Chapter 12: Forgive Them

In This Chapter

A Quick Dip
Diving Deeper
For Whom Does Jesus Pray?
Personal Confessions
Father, Forgive Them
“They Do Not Know”
An Invitation


And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; surely they do not know what they are doing.”
–Luke 23:34

For reference:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.”
–Luke 6: 27–28

A Quick Dip1

Forgive: In early Greek, this word meant to send off, to release, or to let go. Many different release images later developed from this early meaning. We will focus upon three of these: a banking image, a legal image, and a physical image. First, the banking image. Financially, to forgive means to cancel, remit, or pardon a debt or loan that is owed. Imagine burning a mortgage note before the debt has been paid. The legal image is similar. To forgive someone in a court of law means releasing a convicted prisoner from his or her deserved penalty. The chains are removed, the prison door is unlocked, and the inmate walks free. The final image is quite literal. In one sense, to forgive means to send off, to launch, or to hurl an object. Imagine an Olympian releasing a javelin across a field or NASA launching a rocket into outer space. In this image, forgiveness becomes a physical action of forcefully sending some object as far away as possible.

Surely: It is important that we not mistranslate this small but important word surely as because. This is not a cause and effect statement (“Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing”). The word surely is used here for emphasis; it expresses an emotional observation rather than a logical train of thought.

Know: The Greek word here means to know or understand someone or something as a result of having had direct contact with that person or thing. As stated before, this knowledge does not come from an third source such as a book, a news report, or another person’s testimony. This type of knowledge is based on one’s personal experience.

Doing: The Greek word used here is poieo and it refers to what those surrounding Jesus at the cross are doing (e.g., murdering, mocking). There are two other similar Greek words that can be translated as doing. Both words contain this root word poieo. The first word is agathopoieo which means to do good. The second is kakopoieo which means to do evil. By using poieo instead of kakopoieo (which we would expect the gospel writer to use in this setting), Luke points to Jesus’ unwillingness to judge the actions of others.


  1. Who are your enemies? Who are the people who most cruelly abuse you? How would you describe your relationship with these people? Do you love them, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them, as Jesus instructed us? How might such actions affect these relationships?
  2. What exactly does forgiveness mean in this passage? To which release image do you suppose Jesus is referring when he prays, “Forgive them”?
  3. Who exactly are Jesus’ enemies at the cross?  For whom is he praying? What exactly are these people doing to Jesus? What is it that they do not know?
  4. Do you think you can really forgive those who hurt and abuse you?

Diving Deeper

For Whom Does Jesus Pray?

One of the first lessons Jesus teaches about intercessory prayer strikes me with a jolt. It has to do with the subject of my prayers. You see, when I take the time to pray for others, I am usually concerned about praying for my family and friends. Oh, sometimes I pray for acquaintances whose special prayer requests were reported at church or through mutual friends. And whenever a world crisis occurs — like a hurricane, war, or famine — I will pray for the victims who are total strangers to me. However, in Luke 6, Jesus instructs me to pray for a special group of people: my enemies. Why — and how — should I pray for people who hurt me? Why indeed? Because this is what Jesus taught us to do. And how? By following his own example from the cross.

Jesus was surrounded by his enemies. The religious leaders, wayward crowd, and Roman soldiers had mocked, bludgeoned, spat upon, and cursed Jesus. After a sham trial and near riot, they dragged the man and his cross up a hill, drove in the nails, and hoisted the beaten body up on a scaffold of suffering and death. It is hard to imagine anyone more cruelly abused. Yet, in the midst of this horrible persecution, the first words we hear from Jesus’ lips are, “Father, forgive them; surely they do not understand what they are doing.” So, from the cross, Jesus gives us a living — or should we say dying — example of how we should pray for our enemies. The lesson seems simple: “Forgive them.” But it is not a simple lesson and it is not an easy prayer to pray.

Personal Confessions

Okay, I’ll admit it. Forgiveness is not one of my stronger suits. To be perfectly honest, I have enough trouble forgiving a family member who harms me unintentionally and apologizes sincerely. But to forgive an enemy — someone who hates me and who intentionally chooses to hurt and abuse me, someone who refuses to apologize to me — how could I ever forgive someone like that?

When I read the Gospels, I imagine myself standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross and looking into the faces of those gathered around him — those mocking, murdering, malicious faces whose eyes dance in delight each time Jesus groans in anguish. And as I look into those faces, my heart fills with hatred. Yet Jesus looks into those same faces, into those gleaming, dancing, delighted eyes, and as his blood drips to the ground he prays, “Forgive them.” How can he say that? And how could he ever expect me to be able to say that? In my heart, I honestly do not think such a prayer is humanly possible. At least not for this human.

I have struggled and struggled with this prayer. I think my difficulty stems from my own deep-seated devotion to a sense of justice and fairness. I read an article several years ago about one of those tragic school shootings. A disturbed young man had walked into a school with a gun and killed several classmates and a teacher. The next day, a sign was planted by the school with a message for the killer: “We forgive you.” The writer of the article expressed a sense of outrage at the sign, claiming that to forgive too quickly and easily cheapens the lost lives of the innocent and mocks at the deep pain and suffering of the remaining victims and family members. I agreed with this writer. I could see a murderer reading that sign and thinking, “I’m not responsible for what I’ve done. I myself am a victim of society. I’m off the hook. I could kill again tomorrow and not be held accountable for my actions.” Such cheap grace flies in the face of justice. It brings more pain to those victims who have already suffered tremendously. It grates against society’s sense of fairness and what is right. It even leaves the casual bystander — me — deeply troubled.

But then I look up. I see Jesus hanging on the cross with those words of forgiveness on his lips and I wonder, “Am I missing something? What does Jesus mean when he prays, ‘Forgive them’?”


To help us better understand what Jesus meant when he prayed, let us take a closer look at the Greek word translated as forgive. As we learned in “A Quick Dip,” the early meaning of this word was to send off or to release. By the time the Gospels were written, forgive brought several release images to mind. Let’s revisit these.

Canceling the debt. The first release image presented in “A Quick Dip” was the banking image. Viewing forgiveness as canceling or pardoning (releasing a person from) a debt or a loan is certainly an image that we can relate to today. How would you react if your lender told you, “I’m canceling your debt. You don’t have to make any more payments on your house (or car, or furniture, or college education). It’s all yours, free and clear.” Wouldn’t that be a tremendous release?

This banking image of debt and pardon highlights a major concept regarding sin and forgiveness. That is: sin carries a cost. We must not misunderstand. Canceling a debt does not mean that the cost magically disappears. The cost still exists. The price must still be paid. If the bank cancels your loan, the bank absorbs the debt. The bank pays the price. Forgiveness, as we see, can be an expensive gift.

The legal image. This concept of the cost of sin is supported by the legal mandates of the Old Testament. According to Exodus 21:23-25, a guilty person was expected to pay for the cost of an eye with an eye, a tooth with a tooth, a life with a life. This sounds barbaric, yet in our own civil court system today, many people spend huge sums of time and money on lawsuits trying to ensure that others pay for their sins. When someone has been harmed in our society, he or she expects to be paid for it in full.

Using this image, we see that — in legal terms — to forgive means to release a convicted person from his or her deserved punishment, whether that punishment be payment of a fine, time spent behind bars, or the ultimate penalty: death. To forgive is not a stay of execution; it is a full pardon — complete freedom from all deserved penalties. Being a fair-minded person, this is the point where I become troubled. I look at it this way: if sin carries a cost, then whenever I forgive someone, it means that I pay the price for their offense. Financially, I pay the debt owed to me. Legally, if someone harms me — say someone damages my property — I pay for the damages while the perpetrator goes scot free. If physical or emotional harm is done, I absorb that cost as well, paying for medical bills or counseling services, not to mention pain and suffering. In legal terms, forgiveness means that the victim pays twice. It looks like a double injustice, and as I said before, it goes against what seems to be right and fair. Yes indeed, this release image makes me very uncomfortable.

There is a third release image that comes from the word forgive: it means to release or hurl an object away from oneself — be it a ball, a javelin, or even a missile. I have tried to imagine myself hurling someone’s sin away from me, placing that sin on a giant catapult and launching it out of sight. Such an image brings to mind that old adage, “Forgive and forget.” I wonder, is this what Jesus wants us to do when he instructs us to forgive others: to catapult people’s sins so far away that those sins are completely forgotten? I don’t think so. First of all, it cannot be done. Unless — God forbid — we develop an illness such as amnesia or Alzheimer’s, we cannot forget the past. God did not design us with delete buttons for our brains. Secondly, if we look at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, we see that Jesus himself did not forget the sins people had committed against him. Jesus did not forget Peter’s triple denial. In John 21, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?”; three times Peter hung his head and murmured, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus also remembered the crucifixion. He showed Thomas the scars (John 20). So if Jesus didn’t forget — if he didn’t hurl the memory of the sins committed against him — what did he hurl?

He hurled the pain. When Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, he is not wearing his pain on his sleeve. Even when he is hanging on the cross, we see no anger, no bitterness, no smoldering resentment. Indeed, when Jesus shows his scars to Thomas he says, “Peace be with you.”

Think of a time from your past when someone sinned against you. When you recall that person’s sin, what feelings accompany the memory? Be honest. Do you still feel twinges of anger, bitterness, or pain? Or can you recall the sin with a sense of peace in your heart?

My husband tells a story from his childhood. One summer evening he and his sister were playing kickball in the backyard. The competition was fierce and the game was close, but my husband finally got the best of his sister and scored a big run. Angry and frustrated, his sister grabbed the ball, screamed she wasn’t playing any more, and threw the ball into the briar patch. As she stomped off toward the house, rage seized my husband. He says he streaked barefooted into the briar patch, scooped up the ball, and tore across the yard. As his sister neared the back door, he cut loose and hurled the ball right at her head. Fortunately for her, she ducked inside the door. Unfortunately for him, the door was made of glass and was shattered by the ball.

I share this story because it illustrates clearly how we often hurl the pain and anger we experience from another’s sin. I know that I am just like my husband: when people sin against me, I most often grab the sin and hurl it right back towards them. I want to hurt them the way they have hurt me. I hold onto the pain and the anger because it gives me a rush of adrenalin, making me feel a surge of power and boldness. However, this is not the direction in which God desires us to hurl our pain. This is not the example Jesus sets before us. As we said before, when we search Jesus’ battered face, we find no animosity, no sullenness, no resentment. There is instead a serene calmness in his eyes. Yes, Jesus had absorbed the cost. Jesus had paid the price. And somehow he had hurled the pain. But how?

Father, Forgive Them

When searching for an answer to this question, I turned again to Jesus’ prayer. These words are so familiar to me that I had to make myself stop and look at them with fresh eyes. When I did, I was struck most deeply by what Jesus did not say. He did not pray, “Father, I forgive these people,” or “Father, let us forgive them.” The verb is a second person singular imperative: you. “Father, you forgive them.” Why did Jesus say you instead of I?

Jesus says, “You forgive,” because this verb form reminds us of what we often forget when someone hurts us: namely, that sin is a double-edged sword. Anytime someone hurts another human being, he or she is also hurting God. A sin against another is also a sin against God. If you do something that damages your relationship with another person, you also damage your relationship with God.

I believe that most of us see our relationships as two-dimensional. My relationship with you involves just two people — me and you. Yet in this prayer, Jesus teaches us to see our relationships as they really are: three-dimensional. My relationship with you involves three persons — me, you, and God. The way we relate to others directly impacts our relationship with God, and likewise, the way we relate to God dramatically influences our relationships with others.

Jesus sees relationships in 3-D. Hanging on the cross, Jesus understands that there are two ways of looking at what is happening around him. Jesus can focus on what his enemies are doing to him. He can measure his own cost, his own pain. He can focus on the damage being done to his relationship with these people. Or Jesus can focus on what these people are doing to God. He can instead measure his Father’s cost, his Father’s pain. You see, Jesus understands clearly that when these people are using the cross to try to destroy their relationship with him, in reality they are in danger of destroying their relationship with God.

At this critical moment, Jesus makes a choice. Instead of looking into the faces around him and seeing abusive enemies who deserve to die, Jesus chooses instead to see brothers and sisters who are in desperate need of a loving relationship with their Daddy. This is why Jesus prays, “Daddy, you forgive them,” because this is the critical relationship. This is the debt that most greatly needs to be cancelled. This is the damage that most greatly needs to be absorbed. This is the relationship which must be restored first. All other relationships, all other debts are secondary in comparison.

It is this choice — and this three-dimensional focus — that serves as the catapult by which Jesus hurls his own pain. You see, Jesus is so concerned about the relationship between God and these people that he overlooks his own condition. It reminds me of a story I once heard about a soldier who rushed to get his injured comrade to medical personnel in the field. Once there, the medic pointed to a gaping wound in the soldier’s own leg. This soldier had been so concerned about his friend’s injury that he had failed to notice his own wound.

It is this very attitude of selfless love which we hear in Jesus’ prayer from the cross. There Jesus is able to hurl his own pain and brokenness because he has chosen to focus on something larger than himself. And do you know what? You and I can pray this same prayer. Whenever someone says something or does something that hurts us, we too have a choice. In our normal 2-D fashion, we can focus on our own pain and bewail the damage done to our own relationship. We can look into the offender’s face and see an enemy — even if the enemy is a spouse, a friend, a parent, or a child. Or we can adopt Jesus’ 3-D vision and focus instead on the damage being done to this person’s relationship with God. Remembering how much God loves this brother or sister and knowing how much this person needs to feel that love, we can set aside our own concerns and pray for God to forgive this person and to restore the relationship between Father and child. Because when this primary relationship is restored, all other secondary relationships will fall into place.

“They Do Not Know”

Again with fresh eyes, I turned to the second part of Jesus’ prayer: “Surely,” Jesus says, “these people cannot possibly know what they are doing.” This statement has never made any sense to me. In fact, it always seemed like some kind of lame excuse for these people’s actions. I mean, how can Jesus say that these people at the cross do not know what they are doing? Of course they know what they are doing: they are murdering an innocent man because he claims to be the Son of God. They drive in the nails. They mock. They jeer. They seek to destroy their enemy by the cruelest means available. They know exactly what they are doing. So why does Jesus say, “Surely they do not know — see, understand, realize from personal experience”? What do they not see? What do they not understand? What have they failed to know, to experience in a personal way?

Many things.

It is clear from their actions at the cross that these people have no personal understanding of who Jesus really is, of how much God loves him, or of his saving purpose in the world. They have failed to understand Jesus’ teachings, they have turned a blind eye to his miracles, they have not understood his relationship with God. They have failed to see the Father in the Son. They think they are executing a man. They do not realize that they are trying to destroy the living God.

The priests who wag their heads at the cross think that they are looking at an instrument of shameful death. They do not know that they are viewing the altar of a perfect sacrifice. The Romans think that they are eliminating a troublemaker. They do not understand that they are lifting up a Savior. The crowd of scorners think that they are watching a guilty man receive his deserved punishment. They cannot see that the guilt flowing from his wounds is their own.

No, these people at the cross cannot see, they cannot understand all that they are doing. And what about the people who sin against me? What about the people who hurt you? Can they see? Do they understand? Maybe they can see that they are hurting me; maybe they even feel some satisfaction in the pain that they are inflicting upon you. But can they see the pain that they are inflicting upon God? Do they understand the damage they are doing to that relationship? No. No more than you and I can fully understand the damage we inflict when we sin against any of God’s children.

Jesus says, “They do not see,” because Jesus understands the extent to which sin blinds each one of us to our actions. Jesus knows that sin blinds our vision and sin binds our understanding so tightly that we cannot experience the personal, loving relationship our Daddy desires for us. It is like being caught in a web that we cannot see. Yet Jesus also knows that God’s grace and mercy can forgive us — release us — from the tangled grip of our sins. So when he prays this prayer, Jesus is really saying, “Father, they do not know; they cannot see. They are bound and they are blind. Release them. Set them free.”

And this is the real meaning behind forgive. It is not about me letting someone off the hook or you paying double when you are wronged. It is about looking up and asking God to save someone who is trapped in a web he cannot see and cannot escape, someone who will surely die if God himself does not move to save him. You cannot save him. I cannot save him. There is only one hope. So we lift our eyes to heaven and pray, “Daddy, release him.” And it is God–not you nor I–who absorbs the damage. God pays the price. It costs him his Son. But the grip of sin is broken. And our brother is set free.

An Invitation

Through this prayer on the cross, Jesus invites us to pray for our enemies, to intercede for the people who hate and hurt us. Actually, according to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6, it is not just an invitation. It is a commandment: “Pray for those who abuse you.”

So, who is your worst enemy? Who causes you the most pain and suffering? Whenever you picture this person in your mind, what feelings stir within your heart? Just how much damage has really been done to your relationship with this person? Jesus wants you and me to go to our solitary places and take these images and feelings with us. There in the Master’s presence, he wants us to answer a few more questions: How badly does this person need a loving relationship with God? What kind of damage has this person done to that relationship? How much pain has this person caused God to suffer? Can you see the web? Can you see the tangle? Can you see death in the corner, ready to pounce? Jesus wants us to pray, asking for forgiveness — for our enemy’s release, for our enemy’s salvation. But why? After all, if God wants to save someone, God doesn’t need our permission nor our prompting. What difference does it make whether or not we pray for God to release our enemy?

Why, indeed, should we pray? Because our relationships are 3-D. Our relationship with our enemy affects our relationship with God. There is absolutely no way that we can be close to God if we harbor hatred for one of his sons or daughters. Remember, hatred and God are opposite poles. So, how can our prayer for forgiveness make a difference? It can make a tremendous difference in our own hearts. Through such a prayer, we allow God to come into our relationships and heal the brokenness; we allow God to pay the price and remove the pain. We allow God to move us toward the day when we can stand in front of our enemy, show him or her our scars, and say, “Peace be with you.” Who knows? Perhaps our enemy will be reshaped into a brother or sister. Yet even if an enemy turns away or strikes out at us again, we have still gained something from our prayer. We have gained a sense of peace. We have felt the tug of love. And we have moved closer to our Master’s arms.

So, let us obey our Master’s command. Let us give him a chance to show us what he can do if we will open our hearts and let him come into these relationships. Let us follow Jesus’ example today and offer a prayer of forgiveness for our enemy.

>> Chapter 13: Jesus’ Prayer for Peter

Chapter 12 Footnotes

1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.


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