release the poison of sin, it has a way of spreading where I can no longer control it! My sin is never my sin! It is like a cancer: it eats its way through any society, any group, any family of which I am a part! Once I give it birth, like some hideous monster, it becomes the master and I become the mastered! Judas’ desire to “make a fast buck” ended in the murder of his master: “I didn’t know!” A man’s infatuation with another woman ends in the ruin of his beautiful children: “I didn’t know!” Of course he didn’t know! Not because his head lacked information, but because his heart lacked direction… his mind lacked sensitivity… his will lacked strength! “We do not know what we do!”
II. The Christian Understanding of God – “Father, forgive them”
This “first word form the Cross” also contains the Christian understanding of God: “Father, forgive them.” If “ignorance of soul” is Jesus’ dying verdict upon human nature, then “Father, forgive” is His dying verdict upon God! How do we know that God is our father! Not just because long ago in Eden’s garden He created the first human pair. But because time and again when we come back from our wayward paths of sin and ignorance, we find him waiting to welcome and forgive us! A young university student said that he was not a Christian because of one statement in the Apostle’s Creed that he could not believe in. I thought it would be the virgin birth or the resurrection of the body or some such doctrine which people generally question. But, when I asked him what it was, he surprised me when he said: “I cannot believe in the forgiveness of sins!”
How many people today are in this same predicament? They profess to believe in it… they sing and act and pray like they believe in it; but they are still tied in knots by the chains of their past! They are still defeated by failures of their past! They are still guilty over the sins of their past! But we don’t have to be “tied in knots,” “defeated,” “guilty”—not when we have a Father who stands with open arms waiting to forgive us! If the ultimate truth about man is that he is so wrong that he does everything backward, the ultimate truth about God is that He will forgive us and cleanse us from it all! And this is the greatest message in all the world! “I don’t know what to do; I am undirected, insensitive, weak! But I have a heavenly Father who invites me to come to Him; He will forgive and make it all right!”