What Did Jesus Mean By "Father, Forgive Them" in Luke 23:34?

What Did Jesus Mean By "Father, Forgive Them" in Luke 23:34?

Perhaps the most gracious and truly heartbreaking moment is when Jesus utters his first of seven statements from the cross, 

“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” (Luke 23:34 KJV)

And yet, it’s not just the Romans who were responsible for nailing Jesus to that cross. It’s our sin that led to the crucifixion of our Savior in what is easily the most loving sacrifice ever made and an example of the prayer that we should all keep close to our hearts.

The Meaning of 'Father, Forgive Them'

Let’s break down this statement of Jesus:

Father:” We see Jesus using a familiar term here, showcasing the relationship He had with God the Father. This is contrasted with Jesus’ later statement, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is a change in the relationship as darkness covers the sky and silence covers the earth for three hours. We see this relationship restored with Jesus’ last statement from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Forgive them:” The cross is the premiere symbol of the ultimate sacrifice. We are forgiven because of Jesus’ horrifying and painful death. There are a couple of schools of thought on what, or rather whom, Jesus was referring to by the word “them.”

It’s obvious that Jesus is asking for forgiveness for those who were actually responsible for putting Him on the cross, i.e., Pilate, the Romans, the Jewish leaders, those jeering at Him, etc. But His forgiveness is also for every person that He is dying for, and that includes you, and it includes me.

What Is the Context of Luke 23?

As we come to verse 34 of this chapter, Jesus has been through the so-called “trial” of the Jewish leaders, multiple scourgings, and Pilates’ verdict, and he’s now been nailed to the cross, hanging between two criminals who were being justly punished (by the laws of that day) for their crimes.

His clothes are being gambled for as He hangs hurt and humiliated for no other reason but that the leaders hated him.

And yet we see compassion come from Jesus as He calls out to our Heavenly Father to forgive.

When was the last time someone humiliated or hurt you? When was the last time someone put you in a situation so unbearable that it felt like you weren’t going to come out the other side unscathed? 

Was forgiveness the order of the day, or did it take time to work through that grief and hurt? We must be careful not to let anger turn to bitterness, even if we are completely "right" in the situation. We have to follow Jesus’ example and pray perhaps one of the hardest prayers we could pray. He was without sin, and death was an absolute. 

And yet, He says, “Father, forgive them.” From the cross. Facing death. In incredible treacherous pain. And His response is to forgive.

The Compassion of Christ

This intercession is not only for those who sentenced and crucified Jesus but for all of humanity, a people who have no insight into the profound mystery of God's salvation. Jesus speaks these words not as a request but with divine authority. Their great sin would have still been forgiven them had they repented. Indeed, one of the soldiers did repent (see verse below) and is considered a saint in some churches.

"The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47)

What 'Father, Forgive Them' Teaches Us about Forgiveness

Jesus provides the ultimate forgiveness prayer for us to follow. How in the world are we to not forgive someone when Jesus is literally bleeding and desperate for breath as he lifts his beaten and broken body up on the spikes in his feet and in his wrists, and the first words He says are for forgiveness?

Scripture after Scripture tells us the importance of forgiveness.

Mark 11:25 says that when we pray, we forgive anyone with whom we’re holding a grudge so that we can be forgiven.

Ephesians 1:7-8 says it beautifully: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and peace.”

That redemption is through Jesus’ blood that was shed on the cross. That same cross where Jesus Himself is asking for forgiveness for those who were responsible for the agony He was suffering physically, but also spiritually, as He took on the weight of our sin onto Himself.

Talk about radical forgiveness.

Our society has almost reached the pinnacle of being offended by every small misstep. We’re angry over the books people are reading and the fact that someone dares to disagree with the way we think.

Forgiveness isn’t given a second thought because bashing, burning, canceling, fact-checking and anything to give an air of superiority are the idols we place in front of our eyes instead of focusing on our Savior, His sacrifice, and His incredible example of showing love, grace, and forgiveness to people that literally hate and kill.

Can you imagine a world where we take this example and actually follow through on it? Where we show grace and forgiveness to someone when we feel wronged?

Jesus, our Lord and Savior, God in the flesh, could have come down from the cross at any time, but He chose to forgive, and He chose to take our sin onto Himself so we could have eternity with Him in heaven.

Radical love. Radical forgiveness. It is a radical concept that needs to become part of our choice to respond with love the way Jesus did. For the Bible says in John 13:35 that the world will know we are His disciples by our love.

A Prayer for Us to Forgive as Jesus Has

What excuse do we have not to forgive those whom we feel have done us wrong? With Jesus’ simple yet powerful prayer, we have a model for how to respond when we’re offended, betrayed, scorned, and wronged.

Jesus’ prayer is intercessory, meaning He prays on the behalf of others. Isaiah 53:12 prophesied this prayer, “…Because He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors” (ESV).

In the final hours of Jesus’ life on earth, He chooses to pray for others instead of asking for revenge. After all, the Scriptures say that vengeance is the Lord’s, and He will repay (see Deuteronomy 32:35).

Instead, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them.” Let’s remember that this is not the only time that Jesus uses this model to show us the right way to pray. He tells us in Matthew 6:5-14 in the Lord’s Prayer how we are to pray. Verses 12-13 say, “…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

For we need to ask for forgiveness of ourselves, and we have to forgive those that hurt us. Verse 14 continues, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (ESV).

Jesus gave us the instructions (ask for forgiveness and forgive others) and the example (intercede on behalf of others)

With Easter coming quickly, we remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross and celebrate the empty tomb, for our King has risen. He is alive. We have the ability to join Him in heaven one day because He bore our sins and took our punishment.

It’s easy to live in the forgiveness that Jesus died for but hard sometimes to pass it on to others. We are to be mindful, particularly in this season but also afterward, of what Jesus chose to say from the cross. May we follow in His example.

See a breakdown of the various translations of Luke 23:34 at BibleStudyTools.com.

Further Reading

Jesus’ Incredible Request on the Cross: “Father, Forgive Them”

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Lisa Valder

Bethany JettBethany Jett is a multi-award-winner for her books and marketing campaigns and is a sought-after speaker for women and teens. An entrepreneur at heart, Bethany co-owns two companies within the publishing industry.

She is a military wife to her college sweetheart and a work-from-home momma-of-boys who loves planners, suspense novels, and all things girly. 

Connect with Bethany on your favorite platform by checking out her site: BethanyJett.com

This article is part of our larger Holy Week and Easter resource library centered around the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What Lent and Why is it Celebrated?
When is Lent? When Does Lent Start and End?
What is Ash Wednesday?
What Is Palm Sunday?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What Is Good Friday?

What Is Easter?
What is the Holy Week?
Easter Prayers