They Don’t Know What They’re Doing

Enjoyed and serene lady dreaming and thinking outdoor with ocean

Rev. Jeffrey L. Samelson, Director of Ministry Advancement, Christian Life Resources


Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

If you’ve been around Christianity very long, you’ve undoubtedly heard or seen someone take something that Jesus said and make him say something he never said, and, usually, never would have said. Maybe they’ve never bothered trying to understand what he actually meant, or maybe they know what he meant but they feel they have the right to “edit” or “improve” it to make it say what they think he ought to have said. Either way, they cite an unreal Jesus to support abortion or sexual license, injustice or false justice, pet political positions or social policies, and general theological nonsense.

But before we too quickly condemn such people as enemies of Christ and the truth, we need to look in the mirror. Because we Christians often do much the same thing when something in the Bible is difficult to understand or just hard to put into practice, or when we simply think that we should improve on or correct something Jesus said.

The verse above is just an example. We hear Christ say, “They do not know what they are doing,” and at least some part of us says, “Oh, yes, they do!” We know that much about Christ’s passion: how his enemies among the priests, Pharisees, and other leaders of the people plotted and planned for Jesus to end up hanging, tortured, and bleeding, on a Roman cross. Of course, they knew what they were doing! This was the very thing they had been conspiring to do – they even paid off one of his disciples to turn him over in the middle of the night! Pontius Pilate, who sent him to be crucified, knew very well that Jesus was an innocent man. And even the soldiers who led him to Golgotha, laid him on the wood, nailed the nails, and lifted him up understood that this was an execution, and it’s quite likely they knew he was just someone who had fallen afoul of the powers that be and not a criminal at all. So, yeah, they knew what they were doing. So how could the reason Jesus gave his Father for forgiving them all really apply? And how could he have any kind of warm or forgiving feelings toward them, I mean, we certainly don’t have any toward the people deliberately killing our Lord? So, Jesus … must be wrong about them, or confused, or just not really serious about forgiving them.… Hmm.…

See what I mean about how easy it is, even for believers, to take even the plainest of words spoken by Jesus and reason them away as incorrect, inadequate, or ill-informed? May God forgive both our ignorance and arrogance!

Because there was nothing confused, incorrect, or insincere about what Jesus said with this first “word” from the cross. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Sure, of course, all those villains of the Passion history understood they were killing him, but no, they did not really know what they were doing, because they did not really know who he was or what he came to do, or how his death at their hands was all part of God’s gracious plan from eternity to save them and all sinners.

For example, one thing the Jewish religious leaders who conspired against and condemned him were certain they knew was that this Jesus of Nazareth was no one special, no matter what he did or what he said about himself or others said about him. But since he actually was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, no, they didn’t know what they were doing. And Pilate and the soldiers who saw Jesus as just a problem to be solved or a duty to be performed were blind to the spiritual reality of their actions – they didn’t really know what they were doing.

And while such ignorance, deliberate or not, is no excuse for evil, Christ did not want them condemned to hell for it – or for any other sin. What he wanted for them was exactly what he asked for: Forgiveness – and with that, faith, salvation, and a place with him in heaven forever. Now, is that a prayer we would have spoken in such a moment, or a desire we would have had? Perhaps not. But Christ’s love for sinners was without limit, and he desired the salvation of even the worst of his enemies. It was, after all, what he was on the cross for: to pay for the sins of all the world, not just for those of likable people, or of people who had “good excuses” for the wrong things they did. His hanging there, bleeding and suffering, was not about duty or victimhood but was all about grace and mercy: the undeserved love and favor of God, who sent his Son to die for all people, as the atoning sacrifice for their sins.

This means that Christ’s prayer there on Calvary is for us, as well. No, we didn’t place Jesus on the cross, but it is our sins of pride, greed, bigotry, idolatry, dishonesty, wilfulness, meanness, self-centeredness, and so much more that he is dying for, and he makes the same plea to his Father for us: “Don’t condemn them” – us – “for not appreciating just how horrible their sins against their Lord really are – instead, forgive them, save them, bring them home to heaven.”

And that’s what Jesus prayed and prays, and that’s what, in love and mercy, the Father did and does. You and I are forgiven.

And because of what God has done for us in Christ, and because we are his children who seek not only to please him but to be like him, Christians like you and me will learn from and follow our Lord’s example. Forgiveness for sinners will always be our goal – of course for our family, friends, and neighbors, but also even for the greatest of evildoers and the worst of our enemies.

This isn’t just theoretical. You might remember what happened with the deacon Stephen, in the very early years of the Christian Church after Pentecost: After his preaching of the gospel angered certain powerful people in Jerusalem, he was arrested and falsely accused of various crimes. At his trial, when he was able to address the court, he used the opportunity to give a sermon showing how all the history of the Jewish people should have led them to recognize and trust Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, but this only made them angrier. And so, contrary to both the law and justice, they all rose up to stone him, and right before he died, “he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” In other words, his last thoughts – and a prayer – were for the forgiveness of those who were killing him.

Now, our sinful natures say, “No way!” to that, just as they tell us that Jesus can’t possibly have been serious, let alone meant it literally, when in the Sermon on the Mount he said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven,” but he was serious and he did mean it, and his own example and Stephen’s show how the love he has shown to us sinners will be reflected by us to other sinners – even the worst of them.

But it’s no exaggeration to say that this can be hard when it comes to the issues that are most important to us: you may find it relatively easy to pray for the salvation of, say, a neighbor who puts campaign signs for the other party’s candidates in her front yard but find it very difficult to ask the Lord to forgive your sister’s or daughter’s ex who abused and cheated on her.

It can be the same for the issues that my organization, Christian Life Resources, has as its special concerns. It is hard to think that there should be forgiveness for anyone who’s in the heartless business of abortion – killing innocent babies in the womb. And what about the arrogant scientists who experiment on embryos, casually treating human lives as matter to be used and then thrown away? And doctors who presume to take God’s place and decide when it’s time for their patients to die? These all show themselves to be enemies – enemies of life itself and of God’s authority and design. That’s quite a big deal – and if it’s the life of someone we care about that’s getting devalued or outright ended before God’s time, we might feel they are our enemies, too. And when there is sharp disagreement over the decisions to be made when an ailing parent is near the end of life and it’s not crystal clear whether certain treatments or machines should be tried, kept going, or stopped, you might even see how brothers and sisters can become unforgiving to each other, and worse.

And then there are activists, politicians, and others who are enemies of marriage and the family, working, whether they realize it or not, to destroy some of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. There are the illogical champions of injustice who insist that biological truths are nothing but inconveniences to be wished away – and that anyone who argues otherwise should be punished. Let’s not forget the perpetrators of another great evil that hardly anyone in our society seems willing to condemn anymore: the purveyors of pornography, which promises gratification but only brings destruction, and ends up entrapping men, women, and even children in habits and bonds they can hardly escape from.

And, of course, there are still those who treat other human beings as objects to be bought and sold, used and thrown away. And there are people who think that they can know everything they need to about a person’s character and worth and sort the good from the bad, just by seeing the color of his or her skin, or the clothes she wears, or hearing the language he speaks. And there are child abusers. And wife beaters. And homewreckers. And sickos and psychos and terrorists and tyrants.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Perhaps we don’t often think about how many “enemies” we have out there.

And it is so easy to demonize them – especially when the culture disapproves of them as much as we do, or when we feel particularly threatened by one or the other. Our sinful nature tells us to just write all such people off as unworthy of our patience, understanding, and conversation, let alone our love and service.

But that’s not what Jesus did, is it? He sought out the sinners, he pleaded with his opponents, he reasoned with those who rejected him, and when his enemies crucified him, he prayed for their salvation. And so we, his people, when we encounter those who intend to harm us or do evil to others, who have fallen into deep sins or disgusting habits, who rationalize what’s immoral and glorify what’s unholy, we treat them the way Jesus did – no matter how ugly their offenses might be. We do not condone or excuse any evil or call what is bad good, but we seek salvation for lost sinners. We pray, earnestly, and often, with our Savior, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And we will also remember to pray it not just for others, but also for ourselves: “Forgive us, we don’t know what we’re doing.” Because when we look at others and their evils, we recognize that we and the church are hardly perfect when it comes to life and sex and marriage and family and justice and decency. In your circles, there are people who have sinned against God’s great gift of sex and marriage. There are people guilty of devaluing their own or others’ lives, or of treating others as somehow inferior or morally flawed just because of the way they look. It’s not unreasonable to think that there might be someone who has had an abortion or encouraged someone else to get one, or whose attitude toward a dying family member was more “let’s get this over with” than “how can I love and serve you?”

If we all always did everything right there would be no divorces among us, no sexual sin or confusion, no need for pastoral counseling, no family conflicts, no disharmony in our congregations – and certainly no abortion, euthanasia, or assisted suicide. And worship, Bible Class, and Sunday School attendance would all be near 100% every week. But we don’t always know what we’re doing, do we? This means that we want and need forgiveness and understanding and patience from God – just as much as his and our earthly enemies do.

This gives us an opening and a lifetime of opportunities to share the gospel with people we otherwise might think we have nothing in common with or would want to turn away from. The issues of life and marriage and family and more that seem to divide us can be used as bridges to share the message of sin and grace, instead of being walls that keep us apart. When our goal is to connect people to Christ and the cross, we’re not interested in scoring points against them or positioning ourselves as more right or righteous than they are – we’re interested in telling how Jesus saves sinners like us and like them, and how he won us forgiveness from all our sins. We don’t want more enemies; we want more people to join us in Christ’s kingdom of love. And given how hopeless people are without the gospel – even as they search for certainty and meaning in the evils the culture calls good, even if they think their darkness is light – being ready, able, and eager to give them the reason for the hope that we have is pretty much the best way we have of loving others, even our enemies, as God has loved us.

So Christian Life Resources is not about picketing clinics or picking fights with our opponents; we have pregnancy centers around the country, and a home for single mothers, New Beginnings, in Milwaukee, so we can offer both practical help and spiritual hope to women who need both. We give scriptural answers to hard questions and godly guidance in confusing situations. We educate, we reach out, we serve – all to fulfill our mission. We want to tell women struggling with the guilt of abortion that they have a Savior whose blood washed away even that sin, we love to tell people who are hurt and exhausted by our culture’s ever-changing attitudes toward sex and sexuality that there is a better way, laid out by a loving God on the solid ground of Scripture.

And your mission is the same – every church, every Christian. Only the specifics are different – the options, obligations, and opportunities God places before you as you fulfill your various callings as his representative in this world. It is not our place to wish evil on our enemies or judge anyone as beyond God’s salvation; it is instead our privilege to pray, and work and speak, for every unbeliever’s conversion and every sinner’s forgiveness.

They don’t know what they are doing, but we know what Christ has done for them because he did it for us as well. Father, forgive them. Amen.

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