Question: "Why did Jesus say 'Father, forgive them' on the cross?"
Answer: Jesus’ words “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” are found in Luke 23:34. Jesus looked down from the cross upon the scene that was most distressing to Him. The Roman soldiers were casting lots for His clothing (John 19:23–24); the criminals on the crosses to either side of Him were reviling Him (Matthew 27:44); the religious leaders were mocking Him (Matthew 27:41–43); and the crowd was blaspheming Him (Matthew 27:39). Jesus looked down upon this most unworthy lot and said, “Father, forgive them.” How could this be?
Even in His agony, Jesus’ concern was for the forgiveness of those who counted themselves among His enemies. He asked the Father to forgive the thieves on the cross who jeered and made fun of Him, one of whom went on to accept His love and mercy (Luke 23:32-33, 39–43). He asked the Father to forgive the Roman soldiers who had mocked Him, spit on Him, beat Him, yanked out His beard, whipped Him, put a crown of thorns on His head, and nailed Him cruelly to the cross. Still they personally held no ill will toward Him. They were simply following orders. This was how they normally treated condemned men, and they believed that He truly deserved it. They didn’t know that they were killing the Son of God (1 Corinthians 2:8).
Jesus asked forgiveness for the angry mob that had mocked Him, jeered Him, and called for His crucifixion (Mark 15:29–30). Again, they didn’t really know who they were trying to destroy. The Sadducees and the Pharisees had deceived them into believing that Jesus was a fake and a troublemaker (Acts 3:17). Jesus was forgiving the Sadducees and the Pharisees who had demanded His death. They had rejected Him as their Messiah even though they knew just who and what He was. Jesus, in His infinite mercy, still loved them and would have forgiven them had they only humbled themselves and repented (Matthew 18:14; 2 Peter 3:9).
Most importantly, on the cross Jesus was providing forgiveness for all those who would ever believe in Him (Matthew 20:28). The cross didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans didn’t kill Jesus. The Sadducees and Pharisees didn’t kill Jesus. Jesus willingly gave up His earthly life for the sins of His own (Ephesians 2:8–9). He paid the penalty for the sins that we commit in our ignorance (and even the ones we’ve committed deliberately). In forgiving us, Jesus fulfilled yet another Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 53:12f). He also made a reality of His own preaching. He had said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44); now He was proving it.
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, continued Jesus’ example (Acts 7:60). If they could forgive those who persecuted them, then surely we can forgive those who make themselves our enemies. The beauty of the Bible is that it reveals God’s forgiveness, available to us through Christ and exemplified in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross (John 3:16–17). When we come to Christ in faith and repentance as a result of His drawing us to Himself (John 6:44), He says of us, “Father, forgive them,” and He does!