Whenever we reflect on Jesus’s death on the cross, one of the most shocking and challenging verses is Jesus’s prayer in Luke 23:34:
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
It’s one thing to pray for our enemies when those enemies are distant, don’t present any immediate danger to our loved ones, or perhaps only mildly annoy us. But the setting of Jesus’s prayer makes this verse even more shocking and challenging. Jesus said this right after being betrayed, arrested, denied by his closest friends and disciples, mocked, beaten, falsely accused, unjustly tried, nailed to a cross, crowned with thorns, and left to slowly suffocate on the cross. What’s more, Jesus had the power to call more than twelve legions of angels to save himself and destroy his enemies (Mt. 26:53), so it’s not as if Jesus didn’t have other options. And yet, it was at this moment that Jesus assumes the ignorance of those who were crucifying him, and prays for their forgiveness on that basis.
This prayer, prayed on behalf of Jesus’s enemies (and for us, for it was our sin that put him there – Romans 5:6-10), is powerful. It is life changing. This is the kind of radical forgiveness that allows us to leave our sin in the past and move ahead without having to carry our guilt with us. This is the kind of undeserved forgiveness that can transform us into completely new kind of people. But it also presents us with a tremendous challenge because we, as disciples of Jesus, are expected to forgive our enemies in the same way that Jesus forgave his enemies.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is continually held up as an example that we are to follow. For a few examples, consider the following scriptures.
A new commandment I give to you, that you are to love one another: Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.John 13:34-35
Observe that we are not simply commanded to love one another. We are commanded to love one another as Jesus loved.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.Ephesians 5:1-2
Observe that we are not simply commanded to imitate God. We are specifically commanded to imitate God by loving as Christ loved – a love that was demonstrated by his self-sacrifice for us.
But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believed in him for eternal life.1 Timothy 1:16
Observe that Paul did not simply benefit from Christ’s mercy and patience. Paul recognized that Jesus’s mercy and patience were an example for those of us who believe in Him. If Jesus’ mercy and patience is an example, that means that we are expected to imitate Him.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.1 Peter 2:20-24
Of course we should strive to follow Jesus’s example in all things. But observe that in this text, Peter specifically calls us to follow in the steps of Jesus as he patiently suffered and died on the cross at the hands of his enemies. We are to die to sin especially in those moments when we would be the most tempted to retaliate against our enemies.
We are commanded to have the same self-sacrificial mindset that we see in Jesus himself.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus.Philippians 2:4-5
Or as Paul simply puts in in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “We have the mind of Christ.”
This means that the attitude that Jesus had toward his enemies is the attitude we are expected to have toward our enemies and toward one another. Even when we are witnessing the worst possible behavior, we are to follow the example of Christ. Even when we are the ones who are left to suffer the pain caused by the behavior of others, we are to follow the example of Christ. Even when we are wrongfully accused, publicly slandered, or betrayed, we are to follow the example of Christ. Even when we find ourselves with the opportunity to make our enemies justly suffer for their actions, we are to follow the example of Christ. We are to assume “they know not what they do” and pray for their forgiveness on that basis.
Of course, someone might reasonably ask, “Is there ever a line that could be crossed that would be such an extreme evil that we are no longer expected to follow Jesus’s example?” This is a good question, but as we wrestle with this question we also consider if there could even be an example of evil that is more extreme than what Jesus experienced at the cross? It should be noted that the first Christian martyr, Stephen, followed the example of Jesus’ prayer almost verbatim (Acts 7:60).
Following Jesus’s example runs contrary to what seems to come most naturally. Of course we should also be praying for friends and neighbors who suffer as a result of violence. Of course we should pray for justice to be executed in response to evil. Such prayers are natural responses to evil, and they aren’t wrong provided we leave vengeance in God’s hands (see Romans 12:18-21). But if we do not pray for the forgiveness and deliverance of our enemies, we will fail to reflect the attitude that God had towards us when we were his enemies.
For while we were still weak at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – But God shows his love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:6-8
As our society continues to grow more and more polarized, as opposing groups continually hurl their hatred and insults towards one another, and as people continually assume the worst possible motives from one another, let’s hold ourselves to a different standard: the standard set by the example of Christ. Whenever we find ourselves horrified by acts of war and violence, let’s respond by imitating the mindset that Christ had towards his enemies.
Jesus’s prayer for his enemies (and for us) should encourage His church to cultivate this same attitude. Even when others seem to be filled with wickedness, their sin is the same as those who crucified Jesus. Jesus prayed for them. Jesus died for them. Jesus loved them. Let us follow the example of Jesus and pray “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”