We are walking with Jesus on the way to the cross. We have seen him condemned in rigged trials, sharing in the same kind of suffering as persecuted peoples everywhere, totally alone as he walked the Via Dolorosa to Calvary. Today we think about Jesus on the cross.
Luke 23:32 ¶ Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals- one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
This morning we are going to look at one of the most amazing, almost incredible, sentences of Scripture.
Luke 23:34 “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
Who do you pray for most? When things are going well there is probably a long list.
When you are tired or busy you probably have a shorter list of real needs and closer personal concerns. When life is at its hardest I guess most of your prayers are for yourself, although you can perhaps spare a prayer for your family or a close friend in great need.
But when Jesus’s life was almost at an end, when the pain was worst, Jesus didn’t pray for his mother Mary watching nearby. He didn’t pray for his dear disciples Peter James and John. Jesus didn’t pray for the church which would come into being as a result of His death.
At that moment of agony instead we find Jesus praying for His enemies. And not praying in revenge that God’s judgement and punishment would fall on those who were torturing and executing Him. But praying for their forgiveness!
“Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
Praying for His enemies! We have a lot to learn from our Lord Jesus Christ about praying for our enemies. And it all comes from this:-
God changes enemies into friends
This is what the cross is all about. One man who was innocent dying in the place of those who were guilty.
Luke 23:39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Everybody who puts their trust in Jesus’s death and resurrection can know forgiveness of sins and the certainty of eternal life. We can share that wonderful promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So it is no coincidence that the place where we find Jesus praying for His enemies is indeed the cross. Father forgive them. Punish me instead of them. Accept my death instead of theirs.
This is the good news of the gospel.
2 Cor 5:20-21 We plead on Christ’s behalf. Let God change you from enemies into His friends.
Christ was without sin, but God made Him share our sin in order that in union with Him we might share God’s righteousness.
We serve the God who changes enemies into friends. This is the Good News God we have received and believed for ourselves and it is the Good News God sends us out to share with a needy world.
Father forgive them. Jesus prayed. And Jesus forgave.
These words of Jesus don’t only point to the way of our salvation! They don’t only reveal to us the character of the God we serve. They also give us two examples to follow. The example of prayer and the example of forgiveness. And these are not optional extras for superkeen Christians, but the duty of EVERY Christian.
Just as Jesus prayed for his enemies BEFORE they received forgiveness and became God’s friends, so we are called to pray for people who are still God’s enemies, cut of from God by their sins, to pray that they will find forgiveness and new life in Christ.
But prayer without action is rehearsal without performance. We begin by praying for enemies – we must then go on to forgive them from the bottom of our hearts. But what enemies are these?
Praying for enemies in the world around us
Jesus’s enemies were those people who opposed and persecuted and rejected and murdered Him. The church today has enemies. People who set out to oppose the church of Jesus Christ and persecute its members. Christians are commanded to show the same kind of love to such people as Jesus did.
Luke 6:27 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. 29 If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.
This may be easy for us in comfortable North Springfield. It doesn’t often cost us very much to stand up and be counted as Christians or to serve Christ. It’s usually easy for us to forgive (or most of the time we can just ignore) people who oppose our Christian beliefs and practice. But we remember those places around the world where it is much harder to live the Christian life. In Pakistan, for example, where only a month ago the minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered. He was the only prominent politician who was a Christian and he was killed by the Taliban for trying to change the blasphemy law which at the moment can order the death penalty for anybody who insults Islam. In Pakistan the enemies of the gospel are giving the Christians much more to forgive. It must be much harder than we can imagine for widows and orphans to forgive the murderers of their husbands and fathers and children.
But the church is the body of Christ. If one part of the body suffers we all suffer with it. If our fellow Christians are suffering persecution from their enemies, we shouldn’t just close our eyes and ignore what is happening.
In parts of Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, some Muslim countries, Sri Lanka, parts of South America, becoming a Christian can lead to complete rejection by family and friends and community. Christians face terrible persecutions, imprisonment, unspeakable tortures, immeasurable cost in their family life and education and jobs, just for following Christ. There are many many places where Christians face enemies on every side. And there are even some churches in inner city areas of England that pay a high price of violence to people and property because of their Christian witness.
Jesus prayed for His enemies “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
God calls us to pray for those who are persecuting our fellow Christians around the world. To pray for the Christians that they will have God’s grace to stand firm in the faith. To know enough about the situations that we can pray intelligently and meaningfully. To pray that our brothers and sisters will have the courage to share the gospel despite the great cost! But also to pray for those who are doing the persecuting! That they will find forgiveness. That God in His grace will bring them to repentance and faith and change them from enemies into friends.
And in our own situations, we may have friends or neighbours or family members who make life difficult for us as Christians They may be antagonistic or scornful or annoying. God calls us NOT to ignore them, NOT to be resentful, NOT to be angry but to love them and pray for them. The starting point for ALL our witnessing and outreach and evangelism and mission is PRAYER to the God who changes enemies into friends. If we talk to God long enough in prayer about our friends who do not know Him yet, then in the end we will find it much easier to talk to those friends about God.
And as we pray for other people so we are commanded to show forgiveness to them for any ways in which they have hurt us or made our lives difficult – to forgive them deep in our hearts.
Luke 6:35 Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
But then there is another aspect of praying for our enemies
Praying for our enemies in the church
It can happen!! Maybe its over theological issues – the work of the Holy Spirit, the timetable of the Second Coming, Creation or Evolution, Abortion and Euthanasia. At the moment in the Christian press and on the internet there is a great theological debate going on about universalism – whether God will actually punish sinners or whether in the end everybody will be saved. For years churches have had arguments about styles of worship. People argue about use of money. Maybe its disagreements or from the past, about decisions made a long time ago we still feel were wrong, or the way somebody else treated your friend or a member of your family? Sometimes churches are split by rivalries or jealousies about who does which jobs in the church, or pride or resentment or anger festering.
We shouldn’t have enemies within the church. But it can happen. Somebody else in the fellowship with whom you have differences which have built up over years into resentments and grudges which are hidden under the surface but erode away true fellowship? Folk you just don’t trust!
Our unity can sometimes be superficial. We paper over the cracks of disagreement and division. There is no place in the church for treating others as enemies, even if we only do it by ignoring them and secretly hoping they will go away. This destroys the oneness of fellowship and robs a church of power in its praying.
Colossians 3:11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion,
kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.
Only one petition in the Lord’s Prayer has any condition attached to it. It is the petition for forgiveness. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. As Saint Francis of Assisi put it – It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
Here on the cross Jesus sets us an example of forgiving. He calls us to forgive all those who have harmed us – not for their sake but for our own. As a wise man once said,
“He that demands mercy, and shows none, ruins the bridge over which he himself is to pass.”
And Love forgives AND forgets.
1 Cor 13:5 Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Forgiveness is not saying, “I will forgive, but not forget.” That is just another way of saying “I won’t forgive.” Forgiveness isn’t burying the hatchet in the other man’s head! Nor is it to bury the hatchet with the handle sticking out of the ground, so you can grasp it the minute you want it.
Forgiving and forgetting. With no grudges. No hidden resentments. No coldness. No people we aren’t on speaking terms with.
There was once a woman who was never known to hold resentment against anyone. One time a friend reminded her of a cruel thing that had happened to her some years previously. The woman seemed not to remember the incident. “Don’t you remember the wrong that was done you?” the friend asked. The woman answered calmly, “No, I distinctly remember forgetting that.”
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Christ knew just how unfair a place this world is! False accusations. Condemnation for speaking the truth. Rigged trials. Unjust imprisonment. Misunderstanding. Jealousy. The innocent dying while the guilty get off free. So often, good men doing nothing! IT’S NOT FAIR!!! And he prayed
Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,
Flogged, crowned with thorns, mocked
Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,
Bystanders, chief priests, elders, teachers of the law, soldiers, Pilate, even his own disciples lettting him down – “lone and friendless now he climbs the cruel hill!”
Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,
Prayer AND forgiveness. Jesus prayed for and forgave all who hurt him by action or rejection – and he calls us to do no less.