The Third Prayer of the Cross: The Forgiveness Prayer


August 3, 2018

Luke 23:32-34

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.


There’s something about 80’s songs that just won’t leave you alone. And though so many of them were completely forgettable, history seems to vindicate them by making them more ubiquitous with each passing year. In a sea of curiously meaningless songs, some lyrics rise up out of all that smutty sentiment like islands of truth. One of those is Don Henley’s song, The Heart of the Matterwith its chorus:

I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
Because the flesh will get weak
And the ashes will scatter
So I’m thinking about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore

It brings us to the third prayer of the Cross, the Forgiveness Prayer. We see the prayer only in Luke’s Gospel. It happens after all the violence and as he is lifted on the cross between the two others history knows only as, “the criminals.” Jesus prays:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

I see something for the first time in this text today. I always read this before as an act of Jesus forgiving his executors. He’s not. Jesus is not dealing with his tormentors here. He is praying for them. He speaks not to them but to God.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Permit me to test what may be an obvious insight. Forgiveness begins with God not with us. In The Disciples Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” So critical is this prayer he comes back around at the end of it with this admonition.

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15.

Unforgiveness creates a barrier not only in our relationship with other people but in our relationship with God. In fact, according to Jesus, our peace with God depends on our peace with other people. And of course, we are able to forgive others because God has first forgiven us. Forgiveness is the heart of the matter.

Forgiveness can be so challenging for so many of us. We have endured wrongs and injustices which in so many cases seem unforgivable. Let me pose three observations.

  1. In many if not most cases, the offenses people commit against us are not about us. They are about them. They come from their brokenness, immaturity or infirmity. Broken people break people and they tend not to discriminate about who.
  2. In a similar way, extending them forgiveness is not about them but us. Forgiveness is an act of grace, which by definition means it is undeserved favor.
  3. Because forgiveness comes from God, it makes sense, especially in the difficult cases, to pray with Jesus. Rather than trying to forgive them directly, we can pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

And what exactly is forgiveness? Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It does not mean everything is o.k. It does not necessarily mean a change of mind or heart toward the offender. It does not mean one feelings have changed toward the offender. Forgiveness means one makes the willful decision to not retaliate against the offender. It takes time, but forgiveness means to cease fighting back whether actively, passively, passive-aggressively, personally and communally.

A final clarification—forgiveness is not reconciliation. While reconciliation is bilateral, forgiveness is unilateral. Many never move toward forgiveness for fear it will require them to reconcile with the one who harmed them. This is not so. Holding on to unforgiveness may hurt the person from whom it is withheld, but it kills the one who holds on to it. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill the other person. It only kills you.

Finally, note the primary context for the working out of forgiveness is in prayer. We see it in the Disciple’s Prayer and the Forgiveness Prayer of the Cross.

And when we get down to the heart of the matter, this is what the Cross is all about: Forgiveness.


Almighty Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, you are high and exalted yet nearer than our breath. Thank you for your forgiveness. Awaken me to grasp the depth of my need for forgiveness. Awaken me to grasp the breadth of the reality of my forgiveness. And awaken me to the grace you give me to forgive others. Right here, Jesus. Right now, Jesus. Amen.


  1. Do you struggle to forgive other people? Why is that?
  2. How do you understand that unforgiveness hurts the one who cannot forgive?
  3. Have you ever considered how people’s offenses toward us are more about them than us? What might it mean to take offenses less personally in light of this?

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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed's Sower-in-Chief.


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