Father Forgive Them – They Know Not What They Do

Father Forgive Them – They Know Not What They Do December 13, 2023

What do you understand of Jesus’ plea to the Father, during his crucifixion? Was it a serious request for compassion or perhaps just a passing emotion? Was it a plea to an angry Father to suspend his wrath? Was Jehovah about to launch spears of lightning from the Heavens, piercing the villains who dared to crucify his son? The faith of my upbringing emphasised a clear distinction between the Father and Son, the former being the ultimate judge, while Jesus protects us from the wrath we deserve. When reading this verse as a young man, I naturally assumed Jesus’ intent was to persuade his angry Father to suspend the judgement he was desperate to doll out.


The perception I had was that the period between Jesus’ time on earth and his ultimate return is something of an anomaly in the grand scheme of humankind’s relationship with God. Prior to Jesus’ coming, God’s character was supposedly expressed through the harshness of Hebrew Law, the keeping of which involved killing people for minor breaches, such as picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Old Testament expression of God was sold to me as his true nature, but when Jesus came, we entered into a period of grace, when all God’s vengeful, nit-picking ways were temporarily suspended. This era of grace, however, is ultimately an illusion, according to the faith of my childhood, which will dissipate like a fart in the wind on Judgement Day. Jehovah will emerge, furious and righteously angry, condemning billions of people to eternal torment without a flicker of regret.


According to this notion of a temporary era of grace, even Jesus is going to be a different guy come Judgement Day. Instead of communing with the Man of Sorrows, we will fall on our faces before a terrifying Christ, who will measure us against a standard and dismiss any who fail to reach it. I remember a conversation with a chap at university, in which he made the following statement:


‘Christians get too comfortable with the soft face of Jesus. That’s all well and good for now, but when he returns, he’ll wear a different face entirely.’


At the time I thought it was a good point and was quick to agree, but after many years of growth, can comfortably dismiss such thinking as nonsense. If true, it would undermine the very purpose of the Gospel, the inclusivity of grace, and the fundamental nature of God, which is merciful.


Jesus and the Father are one


Between Jesus and the Father, there is only perfect unity. There are no thoughts the Son had during his ministry that the Father disagreed with or saw from a harsher perspective; no actions the Son took that the Father was not 100% on board with. Don’t take it from me; take it from Jesus! John 14:8-11,


Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.”


Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.


Purging our image of God


One of the crucial aspects of Jesus’ mission was to clarify the confusion of Old Testament theology. For example, Jesus’ disciples would have known and believed that Elijah called fire down to consume God’s enemies. It was recorded in their scriptures and seen as a great victory, so when a Samaritan village rejected Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, it was only natural they thought to do the same. Luke 9:51-55,


Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”


But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.


Please be clear – Jesus was not suggesting that his disciples didn’t know which dispensation of grace they lived under. He wasn’t saying that their desire to dispense judgement would have been fine under the Old Covenant, but now things are different. He was telling them that their rush to judgement is against the divine nature, period. This should be a clarion call for all believers – under the Old Covenant, even the prophets’ understanding of God was confused, tied up with vengeance and fear. In rebuking his disciples, Jesus was purging the poison from the image of God.


Over the course of the past 30 years, my image of God has shifted towards what I see in Jesus and away from the vengeful and legalistic deity often found in Old Testament passages. I imagine this is a familiar process for many believers, but it can be helpful to acknowledge the importance of the journey we’re on and where it’s taking us. Some are calling this way of understanding scripture (and the divine nature) a Christological approach, which I think is a helpful term. In essence, Christology states that Old Testament documents can only be understood in the context of the coming Christ, rather than taken on their own merits. Through his words and deeds, Jesus refined and corrected Old Testament concepts of God, purging the image of the Father for his followers.


Sadly, this much-needed clarity is yet to penetrate vast swathes of the Church, leaving believers in terrible confusion about who God is and what he will and won’t do in their lives. Many don’t know if God wants to judge or liberate, punish or praise. They are yet to understand that Jesus is the true and complete image of God, crystallised for all his followers to see.


Father forgive them – they know not what they do


At the pivotal moment of Jesus’ ministry on Earth, when he became all that is broken and harmful in the world in order to reconcile humanity to God, his instinct was to forgive. Despite the anguish of becoming ‘sin’ – something you and I will never be able to comprehend the depths of – and the terrible pain of physical torture, his heart remained soft. In the face of his own creation mocking and despising him, his response was compassion. When the criminal hanging next to him saw him as Lord, Jesus’ immediate choice was to show mercy.


If we are to take Jesus’ words seriously, we must believe that, in those moments, he and the Father were one, just as they had been throughout his ministry. When Jesus prayed for a blanket of mercy across the entire mob, he echoed the heart cry of our compassionate Father, who needed no persuading. Forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and reconciliation are the very heart of who God is, and the same will be true on Judgement Day. To all those who see the life and character of Jesus as an expression of a temporary era of grace, while the Father’s wrath is suspended, and to those who expect fire and brimstone to characterise the Final Judgement, I say this:


“You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”






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