The Power of Forgiveness in the Cross of Christ

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) 

Jesus – hanging on the Cross. 

A few days before, He forewarned His friends over a final Passover meal together. Feeling the weight of what lay ahead, He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to His Father that the cup might pass from Him. Then, betrayed by Judas with a kiss, He is arrested by religious authorities. In a frenzy of cast-off justice, He fades all manner of false charges before the Jewish High Priest. Finally, accused of blasphemy and fomenting revolution, He is interviewed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. With no basis for their accusations, the crowd clamors with demands for His crucifixion. He is chosen for execution while Barabbas, a revolutionary murderer is set free. Brutally scourged by the Romans, Jesus loses flesh and blood. His hands and arms spread wide and affixed to a crossbeam, He is roughly lifted and dropped into place, with His feet painfully nailed to the upright. Two criminals join Him, one on either side. Jesus: a public spectacle as busy people pass by outside Jerusalem.

The crucifixion has begun. Jesus, dangling there in excruciating pain, says: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). 

What is at the forefront of our minds in times of trouble? Often, we express our thoughts with intense exclamations, like “why is this happening to me?!” or “When will this all be over?!” But not Jesus. For Him, it is: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

First, Jesus says, “Father.” Jesus’ relationship with God the Father is more real and present to Him than anything else, even His own suffering. He once said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Earlier, when He was twelve, Jesus lingered in the Jerusalem Temple, talking with the teachers of the Law. When Joseph and Mary found Him, Jesus said, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). And now here He is on the Cross…fulfilling His Father’s business.

Next, He says, “Father, forgive.” With gasping breaths, Jesus asks His Father for one thing: forgiveness for others. We know from other episodes in Scripture that Jesus had unique, divine authority to forgive. When asked, “who can forgive sins but God alone?”, Jesus responded by not only speaking forgiveness of sins over a paralyzed man, but also healing him as a proof of divine authority. Now, on the Cross, Jesus sees with stark clarity the real human need for forgiveness. He has seen that need for forgiveness in the disappearance of His friends and the cohorts of soldiers approaching Him. He has felt it in the moisture of a kiss and the scourges ripping into His flesh. He has heard it in the leaders’ mockery and the cry of the crowds. Yet, God’s desire and nature to forgive is most vibrantly real to Jesus.

He says, “Father, forgive them.” Forgive them – the Roman authorities who scourged Him, mocked Him, crucified Him. Forgive them – the Jewish leaders, who, out of envy and self-interest, intentionally victimized Jesus to preserve their own position and protect their own version of religion. Forgive them – the crowd who alternately admired and condemned Jesus, who hailed Him as King when he entered Jerusalem, and now, were crying out, “Crucify Him.” Forgive them – the followers who had voiced their stubborn commitment to never leave Jesus’ side, yet now had mostly disappeared like dust blown away by the wind.Father, forgive them – us today, still yet to come at that moment many years ago. We stumble around in life, trying our best. At times we unintentionally wrong others through ignorance or prejudice. But even worse, at other times we intentionally wrong others with cutting words, angry actions, misguided deeds, or holding onto bitterness as the soil in which evil grows. Though we may feel so far away from that moment two-thousand years ago at the Cross, yet, even for us, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them”

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Ignorance abounds in Jesus’ crucifixion: ignorance of His identity, ignorance of His power, ignorance of the fading power of evil, ignorance of God’s greater plans for humanity through the Christ. But even ignorance is not an excuse. It’s not enough to plead ignorance in the taking of a life, the misguided exclusion, or the failures of responsibility. Even ignorant wrong calls for justice and requires forgiveness.

If that is true, how much more do the intentional wrongs we inflict on others and God through our willful rebellion and self-centered intentions call for change and the need forgiveness?

Jesus – in all the agony of the Cross – was most mindful of talking with His Father about the forgiveness needed for the humanity He had come to rescue.

Scripture tells us that human beings are made in the image of God, and that we are the pinnacle of creation. Because of this, underlying every wrong toward another person is an ultimate wrong against God who has made us in His image. Now if that ultimate wrong against God underlies all the shadows of condemnation that cover us, then we cannot truly make things right with one another, the world, or God on our own. It requires something different.

It would require God standing not only as the One who is wronged, but also the One who takes the weight of that wrong upon Himself; to redirect it, to reframe it, and forgive it. 

God must not only be wronged but also receive the relational and cosmic impact of wrongs upon Himself. Only God has the power to name wrong for what it is but also to deal with the condemnation of wrong. 

And so, Jesus enters our world and our lives as fully God and fully man. He identifies and names the shadows of wrong touching every human life and aspect of our creation. And He enters the shadows of that wrong, ultimately at the Cross.

There, fixed at the crossroads of humanity and divinity, of wrong’s condemnation and wrong’s reparation, Jesus speaks with all authority and all compassion the word we all most need to hear, but could never utter ourselves: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

A Prayer to the Holy and Gracious God

For the Lord is righteous,
    he loves justice;
    the upright will see his face. (Psalm 11:7)

My life is small, imperfect, and needy,
yet I lift my eyes to You, my God.
Although You are holy and majestic,
thank You for also being full of mercy and grace.
I look to You.

All around, the world is mixed with awesome wonder and sharp pain.
Human lives yield inspiring love and shaking hostility.
I see this same mixture in myself each day,
so I humbly call out to You for myself and the world.
I look to You.

Trees and mountains tower above me, yet You are higher.
The surging lake depths yawn beneath me, yet You are deeper.
The shimmering stars stretch far beyond me, yet You reach farther.
The blood in my veins pumps all throughout me, yet You are nearer.
I look to You.

Have Your way in me as I consider this day.
and please form Your life in me as I live this, my only life.
Guide my steps in Your pathway of life
and reveal Your presence which is full of true joy
for I look to You.

Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

justice and mercy.jpg

One of our deepest desires as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

At our jobs or in our classrooms, we want things to be fair with all people treated well and measured equally against a dispassionate measure of job expectations or class requirements. In elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and everyone is give appropriate consideration. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a concept that appears throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately, we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

Encountering the Merciful Love of God :: Fra Angelico, “The Annunciation”

Fra Angelico - Annunciation
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation; tempera on wood; between 1433 and 1434.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46-48)

“Love is blind.” At least, that’s how the saying goes. The phrase means that when love is at work, a person is prone to overlook, or just plain fail to see, the problems within the person being loved.  There is some truth to that. But the kind of love we all deeply desire is not a blind love, but a love that truthfully sees everything about us and still loves us. Love that is blind—that turns away from reality—is false love, while love that sees—that leans into reality—is real love. John 3:16 is such a revered passage of Scripture because it describes God’s love not as blind but as real love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing God’s plan to bring the Messiah to birth through her, Mary was astounded. Her question, “How will this be?”, was both a question about the manner of the Messianic birth since she was a virgin and simultaneously a question about the possibility that something like this could occur in human history. When Gabriel emphasized God’s decisive plan to intervene through Jesus as Messiah, such knowledge eventually leads Mary to erupt with praise:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. (Luke 1:46-47, 50)

That little word ‘mercy’ (Greek: ἔλεος) is an echo of the Hebrew word hesed, which refers to God’s uniquely steady and faithful love. Mary grasps, and shares with us today, that God sees what is really there in the world and still chooses to love humanity from generation to generation throughout the earth. Mary becomes a picture not only of humble obedience to God’s call, but also boisterous praise of God’s real, eyes-open love for humanity and all creation.

The Messiah and the Sabbath

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we continued our series entitled “The Messiah’s Mission,” by looking at Matthew 12:1-21. Here, Jesus offers tangible examples of His invitation to find rest for our souls that we explored last week.

I spent quite a bit of time expounding on Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 42. Specifically I talked about the significance of this very important verse:

A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. (Matthew 12:20)

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here, as well as the devotional that accompanies the series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8)

What Is the Sabbath?

  • The biblical background (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
  • The rabbinical background

Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath (12:1-8)

  • The accusation
  • The comparisons
  • Greater than the Temple
  • The call to mercy

Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus, Doing Good (12:9-14)

  • The entrapment
  • The comparison
  • The healing

Jesus, the Promised One (12:15-21)

  • The summary of His activity
  • The quotation from Isaiah

Dig Deeper:

This week dig deeper into Matthew’s understanding of Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath in one or more of the following ways:

  • Memorize Matthew 12:8 or 12:17-21.
  • Paint, draw, or ink one of the stories or the Isaiah text quoted by Matthew in 12:1-21. As you do that, prayerfully ask the Lord to grow your relationship with Him.
  • Read and study Hebrews 4:1-13, which expands on the Christian understanding of the sabbath in light of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath.
  • Explore the 39 Melachot, the rabbinical categories of “work” prohibited on the sabbath here
  • Consider reading this interview with pastor and author Mark Buchanan: “I Know You’re Busy”