Father, Forgive Them


Father, Forgive Them

Luke 23:34a
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2014

While Jesus was being crucified on the cross he spoke several times. What he said is often referred to as the “Seven Words of the Cross”.

These sayings need to be studied with care. Each saying seems to be independent of the others. There is no immediate context or comments to help us determine the flow of thought. Yet they should not be studied as isolated sayings. This would invite dangerous speculation and open the way to heresy and harmful principles by which we should live.

Though they stand alone, they still have a rich context in the broader record of the inspired Scriptures. By comparing them with other clear statements in God’s word we can properly understand what Jesus meant in each of these last sayings

The first of these seven sayings is found in Luke 23:34a “And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (my own translation)


Jesus Said, “Father forgive them,
for they do not know what they are doing.”

Several questions obviously come to mind. Who are those for whom he is asking forgiveness? Why should they be forgiven? Was their ignorance an excuse for what they were doing?

A few ancient manuscripts omit this verse.
Two early Alexandrian manuscripts, about five scattered later texts, and about five later minor translations leave this saying out of the text. Some speculate that the verse was left out because some thought it meant that all present were being forgiven simply because of their ignorance. That understanding would contradict other clear statements in the Bible.

The rest of the ancient manuscripts include this saying. It is found in very old and widely distributed manuscripts. It is included in the main translations (including the Vulgate, early Italian, etc.), the early Bible guides written at that time, and the ancient commentators with just one exception.

When more carefully examined the conflict with other passages of Scripture disappears. There is no need to remove this saying from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus asked the Father to administer forgiveness.
The Son is our intercessor to the Father. This is made very clear in the New Testament. In John 17 Jesus prays his high priestly prayer which is a clear example of his office as mediator between God and his people. In 1 Titus 2:5 Paul wrote, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”

From the cross Jesus asked the Father to administer “forgiveness”. The Greek word translated as “forgive” here is aphi-aemi (ἀφίημι). The same word was used by Jesus on other occasions.

Luke 11:4, “And forgive us our sins, For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one.”

Luke 17:3-4, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”

Jesus was asking the Father to dismiss the guilt of sin for those to whom he directed his concern.

But for whom does he ask forgiveness?
Several suggestions have been made:
– Forgive the Roman soldiers who were only obeying orders.
– Forgive the Sanhedrin who thought Jesus was a dangerous blasphemer.
– Forgive the crowd that called for his death being intimidated by the Sanhedrin.
– Forgive apostate Israel which had no concept of the spiritual meaning of Scripture.
– Forgive the elect in the crowd not yet regenerated by saving grace.
– Forgive all of humanity since the lost among them had not understood the gospel.

To answer that we will need more information.

For the moment, overlooking the things we don’t know clearly, these words of Jesus teach us that he has full divine authority to call for forgiveness. It reminds us that the Father is the one who administers this forgiveness. The Son takes the position of intercessor for his people.


Those for whom he prayed were morally ignorant.


“for they do not know what they are doing”

A primary question needs to be considered before we can understand what Jesus meant. What connection does ignorance have with forgiveness?

It is clear that there was ignorance.
The perfectly innocent Lord of Glory, the Creator, was being tortured to death by his creatures. Paul’s later comment in 1 Corinthians 2:8 puts it clearly, “which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

Those who called for his death, and who carried out the act, were ignorantly fulfilling what the prophets indicated would take place.

Acts 3:14-17, “But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”

Acts 13:27, “For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him.”

They were ignorantly killing the Righteous One, the Prince of Life. They clearly missed the depth of what was happening that day.

Clearly, ignorance is not a reason for forgiveness.
The larger context of the teachings of Jesus shows that forgiveness is always based upon true and humble repentance. Repentance is always based upon God’s promise which is revealed by grace alone to undeserving and ignorant hearts. The basis for forgiveness is always the completed work of Christ in his death on the cross.

If even one person could ever be forgiven on the basis of his ignorance, then there would be a way of salvation other than faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. That is ruled out definitively. The Bible teaches only one way a person is forgiven for the guilt of his sins. It is by trusting in the work of Christ.

Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;”

Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me. ” He also said in John 8:24 “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”

The Apostle Peter said in Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

In John 3:36 John the baptizer said, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Paul wrote in Galatians 3:26, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

So then what does “for they do not know what they are doing” mean?

It shows the necessity of forgiveness and intercession.
All mankind is lost in sin and morally blinded by its effects. Jesus must ask the Father’s forgiveness on their behalf because they could not even know the depth of what they were doing. They were crucifying the Lord of glory, fulfilling the prophets, and killing the Righteous One, the Prince of Life. Yet at the time they believed they were doing a good thing.

Romans 3:11, “There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.”

1 Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Putting all this together it helps us identify
those for whom Jesus prayed the Father to forgive.

All are lost in sin, and doomed to remain there if it was not for the intercession of the Messiah who satisfied God’s justice in their place.

Those present had condemned him, jeered him, and called for his death. They were crucifying him, and did not recognize the Son of Man. But, among them were the elect of the Father. It was for the elect that he prayed. Nothing else would be consistent with what the rest of Scripture teaches us.

The elect are the only ones for whom Jesus could have offered this prayer.
1. The intercession of Jesus has boundaries.
His prayer in John 17 was limited to those given to him by the Father.

John 17:8-9, “For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.”

2. The atonement made by Jesus has boundaries.
The atonement must be limited or else all humans are saved and none will be cast into the fires of eternal punishment. The Bible denies that. One of the two ways of limiting the atonement must be accepted.

Some imagine that the atonement is limited in its effectiveness. For them it failed to accomplish what God wanted it to accomplish. The man-centered view says that God lets us humans decide about our own salvation. It imagines that it’s our choice that determines what God can do. That makes us created people to be Sovereign King over God. But if the choice was ours no one would be saved. No one understands or seeks the God of Scripture (Romans 3:11).

The other view is that Christ’s atonement is limited in its design. Since God cannot fail in what he determines to do (Psalm 115:3), he must not have determined to save all humans, but only some. This is clearly taught all through the Bible. It’s in the teachings of Moses, David, Jesus, and the Apostles. Jesus came to save his people from their sin.

Matthew 1:21, “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus came to save his sheep, and he succeeded.

John 10:14-15 says, “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

These ideas are brought together in Isaiah 53:12, “… He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.” The death of Jesus between two convicts, and his representing all the elect as sinners, is clearly in mind here.

But who were these transgressors in Isaiah 53:12? The context shows it was those whose sins he bore. Jesus saw his death that way. In Matthew 26:28 he said, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” He didn’t pray for or die for nameless masses of possible or potential benefactors. He represented those specifically for whom he succeeds in saving, the elect of all the ages.

Jesus didn’t ask that they be forgiven because they were ignorant. It was on the basis of his atonement for those the Father gave to him that the Father would bring these same ones out of their ignorance to God’s truth, and bring them to repentance and therefore receive forgiveness.

In what way was this prayer of Jesus on the Cross answered?
It was answered by the salvation of the elect among those who stood there around the cross. It was immediately fulfilled for the repentance of the thief on one of the other crosses (Luke 23:43), and probably for the Centurion who said in Matthew 27:54, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

His prayer to the Father continued to be fulfilled in the weeks and months after his death. There were 3,000 who came to trust in him at Pentecost. Many thousands more came to repentance and saving faith throughout the book of Acts, even many of the priests (Acts 6:7). Throughout the ages the ignorant and lost are brought in. It continues today, and on to the end of this age when all the elect will have been saved.

Those who are ignorant of the wickedness and offense of their inheritance and of their own deeds, even those who were there crucifying him, have hope in the prayer of the Savior that they will be forgiven not upon the basis of their knowledge, certainly not because of their ignorance, but on the basis of his death for them.

The unbelievers and the hypocritical church at that time also benefited because God withheld Jerusalem’s destruction about 40 years as the gospel spread throughout the Jewish community. He held back that judgment while his elect were brought into the church.


When we sin, we should be confident
in the efficacy of Christ’s work.


It’s not by our knowledge, understanding, or intentions that we are forgiven. It is by the intercession and atonement of our Savior.

When we wonder how our sins can be ever forgiven, when we worry that God will not answer our prayers of repentance, we must remember the work of Jesus as our intercessor. He knows full well that all his sheep have had their sins paid for. He is the one who paid the price, and who who pleads for them.

Note: Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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