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Leave it to Jesus to pack a punch in a sermon of just seven words.

(Alright, technically it’s 41 words in the Greek. But it’s just seven phrases, seven sentences…and in two cases, those phrases are in fact just one word long).

During this season of Lent, I’m preaching through the seven last words Jesus spoke from the cross. I’ve never taken a close look at these words before. I imagine many of you have heard or led such a series, but this has been a new adventure for me, a foray into territory I thought was familiar, but which has in fact been surprising and stunning.

I’ve heard the seven last words many times throughout my life, one Good Friday service after another. But only now, preaching this series, aided by the writings of Will Willimon and Fleming Rutledge and John Calvin and the many preachers whose works are collected on Zeteo, have I come to see just how profoundly countercultural and world-changing these words are.

And the first word might be the most countercultural of them all. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is astonishing on multiple levels. First, that the Son of God, having been nailed to a cross, pleads not for himself, but for the ones who put him there. The soldiers who drove in the nails. The religious leaders who clamored for his death. Pontius Pilate who tossed Jesus to the wolves to keep the wolves appeased. The crowd along the side of the hill, who knew that their job in the drama of crucifixion was to make the condemned feel like the scum of the earth, less than human, a blot the world would soon be rid of, and good riddance.

It would be one thing for Jesus to pray for his beloved followers. They may have been a bit slow to pick up what Jesus was laying down, but at least their confusion is innocent and naïve. But Jesus doesn’t turn first to the disciples. He prays, first, for the ones who betrayed him. And he prays, not for their destruction, not for vengeance, but that they might be forgiven.

Which is a word we don’t particularly want to hear, if we’re honest. Because we know that following Jesus isn’t just about applauding who he was and what he did…but copying it. And if Jesus is forgiving the very worst in people, their basest instincts, their meanest versions…then that must mean that we have to, too.

And we’re not particularly good at the business of forgiveness. I love this note from St. Augustine in one of his sermons, where he admits that some members of his congregation, when reciting the Lord’s Prayer, leave out “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” because they knew that if they said it, they’d be lying. That’s some liturgical integrity right there.

Forgiving people is hard. The driver who cuts us off on the highway. The colleague who makes a joke at our expense. The teacher who laughed at our childhood dream. The person who didn’t love us the way we loved them. The person who stole something from us. Forgiveness is hard.

And what’s particularly peculiar about this word from Jesus is that he doesn’t pray for the forgiveness of his offenders because they’ve realized what they’ve done and have come trembling to the foot of the cross in humble apology. No, he prays for their forgiveness because they don’t know what they’ve done. And I don’t know about you, but that’s not how forgiveness works in my book. There’s an order to forgiveness. Someone hurts you, they realize they’ve hurt you, they apologize, and then you forgive.

But, as Willimon notes, “If God’s going to wait to talk with me until I first admit that I’m a sinner, the conversation will never occur. I’ll be too defensive, too deceitful in my guilt…If you are awaiting me to know, to admit, to confess my complicity, my sin, you will wait an eternity, and I am not eternal.”*

So God doesn’t wait for his people to come to him. God goes after us. The first word, says Willimon, has to be “Father, forgive them,” because forgiveness is the bridge between God and us that only God can build.

And I suppose that’s the real kicker of this whole thing, that this story of Jesus’ first word isn’t about “them” – the religious leaders and soldiers and Pilate. It’s about us. “Father, forgive them” includes all of us whose sins Jesus took on himself on that cross. We are the ones who don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t even know how to forgive people most of the time, let alone not cause hurt ourselves. And like the religious leaders and soldiers and gathered crowd, so often we don’t grasp who Jesus is, how he’s showing up in our lives, what he’s calling us into. Maybe like the disciples our lack of understanding is more innocent than sinister…and yet we do not know. We get it wrong. We see through a mirror dimly.

So in this strange, astonishing, peculiar word is a word of comfort.

We, the ones who don’t know what we’re doing, are forgiven.

Thanks be to God.

*Will Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross (Abingdon Press, 2006), pg. 8

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It’s so peculiar and hard to believe we have to hear it over and over again.

  • RZ says:

    The non-gift that keeps on non-giving throughout history, triggering reaction after reaction. You said it! How much better life would be if we gave before receiving.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thanks for illuminating something that, perhaps to my shame, never occured to me about those words. Hearing that forgiveness, which becomes more and more precious as age leads one to admit to failing to live a truly devout life over and over again, means that I have been loved and forgiven, flaws and all, since that moment on the cross. That thought gives my soul rest.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks, Laura! Those astonishing words of Jesus indeed give us much to think about.
    Like wondering whether the “they” include the Pharisees, Judas, the high priest. Or more specifically the soldiers who were commanded to crucify him, including the centurion who was shocked into an awareness that they crucified ” a righteous man”?
    “As we forgive those who trespass against us” – even if with malice they have broken something precious in us, even if they go on trying to ruin our lives, even if….?
    There’s so much more to learn from the crucified Jesus than we thought we knew.

  • jared ayers says:

    Thanks for this piece, Laura!

    Also, (and I know you’re probably more than half-way through the series, given where we are in Lent), if you’re looking for a couple other 7 Last Words, both of these two are excellent. One (Hageman) is from a Reformed perspective, one (Neuhaus) from a Roman Catholic one…

    -“And We Call This Friday Good”- Howard Hageman.

    -“Death on a Friday Afternoon”- Richard John Neuhaus

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Laura, I appreciate your good, helpful thoughts on this powerful first word. Reading this blog led me to think: Jesus didn’t have to pray what I sometimes (often? always?) do need to pray: Father, forgive ME when I don’t know what I am doing as I pray that you forgive THEM for doing what they know not they are doing.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks very much for this. We need this reminder.

  • Lena says:

    I’m a bit confused with the two Will Willimon quotes. Looking up Luke 23: 24 (“Father forgive them for they know not what they do”) in the NIV Study Bible, readers are referred to Acts 3:17-23. The footnotes of these versed read: They did not know that Jesus was the true Messiah. Nevertheless, God will be generous in his mercy if they only repent and turn to him. (see Acts 3:19 and more). I find that this explanation from the passage in Acts is a clearer picture of meaning of the words of Jesus in Luke.

  • Judy Ponstine says:

    Thank you Laura. And, yes, “Thanks be to God”!

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