Didn’t they know what they were doing?

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34, ESV

These were among the last words of Jesus at the cross, just before He gave up His spirit. Much has been taught from this saying about how it fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 53:12), and the loving forgiveness of God for sinners.

But did they really not know what they were doing?

Who were “they” that Jesus prayed for? There was a mixed crowd around the cross. There were soldiers who mocked Him (Luke 23:36) and divided up His clothes. There were rulers who sneered at Him. There were also crowds of ordinary people standing around and watching (Luke 23:35), some jeering Him. Then there were the two condemned criminals nailed in similar fashion on the other two crosses.

The soldiers could be excused on the grounds that they were simply following orders, and might not have known of the political manoeuvring taking place among the religious elite and the Roman authorities. The crowds could have been manipulated by persons planted amongst them by the religious leaders, as were the false witnesses against Jesus during the trial.

Jesus might not have been referring to the criminals because He did engage them soon after this particular saying.

But the rulers of the people surely did know what they were doing to Jesus. They claimed that Jesus was teaching what was contrary to the Law and were fearful of His popularity and influence over the common people. So they were the ones who schemed to get Jesus arrested, and expedited the process of trial and execution. The rulers therefore hardly qualified as people who did not know what they were doing. To forgive such persons on grounds that they did not know what they were doing would be tantamount to saying that they were not responsible for whatever evil they had devised and executed.

But there was one point that the various parties were ignorant about. This was God’s plan of salvation, set in motion after the fall (Genesis 3:15). The crowds did not know they were crucifying their Messiah.

The religious leaders were removing someone they saw as a threat to their authority, and did not see that He was the fulfilment of all the Law they had supposedly studied. They mocked the thought that He was the Christ (Mark 15:32), falsely believing that they were being faithful to the Law. Only one of the soldiers realised, but too late, that He was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).

From a human perspective, we can see it as a momentum of ignorance, jealousy and fear that climaxed in the crucifixion. But this was precisely the reason why the plan of salvation was necessary. From the divine perspective, it was sin that had to be dealt with. While we can see the human force pushing Jesus to the cross, it was in reality His willing submission to the will of His Father (John 10:17).

There was a bigger plot that had to be executed. It was sin that He came to deal with, not just those who committed sins. Only when sin had been dealt with, could those who committed them be set free.

Ignorance is no excuse. Hence, Jesus forgave them for sins committed in ignorance (as well as those done deliberately).

Ultimately, it is the love of God that drives His purpose from beginning to end (Ephesians 1:4-5), often “covering a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), lavishing His grace upon us (Ephesians 1:8), till we come to our senses and receive the best that He has for us.


Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup –
was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2012.
He has been a Methodist pastor for 30 years.