Luke 23:32–43

Even as He hung dying on the cross, Jesus prayed for those who mocked Him and spoke words of great consolation to the man crucified beside Him. Continuing his sermon series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul beholds Christ’s priestly ministry in the sacrifice of Himself.


This morning we will continue our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. Today, I will read Luke 23:32–43. I would like to ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

We have been favored to have this record that is superintended by God the Holy Spirit, inspired by Him, the Word that is true, the Word of God Himself. Please hear this Word and be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, our minds are incapable of understanding the depth of what transpired in that hour. So, we beg that You would condescend to minister to us by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, that we may grasp something of the weight of those things that happened on Calvary. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Father, Forgive Them

All four Gospels give us a narrative in part of the crucifixion of Jesus. No one of them communicates all the particular details to be found in that record. We know from reading the Gospels that there were at least seven occasions when Jesus spoke aloud from the cross. He may have spoken more, but only seven such utterances are recorded.

We do not know the exact order in which those statements were made, but tradition has it that the first of the seven words spoken from the cross were the words recorded here in Luke’s gospel, where we read as follows: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”

The first utterance that came from the lips of our Savior as He was in the process of being brutally executed were the tender words of a personal plea to the Father, not for Himself, His safety, or His well-being, but for those murdering Him. Even before He entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies, before He rose to the position of our High Priest forever, He was acting in intercession as a priest for His tormentors, pleading for their forgiveness: “Father, forgive them.”

Jesus held out mitigating circumstances because, He said: “They just don’t know what they’re doing. They’re acting out of ignorance.” The Scriptures realize that when we sin against God, there are sometimes mitigating circumstances measured in part by levels of knowledge and the lack of it. In the Old Testament system of penitence, there were provisions made for those sins that were committed in ignorance.

Invincible Ignorance

At Vatican Council I in 1870, the pope was officially proclaimed to be infallible, de fide. The presiding pope was Pius IX. During that time, he wrote his Allocution, in which he defined two different kinds of ignorance. He distinguished between what he called “vincible” ignorance and “invincible” ignorance.

In that council in the nineteenth century, Protestants were referred to as “schismatics” and “heretics.” Though no significant doctrine was changed at Vatican Council II, at least the rhetoric was softened, and Protestants were called “separated brethren.” But in 1870, these harsh words, “schismatics” and “heretics,” were softened by Pius’s distinction between vincible and invincible ignorance.

Pius was dealing with the reality that the Reformation took place in the sixteenth century, and for a period of three hundred years, generation after generation had been brought up in Protestant homes. Those people only knew Protestant theology; they were not exposed to Roman Catholic thinking. Protestants considered Roman Catholic thinking to be anathema. So, in a very real sense, according to the pope, they suffered from a serious form of ignorance, which Pius IX called “invincible ignorance.”

Vincible ignorance is ignorance that could and should be overcome; that is, when we say that somebody should know better than to do what they are doing. But invincible ignorance, ignorance that cannot be conquered, is so described as an ignorance that a person in normal circumstances would not be able to overcome. It is too powerful.

For Pius, the poor Protestants had been brainwashed for hundreds of years; how could they possibly expect to know the truth of the Roman Catholic communion? So, this concept of invincible ignorance was articulated in Pius IX’s Allocution.

Had They Known the Lord of Glory

How does this apply to our text, in which Jesus brought the matter of ignorance into play with respect to His murderers? He said: “Father, forgive them because they are ignorant. They don’t know what they are doing.”

You could not possibly call it invincible ignorance with respect to the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. These were the experts on the Bible. These were the ones who searched the Scriptures, who knew all the teaching that the Word of God had set forth about the character of the Messiah. If any group of people in the history of the world should have known better, it was those people who conspired together to put Jesus to death. Yet, He spoke of their ignorance: “Forgive them. They really don’t have a clue.”

Later, Paul would write to the Corinthians and make this striking statement: “Had they known it, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). There are dozens of titles used both in the Old Testament and the New Testament to describe the Messiah that are applied to Jesus. One of my favorite titles is the one the Apostle used in this context when he referred to Jesus as the “Lord of glory.” He is not just the Lord of the Jews or the Gentiles, the pagans, all human beings, or the earth, but the “Lord of glory,” the “King of glory,” who resides in the heavenly places.

Paul said, “If they knew who they were killing, if they knew that this was the Lord of glory hanging in front of them, they wouldn’t for a moment think of crucifying Him.” In other words, they did not understand it. They did not see it. They should have understood it, they should have seen it, but they did not. So, Jesus said, “Please, Father, forgive them.”

Mockers of Jesus

At the very moment Jesus was pleading for their souls, praying by way of intercession for their forgiveness, their voices were only beginning to reach a crescendo of mockery. The words He had spoken about forgiveness went in one ear and out the other as those who were present watching continued to mock Him.

There were three different groups described as making a mockery of Jesus. First, we read that the rulers, the members of the Sanhedrin, the very ones who had gotten their heads together and said, “We must kill this man,” were not just killing Him; they were scoffing at Him. Listen to their mockery: “He saved others; let him save himself.” At least there was a thinly veiled acknowledgment that Jesus had saved others.

There were probably witnesses in the group tormenting Jesus who had seen Him give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and even life to the dead. They saw His works of salvation, and they grudgingly acknowledged it: “You saved all these other people, but let’s see You save Yourself, Jesus.”

To add insult to injury, after the soldiers cast lots to divide His garments, fulfilling the Scriptures, the soldiers also mocked Him. They said, “If You are the King of the Jews—we see the sign that Pilate posted over the cross that says, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’—if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Then, one of the criminals railed at Jesus. One of the men being crucified next to Him began to torment and rail at Him, saying: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

The point of the mockery was very simple: Jesus had been able to save other people, but He was not able to save Himself. He claimed that Jesus could not do it. He was in such a weakened condition from the scourging and the beginning of the crucifixion that He was virtually powerless. So, the charge was, “You can’t do it, can You, Jesus?”

Jesus Would Not Save Himself

Let us explore the point of the mockery for a moment. Could Jesus have saved Himself? On the one hand, we know that there was a huge crowd in attendance, probably tens of thousands of people, people who had been there for the feast. Later, Jesus was asked on the road to Emmaus, “Are You the only one in Jerusalem who didn’t know what happened?” There were thousands of spectators gathered around gaping at this criminal who was being killed.

Jesus saw these thousands of people. But what the people did not see were the ten times ten thousand angels hovering over Him. The Father had said that He would give His angels charge over Him, lest He dash His foot against a stone. But the people’s eyes were blinded to this celestial army, this heavenly host. If just one angel would have come down from heaven—Jesus did not even have to say a word, He would just blink His eye or nod His head—that was more than enough to take care of all the Roman garrison there. Imagine if the whole heavenly host descended at that moment to rescue Jesus. The Romans in all their power would not have been able to resist them.

Forget the angels for a moment. Who was it that was being crucified? This Jesus was not just a man, He was the God-man. Though in His human nature, He was utterly impotent to save Himself, He had no strength left to do it, He was still perfectly united to His divine nature. That divine nature in His deity was absolutely omnipotent. All the divine nature had to do was say one word. He speaks and the earth melts. Every one of the executioners would have fallen dead had the divine nature taken charge.

We have two words in the English language that are separated by one letter. There is the word could, which begins with a c and there is the word would, that begins with a w. Ladies and gentlemen, the reason Jesus did not save Himself was not because He could not do it. He did not save Himself because He would not do it. Why not?

The Eternal Covenant

Recently, I received a book fresh from publication, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, written by a theology professor at Westminster Seminary California, John Fesko. It is one of the best treatments of the covenant of redemption I have ever heard or read. It is because of the covenant of redemption that Jesus stayed on the cross.

It was not a short time prior to the crucifixion that the Father had a conversation with the Son and Holy Ghost and said: “Here’s Our plan. If they come and capture You, and if they seek to put You to death, We want You to stay where You are because it is Our plan of redemption.” No, the Trinitarian plan of redemption was settled in eternity before a single person was created, before Adam was made from the ground and Eve made from Adam.

From all eternity, the triune God was of one mind, one will, and one eternal purpose: to create and redeem a fallen group of human beings for the eternal purpose and glory of God Himself. Though they were essentially one, having only one essential mind and will, nevertheless, the persons of the Trinity, the subsistences of the divine essence, containing three persons among the Godhead, were in perfect agreement and perfect unity. It was the Father who sent the Son. It was the Son who accomplished redemption. It was the Spirit’s task to apply that redemption to those who would be saved, including us.

So, the plan was not a recent one; it was an eternal one. The human nature shrunk before it in Gethsemane, but eternity had determined that cup had to be drunk to its limits, to its dregs. So, if the Son would keep the covenant with the Father and the Spirit, He would not come down. He could not because He would not. He would never break covenant.

You and I are so different from Christ. The basic difference between God and human flesh is that we are covenant breakers. We break our promises all the time. God is a covenant keeper, and Jesus had a covenant to keep.

Do You Not Fear God?

Jesus listened to the mockery. He listened to the torments and taunting, as the one thief taunted Him and said: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other thief now spoke his piece, and he said: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds,” comma.

Before I go past the comma, the second thief said, “Do you not fear God?” That is the question I would ask everybody in this world individually and privately if I could: “Have you no fear of God?” We live in a godless nation. We live in a situation where there is no fear of God in the land. Republicans do not fear God, Democrats do not fear God, independents do not fear God. Sinners do not fear God, except they flee when no one pursues them.

So, the second thief said to the first thief: “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you fear God? Don’t you realize that we are under the same condemnation, but our condemnation is just? We are simply receiving what is our due, but this Man whom you are mocking has done nothing wrong.” He echoed the judgment of Pontius Pilate, “I find no fault in Him.” Even that thief recognized the sinlessness of Christ, the gross injustice, humanly speaking, taking place in this hour.

Then the thief spoke to Jesus. Please listen to what he said: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He said, in effect: “I know You are a King. I know You have a kingdom, and though I don’t know when, I know sooner or later, You are going to come into that kingdom. However long it takes for You to have that kingdom realized, I ask one thing: that You will remember the day You died, and You will remember that You died between two thieves.

“One of them mocked you, and said, ‘If You are the Christ, then save Yourself.’ But remember that I said, ‘You have done nothing wrong.’ I just ask that somehow You will tuck that away in Your memory, and in that moment of glory, please remember me.”

Today, You Will Be with Me

I do not know what Jesus’ face looked like in that moment, but I cannot help but think that, as painful an experience as He was having, He managed to smile. I imagine He looked at this thief and said to him: “I am not just going to remember you; I am going to take you into My kingdom—not in two thousand years, but before the sun sets this afternoon. I say to you, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise.’ I’m on the cross at the moment, but soon I’m going home. In fact, when they lay My body in the tomb, My human nature will be there, dead and lifeless, but My soul will be in heaven, in My kingdom, in paradise. And I’m taking you with Me today.”

Those who teach the heresy of soul sleep—who say that when a person dies, they go into a state of suspended animation that can last centuries, and at the end of time they awaken as if no time had passed—miss this verse. They read it and say, “There isn’t any punctuation in the Greek, so they put the comma in a different place.”

The way these heretics read the text is, “I say to you today,” comma, “you will be with me in paradise.” They infer that Jesus, gasping for breath with hardly any life left in Him, took the time and energy to say that which is perfectly obvious, that the day He was addressing this thief was on that particular day. What a travesty of a comma.

Jesus was not saying, “I am telling you today, someday you are going to be with Me in paradise.” No, He was telling the thief when he will be with Him: “Truly, I say to you, this very day, you will be with Me in paradise.” We have that to look forward to. We do not have to be crucified to know that the day we die, the day our souls leave our bodies, will be the very day that we enter into the presence of the Lord of glory.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.