I want you to try to imagine what it might have been like in the city of Jerusalem on a fateful spring Friday. Picture yourself being brought under the spell and excitement of that hour. There were three prisoners about to be executed for their crimes. Two were revolutionaries convicted of plotting to overthrow the Roman government. The other was a young prophet who was viewed as a threat in his own right. The crowd on hand for all of this, with a love of the gruesome, just wanted a show.
On the way to the cross that day, Jesus had endured untold agony. He had experienced the mental anguish of an illegal trial on spurious charges. He had endured the mockery of a crown of thorns thrust rudely down into his scalp. He had been scourged, beaten with the Roman flagellum, a whip consisting of several leather thongs tipped with bone and metal. This procedure caused unbearable pain, ripping the flesh from the bone, and sometimes created a state of shock due to blood loss; many people did not even survive a scourging.
But Jesus survived and went to the cross, the most humiliating and excruciating method of capital punishment known in the ancient world. Can you visualize the tearing of the flesh as they drove the nails through his wrists and the spike through His feet? The agony as his mutilated back rubbed against the wooden cross every time he heaved himself up to struggle for breath?
Had we endured what Jesus endured that day, would the first words we uttered from the cross have been a prayer? Luke records that he did just that: Father forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). In the most desperate hour of his life, Jesus prayed. That should not be surprising, because prayer was his habit, his lifestyle. Of course Jesus would pray now.
There are many who refuse to pray when everything is going well who suddenly become devout when a storm is brewing in life. Truthfully, we are all a bit like that sometimes. In our need and despair we cry “Lord, help me!”
But that was not the nature of Jesus’ prayer from the cross. He did not pray for deliverance. He did not pray that his friends and loved ones would be comforted. No – at that desperate time, in the midst of unthinkable suffering, Jesus prayed for his enemies! He put into practice what he had preached on a hillside in Galilee, what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who had wronged him.
One of the great roadblocks to the power of the church is the lack of forgiveness among the people of God. We hold grudges. We nurse old hurts. We have malice in our hearts. Jesus taught and lived the opposite of that way of life.
In asking for forgiveness for them, Jesus was asking the best for his murderers. Forgiveness means far more than release from a penalty. An executive may pardon and refuse to exercise punishment. But God does not merely withhold a penalty – his forgiveness reconciles us to him. Forgiveness is a restoral of fellowship. When God pardons us, He treats us as if we had never sinned. He forgets our ugly past. He walks with failures as if they had never failed.
Why is it that we – you and I – find forgiveness so hard? No one has treated us the way Jesus was treated. We have not been beaten, spit upon, or crowned with thorns. We have not been wronged in the way that He was wronged.
We need to emulate Jesus in forgiveness, just as we should in everything else. We need to remember his words in Matthew 7:12, Whatever you wish other do to you, do also to them. We all need forgiveness. If we would be forgiven, we must follow his example and forgive others. If Jesus, hanging on the cross, could pray, Father forgive them, they know not what they do, we should be able to forgive those who have wronged us too.