Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Lk. 23:34
The reader of our Newsletter who sent in a question concerning this text, phrased the matter this way: "This verse seems to have two problems associated with it: (1) It seems as if Christ is asking his Father to forgive all who hear him, indiscriminately. Does this mean therefore that Christ wants all who hear, indiscriminately, to be saved? Do we preach the gospel in this manner? (2) Christ seems to be suggesting that the people do not know what they are doing, and so therefore are not responsible for their actions. Is this really so?"
These are good questions which deal with important truths, not the least of which is the nature of Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross.
We must, first of all, picture the scene. Christ and the two malefactors had been led away to Calvary, and the soldiers in charge of the execution were nailing the three to their respective crosses prior to setting the crosses up in holes dug to support them. When the nailing was completed and the holes were dug, then the crosses were raised and dropped into the holes, and earth packed around their bases to hold them erect.
This was a time when criminals about to be crucified would pour out all their hatred and venom with fierce words of cursing and blasphemy, against their executioners and against society in general. At that moment (and it may very well have been at the moment the nails were being driven through His hands and feet as the cross lay on the ground with its bottom end near the hole that had been dug) Jesus, instead of joining the criminals in their shouts and cursings, prayed: "Father forgive them; for they know not what they do." What a contrast! What a surprising word from the suffering Savior!
It was the first of seven crosswords. And, as is the case with all the crosswords, this one too tells us something about the nature of the work Christ was doing when He died on the cross.
The first question of the reader really is a question concerning the ones for whom Christ is praying: "It seems as if Christ is asking the Father to forgive all who hear him, indiscriminately. . . ." And the reader suggests that this could possibly be deduced as proof that Christ wants all men to be saved. And, as a further conclusion, the reader suggests that it is possible that Christ's intention or desire to save all men be proclaimed in the gospel.
And that is, of course, the basic idea in what has become known as the well-meant gospel offer. The reasoning as such is sound. If Christ is praying for all men without distinction then all the rest surely follows. And so the question is: For whom is Christ praying? Is He indeed praying for all who heard Him at this moment when He uttered the prayer? and does this prayer have significance for all men?
Before we answer that question, however, it is well that we ask a prior question. That prior question is: For what does Christ pray? Perhaps if we understand for what Christ is praying, we can understand for whom Christ is praying.
Or, to put the question a bit differently: Is Christ really praying here for the forgiveness of sins? If He is, that makes a difference. If Christ prays for the forgiveness of sins and Christ is praying for all men, then Christ is also praying that His Father forgive the sins of all men.
But that leads to great difficulties. If Christ asks His Father to forgive the sins of all men, then, quite obviously, this is one prayer of Christ which God is not pleased to hear. God refuses to grant Christ His request! That would be a most dreadful thought!
There are plenty who hold to the position that Christ is praying for all men. In fact, I would venture to say that this is probably the interpretation adopted by most commentators. But those who claim that Christ prays for all men recognize the terrible problem that is involved in this interpretation. And so they proceed to adopt another interpretation of Christ's prayer. That interpretation is that Christ is here only praying for a postponement of judgment.
The wicked have committed a terrible crime in nailing to the cross the eternal Son of God. If these wicked would receive their just due, heaven would open and God's fury would pour out upon them. But that would also be the end of them, and of the nation of Israel, whose sin it primarily is that Christ was crucified. And so Christ asks God for a postponement of judgment so that God will restrain His anger for a bit.
Such an interpretation is also adopted by those who hold to the fact that Christ beseeches His Father for a postponement of judgment in order that these very wicked, who deserve to be stricken from the earth, may receive a second change to believe in Christ. Now they crucify Him; but perhaps, if given another chance, they may still believe in Him.
- Volume: 6
- Issue: 1
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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