If anyone ever had good reason to withhold forgiveness from his enemies, it was the Lord Jesus. He was the only true victim—totally innocent of any wrongdoing. He never broke the law of God. He never sinned in His actions, words, or thoughts. He never yielded to any temptation whatsoever.
Scripture says, “[He] committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). He “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He is “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26).
No one was less worthy of death than He. Even the evil Roman governor Pontius Pilate testified repeatedly, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4; cf. Mark 15:14; John 19:4, 6).
And yet Pilate, conspiring with other evil men, using false and trumped-up charges, condemned Christ to death and killed Him in the most brutal manner imaginable. Throngs of people were whipped into a frenzy of hatred, demanding His death unjustly (Mark 15:11–14).
Through it all, Christ was led as a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). Submitting to the indignity and injustice, He surrendered His life without resistance, without threat, and without retaliation. Forgiveness filled His heart, not condemnation or revenge. He had said, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:56).
You might think it was easy for Christ to be so forgiving. After all, He knew it was in God’s plan for Him to die. He had a mission to fulfill, and it involved His death. He understood all that from the beginning. Surely God does not expect us to suffer such wrongs so easily?
The manner of Christ’s dying is explicitly set forth as an example for every Christian to follow:
Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
At the height of His agony, at the very moment when most victims of crucifixion might scream out in fury with a curse, Christ prayed for forgiveness for His tormentors: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
J. C. Ryle wrote:
These words were probably spoken while our Lord was being nailed to the cross, or as soon as the cross was reared up on end. It is worthy of remark that as soon as the blood of the Great Sacrifice began to flow, the Great High Priest began to intercede.  J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke Volume 2 (New York: Robert Carter, 1879) 467.
Do you see the glory of that? Although Christ is the sovereign, eternal, omnipotent God, He did not threaten, He did not condemn, He did not pronounce doom on His crucifiers. Instead of lashing out against them, He prayed for them.
The whole point of the Incarnation was forgiveness. It was the very thing Jesus was dying for. It was what He was praying for. And it is what He exemplified in His death. Again, He gave us an example we are solemnly charged to follow.
Inevitably someone will ask whom Christ was praying for. Was it the Jews who had conspired to sentence Him to death? The Roman soldiers who actually nailed Him to the cross, then gambled for His clothing? The mocking crowd who taunted Him?
The answer must be all of the above, and more. In one sense the scope of that prayer surely extends beyond the people who were there that day, to every person who has ever trusted Christ and so received His forgiveness. After all, our sins put Him there. We are every bit as culpable as the men who actually drove those nails through His sinless hands and feet.
But that does not mean that “Father, forgive them” was a prayer for immediate, unconditional, indiscriminate forgiveness of everyone who participated in Christ’s crucifixion. Rather, it was a plea on behalf of those who would repent and trust Him as their Lord and Savior. Jesus was praying that when they came to grips with the enormity of what they had done and sought God’s forgiveness for it, He would not hold it against them. Forgiveness does not belong to those who stubbornly persist in unbroken unbelief and sin and rebellion. Those who carried their steely hatred of Him to the grave were not absolved from their crime by this prayer.
Nonetheless, forgiveness is offered freely to all (Revelation 22:17). God is as eager to forgive as the prodigal’s father was. He pleads for every sinner to turn to Him in humble repentance (Ezekiel 18:3–32; Acts 17:30). Those who do, He promises to receive with open arms and unrestrained forgiveness. But those who remain in infidelity and defiance will never know God’s forgiveness.
Why did He pray, “Father, forgive them,” when in the past He had simply forgiven sinners Himself (cf. Luke 7:48)? After all, hadn’t He already shown that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6)?
Yes, but now as our sin-bearer, He was taking our place, dying in our stead, having surrendered every divine prerogative, including His own life, on our behalf. He hung there before God as a representative of sinful humanity. And so He appealed to the Father to forgive the transgressors. He was at that moment identifying Himself with the very ones whose irrational hatred of Him had brought Him all these sorrows. Such is the wonder of divine mercy!
Jesus’ words, “For they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) obviously do not mean that those who killed Him were wholly ignorant of the awful reality of their crime. The Jewish leaders knew that they had falsely accused Him (Matthew 26:59). Pilate knew that Jesus was an innocent man (Luke 23:4). Anyone even slightly aware of what was going on would have seen that a great injustice was being done (Mark 14:56).
Yet our Lord in His great mercy prayed for their forgiveness. Spiritually, they were blind, utterly insensitive to the awful reality of what they had done. It was not as if they consciously and deliberately were trying to snuff out the Light of the world. Their own minds were utterly blind to that true Light, and therefore they could not have understood the full enormity of their crime. “If they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8).
In a sense every pardoned sinner who ever lived is an answer to Christ’s prayer. Since our guilt put Him on the cross in the first place, we bear responsibility for His death just as surely as those who actually drove the nails through His hands and feet. And the forgiveness He extended on the cross to those who put Him to death is the same forgiveness He extends to sinners today. We who have experienced such forgiveness have a solemn duty to extend a similar mercy to others as well (Ephesians 4:32).
What a high standard He set for us! His refusal to retaliate, His silent acceptance of others’ wrongs against Him, His prayer of forgiveness, His eagerness to forgive—all set an example we are expected to follow.
How quickly our flesh recoils from following that example! When we suffer wrongfully, it becomes very easy to rationalize a counterattack and painfully difficult to follow our Lord’s steps. But like Him, we must keep entrusting ourselves to the One who “judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).
Can we look at this scene on the cross and understand the depth of His passion, then justify our own unwillingness to forgive our neighbor? Should we not show mercy even as we have received mercy (cf. Matthew 18:21–35)? As those who have been forgiven much, we owe much, both to our Lord and to our fellow servants (cf. Luke 7:47). May the Lord grant us grace to follow in His steps of mercy!