Father Forgive Them. Who’s “Them”?
Before noon on Thursday morning of Passion Week Jesus had been sentenced to death, first by the Sanhedrin of the Jews on charges trumped up by Annas and Caiaphas who had interrogated Him during the night to determine what they could use to have Him put to death, and then by Pilate, who in spite of his own understanding that Jesus was not guilty, surrendered Him to the will of the Jews out of political expedience. Now at Golgotha, after refusing a potion of gall mixed with wine to ease His sufferings, He was stripped of His clothes which became the booty of the quaternion of soldiers charged with overseeing His death. We might wonder what it might have been like to walk in the shoes Jesus Himself had worn, or to gird up our loins with the belt He wore, or to comfort and warm ourselves with the actual cloak of the Savior of the world, or to protect our head and face from the harshness of the world with His turban. And we might especially wonder at the good fortune of one of those soldiers whose lot gained for him Jesus’ most valuable worldly possession: His seamless tunic, not unlike that worn by the High Priest, that covered the nakedness of One whose garment was never polluted by sin. And yet we needn’t wonder, for all who are baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ (Gal 3:27), having put on the garments of salvation and girded themselves with truth, shod themselves with the preparation of the gospel of peace, wrapped themselves in a robe of righteousness, and put on the helmet of salvation; Isa 61:10, Eph 6:14-17.
What does Luke say that Jesus prayed as the soldiers were crucifying Him? See Luk 23:34? To whom does the immediate context indicate Jesus was asking the Father to forgive? Since the soldiers were just carrying out their orders so they arguably had no moral culpability for Jesus’ death, why would they still be in need of forgiveness for their part in His crucifixion? See 1Sa 24:6,10, 26:9,11,23, 2Sa 1:14,16, 19:21, 1Ch 13:9-10. Are we to understand from Jesus’ words that granting forgiveness is necessarily conditional upon another asking for it (which is not likely to have been the case with the soldiers), or are there times when it needs to be unconditional, especially in such cases of ignorance, so that forgiveness is extended even when there is no expressed remorse or repentance by the offender? Considering the deceitfulness of sin, would any of us ever be completely forgiven if it was left for us to discern, confess, and repent of every sin before God would forgive it? Cf. Rom 3:25. What implications does this have for our personal relationships with others, where many of the wrongs we experience are not perceived as such by them? If we are unwilling to unconditionally forgive others their sins done against us in their ignorance, should we expect God to forgive us for ours done in ignorance against Him? See Mat 6:14-15, Luk 17:3-4, Eph 4:2. Who else prayed a similar prayer in a similar circumstance? See Act 7:60. Who do we know was acting ignorantly at that time, for whom we can all be especially grateful for Stephen’s prayer for forgiveness that perhaps planted the seed of true salvation? See Act 7:58, 1Ti 1:12-16; cf. Joh 12:24.
Besides the soldiers, are we to understand that Jesus words can also be extended to apply to Pilate who had ordered His execution in spite of his own understanding that Jesus was not guilty? Or to the Jewish religious leaders who from envy had drummed up false charges to have Him put to death and delivered Him up to Pilate? How about to the Jews who were incited by their religious leaders to demand Pilate release to them Barabbas and crucify Jesus? Or to those who had called down a curse upon themselves and their children accepting responsibility for Jesus’ death when Pilate said he was innocent of His blood? Note: This is a primary text used by Universalists to argue that all men will be saved because in some sense all sin is a matter of not knowing what we are doing. And yet, although there is a certain ignorance in all sin, and the moral degree of ignorance isn’t always clear to us, does that negate man’s ability to sin willfully or defiantly, or even to be willfully ignorant, which renders him all the more morally culpable? Cf. Num 15:30, Mar 3:29, Act 23:1, 2Ti 1:3, Heb 10:26, 2Pe 3:5 KJV.
Is Luke 23:34 Genuine or Spurious?
Entwined with the potential interpretive difficulties of this passage is an additional textual difficulty that makes this passage perhaps the most problematic in all of Scripture. It is completely absent from some of the very earliest manuscripts, so on the basis of the manuscript evidence the editors of the Greek text identify it as almost certainly not a part of the original text. In their estimation, it is hard to imagine if it was original how it came to be excised from such important early copies. Perhaps the best argument by those who believe it is genuine for why it was omitted is because of the interpretive issues, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem, which could be understood to mean that Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness—understood as extending to the Jews—was not heard by the Father. But that seems weak in light of the simple solution that Jesus was praying primarily for the soldiers who acted ignorantly without moral culpability.
On the other hand though, the statement is still present in other old manuscripts, and is supported as genuine by many quotes from the early church fathers. Also, some of those who do not believe it was actually a part of Luke’s gospel still believe it was a true saying of Jesus. There is also evidence that early scribes struggled with the issue and concluded it was genuine. In the estimation of those who believe it to be original, it is hard to imagine if it wasn’t how it came to be included in many other early texts. Those who believe it is not genuine argue that it may have been a true saying of Jesus that made its way into Luke’s text perhaps as an early harmonization of the gospels, or was motivated by Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7 so as to not make Jesus appear less forgiving than he, or that it was later included to bring the total number of Jesus’ sayings from the cross to seven, the number of perfection. However, again, these all seem weak compared to the much simpler solution that it was simply a part of Luke’s original gospel. So it is as difficult to account for its insertion if not genuine as it is to account for its omission if it is genuine. For additional details and strong arguments both in favor of its inclusion and its omission, see here, here, and here.
Another possibility that strikes me as both simple and plausible is that Luke, as a historian, could easily have known about the tradition and possibly omitted it from his account because he couldn’t substantiate it. However, because Paul perhaps refers to Luke in 2Co 8:18 as “the brother whose fame in the things of the gospel has spread through all the churches” (see here for more information), it is possible that after penning the gospel bearing his name that Luke made other copies for distribution to the churches, from which his fame came. In the course of making those copies, it is not inconceivable that various edits were made, just as authors may do today as new information becomes available that may update their work. Hence, it is possible that later copies from Luke’s own hand included the statement after he became convinced of its authenticity.
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- What is the relationship between Jesus’ sacrifice and our redemption, forgiveness and receiving an inheritance per the terms of the covenant / will that was effected by His death?
- From what, and to what, are we saved? Is it Jesus’ death alone that saves us? What part does His resurrection have in our salvation?
- Does the justice of God demand the satisfaction of blood before He will forgive, similar to what pagans throughout history have believed?
- What was the purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices?
- Does blood alone atone for sin?
- How does Christ’s death render powerless the devil?
- To whom was Christ’s life given as a ransom? From what are we ransomed?
- Why did Jesus not only die, but suffer and die? If all that was necessary was His shed blood, why didn’t God sovereignly ordain a more merciful death for His own dear Son?
- What is the relationship between a will or testament, and a covenant? What was willed to Jesus as an inheritance from His Father, and what was willed to us through the new testament in His blood?