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From the Cross
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
"Father, Forgive Them ..."
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.... When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:26, 33-34a)
I have been with dozens of people as they were approaching death. A person's dying words sometimes simply express his or her needs: "Could you please move the pillow?" or "May I have a drink?" Sometimes they express a concern for others—a final "I love you" or "It's going to be okay." A person's final words reveal what is on his or her heart at the time, and sometimes they reveal the nature of the person's faith and hope. John Wesley is said to have uttered these words as he died: "Best of all, God is with us."
In the case of one being crucified, the very act of speaking was painful and required great exertion. It is thought that death comes to those being crucified due to some combination of exhaustion, shock, buildup of fluid around the heart and in the lungs, and asphyxiation. To speak while being crucified would require great effort as the victim would have to pull himself up by the nails in the wrists in order to expand the diaphragm to speak. For all of these reasons, words were sparse among the victims of crucifixion.
The Gospels record seven statements Jesus made from the cross. There are three reasons why we can assume these statements are important and should be considered for what they teach us about Jesus, about his Father, and about ourselves. First, Jesus went to some effort and bore great pain to speak them. Second, Jesus came to reveal God—to be God's "word made flesh." And finally, the Gospel writers, as they were trying to communicate not only who Jesus was and what he did but also the significance of his life, felt it important to include his dying words.
We begin our study of Jesus' final words with the first words from the cross recorded by Luke, words uttered by Jesus just after he was crucified: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (23:34).
Let's start with a word about how this beautiful statement may have come to be included in Luke's Gospel. If you read the footnote in your Bible related to these words from the cross, you will discover that they were likely not included in the earliest editions of the Gospel of Luke. Because Luke was, in some ways, a historian who wrote his Gospel account by interviewing the people who knew Jesus personally, it is likely that the people he interviewed did not know that Jesus made this comment from the cross. This would explain why Luke omitted them; he recorded only those statements that the persons he interviewed knew Jesus had made.
As Luke's Gospel began to be copied and shared in churches around the Roman Empire, it came to a city where someone who had been an eyewitness at the cross actually lived. That eyewitness remembered something Jesus had said from the cross that forever changed his life. Upon reading the Gospel he said, "There was something else. He said something else—something too important to leave out." And because this eyewitness was known by all to have been at the cross, it was felt appropriate to add to Luke's words this phrase, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
One suggestion for this eyewitness at the cross is Rufus. In Mark 15:21 we learn that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus' cross, and that he had two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Mark is thought to have written his Gospel in Rome, the earliest of the Gospels. His mention of Alexander and Rufus seems strange unless Alexander and Rufus were boys who grew up to be known leaders in the church. In Romans 16:13, Paul writes, "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also." It seems likely to some that this is the same Rufus, now a leader in Rome, who stood by and watched Jesus crucified when he was a boy. Hence, it is suggested that the phrase "Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" was added as a result of the authority and testimony of Rufus.
I mention this only as a suggestion for how our present statement came to be in the Gospels. Scholars have a host of other suggestions, but it seems to me that something like this points toward what may have happened and why this statement, though not in Luke's earliest editions, is an authentic statement of Jesus from the cross.
With this as an introduction, let's consider the significance of these words.
"Father, Forgive Them"
It is not surprising that these words—the first words spoken by Jesus from the cross—were a prayer. What is surprising, haunting, and, for some, disturbing, is what he prayed: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Let's begin our exploration of this prayer with a question: For whom was Jesus praying? Who was the "them" Jesus was asking God to forgive?
He was, of course, praying for the soldiers who cruelly tortured him and crucified him and who were preparing to gamble for his clothes. "Father, forgive them."
He also was praying for the crowd who, even now, were beginning their verbal assault on him—Luke notes that they were deriding him, shaking their heads and mocking him. For them he prayed, "Father, forgive them."
Then there were the religious leaders who, from their own jealousy and spiritual blindness, conspired with the Romans to kill him, just as the false prophets of Jeremiah's day had sought to kill him. For these hypocritical leaders he prayed, "Father, forgive them."
This is astounding! Can you imagine such mercy? That Jesus would pray for them as he hung on the cross is one of the most powerful images in all the Gospels.
But there is someone else included in Jesus' prayer, someone for whom Jesus was pleading from the cross for God's mercy to be extended: We are among the "them" Jesus was praying for as he said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
There's an old gospel hymn that asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" The answer is that, in a profound spiritual sense, you were there. The entire human race was there at the Crucifixion. The death of Jesus was an event that transcended time. Jesus' prayer gave voice to what Jesus was doing on the cross. He was offering himself to God his Father as an offering of atonement. In this moment he was both the High Priest pleading for atonement for the human race and the offering itself. This sacrificial act was for those who had come before and for those who would come after just as much as it was for those who heard his words that day.
You and I were there when they crucified the Lord. In a sense, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive Adam. Forgive (insert your name). Forgive those in our churches and those on the streets. Forgive those in the suburbs and those downtown. Forgive those in our country and those on the other side of the world. Father, forgive them...." This is the power of the words Jesus cried out from the cross: They were prayed not only for those who stood by at the cross, but also for all of us— for all of humanity.
With that in mind, let us consider three additional truths that these words of Jesus teach us.
We Need Forgiveness
The fact that Jesus devoted one of his seven last statements to a prayer for our forgiveness tells us something significant: we need forgiveness. It wasn't just those around the cross who needed forgiveness; we need forgiveness, too. Our need for forgiveness and God's willingness to give it are two of the major themes of the Bible. We need forgiveness because we struggle with sin. Sin is a word that many of us prefer not to use today. We'd prefer "mistake" or "slip up." The Greek and Hebrew words most often translated as "sin" in the Bible are words that mean "to stray from the path" or "to miss the mark." The implication is that God has a path or way that we were intended to live, but we don't follow that path. Instead we all stray from it.
The church traditionally lists seven deadly sins as the root of all other sins. You may remember the traditional list: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. When I pursue these impulses, I step away from God's path and depart from God's will. These paths promise pleasure and happiness, but they ultimately lead to pain. They dehumanize us and others and separate us from God by means of guilt and shame; they hurt others and keep us from doing the things that God intends and from being the people God intends.
I am reminded of a man who came into my office having been involved in an extramarital affair. He had learned that the person he had been intimate with had a sexually transmitted disease, which he had in turn passed on to his wife. His wife wanted a divorce. He was losing the thing that he loved most in life—his family. He wept as he described the guilt, shame, and sense of despair he felt. He was not thinking of any of these things the night he gave into the temptation to sleep with a woman he'd just met while on a business trip. The path that promised pleasure and joy led to heartache and pain.
On a global scale, sin is perhaps the best word to describe the quest for power, the genocide, the cruelty and inhumanity, and the bigotry and hate that is behind so much human suffering and war in our world today.
Some suggest that Christians spend too much time dwelling on sin and making people feel guilty. Some Christians and churches may do that, but that is not the central focus of the gospel. The central focus of the gospel is grace and God's mercy. Still, you cannot appreciate God's mercy until you know you need it. And we all need it. We all struggle with doing the wrong thing. Something inside us lures us to do the things that are not God's will. When theologians speak of "original sin" they typically are referring to the impulse of the human heart that makes sin captivating and alluring. There is debate about what is meant by original. Traditionally this word has been understood to mean that sin was passed down from Adam and Eve. However we acquired it, we all are affected and, in a sense, infected by it. The desire for what will hurt us and separate us from God is a part of the human condition. This tendency starts at an early age.
As I was reflecting upon these words of Jesus from the cross, I was reminded of something I did when I was eight or nine years old. One day I walked to a nearby shopping center. There was a department store that sold, among other things, record albums. I went to look at the albums by the Beatles. I had been saving a bit of money to buy one, but I discovered that I was two dollars short. Then an idea came into my eightyear-old brain. Some of the records were on sale, and some were not. I thought, My record should be on sale. So I peeled off a sale sticker from a record that was on sale, and I placed it on the Beatles album I wanted that was not on sale. Inside I knew it was wrong. I took it to the register; my heart was pounding out of my chest at the thought that someone would figure out what I had done. Today, with the scanners that are used to identify the item and price, swapping tags like that would never work. You would be caught. But I wasn't caught, and I walked away, essentially stealing from the store.
I was only eight, and I was a thief. I never did that again, but I did many other things when I was growing up that I'm not proud of. Unfortunately, as we become adults, we don't stop sinning. Our sins merely become more sophisticated, and we become more adept at justifying them. Sin is a problem we never outgrow.
So, when Christianity speaks of sin, the aim is not to make us feel guilty but to help us discover the grace and healing mercy of God that we so desperately need.
Imagine you've been having chest pains and shortness of breath, and now you're experiencing pain in your arm. Although you might say, "It's really nothing; I'm not going to worry about it," it's possible you're having a heart attack and need to be examined by a doctor. If you leave this unchecked, you could die an early death. If you are wise, you will want to know what's causing these symptoms and will go to the doctor. If the doctor says, "Listen, we've found serious blockage, and you need surgery," would you think that the doctor is being overly pessimistic or trying to help you so that you can get better? Would you say, "That doctor is such a downer! I don't want to hear that. I'm going to find a doctor who will make me feel good about my heart"? Of course not! You would be thankful that the doctor found the problem and could cure it with surgery.
In a similar way, the gospel's focus is not on sin; sin is simply the diagnosis. The gospel's focus is on the cure, which is God's grace and gift of salvation. It is heart surgery conducted by the divine physician who laid down his life for us.
This is what the season of Lent is all about—the fortyday season in which we examine our hearts and minds and lives to see why we need what Jesus prayed for and died for: our forgiveness. This leads us to another truth that this prayer of Jesus teaches us.
God's Grace Is a Gift
Jesus was not merely pointing out sin; he was praying for God's mercy toward those who sin. What makes this prayer of Jesus remarkable is that he prayed for God's mercy for those who stood at the foot of the cross while they were still tormenting him. They were spitting on him and hurling insults at him and gambling for his clothes when he prayed, "Father, forgive them." Jesus prayed for them and for us before any of us realized our need—and while we were still in the midst of our sin. The apostle Paul captures it this way in Romans 5:6-8:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
This idea that Jesus was praying from the cross for our forgiveness, and that he was, even before we repented, dying for us, is a mind-bending idea. Before you were born, God knew the sinful things you would do and forgave you in advance. On the cross Jesus suffered and died to save you from your sins and redeem you.
Let me pause to answer an important question people often ask: How does Jesus' death on the cross save me from my sins? There are different ways of understanding our redemption—different theories of the Atonement—but let me offer one example from a dramatic act in the Old Testament that illustrates the spiritual truth of atonement.
God commanded Moses to atone for the people's sins every year by bringing two goats before the Lord. One would be slaughtered, the other sent away into the wilderness (see Leviticus 16). The priest would cast lots for which goat would be sacrificed and which would be sent to the wilderness. The one that was sacrificed was brought before God, the sins of the people were symbolically laid upon it, and it was butchered and burned. This goat would be an offering on behalf of the people—a kind of visual apology and sign of their repentance. The priest would then place his hands on the head of the second goat, the "scapegoat," and pronounce the sins of the people on the head of the goat. Then they would drive the goat out into the wilderness never to be seen again—presumably to be eaten by some wild animal or to live out its days in the wilderness. The visual image was that the people's sins were carried away; their sins went with the goat.
Could a goat really bear sins and carry them away into the wilderness and thus procure forgiveness and atonement? Of course not. The scapegoat, as well as the animal that was slaughtered, were merely outward ways of communicating deeper spiritual truths. God wanted the Israelites to understand that sin is deadly, and that grace is not cheap. God wanted to give them a tangible means by which they could express their remorse and by which God could express divine grace. I believe God wanted them to feel the weight of sin. At the same time, in the scapegoat God wanted them to see and know that their sins were truly forgiven. God took something tangible to reveal something intangible yet profoundly true. The slaughtered goat and the scapegoat were part of a divine drama meant to reveal the deadliness of sin and the costliness of grace.
Excerpted from Final Words by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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