How to Forgive Like Jesus

And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (Luke 23:26-34)

To fully grasp the significance of Jesus’ words in verse 34, we need to fully understand what had happened to him leading up to that moment. It started when he was betrayed by one of his closest friends and arrested. He then spent a sleepless night being shuttled back and forth between Jewish leaders, Pontius Pilate, and King Herod, while they lobbied accusations of blasphemy and treason at him before finally hearing the same voices that lauded his arrival less than a week earlier turn on him and shout, “Crucify him!” and call for the release of a convicted insurrectionist instead. He was brutally scourged with whips designed to tear away flesh and muscle from the bone, while his torturers mocked his very identity as King. He then had to carry his own cross through the city, only the sleepless night followed by the scourging left him too weak to do so, and Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to do it for him. Upon arriving at Calvary, nails were driven through his wrists and feet, two of the most sensitive nerve centers in the body, a crown of thorns was pushed down on his head as yet another symbol of contempt and mockery, and he was hung naked, probably not much higher than eye-level so that people could insult him to his face and spit at him. And all the while, his mother was watching this being done to her son.

It was at this moment that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whoa. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even fathom those words passing my lips at that moment. Those words should shock you to your core and make you pause. No one is capable of forgiving something like that, right?

It seems almost petty to compare his situation to our own. Hopefully none of us will ever have to know what it’s like to forgive to the extent that Jesus does here, but I do think his example nevertheless shows us how we can forgive those who cause us pain.

1. We are to forgive out of an assurance of God’s sovereignty. Prior to his betrayal, Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane,

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:42-44).

It is significant that in the hours leading up to his passion, Jesus was in prayer, aligning his will with the will of the Father. After sweating blood in the garden, Jesus is remarkably composed and under control the rest of the time leading up to his death. The reason is that in his prayer he was assured that this was God’s will for him and that God was in control of everything and was comforted in that fact by God’s messenger. Jesus was able to forgive because he knew that what he was experiencing was nothing more than God’s will for his life. He knew the cross was coming, but he also knew that Easter was coming. He knew that in the end, God would bring him through the betrayal, and pain, and even death, to raise him up again.

When we struggle to forgive, it is often because we don’t understand how the other person could have hurt us so badly. We get so wrapped up in our own world that we miss the bigger picture. If you have have been hurt, you can rest assured that this was God’s will for your life, that he is in control, and that he will bring you through it all and raise you up again.

2. Our forgiveness is to be motivated by love. Did you notice that while Jesus is suffering to the point of not being able to carry his own cross, he tells the mourning women that he doesn’t want their sympathy? At a moment of tremendous torment, Jesus is still concerned about the nation of Israel, and he uses this opportunity to warn them again of the coming tribulation. Even while they were executing him, Jesus never stopped loving his people. In fact, Scripture tells us that Jesus submitting to the cross was the very embodiment of his love for us:

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son… (John 3:16)

Jesus was able to forgive his executioners because he loved them. He was not forgiving out of obligation or obedience. He was forgiving out of love, a love (agape) that was active and sacrificial. Our failure to forgive someone who offended us or hurt us is ultimately a failure to love that person more than we love ourselves. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

3. We are to forgive even if the other person doesn’t seek forgiveness. The first half of verse 34, where Jesus forgives his murderers, is amazing, but it’s even more amazing in light of the second half: “And they cast lots to divide his garments.” In a moment when Jesus is displaying supernatural love and forgiveness for them, his executioners were busy trying to figure out who would get to keep his clothes. While Jesus was concerned only with them, they were showing no concern for him. Jesus’ forgiveness was not dependent upon them asking for it or their desire for reconciliation. Like his love, it was dependent only on him being willing to offer it. When we are hurt, we need to be willing to work toward forgiveness, even if the other person shows no desire to be forgiven. Like Jesus, we need to be the ones who extend forgiveness and the offer of reconciliation, even when the other person appears to be plotting what more they can take from us.

Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:

1. When I am faced with forgiving someone else, do I remember that Jesus forgave me even though my sins nailed him to the cross?

2. When I have been hurt by someone else, do I remember God’s sovereignty and prayerfully consider how this fits into his will for my life before I attempt to forgive that person?

3. How is my ability (or inability) to forgive a reflection of how I love my neighbor?

4. Is there anybody I need to forgive even though they haven’t asked to be forgiven?

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