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Praying for the Person Who Causes You Pain

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From the Series: 7 Words from the Cross
April 10, 2011

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.  (Luke 23:34)

With every year that passes, I become more deeply convinced that the greatest privilege, and the highest calling I have as a pastor is to communicate from the Bible, as clearly and compellingly as I can, the love of God poured out for you in Jesus Christ our Lord.  If the preaching of God’s Word were to bring you to feel and to know that God loves you, a great deal of good would be accomplished in your life.  That is my prayer for this series.

I’ve called the series “The Full Extent of His Love.”  That phrase is taken from John 13, where the disciples gather with Jesus for the Last Supper.  John says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1).  What follows in John’s gospel is the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.

That was a beautiful demonstration of the love of Christ, his humility in taking the place of a servant.  But John has more in mind than Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet when he speaks about the full extent of Christ’s love.  The Last Supper leads to Gethsemane, to the arrest and trial of Jesus and then to the cross.  In all of this, Christ shows us the full extent of his love.

Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon with this title, “There Never Was Any Love That Could Be Paralleled with the Dying Love of Christ.”  That’s true.  “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Here’s the problem—there are many people who believe that Jesus died and rose, but they do not feel that God loves them.  Maybe you can identify with that.  You know about the cross.  You know that Jesus suffered and died there.  But it is not obvious to you that this is love, and it is not clear to you how this is love for you in particular.  I want you to see the love of Christ in the cross, and feel that this love is for you.

I want you to get to the place where you can look at the cross and say, “No one has ever loved me like this.  No one will ever love me like this, but this is how Christ loves me, and in the cross I see the full extent of his love.”

Our Lord spoke seven times during the three hours he was hanging on the cross and each time he spoke, he revealed more of the extent of his love.

Bring out the nails

We begin today in Luke 23. Christ has been arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate. He has been condemned by Jew and Gentile. He has been rejected by the educated elite and by the common people in the crowd who called for him to be crucified. Politicians, theologians and ordinary people were, for once, absolutely united… in their rejection of the Son of God.

Christ has been scourged, and mocked, and beaten with a stick. A crown of thorns has been pressed down on his head, and now the soldiers set about their grisly work of nailing him to the cross.

We need to see ourselves here because you and I are involved. All of us are involved. The nailing is what always happens whenever our will clashes with the will of God. If we are to free to live as we choose, we have to nail the sovereign Lord to the cross—there is no alternative. If we want to live any way we want, we have to replace God with a god that we can shape to our own liking.

Ronald Wallace says,

Their work with hammer and nails speaks more eloquently about human sin than any other act in the whole crucifixion drama. As they nail Jesus, they are declaring in the name of all mankind that the only place this earth has for its Lord is on a cross. They are declaring in the name of all of us, ‘We want an impotent, tied up puppet god and not the free, sovereign living God.[1]

The theologians, the politicians and the common people all wanted the same thing, “The power is with us. We want to be in charge. We cannot have God telling us what to do. So, bring out the nails—the Sovereign Lord must go on the cross.”

For Pilate, it was a matter of expediency, “What do I gain from siding with Christ and what could I lose?” He looks to the crowd and takes an opinion poll. The results are quite clear, “We will not have this man to rule over us.” The theologians all agreed, in fact, it was the theologians who got it all started.

The phone rang while I was preparing this message on Friday. It was a call from a friend who is a pastor in England. He told me about a mission that had taken place in his church and how a number of students had been converted to faith in Christ.

“But here’s the thing,” He said, “The person who led the mission recently got involved in a moral failure. And since that happened he has completely changed his theology.” My friend said, “It’s so sad, and it is so predictable.”

If a person chooses the pathway of sin, and will not repent of it, they have to crucify the sovereign Lord, and replace Him with an imaginary Jesus who will affirm whatever they are doing. So, we need to see ourselves here in this nailing.

The soldiers take their hammers and the long metal spikes, and they nail the Son of God to a beam of wood. They lift him up on a pole, and then drop the pole into a hole in the ground. Then Jesus speaks for the first time from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

They Do Not Know What They Are Doing

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

The men who nailed Jesus to the cross, didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.

They didn’t have a bad conscience. They didn’t feel that they needed to ask God for forgiveness. They were in the middle of committing the most terrible sin in the history of the human race and Jesus said that they did not know what they were doing.

That tells us something of huge importance—you cannot know what sin is from your own feelings about right and wrong. If you trust your own intuition, you will miss even big sins and you won’t even know it.

We need God to tell us what sin is and he does that through his Word. That’s why we need to live under the Scriptures. We need the Scriptures to tell us what is wrong, not for us to say what we feel is wrong with them. Paul said, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Romans 7:7).

What were they doing?

a.      Shutting themselves out of a glorious heaven

Spurgeon paints a compelling picture,

I see a pearly gate, and beyond it is a world of light and joy.

A man is standing outside, with a hammer and nails.

He is nailing bars across the gate to shut himself out.[2]

Wouldn’t you say, “This man is mad?” Sin shuts people out of heaven. If you could see the joy you’re spurning, you would not sin. Here are men with a few short years left, and then they’ll enter eternity. They’re face-to-face with the Son of God who owns heaven.

A thief was crucified with Jesus, and he seized his opportunity and reached out to Jesus,

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But not the soldiers, they are nailing the Savior to the cross. They were spurning grace. Even as some of you may be doing right now. But they did not know what they were doing.

b.      Preparing for themselves an eternal hell

Sin brings sorrow in this life and judgment in the life to come. If you knew the sorrow and the judgment that a single sin would bring in the light of eternity, you would not do it. Spurgeon says that hell is,

…drinking a cup of gall every drop of which is distilled from your own sin.[3]

God always acts in perfect justice. God’s justice means that nobody will be judged for a sin they did not commit. The judgment for each sin will be in proportion to the weight that the sin has, not in your eyes, but in the eyes of God.

This leads me to the conclusion that a person in hell would give anything to have committed just one less sin. What kind of hell is prepared by nailing the flesh of the Son of God? No wonder Jesus said, “They do not know what they are doing.”

c.      Crucifying the Son of God

When the soldiers were nailing Jesus to the cross, they did not know who he was. If they had known that they were nailing the flesh of God incarnate, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). Spurgeon says…

Every time a man sins, he aims a blow at the crown of God.[4]

You may not ever stand up and say, “I defy God,” but every time you curse or lie or swear or break God’s law in any way—that’s what you do. We don’t understand sin until we grasp that when we sin, we sin against him. Sin is much more serious than breaking a moral code. It’s an offence, an affront, an insult against God. That’s what makes it so serious.

When you sin, you do not know what you are doing

I know there’s such a thing as sinning knowingly and willfully, and there’s such a thing as sinning against the light. But whether a sin is intentional or unintentional, whether it was committed on the spur of the moment or whether it was premeditated and planned, if you really knew what that sin would cost and what it would bring, you would never do it.

Every sin is an act of folly, and if you knew the full extent of the folly, you would not commit the sin. Think of some sin to which you may be tempted this week. If at the moment when you are tempted, you could see the full horror of the hell that this sin brings, and the full glory of the heaven that sin shuns, and if you could see how this sin spits in the face of God, you would not fall into that sin.

So, use this as a defense against sin and against temptation. Say to yourself, “This sin that Satan is tempting me with is a sin that shuts people out of heaven and prepares an eternal hell. This is a sin that crucified Christ! Wake up to what you are doing!

Thank God that Jesus does not just look down on them, and on us, and say, “They do not know what they are doing!”

Father, Forgive Them

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

We’ve seen what they were doing, now let’s look at what Christ was doing…

a. Christ loved them, even while they were sinning against him

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), and that’s what he’s doing here. Christ is praying for his enemies while they’re inflicting excruciating pain on him! The people who are pouring out cruelty on him are the very ones who are on his heart. He prays for them while they’re crucifying him!

Christ has compassion on them because he does know what they are doing! Christ knows the eternal hell that sin brings, the heaven that sin spurns and he knows who sin defies. He knows the full weight of the sin they are committing, and he has compassion.

Christians should be the most compassionate people in the world. If you know the hell sin brings, the heaven it spurns, and the God it defies, you will have compassion for sinners. Is there someone you need to forgive? Knowing what sin is and what it brings will help you to grow in compassion.

b. Christ prayed for them, even when they had no interest in praying for themselves

I wonder, had anyone ever prayed a single prayer for these men? It is possible that not a single prayer had been said for any of these roman soldiers at any time in their lives. But Christ prayed for them. Christ prays for you, when nobody else will.

They needed this prayer because, when you break the speed limit saying, “I didn’t see the sign,” is no excuse. Ignorance of the law is no defense against breaking it. He doesn’t say, “Father, forget it, they do not know what they are doing.” When Christ says, “Father, forgive them…” he makes it clear that they must be forgiven, even though they do not know what they are doing.

Christ prays for their forgiveness before they have any interest in being forgiven. They feel no need of it. They are not repentant; they have no faith. They are on a path to hell and they are so dead in their sins that they do not even know what they are doing. But Christ prays for them! Christ prays for us long before we pray to him. His love is not a response to your turning.

c. Christ asked the Father to forgive them

Christ could have prayed with perfect justice, “Father destroy them,” but he does not do that. He prays, “Father forgive them.”

You may hate God today, but God does not hate you. Christ prays for the worst of sinners and, for that reason, God is ready to forgive you. Clarence Cranford says,

By this prayer from the cross, Jesus was building a bridge of forgiveness over which His tormentors could come in penitence to the Father.[5]

  1. W. Krummacher says,

With these words… He takes these [sinners] in the arms of His compassion and bears them up the steps of His Father’s throne in order to commend them to His mercy.[6]

How is this possible? You may be thinking, “How can God forgive the worst sins, and embrace the worst sinners? Pastor, you don’t know what I’ve done or the things that I’ve thought.”

That takes us to the heart of this amazing prayer. When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” he was isolating himself under the judgment of God. Human sin reached its full horror and its most awful expression at Calvary as we crucified God’s Son. If there was ever a moment in human history when God’s judgment had to fall, this was it. But at that moment, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

Christ knew that judgment would come, but he cries out to the Father, “Don’t let it fall on them, let it fall on me, and on me alone. Let me be the lightning rod for your judgment on their sin. Allow me to be the sacrifice that will be consumed on this altar of the cross, but don’t let your judgment fall on them.”

The eyes of angels must have been fixed on the throne of God waiting for justice to be done. Now the judgment of God would be poured out on this human race. But then Jesus cries out, “Not on them—on me. Let me be isolated under the judgment of God.”

This is the heart of the gospel. Jesus stands under the judgment of God for sins that have been committed against him. Christ asks the Father to divert the punishment away from his enemies, and he absorbs it in himself. That is how forgiveness is released.

God’s judgment for human sin is poured out on the cross, where Jesus bears it. That’s how he builds the bridge across which you can come and receive the forgiveness of God, even today. I love the broad way in which Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.” Who is the “them?” Is it just the disciples? No. Is it the soldiers? No. The word “them” is large enough for you to crawl inside.[7]

Your Sin and His Love

Are you awake to the extent of your own sin?

Are you beginning to see not only that you are a sinner, but that your sin is far greater than you had ever imagined? Prostitutes and tax collectors came to Jesus, while the Pharisees stood back. Why was that? They saw the extent of their own sin, and they came to know the extent of Christ’s love.

Don’t go through life thinking you’re a good person! You will never learn the love of Christ that way. Those who are forgiven much love much (Luke 7:47). When you see how much you need to be forgiven, you will begin to know how much you are loved.

Christian, when you see the brightness and holiness of heaven, you will say, “I never knew I was so far from being righteous. How in the world am I here?” There will only be one answer—you are there through the righteousness and the forgiveness of Christ made yours by the shedding of his blood.

When you know the full extent of your own sin, then you can know the full extent of Christ’s love. But don’t wait till heaven for that. Ask God to show you more of your own sin, so that you may discover more of his love.

Make a habit of identifying and confessing your sins. Ask a friend to help you. Examine yourself. Use the prayer of Psalm 139:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139: 23-24)

If you think your sins are few, if you struggle to name a single sin that is yours, then you will never have great thoughts about the love of Christ. But when you see that your sins are many, and that Christ forgives you, you will begin to discover the extent of his love. Do you see that?

Are you enjoying the love of Christ who forgives?

Forgiveness is a gift of Christ’s love. It is not a legal process.

On Tuesday of this week, I flew back from Scotland. As I returned to the country, I went through passport control. I admire the way these folks do their job at the airport. I have always found them courteous, kind and efficient. But they’re there to do a job—protect a border. They’re there to uphold the law and they do not have any personal interest in me.

You are a person who believes that Jesus died and rose, that he forgives sins and opens heaven, but you do not feel that he loves you. It may be that you’re thinking of God like the people on passport control. He’s sitting there with a heavenly stamp, letting the right people in, keeping the wrong people out. He’s protecting the border, upholding the law.

If that’s how you think of God, you won’t feel that he loves you. I’ve been welcomed by these good folks on passport control, but I’ve never felt loved by them. God has no rubber stamps. He loves you as a person. The Son of God prays for you. He embraces in you in his love and he did this before you were ever born.

He lifts you up the steps to the throne of Almighty God, and asks that you should be forgiven. He goes to a cross where he suffers and dies for you, so that the prayer will be answered.

He set his love on you before you gave him a single thought. His love streams out to you today. And his great desire is to share his life with you, until you share your life with him. Are you beginning to see the full extent of his love?

© Colin S. Smith

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Please include this statement on every copy distributed:

By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org

[1] Ronald L. Wallace, Words of Triumph, John Knox Press, 1964, 12.

2 C. H. Spurgeon sermon, Unknown Depths and Heights, Nov. 28th, 1907.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Erwin Lutzer, Cries From the Cross, Moody Press, 2003, 47.

[6] F. W. Krummacher, The Suffering Savior, Banner of Truth, 2004, 353.

[7] C. H. Spurgeon sermon Christ’s Plea for Ignorant Sinners, July 3rd, 1892.



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