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Volume 7, Issue 4: Stauron

His Prayer from the Cross

Jim Nance

"Then Jesus said, `Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do'" (Luke 23:34).

Though so often true of sinful men, no one can truly say of Jesus that He did not practice what He preached. For in the verse above we see Jesus praying for His enemies, His crucifiers, even as He taught us to "pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). He prayed for the forgiveness of those who murdered Him. Now in this prayer Jesus acknowledges that these men were unaware of what they were doing_unaware, apparently, that they were executing the Righteous One, the Son of God. Yet sins committed in ignorance remain sins (cf. Heb. 9:7). Jesus here clearly demonstrates that their guilt is real, for if they were not truly guilty there would be no need for the forgiveness which Christ prayed for God to grant.
Equally evident from Scripture is the glorious truth that whatever Jesus asks for in prayer He receives. Nothing can impede Christ's prayers. We can be hindered by sin, as David said, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear" (Psalm 66:18, cf. James 4:3). But Jesus knew no sin. And unlike us, the Son always knows the Father's will. This is important because we know "that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him" (1 John 5:14-15). The Father always hears the Son, as Jesus declared in confidence at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:42), knowing that the Father would grant His petition. This is also why we make our prayers in Jesus' name. Though we are sinful and finite in our knowledge of God's will, Jesus is not. Thus nothing can thwart His prayer, including His prayer from the cross.
We conclude that the men for whom Christ prayed, whoever they were, were thus forgiven; and if forgiven then saved, for no forgiveness is granted by God apart from complete salvation in Christ.
Who then were these forgiven crucifiers of Christ? The immediate context of our verse suggests the Roman soldiers. They made His cross and hammered the nails in His hands and feet. Christ's avowal that "they do not know what they do" seems appropriate. If so, God may have answered His prayer very quickly, for immediately following Christ's death the Roman centurion and those with him declared, perhaps in evangelical faith, "Truly this was the Son of God" (Matt. 27:54).
But a second look leads us to another likely possibility, namely, those Jews of Jerusalem who called for Christ's crucifixion, who at His trial before Pilate said, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt. 27:25). Though by His blood they meant responsibility for His death, in His sovereignty God turned their words around and applied Christ's blood for the far more glorious work of their eternal salvation. How do we know?
When by God's power Peter and John healed the lame man at the temple gate called Beautiful, a large crowd of Jews gathered to whom Peter preached. He said to them, "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when He was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life" (Acts 3:13-15). Thus Peter puts the blame for Christ's crucifixion, not on the Romans, but on the Jews at His trial. But do His words, "they do not know what they do" fit these Jews? Peter thought so, for he then said, "Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled" (Acts 13:17-18). God used the sinful ignorance of the Jews of Christ's day to fulfill the salvation which He planned from eternity and declared through the prophets. This salvation was granted first to these Jews, as Peter declared, "You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, `And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning every one of you from your iniquities" (Acts 13:25-26). Jesus indeed blessed them greatly by His prayer from and death on the cross, for "many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand" (Acts 4:4).
From all this we learn first that Jesus' prayer from the cross was not a general prayer for the salvation of the non-elect, as some have taken it. Jesus is praying for a specific group of Jews by whom He was crucified. [*]
Furthermore, we see in this the magnificent mercy and grace of God the Son, for though He could have called upon twelve legions of angels to take immediate vengeance upon His enemies who sent Him to a torturous death on the cross, yet He Himself intercedes for them and dies even for these great sins. How much more should we take confidence in Christ's intercession and death to save us from our sin.
Finally, we see God's love for His covenant people to whom the gospel first came, the gospel which was "for the Jew first and also for the Greek" (Rom. 1:16), as Paul says later, "God has not cast away His people, whom He foreknew" (Rom. 11:2). Indeed, God gathered to Himself many thousands of Jews in the first century, the firstfruits of what He will accomplish when all Israel is saved.

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