Τhey had never witnessed anything like this before. The Roman soldiers were used to exerting their power in order to fasten a victim to his cross. But this unusual man who oddly refused the merciful drink also refused to fight. The absence of resistance as they drove the nails was astonishing. And rather than the regular cursing, shrieking and spitting that came from a victim’s mouth, what came from His mouth were words of blessing along with compassionate prayers. The Savior’s first words at the place called Calvary were, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luk 23:34).
Notice that the first word from Jesus’ lips is “Father.” His first thought in the midst of suffering was to pray. Of the seven sayings of the Savior from the cross, three of them are prayers. The fourth cry is a prayer: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mat 27:46). The final cry is also a prayer: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luk 23:46). The beginning, middle and end of His agony were bathed in holy conversation with the Father. The anguish of the cross, intense enough to lead victims to curse God, did not disrupt His perfect communion with His Father.
But not only is His first cry a prayer but a prayer for others. He does not pray, “Father, help me” or, “Father, save me.” He cries out, “Father, forgive them.” His first thought in prayer was not to pray for Himself but to intercede for others. If crucifixion victims prayed for others at all, it was likely vindictive. But Jesus doesn’t ask the Father to harm them but to forgive them. He was thinking not of the harm they were doing to Him but of the harm they were doing to themselves. And those hardened soldiers were surely stunned to hear this Man, a Man they were crucifying, pray for them.
The Lord was, unsurprisingly, practicing what He preached. He had said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luk 6:27-28 NET). There was no love like His, a love expressed in a desire for the forgiveness of those who were mistreating Him.
If the soldiers wondered if they heard Him correctly, they would need to wonder no more, for again Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The imperfect tense indicates that Jesus repeated this prayer over and over. The soldiers may have heard His prayer as the nails tore through His flesh. Perhaps they heard it again when the cross was elevated and dropped into the opening in the ground. When “they parted his raiment, and cast lots” (Luk 23:34), it’s possible they heard it again. We wonder how many times this cry went up on behalf of those who crucified Him. These men had never witnessed such a merciful and compassionate response to the vicious act of crucifixion.
But the soldiers were probably not the only ones to hear His repeated cry. Immediately after, Luke records that “the people stood beholding. And the rulers also …” (v35). The prayer of Jesus was not only for the Roman soldiers but for those of His own nation, who handed Him over to be executed. Remember that part of His prayer was “they know not what they do.” The Roman soldiers were ignorant about who Jesus really was. But Peter later said to his fellow countrymen, “And now, brothers, I know you acted in ignorance, as your rulers did too” (Act 3:17 NET; see also Act 13:27; 1Co 2:8). Although they bore guilt, they were ignorant of the enormity of their crime. And Jesus, their own Messiah, prays that they may be forgiven for such a contemptible act.
The sufferings of Christ did not diminish His confidence in His Father. He did not repeat “Father, forgive them” because He was unsure if His prayer was heard, but because He was sure His prayer was heard. There were so many shameful deeds at the cross which needed divine forgiveness. And Jesus had confidence to pray that such forgiveness would be granted. Shortly thereafter, the Jewish leaders would ridicule Him by saying, “He trusted in God” (Mat 27:43). They were right. Jesus did trust in God, even while nailed to His cross.
We look to the right and left of Jesus. He is in between transgressors. Isaiah prophesied that He would be “numbered with the transgressors” (53:12). But we look beneath the cross of Jesus and see more transgressors still – soldiers, spectators, scribes, priests and other leaders. Isaiah had a prophecy for them all: Jesus “made intercession for the transgressors” (v12).
But don’t miss another prophetic text from Isaiah 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (v5). Although we were not next to Jesus (like those thieves), or at the foot of His cross, we were there at the place called Calvary. “He bare the sin of many [that’s us], and made intercession for the transgressors” (v12). We were not there to see His pain nor to hear His words, but His forgiveness extends to us all because He died for all.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by His precious blood.
Thank God for Christ’s first and repeated cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them!”
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.
 Stephen later prays, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Act 7:60), as he is being stoned under the authority of the Jewish leaders, demonstrating the same spirit of forgiveness as the Lord Jesus.
 Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–1895).