Forgiveness was at the heart of everything Jesus was, said or did. It still is. He taught it, lived it and died with words of forgiveness on His lips. It defines His ministry. Without His forgiveness there would be no salvation.
Not surprisingly, He expects us to forgive others, too. It is not an “optional extra” or something about which we can be selective. In what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus told us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Then He added something else: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (v. 14, 15). Why should we expect to be forgiven by God, if we refuse to forgive others?
If ever we feel like being selective in our forgiving of others, it is worth remembering that immediately after the soldiers had nailed Jesus’ hands to the Cross, His first words were of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). His concern was not about the wrong that had been inflicted upon Him, or even about the pain He was experiencing. It was that those who had done wrong should be forgiven—and know they were forgiven.
Jesus spoke to the Father on behalf of humankind just as He was offering His life on behalf of humankind. While experiencing the worst evil could throw at Him, the people could hear Jesus interceding on behalf of those who not only worked against Him, but who also wanted Him destroyed.
In this prayer, Jesus made it clear that those who had crucified him didn’t actually know the significance of what they were doing—”they do not know what they do.” The chief priests and rulers knew they had planned and manipulated His death, but in their eagerness to be rid of Him they were blindly unaware of the full implications of what was taking place. Would Caiaphas, the high priest, have dared to demand of Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63), had he realized to whom he was talking?
The soldiers didn’t know they were crucifying the Son of God, though one of them came to that realization later (Matthew 27:54). The disciples, especially Peter, had found it difficult to understand that the Christ would suffer and die. Herod couldn’t see beyond his own importance and amusement. Pilate came closest to seeing something “other” in Jesus, yet gave in to political expediency. The bystanders hurled abuse at Jesus, jeered and mocked Him (Luke 23:35), but had no idea of the significance of what they were saying – “He saved others…”
None of them truly knew what they were doing, and perhaps the same can be said of us with every misplaced sense of our own importance, lack of depth in our understanding of God and inappropriate comments. Yet each of us—if we allow moments of honest reflection—knows enough already to acknowledge that we stand in need of divine forgiveness.
We can be grateful that Jesus made His prayer audible. In one sense, a silent prayer would have been just as effective, but it was important that it was heard. When those involved would later begin to realize the implications of what they had done, they could have been plagued with guilt beyond description—but Jesus had already made provision for them to know they were forgiven. He has done the same for us. The public stating of His prayer was for our benefit – as was everything He said.
Not everyone wants to forgive. Forgiveness is not always readily or willingly given. Sometimes it is not even offered or considered. Vindictiveness takes over and vengeance rears its ugly head—and even those who bear the name of Jesus may find ways of justifying their attitudes and actions. The history of the past 2,000 years provides the evidence. But Jesus demands that we must forgive or forfeit our own forgiveness.
The subject intrigued Jesus’ listeners on more than one occasion. Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother—seven, perhaps? Jesus’ reply is recorded in Matthew 18:22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” The actual number is insignificant. The lesson is clear. We are meant always to forgive—and we shouldn’t feel proud when we do it. It is what anyone forgiven by Christ should do naturally, because we are all “unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10).
Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17 emphasizes, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him’” (v. 3, 4). The disciples’ response was simply to say “Increase our faith!” They knew that it is not always easy to forgive, and to keep on doing it demands more than our natural emotional resources, or sense of justice, will allow. They knew they needed additional help—divine grace. It is available to us.
Perhaps some of us find receiving God’s grace equally as difficult. That may be because to receive grace requires humility. It means admitting our inadequacies, our faults, our sins. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus “humbled Himself” and was “obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). God Almighty knew humility—even humiliation at Calvary—for us. And it was there that He prayed for our forgiveness. Whenever our pride gets in the way of accepting His forgiveness, Jesus’ complete surrender of self reminds us of our place—at His feet.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thank God.
By Commissioner Robert Street