Whom Did Jesus Forgive On the Cross–and Why?

Harris Forgive on the Cross

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (Luke 23:34 ESV)

This first of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross was uttered probably shortly after he had been crushed to the ground and his wrists and feet skewered to the cross by iron spikes: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Undoubtedly he used the word “Abba,” “Dear Father,” the way he normally addressed God (see part 2, ch. 32). This rich term contains ideas of simplicity, intimacy, security, and affection.

Some have suggested that the “them” who are forgiven were the Jewish authorities that pressed charges against Jesus before Pilate, or the Jewish nation as a whole, which failed to recognize and welcome their Messiah. On these views, Jesus was asking for the postponement of God’s judgment on the nation or their representatives for their persistent unbelief, and God’s response was to grant a generation of about forty years (AD 30–70), from the crucifixion to the fall of Jerusalem, during which time there was an opportunity for Jews to hear the gospel and embrace Jesus as Messiah.

However, in early Christian preaching there was a call for Jews as well as Gentiles to repent “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47); their forgiveness was not automatic. Jesus’ request was not simply for a delay in divine retribution.

More probably, the persons for whom Jesus interceded were the four-man Roman execution squad and their supervising centurion. The present tense verbs—“they do not know,” and “what they are doing”; not “they did not know what they did”— strongly support this view.

We gain important clues about the meaning of Jesus’ request from the prayer of Stephen as he was stoned to death at the hands of the Sanhedrin. He directed a prayer to Jesus (“Lord”) that is clearly modeled on Jesus’ own prayer. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). He is not requesting that Jesus forgive all the sins of each member of the Sanhedrin but that he forgive their one corporate present sin of executing an innocent man.

In a similar way, the request Jesus addressed to God his Father was not for the blanket forgiveness of every sin committed by these Roman soldiers, but forgiveness for the one heinous sin of crucifying an innocent man. He was asking God to choose not to reckon this one sin against their account in the heavenly books.

But Jesus taught that forgiveness requires repentance (Luke 17:3; cf. Acts 2:47). So how could he appeal to the soldiers’ ignorance (HCSB, CSB: “forgive them, because …”) as the reason God should forgive them? Perhaps the only explanation is that in the absence of any sufficient ground for forgiveness (such as acknowledgment of wrongdoing or repentance), Jesus finds it necessary to appeal to a mitigating circumstance: the soldiers’ unawareness that they were in fact crucifying an innocent man who was God’s Messenger.

He transfers to his Father the responsibility for granting or withholding forgiveness, knowing there was, understandably, no contrition or repentance on the part of the soldiers.

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From Murray J. Harris, Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament (Lexham Press, 2020).

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris, professor emeritus and author, is well known for his commentaries on 2 Corinthians. He has written several books, including Navigating Tough Texts.

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