This is an excerpt from my upcoming devotional, The Seven Last Words & Next Words of Jesus. Coming soon.
It’s 9 AM. The sun has risen over the hills outside Jerusalem and the cool morning is quickly giving way to the sultry heat of midday. Sweat mingled with blood drips down Jesus’ face as he is laid across a splintered wooden beam and a mallet is raised in the air. As the hammer comes down, the shimmering air is riven by a clang of metal on metal, and then screams.
The execution is just beginning, but the torture has been going on for hours.
A sham overnight trial, a mockery of justice. False witnesses lined up, lie after lie admitted to the bar by jurors bent with bias.
A flogging at the hands of cruel Roman soldiers, bits of metal and bone tied to a whip and lashed across the prisoner’s back, ripping skin and muscle to pieces. A brutally effective meat grinder.
A twisted crown of thorns piercing skin down to the bone. Mocking insults.
A long exhausting march towards execution.
And now, the nails. Spikes driven through the Savior’s wrists by Roman soldiers. As the cross is hoisted into the air and set in place, the entire weight of Jesus’ body now rests on the iron peg rubbing against his radius bone. Metal scraping bone, electric fire coursing down the severed median nerve with every movement. Suspended on the cross, every breath now required the prisoner to pull himself up by the radius bone, agony upon agony, until the lungs slowly fill with fluid and he chokes on his own blood. This is torture, distilled to an art form.
And Jesus’ response? In between involuntary cries of pain and ragged gasps for air, an appeal: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” With excruciating pain ripping through his body, the words out of Jesus’ mouth are a plea for mercy—not for himself, but for his executioners.
Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.
The logic of Jesus’ request for pardon always puzzled me. “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” As if ignorance could be an excuse! ! If I get pulled over by the police for speeding, I can’t plead ignorance. “I’m sorry, officer, I didn’t realize I was doing eighty-five in a school zone.” Ignorance is irrelevant. And this is no speeding ticket—this is the greatest crime in history, the murder of the innocent, holy Son of God! Ignorance is no excuse.
And yet Jesus pleads for mercy on his executioners: “They don’t know what they’re doing.” Why?
Here’s why: this isn’t an argument for acquittal—“Forgive them on the basis of their ignorance.” No, this is something far more amazing. This is empathy. Empathy in the midst of agony, sympathy which steps into the shoes of his executioners and sees them simply doing their job, oblivious to the weight of their crime. And his heart of compassion, which even now is bleeding out of the wounds which they caused, breaks for them. “Oh Father, they have no idea what they’re doing. Please, have mercy on them.”
What kind of Savior is this, who bleeds compassion? Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and as Jesus’ heart is literally squeezed to death, we see what comes flowing out: empathy. Kindness. Mercy. Even for his executioners.
Even for me.