And when they were come to the place, which is called 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; for they know not what they do. Luke 23:33, 34
Then! . . . .
Then, at that particular moment, said Jesus, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!
Precisely then He made intercession for the transgressors!
And that, even at that moment, such intercession was at all possible, that there was even at that moment, and for the transgression that was committed then, a ground for intercession, so that it might be accepted by the Father,—that is the mystery of the atonement, and of the salvation of the elect!
That He, Jesus, the captain of the salvation of His brethren, through whom it pleased the Father to lead many children to glory, was strong enough to utter this intercessory prayer precisely at this moment, that was His victory! For even now, at the moment of His crucifixion, He began to see His seed. And exactly this prayer reveals beyond a shadow of doubt that, although He submerges in death, even the death of the cross, He shall prolong His days, and “the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.” He shall see of the travail of His soul, and even at this moment he is assured of it. He shall justify many, for He bears their iniquities, and He is quite conscious of it at this moment, and willing to bear that terrible burden even to the end. God will “divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Isa. 53:10-12.
Then! . . . .
O, if exactly at that moment, and because of the character of that moment, this intercession had not been possible; or if the Captain of our salvation had found that moment too terrible, too abounding with evil and hatred and malice, to pray for the very transgressors that so filled that moment; all would have been lost!
But now, this intercession, for these transgressors, and at this moment, proves it, salvation is, indeed, possible! What is impossible with men is possible with God!
The love of God is more powerful than all the hatred of men!
Now, it is become evident through this very intercession at this moment, that this Captain is capable to lead His brethren from the depths of sin and death, on to the heights of eternal righteousness and heavenly glory!
He is the most meek among men!
Meeker even than Moses! Where Moses failed, He carries right on! For, even though also of the mediator of the Old Testament it could be said in his day that he was more meek than any man, at the crucial moment he failed: in hot anger he became impatient with his brethren, struck the rock, called the Church a crowd of rebels, and was unwilling to give them drink! And he himself could not lead his brethren into the promised rest. But this Man, having arrived at the most crucial moment of His work does not fail. When all looks dark, when all hands are turned against Him, when His own rejected Him, when it appears as if the very elect have been swallowed up by the hatred of the world,—then He made intercession for the transgressors!
Then! . . .
O, let not the simplicity of the record induce you to overlook the tremendous import of this indication of the exact time of this intercession!
It was “when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary.”
It was when they had crucified with Him “the malefactors, one on His right hand, and the other on the left.”
Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them!
For they know not what they do!
It means complete victory!
The victory of the cross!
They were come to the place, which is called Calvary! They, that is, Jesus and His enemies! But let us rather at once include ourselves as we are of this world by nature: Jesus and we had come to the Place of the Skull!
And, O, we and He had not just come there, as if it were a mere incident. It did not simply happen, we know not how, that He and we came to that place. No: we had led Him thither! And the way He and we travelled together to that horrible place of the death of the Son of God, is one terrible testimony against us, a horrible testimony of our sin, of our hatred of God and His anointed!
For that they now came to the place that was called Calvary, was but the inevitable outcome of their whole attitude against Him for the last three years. He had come unto His own, and His own received Him not. He had revealed Himself among them, had spoken to them as the revelation of the Father, the Light of the world, the Bread and Water of life, the Resurrection and the Life, the Way and the Truth. And they had loved darkness rather than light. They had opposed Him, hardened their hearts against Him, filled Him with reproach, contradicted Him, and repeatedly they had sought some occasion against Him to condemn Him to death, or even attempted to lay their hands on Him to kill Him.
And now, they were come to the place which was called Calvary!
In the direction of that place they had constantly moved!
And especially during the last few hours they had moved with almost inconceivable speed. Madly they had rushed on! For, according to Mark, it was only the third hour of the day! The last stretch of the way to Calvary had been literally covered with iniquity. They had taken Him captive in the garden, led Him to Annas, assembled the council in the hollow of the night, sought accusations against Him in vain, condemned Him to death, maltreated Him in their fury, blindfolded, buffeted, mocked Him, spit in His face; they had led Him to Pilate, to Herod, put Him to nought, pressed the thorny crown on His brow, scourged Him, demanded that Barabbas be released rather than He, obtained from the Roman governor the sentence of death against Him, and had led Him away to be crucified! . . . .
So they, Jesus and His enemies, Jesus and the whole world, Jesus and we as we are of that world by nature, came to the place which is called Calvary!
And there they finished their evil work!
There they crucified Him!
There they numbered Him with the transgressors, and clearly expressed this their intention by placing His cross in the midst of two others, of two criminals, one at His right, and the other at His left!
That was the moment!
But is not this, then, the end?
Is not the very character of this moment such that it has become forever impossible to make intercession for the transgressors?
Is it not precisely impossible for this Man, the only one from whose lips intercession for the transgressors might be expected, to pray for these transgressors, that have thus come to the place which is called Calvary, and there have filled the measure of iniquity by crucifying the Son of God?
Hark! . . . .
Then said Jesus! . . . .
When these transgressors have thus travelled the way of iniquity to the very end, and have accomplished all their furious hatred against Him. . . .
Then He said: Father, forgive! . . . .
What is impossible with men, is possible with God!
Nay more: man’s impossibility is the precise moment of the revelation of God’s efficient power!
For look again, and you will discover that this cross is more than man’s cross: it is also God’s. It is more than the expression of man’s hatred: it is also the revelation of God’s love.
They came to the place which is called Calvary because the enemies led Him thither, to be sure; but no less because He sought that place, and voluntarily surrendered Himself into their power, in order that there He might lay down His life for His sheep!
Look again, and does it not strike you that they have come to the place which is called Calvary? O, we are not particularly interested in the question how this little hill outside of Jerusalem had acquired that peculiar name: place of the Skull. But the point is that it is outside of Jerusalem, or as the Word of God in Hebrews 13:12 reminds us, “without the gate.” And that means that there on Calvary, is the final realization of the sacrifice of atonement that was wont to be offered annually in the Holy City, For it was the “bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priests for sin,” that were burned without the camp!
He came to the place which is called Calvary, for now we see only Him, as our High Priest, to take upon Him all the sins of all His people, then to shed His blood for them, carry it into the real Holy of Holies before the face of the Father and have the body of sin completely destroyed without the camp!
O, then it is indeed possible to say: Father, forgive!
Look again, and do you not remember the significance of the death of the cross? They crucified Him! And, to be sure, the cross in itself means nothing. A thousand crosses had, perhaps, stood on that same place. And even at this moment there are two other crosses planted next to His. But as God’s cross, this cross of Jesus has the significance God put into it: Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree! He bears the curse, the expression of the wrath of God1 against sin, not His own, but the sin of His brethren. He is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!
But then He may and surely must say: Father, forgive!
Look again, and you will discover that He willingly and consciously tastes all there is in death. For, Matthew records how they offered Him the anesthetic, vinegar mixed with gall, that was prepared for such occasions by some humane ladies’ society in Jerusalem; but He would not drink it. For He must not simply die: He must taste death; all there is of wrath and desolation, of divine righteousness and justice and holiness, He must experience, willingly, obediently, in the love of God! ….
But then He brought the perfect sacrifice!
Then that cross, man’s impossibility, is God’s power of salvation!
And the crucified One may intercede for the transgressors!
Then, precisely then, He may say: Father, forgive!
And intercede He does!
Father, forgive them!
Brief intercession, but every word of which is more than full to capacity with significance.
Still, the crucified One addresses God as Father! Presently, He will descend into that darkness of desolation in which He experiences all the agony of being forsaken of God. And in the amazement of that moment it would seem that the Father’s face is hid from Him, though He still cries out: “My God, my God!” Soon after that darkest moment He once more ascends out of the depth into the light of the Father’s countenance, and, conscious that all is finished, commends His Spirit into the Father’s hands, Here, at this moment, He still knows that He is not alone, and that the Father is with Him.
My Father, and Father of them for whom I die, and in whose behalf, I intercede!
O, to be sure, although this is not mentioned in the prayer, the sin for the forgiveness of which He pleads is, particularly, the awful transgression of the moment. But let us not forget that this is the climax, or the depth of all sin. In the death, the utter rejection of the Son of God, the sin of man of the world becomes fully manifest as sin. If this sin is not forgiven, no sin is remitted; if there is forgiveness for this horrible deed, there is remission of all sin!
The word must be taken in its full significance. It does not mean: postpone judgment, that they may have another trial. It signifies: imputed not! Reckon not this sin, the most horrible, manifestation of sin, all sin, against them! Let me die for this sin, for all their sin, and let them be treated as if they never committed this sin, any sin! Let these transgressors be clothed with eternal righteousness, that even as I die, so they may live in Thy sight!
For they know not what they do!
O, not as if their ignorance could be a ground for their forgiveness, for that may be found only in the death of that Son of God! Nor as if they did not consciously and knowingly reject the righteous one: they knew that they sinned, and that they delivered Him in their hatred. But they did not know the mystery of that cross. They did not understand that from that accursed tree flowed, even then, the blood of atonement. Had they known that, they would have despised the blood of the New Testament, and there would have been no sacrifice for sin left for them. Now, forgiveness was possible through the very blood they shed!
A certain class? The soldiers that hammered the spikes through His hands and feet? Pilate that had condemned Him? The leaders that had delivered Him? The people that had demanded His blood? But no! The prayer of our Lord transcends all classes!
All men? Impossible! Jesus prays not for the “world.” Besides, His prayer is surely heard. Yet, all men are not forgiven!
His own! His children, as they are in, and by nature of, that world that crucified Him!
For them He prayed, and still intercedes with the Father!
Sure ground of hope!
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer