of Jesus
I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise
and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will

Forgiveness from the Cross?

Jesus, from the cross, asked the Father to "Forgive them for they know not what they do." My question is, "What exactly does it mean that Jesus asked the Father to forgive these people?"

as he implying that God would forgive them by this request?

Doesn't forgiveness by God require us to ask for forgiveness ourselves and to forgive others who have sinned against us?


These are very appropriate questions because they open the door to a consideration of the true meaning of both forgiveness and the crucifixion.  Let us look briefly at the last two of these three queries that ask only for a negative or affirmative answer, then go to your primary question.

Doesn't forgiveness by God require us to ask for forgiveness ourselves and to forgive others who have sinned against us?

Yes.  The discussion below will clarify this simple response.
Was he implying that God would forgive them by this request?

No.  It is tempting to think otherwise because it was Jesus that prayed for them, but this is not the lesson of this important utterance. 

Now to your primary question:

What exactly does it mean that Jesus asked the Father to forgive these people?

Here is the utterance in context;

[33] And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.
[34] And Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they cast lots to divide his garments.
[35] And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!"
[36] The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar,
[37] and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"
[38] There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews.

In his last moments as a mortal human being, Jesus was still fulfilling his mission to the world through giving testimony to Truth by his example.  He had thoroughly expressed all Truth with his Word; on the cross he was exemplifying it in the flesh, that it might be secured and made known to all flesh in the coming ages.  The key word here is mercy.  We will discuss that first, then proceed to forgiveness.  Ponder this Beatitude and this command:

I. Mercy
[7] Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
[36] Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
This is of the essence of salvation, set in these few words.  Our Lord entered into a world where, as today, most people thought that God in heaven has mercy only on those who offer up a sacrifice in payment for the debt incurred by their misdeeds.  They then, as today, knew God as first retributive, punitive, vengeful and one who must render evil for evil.  Consequently they did not know God at all, who is perfect Mercy.

The view of a vengeful deity was and is so powerful a force that it is not possible for words, even the words of Jesus, to make a permanent breach and banish the darkness.  Only the everlasting image of tortured flesh crying out to the Father to forgive those who tortured Him could breach the barriers of ignorance and bring Truth and Freedom to the world. So it was that Jesus left the company of mortals in one final blaze of eternal Light -- the supreme manifestation of the mercy of God.

He had repeatedly expressed the Truth, which is that mercy is the ground of salvation, in the most forceful words. He recalled words of the Father first issued through his prophet, Hosea:
[13] Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'
The Father has mercy on those who have mercy.  Thereby, and only thereby, is there salvation.  So it was that Jesus, on the cross and subjected to the most horrifying brutality, was displaying perfect mercy to exemplify its essence and make known to all humans what God requires of the woman or man who seeks His mercy.  Therefore this universal offense of Christians, that they have taken His supreme exemplification of mercy (from the cross) and preached it as a sacrifice, is the maximum offense.  When humans are thus convinced of the sacrifice, they are blind to the mercy!  Being blind to the mercy of God, they make the work of Jesus of no effect. Yet he is of such perfect mercy as to be capable of forgiving even that, if there is repentance.

II. The Two Degrees of Mercy

Forgiveness enters here because it is the greater expression of mercy.  Mercy comes in two flavors, which we here name the Greater and the Lesser. One gives to the poor, or helps the fallen (The Good Samaritan), or euthanizes the suffering animal.  That is surely mercy, but it is mercy in the lesser degree because there is no personal offense to be forgiven.  But when one sees such mercy as Jesus exemplified on the cross, one sees mercy operating in its maximum degree because it is prevailing over the brutality and hatred of merciless enemies even while they are imposing horrible pain unto death.  By this ultimate example Jesus revealed, once and forever, the greater mercy that the Father desires.

Mercy is a common thread throughout the Logos (utterances of Jesus). The Father has mercy on those who have mercy.  The Father withholds mercy from those who withhold mercy.  The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant is precise and to the point:
[21] Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
22] Jesus said to him, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
23] Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
24] When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents;
25] and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26] So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'
27] And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
28] But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.'
29] So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.'
30] He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.
31] When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
32] Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me;
33] and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'
34] And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.
35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
This is a prime teaching for the comprehension of salvation from sin.  The Father is merciful to the merciful, forgiving to the forgiving.  Mercy is bound to forgiveness because it is the essence of forgiveness.  All sin is a personal offense to the Father, therefore the forgiveness of sin is the application of mercy in the greater degree.  So it was that Jesus, in agony yet praying to the Father to forgive the agonizers, demonstrated the maximum mercy, securing his own salvation and the salvation of all who imitate his greater mercy.

III. Forgiveness is Reciprocal

We should understand now why they were not forgiven.  They were not confessing sin, were not asking for forgiveness, and were not forgiving those who offended them. Your reluctance to believe that they were forgiven is well founded because without and apart from repentance and confession, forgiveness is impossible.  Jesus established repentance as a prerequisite for forgiveness with these words:
[3] Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him;
4] and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,' you must forgive him.
[46] and said to them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead
[47] and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
We see, do we not, that repentance always preceeds forgiveness.

IV. The Meaning of Forgiveness

Pure logic requires that the offended extend mercy, and that the offender repent.  I seek a pungent way to express this in our day, and at the present this is the best I can do: forgiveness is such only when accepted.  It is not merely coincidental that the last four letters of forgive is give.  The definition and etymology of forgiveness are:
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English forgifan, from for- + gifan to give
Date: before 12th century
transitive senses
1 a : to give up resentment of or claim to requital for <forgive an insult> b : to grant relief from payment of <forgive a debt>
2 : to cease to feel resentment against (an offender) : PARDON
So, can a gift unaccepted be a gift?  That is the cardinal consideration in speaking of the forgiveness of the unrepentant.

The Father did not forgive those who crucified Jesus and rejoiced at his death.  Certainly not; the evidence is the final destruction of their state, city, and temple precisely as Jesus foretold, even as he grieved for them.
41] And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it,
42] saying, Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes.
43] For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side,
44] and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation.

V. A Universal Principle

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, presented above, is a parable about servants.  This is very important to acknowledge because it means that these things concerning mercy and forgiveness are applicable both to the Father's children and to His servants.  Some might think that only the Father's children qualify for His forgiveness, but all qualify on the same grounds, stated as follows:

[7] Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

One does not often expect this greater forgiveness from servants, but it is possible and when a servant so qualifies, that servant receives the forgiveness of God.  For a discussion of this distinction, see my papers on salvation, of which this is the first: The Salvation of the Innocents.  Our Lord does not command those who are servants to manifest the mercy of the God, for as just stated, one does not expect this from servants.  He surely expects it from the Father's children, for it is to them that he says:


[36] Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Conclusion: The Attitude of Forgiveness

The plea of Jesus from the cross, for the forgiveness of his tormentors, displays the attitude of forgiveness that mercy produces, and is the attitude that is the absolute prerequisite for anyone who would be forgiven.  So from mercy springs forgiveness, both of the offender and the merciful one who forgives him. 

Does it not follow that, had even Jesus not possessed this attitude of mercy -- the greater mercy -- he would have offended the Father and would not himself have been forgiven?  Do you see the irony?  So we see that his prayer for their forgiveness did not grant them forgiveness; nevertheless it demonstrated mercy without which he would have himself sinned as his last act, a sin without forgiveness!  So our Lord is consistent to perfection!
That's it as I have learned it.

Return to Q&A    . Email    . Return to home page