Can you picture the scene? Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples. He walks with them through the Kidron Valley, up the Mount of Olives and into the Garden of Gethsemane. He says to his disciples: ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.’ He goes a little further, this time alone, and falls on his face. ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.’ An angel comes to him from heaven, strengthening him. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
After over an hour of prayer, there was a commotion in the garden – Judas, the betrayer. With him were troops and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons.
Peter wants to fight them off, but Jesus won’t let him. ‘Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?’
Jesus is dragged to the High Priest, then to the Jewish Ruling Council. Outside, his disciples have scattered. Peter denies him. The Council condemn Jesus to death, and send him to Pilate, to carry out the sentence.
By now, Judas is full of remorse. But it’s too late. Unable to reverse his betrayal, he throws down the bribes the priests had given him and hangs himself.
Meanwhile, Jesus is questioned by Pilate, who finds no fault in him. He’s sent to Herod where he’s treated with contempt. Pilate again says he can found no fault with Jesus, but the priests refuse to accept his verdict. So Pilate has Jesus flogged and hopes that will be enough. It’s not. Pilate hopes the crowd will come to his rescue, but they too cry out that Jesus should be crucified. Eventually, Pilate gives the sentence demanded.
By now it’s morning. The site of crucifixion is already prepared, ready for two thieves and rebels. Jesus is made to carry his cross, and there, nails are driven through his hands. Slowly the crossbeam is hoisted up onto the vertical post, and his feet too are nailed.
And there he hangs – silent, as a lamb is before its shearers. But soon his lips are seen to move. Is he crying for pity? No. What then? Is he pronouncing vengeance on his crucifiers? No. He is praying. Praying for his enemies – ‘Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do’.
It’s a remarkable story. But what does it teach us? What can we learn?
A shocking prayer
We should be shocked that Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them’, but not for the reasons you expect. We should be shocked because Jesus had never said that before. Normally he forgave others himself. To the paralytic, he said, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven’. To the woman who washed his feet with her tears in the house of Simon, he said, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. So why should he now ask the Father to forgive?
Part of the answer is that on the cross, the wrath of God is beginning to be poured out. He’s approaching the point where he’s going to be forsaken by his Father as the sins of the world are placed on him. He’s about to die. If there’s ever a moment where Jesus’ humanity comes to the fore, it’s here. Jesus is still divine, of course, but his divinity is fading into the background more here than at any other time, and his words reflect that. It’s a human prayer from the Son of God.
A gracious prayer
Who was the prayer for? It applied to the soldiers. Battle-hardened and cruel, they knew Jesus was different from the criminals they usually faced, but they didn’t know he was the Messiah. But Jesus’ prayer was for them.
Jesus’ prayer was for Pilate, too. He was a coward, interested only in what kept him in power. He acted out of selfishness and weakness. He knew that Jesus was innocent, but he didn’t know who Jesus was, and he also acted in ignorance.
His prayer was also for the priests. They were confident in their knowledge of the Old Testament and their superior judgment. But they too acted in ignorance. The rulers of this age didn’t know the wisdom of God – because if they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). So Jesus’ prayer was for them too.
It’s remarkable grace, isn’t it?
A big prayer
But was Christ only praying for the soldiers and Pilate and the priests? No. In praying for this incredible mix of people – rich and poor, powerful and weak, Jews and Gentiles, religious and secular, Jesus shows how he prays for us all.
If Jesus prayed for his murderers to be forgiven, who is beyond his mercy? When Jesus’ enemies cried, ‘Crucify!’ Jesus replied, ‘Forgive!’ A man who does that is willing to forgive anyone who comes to him in faith – even sinners like us.
That may explain why Jesus just said, ‘Father forgive them’. He wanted everyone who heard his words to seek his forgiveness. His general prayer allows any of us to apply it to our own need for forgiveness. Charles Spurgeon said that he loved this prayer ‘because of the indistinctness of it’. He loved it because Jesus prayed for ‘them’ without ever saying who ‘them’ was.
So when Jesus said ‘Father, forgive them,’ he gave hope to every sinner who would ever come to him and pray for mercy. We too are among the ‘them’ that Jesus prayed for God to forgive. Spurgeon said, ‘Now into that pronoun “them” I feel that I can crawl. Can you get in there? Oh, by a humble faith, appropriate the cross of Christ by trusting in it; and get into that big little word “them”!’
An answered prayer
Was Jesus’ prayer answered? It was for at least one of the soldiers. Later, when Jesus said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’, the centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man’ (Luke 23:46-47). Jesus’ death was for him the dawning of amazing grace.
At Pentecost, Peter says those who were saved were among those responsible for crucifying Jesus (Acts 2:36, 41). And in Acts 6:7 we discover that ‘a great many of the priests’ were also converted. Jesus’ prayer was being answered.
As Philip Ryken points out, at the very moment Jesus prays, the priests and soldiers were taunting Jesus for not being able to save himself. ‘What sort of king gets killed?’ they thought. ‘What sort of Christ gets crucified?’ If Jesus could not save himself, how could he save anyone at all?
But as he was praying for forgiveness, Jesus was also providing the means of our forgiveness. The Father need only look to where Jesus was praying – on the cross, under God’s wrath, suffering the penalty that our sins deserve. Even as he prayed, the merits of Jesus’ blood were also crying out.
It was only because Jesus refused to save himself that he could save sinners who need forgiveness. Our salvation was won by his precious blood and his kingly intercession.
For the centurion, Jesus’ prayer was answered. For thousands of Jews at Pentecost, and a great many priests, Jesus’ prayer was answered. He interceded for their souls, and his Father heard his prayer. What about you? Have you come to God through him?
Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).