How parents cherish the when, where, and what of a child's first words. Jesus has 7 Last Words from the cross. Actually, they are 7 last sentences, but they're styled as singular: the First Word, the Second Word and so on. This Good Friday we're back to the First Word: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34). Every single word of these first words is important.
Jesus didn't stutter. In a tense situation, one person says to another, "What did you say?" when he doesn't like what the other said. That guy replies: "I didn't stutter." Jesus didn't stutter, but He did repeat Himself. The imperfect is correctly translated: "Jesus was saying, Father forgive them." He didn't say this one and done. He said this all throughout the process Scripture passes so briefly over. All 4 Gospels simply say, "They crucified Him". So while Jesus is thrown to the ground, He's saying, "Father forgive them." When His arms are stretched out, the nails pressed, and pounded into Him, Jesus goes on saying, "Father forgive them." When He's lifted into the air so that the full weight of His body and your sins pulls Him hellward, Jesus is saying, "Father forgive them."
Over all the ways you sin against your God and Savior, crucifying anew the Lord Jesus and putting Him to open shame, Jesus is saying, "Father forgive him; Father forgive her." And how can we bear that? Adrastus killed his brother by accident. King Croesus cleansed him of that deed. Later on at boar hunt where the king pledged Adrastus to protect his son, Adrastus throwing his spear at the boar accidently kills the son. He stands before the king and says, "'My former trouble was bad enough. But now that I have ruined the man who cleansed me of my guilt, I cannot bear to live'" (Herodotus, I, 45, 18). He in effect prayed', "Father punish me."
Jesus' first words and repeated often and even now are, "Father forgive them." Jesus didn't stutter and He didn't ask, suggest, or indicate what He wanted to happen. He commanded. "Father, you must forgive them." "You must decisively, definitively forgive them," says the Crucified Christ. Contrary to how the pagan Greek's saw forgiveness as a cleansing like a chemical agent, Scripture sees forgiveness as sending away, a separating of you from your sins by a Word of God. And it's not a process but a definitive act. And it's a superhuman not a human act. Even if we can forgive and forget a wrong, we "don't want the other person to forget that we forgave" (Ball, Ivern, National Enquirer). God on the other hand forgives sins without any reproach (Chemnitz, Examination II, 609).
How is it that a son can command a father? It never worked that way in the house I grew up in or raised, so what gives? Jesus says, " The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in His hands" (Jn. 3:35). Again Jesus says, "All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father" (Mt. 11:27). In the upper room, not even 24 hours before this we read, "Jesus knew that the Father had delivered all things into His hands" (Jn. 13:3). And Jesus prays then, "Father, You gave Me authority over all mankind" (Jn. 17:2). So the Man Jesus is authorized to command the Father to send our sins away from us.
More than that, He paid for that right. More aptly put, He paid for the sins that He now commands the Father to forgive. If you don't get this, one of two things is going on, or maybe both. Either, in the words of the hymn, "You think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great." Then as Augustine says, "he who thinks he lives without sin puts aside not sin, but pardon" (City of God, xiv, 9, 270). Or, you don't understand what it means to pay for something. You know those knick-knack stores that have signs saying, "You drop it; you've bought it"? Well, Jesus bought the sins of the world, so He has a right to drop them wherever, and Scripture shows Him dropping them behind His back (Is. 38:17) and hurling them into the depths of the sea (Mi. 7:19). These pictures aren't for nothing; they're pictures of the reality of what happens when Jesus says, "Father forgive them."
The troublesome part of Jesus' first words is "for they know not what they do." You think Jesus is playing some sort of Sgt. Schultz schtick saying, "They know nothing." This is not the Greek word for recognizing or acknowledging something. This is the Greek word that indicate knowing something by revelation. It's a perfect. Jesus in effect says, "They could never know what they are doing apart from divine revelation." And Jesus is emphatic that they don't know. The word for don't' is in the emphatic position and it's the strong word for it. They don't know the full weight, the real import, the entire reality of what they are doing. It's the sort of knowledge that flooded me when I first became a parent. Only then did I really know what my parents went through to have me, to raise me. Only then did I know their love, their sacrifices, their pains.
Only revelation from God Himself could reveal who Jesus is and what He is here to do. Only revelation could reveal that the Father sent His only beloved Son into the womb of a virgin to take on flesh and blood with all the duties, debts, and deaths they owe. Paul affirms this saying, "Had they known they would never have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor. 2:8). Paul says that when he was arresting and putting to death Christians, persecuting the Christ Himself, he was acting ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13). That's hard to believe, isn't it? What's important is not that you believe it in Paul's case or your own, but that you know God in Christ does for He says so.
When Shakespeare's Prospero is finally given the chance to punish those who had removed him from his rightful throne he refuses saying, "Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that's gone" (Tempest, V,1, 205). God in flesh and blood, in the midst of damning crucifixion and hellish eternal pain is doing what we can't. He is forgetting. He is saying, "They can't possibly know what they're doing." He is forgetting the name calling, the ridicule, the blaspheme, the blows, the thorns, the nails, the whipping, spitting, bleeding, and sighing they put Him through for sinners like you.
Don't you forget that the last word in Jesus' First Word from the cross is "they do." That's one Greek word. Jesus didn't say what a "few do", "some do", but "they do." And that they' be you. This must be true because if the they' doesn't include you and all the you's' in the world, just where will you cut it off? At the leaders of the OT church? Are they the only ones who didn't know what they were doing? How about the pagan Roman soldiers? It makes sense that they didn't know what they were doing. The Romans crucified plenty of people. The soldiers here were probably a particular detail assigned to crucifying whomever they were ordered to. Jesus had no halo about His head. The angels didn't sing as they threw Him down, pounded in the nails, and hefted Him to heaven. So, "they know not what they do" must refer to the soldier who threw Him down, the ones who stretched out His limbs, the one who held the nails and the one pounding them, but what about those back at the barracks who slapped, whipped, beat, and jammed the crown of thorns on to Jesus' head?
Do you see where I'm going with this? This "they" is limitless. This is the limitless, empowering, fructifying absolution that changes everything. It changes murdering Paul to missionary Paul. It's after Stephen looks to heaven and sees the risen Jesus on the Father's right, which is the proof positive that the Father accepted the full payment for sin the Son made on the cross, that he says, no can say, "Lord don't hold this sin against them." Luther calls this first word from the cross "a voice that stills God's wrath and still upholds the world to this very day" (LW, 58, 143). If this word doesn't include you, then every pain, every sickness, every tragedy, every accident, disaster, slip and fall is God's wrath breaking out against you, is God making you pay down your debt of sin, and that will never end since your debt is eternal.
This word of absolution spoken from the depths of pain, shame, loss, and grief endured for us and our salvation runs through us like a breath of fresh air. It's like waking from a dream where you have done something shameful, criminal, horrible, and have been caught, to find it was only a dream. A wave of relief washes over you because it was only a dream. This is no dream. This is real. Jesus is really sending your sins away from you; He's really taking them off of you. You should feel relief like you do when dropping a heavy backpack. You should feel clean like you do when showering after a dirty job. You should feel joy like you do at the birth of a child for it's your rebirth.
But be warned if neither relief, clean, nor joy comes from hearing Jesus first words. Charlot, King Charlemagne's son, was guilty of murder. Charlemagne surrenders him. Charlot is on his knees before Ogier the man he's wronged with a huge sword over him. Charlemagne, who expected to see his son's head rolling at his feet, shut his eyes. But Charlot's bonds are cut, and he is raised to his feet. Charlemagne said, "'I feel at this moment that Ogier is greater than I.' As for Charlot, his base soul felt nothing but the joy of having escaped death; he remained such as he had been" (Bulfinch's Mythology, Crown Pub, 1979, p860-3). Even if at this moment you're more Charlot than Charlemagne, even if at this late date you really don't know what you have done and consequently all that you have been forgiven of; when by God's grace you do, you will find it all already sent away, forgiven, wiped clean. You will be like the traveler in a fairy land where pardons were "granted with such bursting floods of love" that he "was almost glad" he sinned" (Phantastes, 127).
Think that's over the top, don't you? How come? Because while we will sing of "Love so amazing, so divine", Hollywood, writers, and songwriters can't depict that. Human forgiveness sure, but not divine. Forgiveness that Paul says extends to the ungodly, to the still sinful. Divine forgiveness doesn't just send sins away it renews, recreates, regenerates. So while the choir is going to end with "Woe unto us, that we have sinned." The Christ Candle will be removed still burning with the promise that Christ died and lives saying, "Father, forgive them." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20190419); Luke 23:34