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 a scene that must have been distressing to Him. The Roman soldiers were gambling 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). Surrounded by this most unworthy lot, Jesus prayed for them. “Father, forgive them” is a prayer of unmatched mercy and love.
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 at Him. 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 to the cross. Jesus asked forgiveness for the angry mob that had mocked Him and called for His crucifixion (Mark 15:29–30).
It is important to note that Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them,” does not mean that everyone was forgiven, unilaterally, without repentance and faith. It does mean that Jesus was willing to forgive them—forgiveness was, in fact, the reason He was on the cross. The words “Father, forgive them” show the merciful heart of God.
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” because He was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy: “He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). From the cross, Jesus interceded for sinners. Today, risen and glorified, Jesus remains the “one mediator between God and mankind” (1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” because He was putting into practice the principle He had taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43–44). Jesus, the persecuted, prayed for His persecutors.
Coupled with the willingness of Jesus to forgive His tormentors is the fact that they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34). The sinners who put Jesus on the cross were ignorant of the true import of their actions. The soldiers 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 (see 1 Corinthians 2:8). The mob didn’t really know whom they were trying to destroy. The Jewish leaders had deceived them into believing that Jesus was a fake and a troublemaker (Acts 3:17). In praying “Father, forgive them,” Jesus revealed His infinite mercy; He still loved them and would forgive them if only they would humble themselves and repent (Matthew 18:14; 2 Peter 3:9).
Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them” was answered in the lives of many people. The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, upon seeing how Jesus died, exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). One of the two thieves crucified with Jesus exercised faith in Christ, who promised him paradise (Luke 23:39–43). A member of the Sanhedrin publicly aligned himself with Jesus (John 19:39). And, a little over a month later, three thousand people in Jerusalem were saved in one day as the church began (Acts 2:41).
On the cross Jesus provided forgiveness for all those who would ever believe in Him (Matthew 20:28). Jesus paid the penalty for the sins that we commit in our ignorance, and even the ones we’ve committed deliberately. When we are born again, we, too, become an answer to Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them.”