The Lord's Day Morning

October 30, 2011

“Father, Forgive Them”

Luke 23:32-38

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 23 as we continue to work our way through Luke's gospel. We’ll be beginning in verse 32. As we do, this brief section describes the beginning of the crucifixion itself, and it's very interesting that as to the details of what Jesus underwent physically on the cross, Luke tells us this in three words in the original and in the translation — “They crucified Him.” Now we know something of the physical torment that people went through who were crucified. We've unearthed skeletal remains of people who had been crucified and we can deduce some of the horrific physical experiences that they would have endured on the cross, but Luke doesn't draw our attention to that. Isn't it interesting? Our Savior, undergoing not only this humiliation but this physical torment and pain, and Luke describes it in three words — “They crucified Him” — but he does draw our attention to other things and I want you to be on the lookout for them.

The first thing that you’ll see in this passage is he draws our attention to Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture. He doesn't focus you on the specifics of His physical suffering but he does focus you on Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture. Be on the lookout for that in this passage. At least twice Luke takes us back to passages in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfilled in this event.

Secondly, in this passage Luke draws our attention to the person of Christ — who He claims to be. And interestingly, he does it through the mocking words of His enemies, both the religious leaders of the Jewish people and the soldiers who were involved in crucifying Him.

And third, Luke draws our attention to what Jesus was doing for us on the cross, and he does this both through Jesus’ word, and in this passage the first of Jesus’ seven words from the cross are recorded. But he not only tells us what Jesus is doing on the cross from His own words, he confirms that even through the ironic words of mocking of His enemies.

Well let's pray before we hear God's Word.

Heavenly Father, all Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable, so we pray that You would profit us by Your Word this day. In Jesus' name, amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on His right and one on His left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide His garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up and offering Him sour wine and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’ There was also an inscription over Him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

It is a grim scene filled with cruel irony and it's at the heart of our redemption and Luke wants us to understand that. And the first thing he wants us to understand as we look at the cross is this is God's plan. Jesus is not on the cross because God's plan stopped working. Jesus is not on the cross because something went wrong that God didn't foresee. Jesus is not on the cross because His purpose had been derailed. He is on the cross because that is God's plan. It is God's purpose; it is God's providence; it is His way of salvation. And the way Luke explains that to you is that what Jesus is doing here is precisely what Scripture had prophesied that the Messiah would do. And so he goes out of his way to tell you that when He goes to Golgotha, The Skull, the place of The Skull, the Latin word of which is calvaria, from which we get Calvary — it's called both things in the gospels. When He goes there, He goes there in the company of criminals, robbers, thieves. This is, you understand in fulfillment of Scripture. And He's surrounded by those who mock Him. This is in fulfillment of Scripture. And yet He is there to forgive transgressors. This is in fulfillment of Scripture.


Let me show you. Turn with me to Isaiah chapter 53, a passage written six hundred years before these events. And if you’ll look at Isaiah 53, the last verse of that chapter, verse 12, and the second half of that verse reads — “He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” In fact, Luke puts Him right in between the transgressors, in the midst of them. “Yet He bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.” “Father, forgive them, for they have no idea what they’re doing and who they’re doing this to.”

But not only that, there's Psalm 22. Now this psalm, turn with me there, this psalm is a psalm that Jesus Himself points us to in one of His other seven words from the cross. It's the psalm that begins with the great words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But in the midst of that psalm, if you’ll look at verses 16 and following, we read, “For dogs encompass Me; a company of evildoers encircles Me; they have pierced My hands and feet – I can count all My bones – they stare and gloat over Me; they divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.” They crucified Him, they cast lots to divide His garments, the rulers scoffed at Him, the soldiers mocked Him, and Luke is saying this is exactly what was prophesied which shows you that this was exactly what God had planned. This is the plan of God for your salvation.

Now that's not only important for early Christians to understand; it's important for us to understand. And it's important for us to understand when we ourselves encounter dark providences in our own lives. You know, those things that come into your experience where you’re tempted to say, “What in the world is going on? Does God remember me? Does God love me? Have God forgotten me? Has God forsaken me?” And then we remember James’ words, “Count it all joy, brothers, when you encounter various trials.” And we remember Paul's words, “God works all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” Do you believe in God's providential plan for you when you encounter various trials? Luke wants us to believe God's providential plan when we look at the cross. God was not asleep at the switch; God was not caught off guard. It was going exactly as He planned and He had written it down six hundred years before and a thousand years before.


But Luke not only wants us to understand in Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture that God's plan is being accomplished at the cross, he wants us to understand even in the mocking, ironic words of His enemies, who Jesus is because you have to understand who Jesus is to understand the force of the cross. We’re going to sing, at the end of this service, these words, “Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose its evil great here (the cross) may view its nature rightly, here (at the cross) its guilt may estimate. Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load; ‘tis the Word, the Lord's Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.” In other words, you can't understand the cross until you understand who's on it. And that's what Luke wants us to understand and he puts the words that point us in the direction of the truth in the mouths of those who were mocking.

Notice in verse 35 the people are standing by watching. Again, by the time Luke is writing this there is already great antipathy between Jewish people who do not embrace Jesus as the Messiah and Jewish people who do embrace Jesus as the Messiah along with Gentiles who embrace Jesus as the Messiah. And you would expect in that time frame a depiction of the Jewish people that is uniformly negative. You don't get it here. The people that are surrounding the cross, they’re watching, but it's the rulers who are scoffing. Get that, friends. The people who ought to know better, the people who know their Bibles best, they’re leading in the scoffing. And here's what they’re saying in mocking words in verse 35 — “He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, if He is the Messiah of God, if He is the Chosen One, let Him save Himself!” Now those are not terms, Messiah of God and Anointed One, that Jesus typically used in His public ministry because He did not want to confuse people. People in His time had certain expectation, political and revolutionary, of what the Messiah was going to be like and He wanted to be crystal clear about who He was. But with His own disciples He was very clear that He was the Messiah. You remember Jesus talking to Peter and the other disciples at Caesarea Philippi and He says to them, “Who do you think that I am?” And Peter says, “Well, You’re the Christ; You’re the Messiah; You’re the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Exactly, exactly, Peter. That's right. I am.”

You know if Jesus didn't publicly teach this in His ministry but focused this teaching on His disciples, how is it that the rulers of the people would know that Jesus made these claims and mock Him with these claims? Well, they had an insider. His name was Judas. They’d been talking with him for some time and this is part of their strategy to bring a charge against Jesus as someone who is a Messianic revolutionary, someone who is claiming to be a Messiah. And in their minds, that means that this person must be claiming to be here to overthrown Roman rule. And so they mock Him with that. “If You’re the Messiah of God, the Anointed of God, surely You can save Yourself! I mean, after all, You came to save us, right? You’re the Messiah! Surely You can save Yourself!” And of course they don't mean a word of it, but Luke wants you to understand it's true.

You know, sometimes you don't know who you’re talking to and sometimes it doesn't turn out very well. Al Mohler was getting on an airplane to fly back to Louisville yesterday and at the last moment an older woman hurriedly rushed to the plane and sat down and noticed him reading a book on Martin Luther. And she said to him, “Oh, are you a Lutheran?” And he said, “No ma’am, I'm a Baptist.” And her face turned to a frown and she said, “You’re not one of those Louisville Seminary Baptists are you?” And about that time a voice from the row behind said, “Hello, Dr. Mohler. I'm on my way to Southern Seminary to defend my dissertation. It's an honor to see you.” And her face turned to even more of a frown and she said, “I'm going to take a nap!” She was the famous feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether and she had no idea who she was talking to when she frowned and made those disparaging remarks about Louisville Baptist. Sometimes you don't know who you’re talking to. And even as these rulers mock Jesus, they are actually talking to the Messiah, the Son of God.

And the soldiers are in on it too. Look down just a few verses in verse 36 and 37. “If You’re the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” You know they didn't know much Jewish theology and they certainly hadn't been following Jesus around. How did they know that? Of course, they are the ones who affixed the words above Jesus — “This is the King of the Jews.” In crucifixions it was normal to attach a description of the crime above the criminal who was dying on the cross. And you remember, when the charges were brought against Jesus to Pilate by the Sanhedrin they had charged Him with claiming that He was the King of the Jews, hence implying that He was a revolutionary making a counter claim to Caesar to be the rightful king of the Jewish people and thus being one who was guilty of treason and of insurrection and of revolution. And so that's attached above His head and they begin to mock Him. “If You’re the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” And He was; He was the King of the Jews. That's exactly who, on the cross — in fact, not just the King of the Jews but the King of the world, the One who holds all things together, the firstborn of creation, the Word who spoke the world into being. That's who He is. And Luke wants you to understand that because you won't understand the cross until you understand who Jesus is. And even His enemies, unwittingly, unbelievingly, ironically, mockingly acknowledge exactly who He is.


But that's not the last of it or even the most important of it because Luke describes for us the work of Jesus on the cross here. He wants us to understand what Jesus is doing on the cross. And notice how he gets at this. Right after he tells us that “they crucified Him,” — that's all his description of what Jesus endured in verse 33 — in verse 34, Jesus utters a prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Now we could meditate on that prayer forever, and we will. And I'm not sure we’ll ever see to the bottom of that prayer. Did that prayer find its answer in the forestalling of the destruction of Jerusalem for forty years? Did that prayer find its answer in the countless thousands who came to faith in Christ in the six months after His death? Did that prayer forestall the immediate judgment of God on the whole of humanity and the whole of creation? I don't know, but I do know that that prayer tells you why Jesus is on the cross. He's there to forgive us. He is there for our forgiveness. He is there so that we can be forgiven. He is there so that all who rest and trust on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel can be forgive and accepted and pardoned by God.

And you even get that in the mocking words of the rulers. Look at those words down in verse 35. “He saved others; let Him save Himself!” Now they’re trying to get to the second part of that clause. They’re wanting to mock Him that He can't save Himself, but notice what He did. “He saved others!” Yes He did; that's the Savior on the tree and the way that He is the Savior is that He is the way that our sins are forgiven. That's what He's doing on the cross. The reason that the Lord's Anointed is on the cross is for forgiveness. That's what the cross accomplishes.

Timothy Goeglein was the Special Assistant to the President of the United States and the Deputy Director of the Office of Public Liaison. He was very involved in the Elito and Roberts confirmation processes and he served for President George W. Bush for seven and a half years. In his years of service in the White House one morning he came in and there was an email waiting for him. It was an email from a reporter asking him if he had been plagiarizing the columns that he had been writing for a newspaper. He had written a series of columns for a newspaper, for free, it was not something he did for pay, in which he had plagiarized from a local newspaper. And a reporter had Googled it and found the plagiarism and written to him and asked. And he tells us that when he got that email he knew that his world was about to change and he literally fell down beside his desk and just cried out a prayer, “O God! O God!” He wrote back to the reporter and said, “Yes it is true; I have plagiarized.” He explained that his pride had grown during his years in the White House and that pride had fed and allowed this deceitful behavior on his part. He had stolen the words and the work of other people. He knew what he must do because he was going to bring disrepute upon the White House that he served and so he immediately submitted his resignation and he went home.

I want to ask you men today what it would be like to go home and tell your wife that you had just lost your job for a series of columns for which you received no pay by stealing the words and work of another person and that you were going to show up not only on the evening news but on the front page of the newspaper. I want you to think about that.

He went back into the White House on Monday morning to collect his things — take his pictures off the wall, clear his desk out, move out of the office. And Josh Bolten, the Chief of Staff for the President of the United States, called him into his office. And Timothy said, “Well, here comes the woodshed moment.” And Josh said, “Timothy, I want to know how your wife and children took this. I'm concerned about them. And Timothy, I also want you to know I forgive you.” All he showed him was kindness and mercy and forgiveness. Timothy kept trying to apologize and Josh just kept assuring him that he was forgiven and that he only was concerned about his family.

Right as he was leaving, Josh said to him, “Oh, Timothy, the boss wants to see you.” Timothy thought, “Oh now comes the woodshed moment and I'm going to get it from the leader of the free world.” And he was ushered into the Oval Office. The President beckoned him to sit. He moved to the far end of the sofa, furthest away from the Presidential desk. President Bush asked him to come sit in the seat of honor right under the portrait of George Washington. And he said, as Timothy was trying to get his apology out to the President, “Timothy, I forgive you.” Timothy continued to try and apologize and the President said, “Timothy, I have done some things in my past for which I need and needed forgiveness. I grant my forgiveness to you freely. And Timothy, I want you to bring your wife and your children here so that I can tell you what a good job you have done for me and for your country over the last seven and a half years.” Timothy couldn't believe that that would ever happen, but in fact his wife and family were brought back to the Oval Office and given a personal tour by the President and he sat them down and explained to them what a good job their husband and father had done.

Friends, the forgiveness that you will get through Jesus Christ will be even better than that. One day, before the entirety of resurrected humanity, your heavenly Father, through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, will stand before the assembled universe and say, “This person is forgiven. No matter what you have done, no matter who you are, you are forgiven because of My Son. And not only that, I want you to be My child. I want you to be a co-inheritor with My Son, Jesus Christ. I want all that is Mine to be yours and I want you to be My friend and companion forever.” And He’ll look out at the assembled universe and He’ll say, “Did you get that?” And He’ll say that because of what Jesus did on this tree. For all who look to Him, He provides all the forgiveness that we need. And Luke wants us to understand that when we look at the cross, that when Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them,” that when you look to Him in faith you will be forgiven and then some. The grace that God offers in the Gospel is all the grace that we need.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, whatever trials we face today, whatever guilt burdens our shoulders or our hearts, I pray that by faith, as we look to Jesus on the cross, we would see Your plan and Your purpose and Your forgiveness. In Jesus' name, amen.

Well, let's take our hymnals out and turn to number 257 and sing to God's praise.

What words do sinners who deserve to be condemned hear from their heavenly Father when they have trusted in Christ on the last day? Well done, good and faithful servant. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Messiah.