Forgiving the Unforgivable
Topic: Good Friday Scripture: Luke 23:33-34
Transcripts are of our sermon audio file:
Take your Bible and turn to Luke 23. Luke 23:33-34. I want to speak on the subject forgiving the unforgivable? I don't know if you've noticed, but Jesus made seven statements from the cross. We're going to look at the first of those statements. Luke 23:33. Listen as I read God's Word, "And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals one on the right hand than the other on the left. Then Jesus said, 'Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.' And they divided His garments and cast lots." C. S. Lewis, the Irish writer, famously said, "Forgiveness is a beautiful word until you have something to forgive." It's a true statement, we know that to be true. Forgiveness doesn't come naturally, forgiveness doesn't come easily. We love the thought of forgiveness, we love the idea of forgiveness. But by golly, the act of forgiveness, that's another thing altogether. He's right, forgiveness is a beautiful word until you have someone to forgive.
Pulling out the roots of bitterness is hard work. Stretching out your hand to someone in friendship who has lifted their hand against you in betrayal, goes against the grain. Closing the books on a chapter in your life where you were hurt, and pain is beyond difficult. But that's what we are called to do. The reason we are called to do it, and the reason we can do it although it's hard, although it's difficult, is because the One we follow, the Lord Jesus Christ exemplified forgiveness. It's exemplified in the first thing He says on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." The first thing that Jesus does on the cross is pray for His murderers. Just let that sink in. Put a fresh set of ears and eyes on the biblical text. The first thing He does is pray for His murderers, those who had brutally assaulted Him, those who had callously crucified Him, those who had cruelly mocked Him, and those who were about to rob Him of life itself.
This is the mother of all acts of forgiveness, and we would do well just to spend a little bit of time thinking about the forgiveness of the unforgivable. As we do it, it will kick us on a journey to the center of Christianity. We will marvel afresh at the grace of God, and we will be reminded that the forgiven must be forgiving. So number one, I want you to see that what I call the prophecy. This isn't at the heart of what I want to say, but I don't want to miss it either. Do you notice that this prayer is a prophecy? This unimaginable scene where we find Jesus at His best and man at their worst was first imagined by the prophet Isaiah. Don just read Isaiah 53. And if you were to go back there, you'll see in Isaiah 53:12, many centuries before the event itself, that the evangelical Prophet of the Old Testament Isaiah tells us that the suffering Servant, the coming Messiah is One who will be numbered among the transgressors, and He will what? Pray for the transgressors.
That's exactly what's going on in our text. Luke 23:33, "They brought Him to a piece called Calvary, they crucified Him. One criminal on His right hand, another criminal on His left." He's numbered among the transgressors. He's in the company of criminals, He's dying a criminal's death although innocent of every charge. But it doesn't stop there, the text goes on to say, "And He prays that God would forgive His tormentors, and the transgressors." So what we have got in this prayer is first of all a prophecy. This is one of several Old Testament prophecies that are fulfilled that morning and afternoon. The dividing of His garments at the foot of the cross, Psalm 22. The crucifixion itself, Psalm 22 where we're told they will pierce His hands and pierce His feet. Isaiah 53, "They will wound Him." The mockery is spoken of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. You'll see in the biblical texts later on, that the soldiers will either mock Him or there is a theory that the sour wine that they were to give Him was medicinal. It was the [inaudible 00:05:00], it was an act of mercy.
But Jesus refuses it because He wants to be totally conscious of what He's doing for us before the Father. But that's talked about in Psalm 69:21. What's my point? It's this, in the process of Jesus' death by means of crucifixion, ancient prophecy is coming to life. In the midst of all the lies that were told about the Lord Jesus Christ leading to His death, the truth of God's Word shines brightly. Jesus is not a helpless or hopeless figure caught in the cogs and gears of cold feet. Jesus is not the victim of events beyond God's control. Jesus died exactly as the Scripture said He would. What's the point? It's practical, it's pastoral. We're making it quick, but it's worth noting God keeps His promises. Amen. God keeps His promises. "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." That's a promise, a prophecy, Isaiah 53:12, and it happens. Think about it, think about the time that passed between that statement and its fulfillment. Think about all the events of history that went beneath the proverbial bridge of time before this was fulfilled.
Think about all the obstacles that could have prevented it from happening. But regardless of the distance of time, regardless of the events in between, regardless of the twists and turns within history, God fulfilled His Word. Memo to self, God keeps His promises. 1 Kings 8:56, Solomon looks over Israel's history, and the promise of a temple that would be built, and he says, "Not one good Word of God's promises failed." I dare you to test that statement, not one good Word of His promise has ever failed, and it won't fail you. You may be waiting on a promise to be fulfilled, but it will be fulfilled in God's way and in God's time for the maximum impact to God's kingdom. All the promises of God are yes in the Lord Jesus, that's a verse out of 2 Corinthians 1:20, which is saying this. If you go back to the Old Testament, and all the promises of peace, and a coming kingdom, and hope, and salvation, and redemption, Jesus has fulfilled them and will fulfill them.
All the promises of God are yes, in Jesus. You want to ask the question, "Does God keep His promises?" Jesus shouts, "Yes." And in response you shout, "Amen." All the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus, don't doubt His promises. Cash them in the bank of faith, put them to work in your life. Wasn't it Hudson Taylor, who started the China Inland Mission with this statement, "I've got 25 cents, and the promises of God."? Wasn't it the other missionary, Adoniram Judson who went to Burma, who said that the future is as bright as the promises of God? But we not only got a prophecy, secondly we've got a prayer. The prayer. The first thing that Jesus did on the cross was the last thing the soldiers would have imagined. These guys are battle hardened. This is a rough crew that nail Jesus to the cross, and then set up the bottom of the cross and gambled for His clothes. Implication Jesus hangs naked in shame and public disgrace, which was part for the course when it came to crucifixions.
They had heard victims of crucifixion curse the heavens themselves, they had heard them pour hate on their tormentors and torturers, they had heard them denounce Rome as an evil empire, but they had never heard words like this, "Forgive them." The Romans understood revenge, they didn't understand redemption. Here's another little thought here before we get into the prayer itself. I want you to notice that the grammar here carries the idea that Jesus repeatedly made that statement, which is very interesting, which would seem to infer that the moment He was laid out on the crossbeam, the moment they began to drive the nails into His hands and His feet, He began to say, "Forgive them." And then as they raised that cross, and it fell into its socket bringing a disjointment of Jesus' bones, causing Him to step up on the needles just to be able to breathe, He said, "Forgive them." As the hours unfolded, and the darkness came, and every nerve in His body throbbed with ache and pain, the fever began to rage, He said, "Forgive them."
Throughout that morning, He repeatedly said, "Forgive them." That's amazing. They had brutalized Him, stripped Him naked, crucified Him, mocked Him. But Jesus kept praying this prayer, "Forgive them." Now, here's the thought, beautiful thought, I stole it from Bishop J. C. Ryle, he said this, "As soon as the blood of the great sacrifice began to flow, the great high Priest began to pray." And He began to pray for His enemies of all people. Now, if I had time, I would develop three thoughts. I'm only going to develop one because it's at the heart of what we're talking about. But if I had time, I would developed the three thoughts. One, this is a prayer marked by trustfulness. We don't have time to develop this, but I'll throw a thought your way, Jesus begins the prayer, "Father." Where is He pray that prayer? On a cross in the midst of His wounding and His crucifixion. The cross, the suffering, the darkness hasn't shaken His faith in the Father.
Three times He'll say, "Father." Directly or indirectly, that the beginning like we are looking at, in the middle, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" At the end, "Father, I commend My soul into Your hands." Raises a question, can you say, "Father." When you're being crucified by life circumstances? Can you say, "Father." When your wounds are still open? Maybe you're in counseling right now for some hurt or heartache you're going through, and it's shaken your trust in God. It's raised questions about God's love. You need to go to the cross, and see the One you profess to trust, trust His Father, "Father forgive them." He said it in the darkness, He said it as He was being crucified, He said it while others were hurting Him. It's challenging. Not only marked by trustfulness, it's marked by thoughtlessness. Thoughtlessness on Jesus' part, "Father forgive them." He's praying for others.
In fact, His enemies even testify to that fact, "He saved others, let's wait and see if He can save Himself." I don't know about you, I'll be first to admit when trouble comes, when tears fall, when I'm in the middle of a trial, my first prayer is self preservation, "Lord, I need deliverance. I need Your help, get me out of here." So on, so forth. It's just natural. But Jesus' first prayer wasn't self preservation, it was for others. He interceded for others. As soon as the great sacrifice began to be made, the great High Priest began to pray. That's powerful. Calls us to make intercession for others, to be thoughtless in the midst of our sorrow. That's challenging. Can we pray for our enemies in the midst of our pain? Can we pray that other believers might see our faith, see our steadfastness and be encouraged because of our trial?
Can we pray for others to the degree that even when we're hurting, or maybe facing soft persecution in America, which is definitely growing, but we don't get caught up in the minor scripts and bumps that we face as the church in North America, we pray for the persecuted church across the world who are facing the furnace. The furnace. But here's what I want to come to for a few minutes, not only marked by thoughtlessness and marked by trustfulness, it's a prayer marked by tenderness. Love, grace, kindness towards His enemies. "Father forgive them." Immediately it would be the soldiers who'd crucified Him, but we wouldn't want to draw the circle that tight. One can imagine He's praying for anybody whose hand is stained with His blood. It's a marvel, isn't it? Love and hatred side by side. God's love for the world, and the world's hatred for God. But the world's hatred for God doesn't swallow up, or smother [inaudible 00:14:37] God's love for the world.
Here we're journeying to the very heart of the Christian faith, the pulsating heart of God's love for a lost world, His willingness to substitute His Son as a sacrifice for their sin, and then offer the forgiveness of those sins to those who repent and receive the sacrifice for those sins. That's where we're at here. This is John 3:16 lived out, "For God so loved the world He gave His Son that whosoever believes on Him, believes what Jesus did, and the sin that was placed on Him for them can be saved." Now, there's two questions immediately to be answered here. What, and who? What, and who? What is Jesus praying, and for whom is He praying? Well, the what's pretty easy. He's praying for the forgiveness of those who have committed the unforgivable act of crucifying Him. That's an amazing thing. He's praying for the forgiveness of His enemies from the very cross that will make it possible, the very cross that they put Him on, which was an act of sin in itself. That's why Ephesians 1:7 tells us that we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.
That's what this is all about, Jesus is paying for the sins of the sinner. In fact, the word "Forgive" here is a Greek word that means to release from debt. To erase debt, to pay for debt. I don't know if you acknowledge that tonight, but it's a fact you are in moral arrears to God. Every evil thought, every unholy word, every act that's a contravention of God's law and God's will has you and me in arrears. And the payment is what? The wages of sin is death. But the marvel is that that which is owed to God by us, He has been willing to pay in the suffering of His Son. That's why Jesus prays, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." That's an amazing thing. That's why later on in the afternoon, He will cry, "It is finished." Three words in the English text, one word in the Greek Bible [Foreign word 00:17:03]. It means paid. When Jesus cried from the cross, "[Foreign word 00:17:07]." He was crying, "Paid." Literally paid was one of the last things He shouted from the cross.
What was paid? The debt of our sin. It's a marvelous thought. In fact, I preached on that verse several years ago, and we had friends in the service who were from Greece. Wonderful couple, Anna and George Kefalas. They were tied to the ministry of [inaudible 00:17:33]. They had an offerings they supported in Greece. They're wonderful, sweet couple. And they also supported our radio ministry KTT. We set up to go to lunch with them after the service. We had a wonderful time over lunch, and it comes that moment where you got to fight over the bill. And so I reached for it, and he grabbed it before I did. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. And so he gets to it before I do, but here's the beautiful thing, he turns to me and he says, "[Foreign language 00:18:03]." Paid for. That's coming from a Greek, and he was Greek. "[Foreign language 00:18:09] pastor, I'll pay it." Because an hour earlier I had preached that, an hour later he had practiced it. "I'll pay for it." And that's the word here, "Forgive them, I'll pay for it. I'll pay for their sin."
I want you to notice some by the way, we don't have time to develop it. Don't be thinking from this text that their ignorance wasn't a sin. It was, and it needed paid for. The soldiers may have been the ignorant of them all, they were ignorant to the very existence of their guilt. The chief priests, Judas, Pilate, I think they were ignorant of the enormity of their guilt. But either way, that ignorance, that indifference still needed to be paid for and Jesus was willing to pay for it. It had to be received through repentance and trust. Question, what? Second question, who? Who is Jesus praying for? Well, at first blush, it might seem pretty easy. He's praying for the soldiers, that's who "Them" is. "Father, forgive them." The immediate antecedent is the soldiers crucifying the Savior. They're immediately spoken about again, in that they divided His garments, and they sat at the foot of the cross and gambled for them. Definitely, they were the most ignorant of the group. They didn't have the law, and the prophets like Judas did, like the high priest did.
But it will be a mistake to draw the circle that tight. I think that prayer is left purposefully indistinct because the arms of the cross go west and east, and they throw their arms around the whole world. Jew and Gentile, religious and unreligious, the rough and the refined. Jesus forgives the unforgivable, whether we're speaking about Pilate and it's indifference, cowardice. Whether we're speaking about the high priest, and the leaders of Israel in their deliberate attempt to kill the Son of God. Whether we're speaking about the callous indifference of the soldiers. The name is indistinct. In fact here's what Spurgeon says, it's a good word. He said this, "I love this prayer because of it's indistinctness." He goes on to say, "Now into that pronoun 'Them' I feel that I can crawl. Can you get in there too? Oh, by a humble faith appropriate to the cross of Christ by trusting in it and get into that big little word 'Them'." It's a wonderful image. It's a little word, but it's a big idea. "Them" indistinct. The Jew, you can crawl in. The Gentile, you can crawl in.
The religious, you can crawl in. The unreligious, you can crawl in. Those who have committed the unforgivable, you can crawl in. A big little word, and that's an encouragement. And by the way, by extension, it includes you and me because as Tim Challies said, "Thus it is a word of forgiveness towards the people who demanded this sentence, and a word of forgiveness towards the people who executed this sentence. But by extension, it is a word of forgiveness to you and me, the people who necessitated this sentence." What does he mean by that? He means that our sin brought about the death of the Lord Jesus. Oh Pilate delivered Him up, the Jewish leaders and the chief priests concocted the issues that brought upon His arrest and trial. The soldiers nailed Him to the cross. But as the old spiritual says, "Were are you there when they crucified our Lord?" Of course you were because He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. Isn't that why Mel Gibson has the cameo in the movie The passion?
I didn't know this, but as I read about it later, he appears in the movie without you seeing him. His is the hand that holds the nail as it's driven into the hands of the Son of God portrayed in the movie. When asked why, Mel Gibson relied, "Because it was me who put Him on the cross. It was my sin." That's the prayer. That's the prophecy in couple of minutes. What about the pattern? What do I mean by the pattern? Well, I mean this that, what Jesus practices here in this marvelous act of forgiveness, He had had preached. This is the stuff He preaches, and now He practices it. Back in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount, you read these words in verse 44. Just one verse of several in Matthew's Gospel, but He said this, "You've heard it said, 'Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.' I say to you, love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those that hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you."
He preached that sermon, and then about nine o'clock on Good Friday in the morning, He practiced that sermon as He forgave those who spitefully use Him, and prayed for His enemies. It's a marvelous thing. It's a challenging thing as we wrap up, a life touched by the grace of God is a life that extends grace to others. It must be. It has to be. The gospel preaches that the forgiven will be forgiving. That's Paul's logic, it's gospel logic. In Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, "As you have been forgiven by our Lord Jesus Christ, so forgive one another." You've got the parable of the unjust servant in Matthew 18 when Jesus tells a story about a guy literally who owed about a million dollars, and he's forgiven it. The debt's wiped clean. Then he goes out, and he basically wrings the neck of a friend for 50 bucks. You look at that and you go, "That's crazy.
How can a man take a million dollars freely and enjoy it, and then go and look for his pound of flesh for 50 bucks?" But there's this thing in the tail in the parable, Jesus is kind of saying, "But that's what you do when you don't forgive others." So you come to God and you take forgiveness, which cost Him his Son, which redeems your life from destruction, which lifts the Damocles sword of God's wrath from your head. Now there's no condemnation, no hail, no domination, no light or darkness, no wailing and gnashing of teeth. But you still haven't reconciled to your wife? You still haven't forgiven your husband? You're still estranged from your brother after 10 years? You don't have a reputation in the office for being a very nice person, and everybody knows you to be a Christian? You've got back problems because you're carrying a sack of hurts through life? It can't be. That's the point. Forgiveness is not the pinnacle of spirituality, it's the litmus test of your very Christianity. That's the point of the Lord's Prayer.
Jesus said, "Here's the way I want you to pray. 'Father, forgive us our debts, as we forgive others their debts against us.'" That's not saying that you forgive to be forgiven, that's not grace. We're forgiven by faith alone in Christ alone because of the grace of God alone. But once you've experienced that, once this part of God's [inaudible 00:26:30] that real in your life, the assumption is it will trigger behavior like this, you'll forgive others as God has forgiven you. If you don't, it raises the question why do you know the gospel at all? Because how can you take the million dollar gift of God's forgiveness to you, and hold forgiveness from others? You can't. You can't do that with a straight face, and claim to be a Christian. Neither can I. This is tough stuff. Forgiveness is a beautiful word until you have someone to forgive. 2018 Jen and I were at the 911 Memorial. Everybody needs to go there at least once. It's sad, but it's inspiring. One of the things that struck me it was in a glass case, you'll see it if you go there.
I was just back there last year, and I took another look at this. It was found almost a year after 911 by a firefighter, and it was a piece of the structure of one of the twin towers and fused to the metal girder was a Bible. A little New Testament literally stuck. The heat had welded the two of them together. And can you imagine this? The Bible was open at Matthew 5:38-39 where Jesus said, "You've heard it said, 'An eye for an eye.' But I say to you do not resist the evil person. When someone slaps you on one side of your face, turn your cheek and let them slap you on the other." It's kind of that teaching about forgiving your enemies, praying for those who spitefully use you. I'm telling you man, that was challenging to read that at the 911 Memorial. Because in the context of what went on with our nation, the last thing you think about is forgiveness. That's radical. Now, a government can pursue punishment on behalf of its people. Thankfully, our president George Bush did that.
But from a Christian point of view on a personal level, we're being challenged all the time by the gospel to forgive, to not repay evil with evil but evil with good. It's challenging. You say, "I find that hard to do." And I say, "So do I." But I can't look into the cross on this Good Friday and hear the Lord Jesus pray that first prayer and not be challenged to be more forgiving, more loving. And it must be radical because this is radical love. This is amazing grace. Let's pray. As we come to the table, let's pray that indeed what we have been thinking about would be the background to our continued worship and celebration of this Good Friday as this table reminds us that Christ was wounded for our transgressions. Lord, we thank You for Your Word. Thank You for the challenge we find in it. We're amazed at this statement from the cross, which reminds us of the radical nature of the gospel. That Jesus is offering forgiveness from the very cross that they hung Him on, but the very cross would make the forgiveness possible.
As He died, the just for the unjust. As He took our place, as He was wounded for our transgressions. As the handwriting against us was nailed to the cross, and He cried, "Paid for. Paid for." It's a beautiful thought. Oh, the bless of this glorious thought, "My sin, not in part but the whole was nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, bless the Lord. Bless the Lord, oh my soul. And yet Lord, today we bear the sins people have committed against us. We haven't released them from that. We haven't extended forgiveness, we haven't worked at reconciliation, help us to be challenged. We come to celebrate what You have done on our behalf. We now come to be challenged by what You want to do through us for Your glory. Help us to remember that forgiven people are forgiving people. And so as we come and take of these emblems, may we rejoice, may we give thanks, and may we be challenged to practice what this table preaches. For we pray it in Jesus name, amen.