1. Final Words of Jesus: Words of Mercy (Lk. 23:26-38)Related Media
In our passage, Jesus has just endured a horrible night. He has been unemotionally betrayed by one disciple and forsaken by all the rest. He has been unjustly arrested and charged. He has been inhumanely tortured and unceasingly mocked. He has been inequitably traded like so much merchandise for a common murderer. Finally, he has been unconscionably condemned to crucifixion. We pick up the story as he is being led out to the place of crucifixion.
Our subject in this sermon is the mercy and forgiveness of God. This account in Luke’s gospel teaches us that Jesus extends mercy to those who are unmerciful. First, we see that…
1. Jesus speaks words of mercy in forewarning (Lk. 23:26-31)
Exhausted from the night of horrors, Jesus didn’t have sufficient strength to carry his cross. So, “they seized one, Simon of Cyrene who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross to carry behind Jesus” (23:26). Luke’s account of the crucifixion revolves around a variety of people - their involvement and response to the crucifixion of Jesus. I suppose that Luke wants us to know that the crucifixion of Jesus was not a private affair: it was not done in a corner. He wants us to know that Jesus’ crucifixion impacted a complete spectrum of humanity – some were there purposefully, some out of curiosity, others by chance.
One who seems to have been there by chance was a man from Cyrene, perhaps coming to Jerusalem for the Passover, who unwittingly crossed paths with Jesus at this crucial moment in Jesus’ life. There was also “a great multitude of people” (23:27) following Jesus. Evidently many of those who had been at the trial now joined the procession to see this to its bitter end. Among them were Galilean women, who wailed and lamented as middle eastern women are wont to do at such events (23:27). And Jesus says to them: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves & your children” (23:28a).
A few years ago, my wife and I were on one of our many visits to the U.K. to see my parents. The area of Britain that I come from is without doubt the most beautiful – and I’m not biased! Near to the place where I was born there is an amphitheater carved into the rocks on a cliff overlooking the ocean. While we were there, we went to see the musical “Evita”. The musical is about the life of first lady of . The story follows Evita's early life, rise to power, charity work, and eventual death. The song from the musical that rocketed to the top of the charts was titled, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” This song was Eva’s exhortation to the Argentinian people to not mourn her passing. The chorus of the song echoes this sad refrain: “Don't cry for me Argentina; the truth is I never left you. All through my wild days, my mad existence, I kept my promise; don't keep your distance.”
In response to their mourning for him, Jesus seems to be saying to these women, “Don’t cry for me, Galileans, the truth is I’m going to leave you. All through my ministry days, my earthly existence, I made some prophecies, which aren’t too distant.” Jesus is warning them of a horrendous coming judgement when they will cry for the mountains to cover them; a judgement that came in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed under the brutal attack of the Roman army. Though Jesus’ future will bring the utmost pain and suffering, nonetheless his future goes beyond that to his resurrection. Whereas, their future will be devastating, especially if they do not respond appropriately to him. “Don’t cry tears for me, ladies of Galilee, but cry for yourselves and your children. For so devastating will be your future that those women who are barren will be glad they never bore children. Don’t cry for me, ladies of Galilee, you need all the time you can to prepare for what’s coming by repenting now. For if wicked men cut down a ‘green tree’ (the One who is life itself and who came to give life), what will God do to them? He will burn them up like so much dry wood” (23:28-31).
What words of merciful forewarning are these that Jesus would think of these people in the midst of all he was passing through. It was pure grace and mercy that Jesus would be concerned about the future of a group of anonymous, unidentified women, even when He was staggering to his own death! It was pure grace and mercy to warn others of their impending danger rather than be consumed with His own demise! They were caught up in the sorrow of his moment, but Jesus was caught up in the reality of their future.
This, brothers and sisters, is the epitome of God’s grace! Jesus’ suffering takes a back seat in his concern for ours. Jesus’ future is for him of secondary importance to ours. Jesus’ life was entirely taken up with manifesting and bestowing the grace of God on sinners like them and like us. How many of us would be able to even think about someone else’s future when we ourselves were being led away to be killed! How many of us would be able to even think about someone else’s future if we had just spent the entire previous night being falsely accused, spat upon, scourged with whips, mocked, ridiculed, and condemned like a common criminal?
These are words of merciful forewarning, words that we are empowered to proclaim today. Oh, we’re not in Jesus’ crucifixion crowd. We’re not watching an innocent man being led to his execution. No! We live in a sterile world where everything is covered with a veneer of respectability. We pride ourselves on having a just society where people’s rights are protected. where innocent people are defended, where our security is guarded by the rule of law, police forces, armies, and early warning systems.
But who is warning people of their spiritual danger? That’s our job – to utter words of mercy in the gospel, warning people of impending judgement and offering people full and free salvation through faith in Jesus Christ – his atoning death and life-giving resurrection. So, in the light of the impending doom of this world, we can and we must utter words of mercy in warning others of their impending danger, a danger that most don’t even know exists - just like these Galilean women. For the sceptics say that everything is going on as it did from the beginning of creation. But they willfully forget that God has judged the world before with a flood and the world that then existed perished. They willfully forget that this world is now reserved for judgement by fire at that great and terrible day of the Lord. With such a future just around the corner, what the world needs more than anything else is words of merciful warning.
In our passage, Jesus speaks words of mercy in forewarning. And…
2. Jesus speaks words of mercy for forgiveness (23:32-38)
Along with Jesus there were two other men, “criminals, who were led away to be put to death with him” (23:32). In fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (53:12), Jesus is numbered here among the transgressors. Unlike the unknown Cyrenian, these men were well known for their criminal activity. They were receiving the due reward of their deeds, but Jesus had done nothing amiss. One of them will later repent while the other will adamantly remain unrepentant.
These two men are a microcosm of the entire world, some of whom repent while others remain in their sins. Some people receive the love of God in Christ. They see their need of forgiveness and mercy. They understand that God’s mercy can only be accessed through the death of Christ. They repent of their sins, they receive salvation, welcoming it and rejoicing in it. Their lives are immediately and eternally changed. They turn from darkness to light, from Satan to God. But others refuse the love of God in Christ. They can’t see their sinfulness and rebellion against God. They are ignorant that they have fallen short of the glory of God. They love the world and all that is in the world and, no matter what, they won’t give it up! That’s the picture of humanity here in these two men.
Finally, they arrive at the place of crucifixion. “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (23:33). In Aramaic this place is called “Golgotha”; in Latin “Calvaria.” It’s called the place of a skull because of its shape, protruding out of the landscape like a skull. It seems that the rulers wanted crucifixion to be blatantly public so that everyone could see and be warned by the punishment meted out to those who opposed them.
Luke simply and without embellishment records the entire crucifixion in four words: “There they crucified him”(23:33). No cheap Hollywood melodramatic sights and sounds - just, “There they crucified him.” And no deep theological extrapolation here either. Luke relies on the bare essentials, the historical facts, for the reader to draw your own conclusions.
It’s poignant that Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Could this be symbolic that Jesus is the bridge from death on one side to life on the other, from unrighteousness on one side to righteousness on the other, from condemnation on one side to forgiveness on the other, from being lost on one side to being saved on the other, from hell on one side to heaven on the other?
Then Jesus speaks again - this time not words of mercy in warning… but words of mercy for forgiveness: “Father, forgive them…” (23:34a). Here Jesus practices exactly what he had preached: to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Lk. 6:27-28). No wonder Peter could say of Jesus, that “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Previously in vv. 28-31, Jesus acts in his office of Prophet. Later in v. 43, he will act in his office as King. Here he acts in his office as Priest, interceding for the people. As J.C. Ryle so eloquently puts it: “As soon as the blood of the Great Sacrifice began to flow, the Great High Priest began to intercede” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel, Vol. II: Luke, 467).
Now, Jesus prays, “Father.” In addressing God as Father, Jesus appeals to Him as the Forgiver not as the Judge, the One with whom he has the closest relationship, the One whose heart beats with the Father’s heart. This expresses intimacy, unity of purpose, thought and action. The goal of God the Father and God the Son was that “none should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Jesus prays for forgiveness for “them.” Who does this refer to? Who is meant by “them” the religious rulers who falsely accused him perhaps; the Roman authorities who falsely condemned him perhaps; the soldiers who were executing him; the people who were standing by watching; those who hurled insults and mockery at him? Can we not say that he prayed for them all? Were they not all guilty of his crucifixion? Did they not all need forgiveness? Were they not all ignorant of whom they were crucifying?
Yes, Jesus says, “they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). They were ignorant of the fact that they were crucifying their Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, that they were crucifying the Redeemer, that they were crucifying the One of whom their own prophets had foretold would come to deliver their nation. In fact, the apostle Paul confirms this notion of ignorance, that “none of the rulers of this world understood, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).
This is a prayer for the forgiveness for those who were guilty but who were ignorant of the extent of what they were doing, for they didn’t know who Jesus was. Luke is the only evangel to record this prayer for forgiveness. This accords perfectly with the whole tenor of Luke’s gospel to emphasize the forgiveness of God and to magnify the love of the Saviour for sinners, even his enemies. And doesn’t this prayer capture that focus exactly? Jesus is not occupied with himself – although we could certainly understand it if he had been. Jesus completely renounces his rights and claims and instead directs his whole attention to his crucifiers. To think that the innocent One they were crucifying is concerned about his enemies would be extraordinary. But to think that the innocent One they were crucifying is actually interceding with his Father for their forgiveness is unimaginable. He wants them to be given another chance to repent and by his death to be saved from certain judgement. He is dying for their sins! And interceding for their forgiveness! It’s as though Jesus is saying to his Father, “Give them another chance, Father! They are ignorant of the consequences of their actions! They don’t know who they are crucifying.” What words of grace and mercy! These were life-giving words from a loving Saviour.
Now, we should note that this was a prayer for forgiveness, not an actual forgiveness itself. This was a prayer that they would be given another chance to repent and, thus, to receive forgiveness, for that is the only way to be forgiven. The question is, did God grant Jesus’ prayer, for only God can forgive sins, as the Pharisees well knew (Lk. 5:21). And the answer is “Yes!” God gave them another chance. How do we know that? Because we know that God continued to grant them opportunity to repent in the book of Acts. In Acts 2, at Pentecost, Peter said, “Him you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death… Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (2:23, 36). To which they cried out, “What shall we do?” (2:37). To which Peter answers, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins” (2:38). God answered Jesus’ prayer!
In Acts 3, Peter continues to appeal to them, saying, “I know that you acted in ignorance as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all his prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted so that your sins may be blotted out” (3:17-19). God answered Jesus’ prayer! In fact, God continued to give them another chance to repent for all the years of the apostles’ ministry, confirming what they said with signs and wonders. And as we know, thousands responded and were forgiven; but of course many rejected the opportunity. In addition, we know that God answered Jesus’ prayer because this prayer initiated the day of God’s grace which the world has enjoyed for the last 2000 years. This is the period of time during which God is waiting in sovereign grace for people everywhere to repent and be saved. As a result of this prayer, God is giving all people everywhere another chance to repent! God could have justly and immediately condemned the entire human race, but in response to Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness, he delayed it. He extended the time for people to repent and receive forgiveness of sins. Now, for 2000 years the gospel of God’s grace has been made known far and wide. Because of Jesus’ prayer countless innocent aborted babies are in heaven. Because of Jesus’ prayer countless people have responded in faith to the gospel. They have appealed to God’s mercy and grace in Christ and received forgiveness of sins.
The story is told of one of England’s more famous monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I. One of her favorites at the royal court was the Earl of Essex. One day she gave him a special ring, as a token of her affection, and told him that if he were ever accused of a crime, no matter what, he had only to send her that ring and she would grant him the opportunity to appear before her in person and plead his case. The day came when the earl was accused of high treason. He was found guilty and eventually executed. The queen had waited for him to send her that ring but she had waited in vain. Because the ring never came, she allowed the sentence of death to stand, though it pained her heart. Years later, the Countess of Nottingham lay dying. She was a relative, but no friend, of the long-since-dead Earl of Essex. The countess sent a messenger to the queen: “Would her majesty come? She had a confession to make. She could not die in peace until it was made.” The queen came and stood by the deathbed of the anxious countess. The countess the produced the fateful ring. It appeared that the Earl of Essex had given it to her with the urgent request that she take it straight to the queen but she had failed to do so. Now she begged the queen’s forgiveness. But she had appealed to wrong woman. Queen Elizabeth was livid with rage. She seized the dying countess and shook her until her teeth rattled. “God may forgive you, Madam,” she screamed, “but I never shall.” And with that she stormed out of the room. The countess of Nottingham remained unforgiven (Cited in John Phillips, “Jesus Our Lord,” 187). Thank God that the Lord Jesus Christ is not like that. In grace, he readily forgives those who have sinned against him and spitefully used him if they repent.
Incredibly, despite the enormity of mercy that Jesus has expressed, the people acted as though nothing had happened. There were the soldiers who “divided his garments and cast lots” for them (23:34b). For the soldiers, this was just another day’s work. Getting some of his garments was one of the perks of the job. They divided them up by lottery so that there was no partiality. After all, they didn’t want to get what wasn’t “rightfully” theirs, did they? These were “fair” men, weren’t they, who treated others with respect? Seriously? Can you see the irony of it all? They had just crucified an innocent man! Where was the justice in that? They had just gained from someone else’s loss. Where was the fairness in that? Yet, for these callous men, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
So, there were the soldiers. And there were the spectators: “The people who stood looking on” (23:35a) - by-standers, a crowd with no personal involvement except perhaps just curiosity or maybe entertainment. These people are like some people who come to church. Some come out of curiosity or perhaps because someone they know persuaded them to come. They are “watchers” but not participants. They may be curious but not interested.
Then, there were the rulers and soldiers. Those who should have known better; those who could have influenced the outcome of this despicable process; those who should have stood up and done what was right. “The rulers sneered at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One.” And the soldiers also mocked him, coming up & offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:35b-37). What they had done to Jesus was bad enough, but they added insult to injury by jeering at him, scoffing at him.
You see, it all has to do with who Jesus is. “If you are the Messiah, God’s chosen one… if you are the King of the Jews.” This isn’t an “if” of reason but an “if” of doubt. This is an “if” of sarcasm, mockery, contempt, disdain. You can hear the laughter as they jeer at him. No one believes for a moment that they are actually mocking the Son of God. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they have discredited him long ago as an impostor, a deceiver, a false messiah. They had completely missed the point of his signs and wonders. Where were the people now who had been healed by Jesus? Where were the lepers, the blind, the lame, the paralyzed? Where were the hungry people Jesus had fed? They had completely missed the point of his teachings: “He who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life and shall not come into judgement but has passed from death into life”(Jn. 5:24). “For God so loved the world that he gave his one & only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”(Jn. 3:16).
The truth of Jesus’ life and teachings were lost on them. Such is the ignorance and deceit of the sinful heart of man. So they mock him, sneer at him, scoff at him, jeer at him. “Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!... If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (23:35-37). Do you hear the irony in their taunts. Someone has said, “The ultimate irony is that God will actually perform their request in Jesus’ resurrection” (Darrel Bock, The NIV Application Commentary, 595). He does save himself in his resurrection because he is the Messiah, the chosen One, the Redeemer! He does save himself in his resurrection because he is the Messiah, the King, to which the inscription over him ironically but rightly attested, “This is the King of the Jews” (23:38).
Again, let not the irony of this be lost on us. This inscription that had been ordered by Pilate screams out the truth: He is the King! He does reign supreme! He is the Christ of God! They meant it in mockery but God meant it in truth.
These then are “final words of Jesus: words of mercy.” Remember our thesis: Jesus extends mercy to those who are unmerciful. He speaks words of mercy in forewarning of judgement to come; and he speaks words of mercy for the forgiveness of those who were unmerciful toward him. We have seen how those to whom he was so gracious and so merciful responded to him. The question is: “What’s your response to Jesus?”
From Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we learn the importance of our response to Jesus. Luke’s account records the various responses of a variety of people who represent the entirety of humanity. There were those who simply accompanied him; others just watched out of curiosity; some actually crucified him; while others mocked him. But all of them were guilty of rejecting him. Only the centurion eventually came to the right conclusion that Jesus was a righteous man. They had had ample evidence and ample time to receive him. And so have we had ample evidence and time. Yet still so many reject him. We stand in need of God’s mercy and grace in Christ. We stand in need of repenting for our sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Saviour for the forgiveness of our sins.
Luke’s account also portrays for us the heart of Jesus. In Jesus, God displays his love for a lost human race. And Jesus demonstrates God’s heart as he prays for the forgiveness of those who killed him. Luke’s account records the utter hardness of the human heart in the actions of the rulers and soldiers. They were so blind that they executed the only perfect and sinless man who ever lived. They were so hard that they crucified one who prayed for their forgiveness. They were so depraved that they mocked at an innocent man’s death and suffering. And yet, in response, we hear life-giving words from a loving Savior - words of mercy that are extended even today to those who are unmerciful.
Praise God for reminding us this Easter season of the matchless grace and mercy and forgiveness of God, which alone can be found in Jesus Christ.