HOW COULD JESUS SAY HIS KILLERS KNEW NOT WHAT THEY WERE DOING?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Jesus, after being nailed to Calvary’s cross, famously declared, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). How could He say this though? Surely, they knew He was dying and that they were responsible. Why was Jesus interceding for His enemies here?
On the day of His crucifixion, it was no secret that the Lord Jesus was slowly dying on Calvary. His tormentors stood before His cross and taunted Him as He suffocated. “And sitting down they watched him there” (Matthew 27:36). People passed by, shaking their heads, saying, “Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross” (verses 39-40). Israel’s religious leaders teased Him, too: “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God” (verses 41-43). The parallel passages are Mark 15:29-32 and Luke 23:35-39.
Friend, no question about it—unbelieving Israel knew they were killing Jesus. They were aware that they had unjustly sentenced Him to death, to be crucified, to die the death reserved only for the vilest criminal. His agonizing suffering was utterly amusing to them—a sick and twisted form of entertainment! He claimed to be so mighty, so closely associated with God. Now, to them, He was helpless. God was nowhere to be found in His time of need. They had captured Him, and now they were taking His life. They had won… or so it appeared! Yet, in the midst of all this mockery, Jesus pled with His Heavenly Father that His enemies really did not know what they were doing. Huh?!
Someone once aptly referred to Luke 23:34 as descriptive of Israel’s “spiritual insanity.” They had no spiritual eyes to see that He really was the Messiah, their long-promised King. He had fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies—He was born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:21-23), born in Bethlehem of Judaea (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:1), born in the timeframe of Daniel 9:24-27, a performer of healing miracles (Isaiah 35:3-6; Matthew 11:5), a preacher of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:16-19), and so on. While they knew they were killing Jesus, they really had no idea that they were killing Messiah. Notice how the Book of Acts establishes this point.
After healing the lame man sitting at the Temple gate in Acts chapter 3, the Apostle Peter preached to Israel a rather lengthy sermon. It begins at verse 12 and goes all the way to verse 26 (end of the chapter). We are concerned with the first seven verses of his message. Reading Acts 3:12-18: “ And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?  The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go.  But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you;  And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.  And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.  And now, brethren, I wot [understand, know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.  But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled.”
Notice how Peter in verse 17 picked up on what the Lord Jesus had cried out on Calvary. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The Holy Spirit through Peter interpreted that as, “Brethren, I wot [understand, know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.” Of what exactly were they ignorant (unaware)? Why, His Messiahship, of course! Had they known Jesus really was God’s Son (verse 13), had they known Jesus really was “the Holy One and the Just” (verse 14), and had they known Jesus really was “the Prince of Life” (verse 15), they would have never crucified Him! Rather, they would have received Him by faith!
What Father God was doing here in early Acts was giving the nation Israel opportunity to receive the God-Man they had rejected in Matthew through John. The fiery wrath was coming, but they could be ready for Him and survive that judgment, to enter His earthly kingdom unscathed. In other words, Father God indeed forgave Israel as His Son had requested on Calvary. Israel was spiritually confused. Most of the nation was too willfully blinded to see that Jesus really was their Messiah. Early Acts is God offering Israel “a renewed opportunity of repentance.” They did not accept Christ Jesus back when He was on Earth. However, now that He is in Heaven, ready to return and judge them, Peter is urging them to take advantage of God’s grace. You can read the rest of Acts chapter 3 to learn what else Peter preached, and how Israel responded in Acts 4:4.
The Jews knew they were killing Jesus, but they did not recognize they were killing Messiah/Christ. Spiritual blindness, Satan’s policy of evil, had completely disoriented them. Thus, Jesus pled from Calvary’s cross for Father God to forgive them. In early Acts, Father God honored Jesus’ request. He sent the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit empowered the Apostles to preach to Israel and confirm that word with miracles, affording her another opportunity to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ whom God had resurrected. Did all of Israel convert to Christ in early Acts? For the answer, read our study below about the Lord Jesus standing in Heaven in Acts chapter 7.