1: The Heart of God

The Heart of God by John Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken 1999

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” LUKE23:34

There is something significant about the last words of men and women because when a person comes face to face with death, what he or she is often rises to the surface. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the French general and emperor, said, “I die before my time, and my body will be given back to the earth. Such is the fate of him who has been called the great Napoleon. What an abyss between my deep misery and the eternal kingdom of Christ.”

Voltaire (1694-1778), the famous French infidel, is reported to have said to his doctor, “I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months’ life.”

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the brilliant skeptic who corrupted the faith of some of England’s great men, exclaimed, “If I had the whole world, I would give it to live one day. I shall be glad to find a hole to creep out of the world at. I am about to take a leap into the dark.”


I have always thought it unfortunate that the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross have been called his “last words,” because the perhaps unwitting implication is that Jesus did not rise again and therefore never said anything else. Jesus did rise again, of course. The existence of Christianity is one of the best proofs of that astonishing fact. And Jesus had more to say, even before he returned to heaven forty days after returning to life. Those words are the true “last words,” if any are.

On the other hand, the sayings from the cross, although wrongly called Jesus’ last words, are significant, for several reasons.

(1) They show that Jesus was in clear possession of his faculties until the very last moment, when he delivered up his spirit to God. (2) They show that he understood his death to be an atonement for the sin of the world. And (3) they show that he knew his death would be effective in doing that. He was satisfied with what he was doing, and he did not die in despair. Moreover, the words also exhibit his well-known concern and love for other persons, even at the moment of his most acute suffering.

Jesus’ words from the cross are these:

1. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These words are a prayer for God to forgive those who were crucifying him. They show the merciful heart of the Savior.

2. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). These words were spoken to the believing thief and were a confident promise of salvation. They show that while life lasts, it is never too late to believe on Jesus and be saved.

3. “Dear woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). Here Jesus commended his mother, Mary, to the care of John, one of his disciples. It shows Jesus’ concern for family ties.

4. “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). This request shows the true
humanity of Jesus. But it also shows his concern that every facet of his death be in accord with the Bible’s prophecies about him.

5. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matt. 27:46). This statement is the most shattering of all. It reveals more than any other what was really happening on the cross. It teaches the nature of the atonement and what our salvation cost God.

6. “It is finished” (John 19:30). These are the most important words, because they refer not to Jesus’ life, as if he were saying, “It is over,” but to his atonement for sin. It is because Jesus made a complete and final atonement for sin that we can be sure of our salvation.

7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). These words show Jesus to have been in control of his life until the very end. They also show that the relationship between himself and the Father, which earlier had in some sense been broken, was now restored.

These sayings have fascinated preachers and laymen for two thousand years. They have been interpreted as teaching seven duties: 1) to forgive our enemies, 2) to have faith in Christ, 3) to honor our parents, 4) to set the highest possible value on the fulfillment of God’s Word, 5) to cling to God even in life’s darkest moments, 6) to persevere at whatever task God has given us to the very end, and 7) to yield all things, even life itself, to God at God’s bidding.

Yet, far more important than looking at these words to learn our duties is to look at them for what they teach us about the nature and work of Christ himself, which is how we are looking at them in this book. They teach that Jesus died to save us from our sin; that is what his coming to earth was all about. They teach that as long as we are alive, it is never too late to turn from our sin and trust in Jesus as our Savior. The dying thief did that, and he was told by Jesus, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is our most important wish that as a result of
this book, some might pass from spiritual death to spiritual life, as that man did.


We start with the first of these “last” sayings: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These words were spoken in the first moments of the crucifixion when Jesus, along with the two criminals who were executed with him, was stretched out on the rough timbers and felt excruciating pain as the thick iron nails were driven through the bones of his wrists and feet and the cumbersome cross was hoisted upward and allowed to fall down suddenly into the hole prepared for it. Death by crucifixion was probably the most cruel and lingering mode of execution ever devised by human beings.

But the crucifixion of Jesus was not only cruel. In his case it was also unjust, because he was innocent of any crime. That very morning the judge in his trial, Pontius Pilate, had declared him innocent—not only once but three times: “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). Pilate had consented to the crucifixion only because Jesus’ enemies had threatened to send a report to Caesar saying that Pilate was harboring a dangerous insurrectionist, a person who made himself out to be a king. That is why Pilate attached his written notice to the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.” He didn’t want anyone to be able to say that he was soft on political pretenders.

Not only was the crucifixion cruel and unjust. It was a disgrace and a humiliation too. Cicero, the famous orator, said rightly, although with an exalted sense of Roman dignity and ethnic pride, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to slay him almost an act of murder: to crucify him is—what? There is no word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.”1

Here is the situation. Jesus was cruelly, unjustly, and disgracefully executed. Yet in the very moment of his most acute suffering
he prayed for forgiveness for his enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Did God hear that prayer? Of course, though we will never know the full extent of God’s answer until we get to heaven and find out how many who were involved in that unjust trial and crucifixion later repented of their sin and came to believe on Jesus as their Savior.

John Charles Ryle, a great Anglican bishop of the last century, wrote: “We have probably not the least idea how many of the conversions to God at Jerusalem which took place during the first six months after the crucifixion, were the direct reply to this marvelous prayer. Perhaps this prayer was the first step towards the penitent thief’s repentance. Perhaps it was one means of affecting the centurion, who declared our Lord ‘a righteous man,’ and the people who ‘smote their breasts and returned.’ Perhaps the three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost, foremost, it may be at one time among our Lord’s murderers, owed their conversion to this very prayer. . . . We may be sure that this wondrous prayer was heard.”2

Many people have been converted by this prayer since that time too as it has been explained in scores of preaching services. It teaches that Jesus is amazingly compassionate, inexplicably gracious. There is no one on earth, either now or at any other time, who is too far gone in sin or too hard of heart for him to care for. He cares for you and offers you forgiveness for your sin, if you will have it. If you are seeking any encouragement to repent and believe on Christ, this prayer provides it.


There is something else we should understand about this first saying of Jesus from the cross, and it is this: Not only was this a prayer for forgiveness and a great forgiveness at that—it was also a forgiveness prayed for at an enormous cost. This is because forgiveness does not come cheap. And the reason it does not come cheap
is because God is God, the holy and just ruler of the universe, and a just God must act justly. Even God, especially God, must do what is right.

What is right? The right thing is that sin should be punished, evil must be judged. What we should expect if God were to act justly in this situation and do nothing else is that Pilate who judged, the soldiers who killed, the leaders who plotted, and the people who cried out for Jesus’ death should have been punished. Because their sin was the great one of murdering the only beloved Son of God, they should have been punished for their sins in hell.

We can understand how God might want to forgive at no cost. We would like to do that too. Who does not want to be forgiving? But how can a just God both forgive and be just at the same time? The answer is the cross. And it is why these particular words were spoken from the cross and not before or in some other situation. It is because Jesus was taking the place of sinners in his death, taking your place and mine, that he was able to pray, “Father, forgive them.” God was able to forgive because he was not simply forgetting about or overlooking sin. He was dealing with it. He was providing for its just punishment. But he was punishing it in the person of his Son rather than in the person of the sinner.

This is the very heart of God—forgiving but at a tremendous cost.

That does not always sound right to ears that are more accustomed to the thinking of our secular world than to the teachings of the Bible. But it had better be right, since it is our only hope of being able to stand before God when we ourselves die and are required to give an accounting for our lives. We will not be able to plead innocence of sin, because we are not innocent. Our only hope will be the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Can we believe that? We can, since God himself encourages us to do so. The Bible says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). This is not only the heart of God. It is the heart of Christianity.

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