What did Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross accomplish for those who crucified Him; and were those who crucified Him truly ignorant of what they were doing?
Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
In earlier Biblegems (#37 and #40) we explored the effect forgiveness has when offered by a believer in the authority of Jesus’ name. In that case, if you were to sin against me and I forgave you, your sin against me would be cancelled out (Matt. 18:18-20). If your sin against me was an offense against others as well, you would still be accountable to God for that. I cannot forgive your sin against others.
Here, Jesus Himself is asking the Father to forgive those who are sinning against Him. Who are the guilty parties? Jesus is referring specifically to the soldiers who are following orders given by Pontius Pilate. It is the soldiers in verse 26 who led Jesus away from Pilate. It was the soldiers in verse 32 who led Jesus and the other criminals from Jerusalem to the hill called Golgotha. It was the soldiers who carried out the crucifixion itself in verse 33, and the same soldiers Jesus interceded for in verse 34.
Jesus sought their forgiveness because they were ignorant of the magnitude of their actions. They certainly knew the crime Jesus was accused of: claiming the role of king. But, unlike the Jewish leaders who trumped up the charges against Jesus, these Romans had no understanding of the revelation in the Bible of the coming messiah, the savior of the world. These unfortunate soldiers were executioners, likely performing their grisly task hundreds of times. This would seem no different. In fact, even though Luke’s Gospel alone records this saying of Jesus from the cross, both Matthew and Mark relate how the commander of those soldiers responded after Jesus died amidst an earthquake, and thunder and lightning under a leaden sky: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mk. 15:39; cf. Matt. 27:54).
So what did Jesus’ act of forgiveness actually accomplish for these soldiers?
Jesus’ own teaching tells it all. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
Whatever else these soldiers might have to account for on Judgment Day, crucifying the Son of God would not show up on the list. For—
…as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Ps. 103:12).
This beautiful act of grace also demonstrates the power of the cross and the shed blood of Jesus to cancel out sin. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).