“And there were also two others, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they came unto the place which is called The skull, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand and the other on the left. And Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And parting his garments among them, they cast lots.” Luke 23:33-34.
For whom and for what was Jesus praying? Who is the antecedent of “them.” Does it establish that ignorance is an excusable offense, that God would forgive “them” just because they were ignorant of the meaning of their actions? I was told by a couple in the congregation, that was my first full time local work, "We are obligated to forgive this brother regardless of whether he has repented or not." This same thought was stated by a preacher in his weekly bulletin, "The thought occurs to me that there are no circumstances in which we are not to forgive one another." These comments are based on the prayer of Jesus on the cross. None of this is true, as we shall see.
Jesus and Forgiveness
Jesus had authority to forgive sins while on earth, as He, Himself, said in Matthew 9:2-6—"the Son of Man hath authority on earth to forgive sins." He told the thief who was crucified with him, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” But, that was only after the man indicated his belief and repent-ance. Note—
“And, one of the male-factors that were hanged railed on him, saying, Art not thou the Christ? save thyself and us. But the other ans-wered, and rebuking him said, Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom. And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43.
Many have tried to use this verse to say baptism is not essential because the thief was not baptized. They fail to understand that the Law of Moses was still in effect. The New Testament was not in force until after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, specifically, the day of Pentecost, Acts 2. All of the Jews were, up until Pentecost, in the family of God according to Old Testament standards.
There are other place where Jesus forgave individuals. However, consider that the forgiveness of these sins was not without conditions—"Go and sin no more." No one is forgiven unless those conditions are met.
If we took the prayer of Jesus in Luke 23:33-34 with just a quick reading, we might conclude that Jesus was asking the Father to unconditionally forgive all of those who were crucifying Him, as we saw above. And, since the Father always granted Jesus whatever He asked, then the unconditional forgiveness was a certainty!
At the time of the Law of Moses, there had to be a self-knowledge of one’s sins and a repentance—
“Take heed to your-selves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” Luke 17:3f.
“And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are in health have no need of a physician; but they that are sick. I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repent-ance.” Luke 5:31-32.
“I say unto you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine right-eous persons, who need no re-pentance.” Luke 15:7.
John the Baptist told the Jews to “bring forth fruit worthy of repent-ance." So, we must understand that any forgiveness Jesus was asking for required repentance on the part of the sinners.
We must also understand that some people are of such hardness of heart that they would very difficult to change. Jesus said that some were of that hardened nature, Matthew 12:31-32. These Jews who were present at the moment of the miracles showed an extreme hardness of heart. They could see with their eyes the miracles performed but still attributed them to the power of the Devil. That kind of attitude is manifest in many ways and as long as a person has that attitude, there can be no forgiveness. John puts it another way—
“If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request. All un-righteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.” I John 5:16-17
A sin unto death (spiritual death) is a person who sins and will not repent. We cannot ask God to give that person life because God will not do that. It would not be according to God’s will, verses 14-15.
The Antecedent of "Them"
It is true that the Father always "heard" the requests of Jesus and granted them. Jesus said it was so— “I knew that thou hearest me always,” John 11:42. Even others knew this about Jesus, as we see what Martha said in John 11:22. However, Jesus was not asking in His prayer for God to forgive those ungodly, hardhearted Jewish rulers who had instigated His crucifixion and continued to rail on Him through it all. They were unrepentant.
Neither were the Roman soldiers who cast lots on His vestments the ante-cedent of the “them” Jesus referred to. Mark 15:39 tells us of the Centurion who said “surely he was the Son of God.” This is misleading, as translated. There is no definite article in the Greek phrase before “son” or "God." Even footnotes in some translations acknowledge this. It should be understood as "a son of a god." This was a pagan belief in view of many gods and not the truth of Jesus being the Son of God in fact. In an alternate translation, Luke 23:47, a parallel to the passage in Mark, gives us an inspired meaning of the phrase, “Certainly, this was a righteous man.” But, that was not a confession that Jesus was “I Am,” God in the flesh. See below.
The prayer of Jesus was referring to all those who would wake up during the crucifixion and repent. That required the right belief, first of all. John 8, tells us that Jesus was in the temple. He attracted a large number of people, including scribes and Pharisees. They attempted to embarrass Jesus. It did not work and from that point on in the text, Jesus addresses them particularly. In verse 24, He said “except ye believe that I Am, ye shall die in your sins.” That meant they first had to believe in His deity, that He was God in the flesh. Verse 28, adds— “When ye have lifted up the son of man, then shall ye know that I Am."
WHEN they had crucified Him, THEN they would know the fact of His being I Am. For many of the Jews to whom Jesus said that, there was no acknowledgement of His deity on their part at that time. But, something about His crucifixion would convince them, and it did. A large crowd of Jews came to see the crucifixion. They acted differently before the crucifixion than they did after it was over. Note this reaction—
“And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts.” Luke 23:48.
“Beating the breasts” was an outward sign of great sorrow and regret. (See also Nahum 2:7). The statement referred to “all the multitudes” that had come there, the great majority of the assemblage. There was in this a direct fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen in John 8:28. There must have been in that great crowd of Jews those scribes and Pharisees he targeted with His statement in John 8:28. After all, He said when “ye” have lifted me up THEN would THEY KNOW.
Here we find the antecedent of the “them” that Jesus voiced in His prayer. Before the crucifixion, they were either indifferent or consenting and even encouraging crucifixion. But, from what they saw and heard, they were convinced that He truly was I Am and, in regret and repentance, left "beating their breasts." At the time Jesus said the prayer, it was the beginning part of the crucifixion. By the time it was over, hours later, they had changed their minds.
But, it had no effect on the wicked Jewish rulers as we can see by some of the things they did following His death and burial, Matthew 27:62ff.