We are in the midst of Holy Week, or Passion Week, and this Good Friday you may well attend a service that will focus on the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” One of those words is found in Luke 23:34 – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Of course, these words are very important, and despite the text-critical issues with regard to the genuineness of this saying, it should probably be regarded as authentic.
However, there are other things which Jesus did and said that last week. And they should be given their proper attention as well. So here is a selection of those deeds and words which occurred during that week, after Palm Sunday, and before his crucifixion on Good Friday.
(1) Jesus, as he approaches Jerusalem, declares:
The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you. (Luke 19:44)
(2) Jesus cleanses the temple. This should be understood as a prophetic sign-act in which Jesus portrays the future destruction of the temple. The edifice has been turned into a “den of robbers.” God will soon abandon the temple and turn it over to pagan invaders for them to destroy (Matthew 21:12-13).
(3) Jesus curses the fig tree. This has been well-recognized by commentators as a symbolic act of what is going to happen to Israel in days to come. Israel is the fig tree which has failed to bear fruit, and will soon wither and be destroyed (Matthew 21:18-22)
(4) Jesus tells the story of the tenants who rebel against the owner of the vineyard and kill the landowner’s servants (Mark 12:1-12). Finally, the landowner sends his own son, but the tenants throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. Jesus then completes the story like this:
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. (Mark 12:9)
(5) Jesus, at the conclusion of this parable, then brings in cornerstone imagery. Jesus is the cornerstone. But what will this cornerstone do?
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“ ‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matthew 21:42-44)
(6) Jesus tells the story of the wedding banquet. Those whom the king invited to the banquet refused to accept the invitation, and even killed the king’s servants who invited them a second time. The king, in turn, destroyed them and burned their city (Matthew 22:1-14) .
(7) Jesus, in one of his “dialogues” with the Sadducees and Pharisees (Matthew 22:41-46), calls attention to Psalm 110 as a psalm of David, implying that he himself is the second “Lord” spoken to by the first “Lord”?:
The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.” (Matt 22:44)
It is quite likely that Jesus is also implying that the “enemies” to be put under his feet are the very same Sadducees and Pharisees who are standing before him.
(8) Jesus pronounces “Seven Woes” against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-38). At the conclusion of these woes, Jesus says,
And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matthew 23:35-36)
(9) Jesus declares that temple will be destroyed, and that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).
(10) Jesus describes all the things that will happen when the “Son of Man” comes (Matthew 24:15-51), which can be summed up as “great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21)
(11) Jesus tells of the judgment of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Of the goats it is said that they will go away, cursed, into the eternal fire, to eternal punishment.
(12) Jesus speaks of the time when Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies (Luke 21:-36), and says that:
This is the time of vengeance in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. (Luke 21:22-24)
(13) Jesus pronounces woe on Judas, the one would betray him, declaring that it would have been best if he had never been born (Matthew 26:24).
(14) Jesus at his trial before the Sanhedrin, when pressed to swear by oath whether he regards himself as the Son of God, does so, and then adds the following:
But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26:64)
The implication of what Jesus says here is that right now he is standing in front of them and being judged by them. The tables, however, will be turned. The Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven, and then they will be the ones who will be judged by him.
What is so striking about these deeds and sayings of Jesus regarding judgment and punishment (and I have even left some out), is that they occur in such a concentrated period of time—one week. Of course, we refer to this week as Holy Week, or the week of the Lord’s passion. But we could just as easily, and accurately, refer to it as Announcement of Judgment Week. This is a culminating week in which our Lord is completing his goal of going to the cross in order to accomplish our redemption. And yet it is also the week in which he pronounces severe judgments on those who refuse to accept his kingship, his lordship, and his offered redemption, and who persist in their wickedness and rebellion.
What do we do then with that saying of Good Friday, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”?
Well, for one, we must reject any approach to this question that would see the “forgive them” statement on the cross as canceling out all the rest of the things which Jesus said and did that week. That would be an illegitimate way of dealing with the issue. Jesus is not to be seen here as flipping a switch and taking a brand new perspective on the idea of judgment.
Just as strongly, we must reject any approach to this question that would see all the deeds and pronouncements Jesus makes that week as canceling out the word from the cross.
Rather, we must hold both things in tension, because both are true.
My own way of dealing with this tension is to understand that both the judgment pronouncements and the word from the cross should be seen as incorporating a conditional element. For the judgment pronouncements, we should understand that at least part of the reason for them is that Jesus’s hearers might take heed from these pronouncements, confess their sins, repent, and plead for Christ’s mercy. “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:9).
As for the “forgiveness” petition from the cross, we should see that as conditional as well. This is not simply a blanket petition that God would forgive everyone. Rather, the prayer is that his Father would forgive all those who come to him in true contrition, confession, and plead for forgiveness—in essence, like the thief who was granted entrance into paradise that very same day.
Christ is the priest who sacrifices himself on the cross for all those who come to God with humble and contrite hearts, confessing their faults, and asking “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Christ, just like the priests in the Old Testament, looks on them in their weakness and ignorance, and asks his Father to forgive them, because, as the true priest, “he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray” (Hebrews 5:2).
And the book of Acts, with its multiple stories of the conversions of Pharisees, and priests, and Roman soldiers, and eunuchs, and persecutors of the church, and large crowds demonstrates that the Father heard his Son’s priestly prayer and was pleased to grant his request.
Indeed, that priestly ministry on our behalf continues still. “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
Lent 2022, Day Thirty-Six
April 12, 2022