Cross Words: You Can’t Step In The Same River Twice
“No one can step into the same river twice.”
It was Heraclitus, the ancient philosopher, who said that. You may step into a river at one moment, then step out of it, and a moment later step back into it—but it is not the same river. The movement of the current has changed the water so that in every moment, the river is different. It is in a constant state of flux. You cannot step into the same river twice.
And you cannot step into the same passage of Scripture twice. Many of us meet together here at the same time and place each week. Yet, you have changed since I last was here, and I have changed since you last were here. We are not the same now as we were then. We have had experiences of pain or joy or both. We have expanded or contracted our horizons or both. But, in any case, we are different. Like the river, we are all in a constant process of changing. Bearing that in mind, I would ask you to think with me about the first word Jesus uttered from Calvary’s cross. I know that you have heard this word preached upon before. I know that the word itself is unchanged—it is precisely the same today as it was when our Lord first uttered it. I also know that I do not have enough intellectual candlepower to shed any new light upon this word from the cross. So the word has not changed, and I will not be able to change it. But we have changed. We are all different. Because of that, though we have heard this word before, I hope that today we will hear it with new understanding.
This particular word from the lips of Jesus came at the point just after the cross was hoisted into the air and then jammed jarringly down into the earth. Jesus already had been derided. Jesus already had been mocked. Jesus already had been beaten within an inch of His life. Jesus already had been crowned with thorns. Jesus already had been forced to carry His cross as far as He could, and then He had been nailed to it. The Latin word for “cross” is “crux”—it’s the center syllable of our word “excruciating.” Surely, one of the most excruciating moments on the cross was this moment when the cross was raised up and then dropped into place in the earth. At that moment Jesus must have seen the whole world before Him in a dizziness of hurt. His body must have been like one great raw nerve aflame with agony. Yet in the midst of that excruciating experience, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The key words are “Father, forgive them.” Let’s look at each word in turn…
Jesus prayed “Father…”
It is rather astonishing when you stop to think about it that at that moment on the cross, Jesus could address God as “Father.” Most of us, under similar circumstances, would have responded quite differently. I mean, when we are in situations where difficulty and hardship deliver stinging blows to us, when we are in situations where our prosperities are turned into adversities—in those situations we tend to become either cynical or sullen. We cry out, “God, why did you let this happen to me?” Not Jesus, no. Jesus prayed, “Father.”
Once the great John Wesley was talking to a minister who was very bitter about the way he perceived God was managing his life. In fact, he was railing in anger against God. John Wesley suddenly interrupted, pointed to a cow in a nearby pasture, and said, “Why is that cow looking over that wall?” The man was rather startled by the interruption, but he looked for himself and then immediately replied, “I don’t know.” Wesley said, “The cow is looking over the wall because the cow cannot see through the wall.” Do you hear what John Wesley was saying? When we confront difficulty in life, when we are walled in, there is no virtue or value in cursing, or in heaping invectives upon our circumstances, or in wallowing in self pity, or in banging our heads against that wall. No, the thing to do, Wesley said, is to lift up our eyes, to look up to the God who made us and who will sustain us.
That is precisely what Jesus did. He prayed, “Father.”—and His marvelous confidence in God was justified. In that moment when it seemed that God had lost His grip on the universe, in that moment when history’s most criminal act was being performed, in that moment when the only begotten Son of God was being put to death, God, in fact, was working to bring forth history’s brightest hope. Out of the excruciating agony of the cross God brought salvation for the world. God will bring His blessings out of the agonies of our lives as well. Jesus understood that. That is why He prayed, “Father,” and His prayer was answered.
Next Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive…”
Now if what Jesus was saying to God was this, “God, wipe their slate clean. God, don’t hold this against them. God, declare them all not guilty,”—if that’s what Jesus meant when He used the word “forgive,” well that is a rather cheap easy, casual kind of forgiveness which seems out of character for Jesus.
I don’t mind telling you that for a long time I was rather troubled by that concluding phrase in this word from the cross, “. . . for they do not know what they are doing.” That phrase seemed to suggest that the people who put Jesus on the cross didn’t know that they were sinning. Rubbish! They were behaving wickedly, and they knew it. They were fully aware of the fact of their wrongdoing. Pontius Pilate himself had testified to Jesus’ innocence. The Sanhedrin very much aware that no legitimate charges could be brought against Him. The soldiers in the crowd could easily see that a great injustice was being done, and yet they all gleefully participated. Many of the taunting spectators at Calvary had heard Christ teach and seen Him do miracles, and so they could not have believed in their hearts that he deserved to die in this way. They knew that what they were doing was wrong. Only recently have I come to realize that what Jesus really meant when He said, “. . .for they do not know what they are doing” is that they were ignorant of the enormity of their crime. They knew that what they were doing was wrong but they were blinded to the full reality of Whom they were crucifying. They were spiritually insensitive because they loved darkness rather than light, therefore they did not recognize that the one they were putting to death was “the Light of the World.” Yes, they knew that what they were doing was wrong—it’s just that they didn’t know how big a sin it really was.
So what then did Jesus mean when He said, “Father, forgive”? Well, I want you to understand that there is a secondary meaning for this word “forgiveness” which I believe explains what Jesus meant. You see, the word, when it is used in the Bible, can actually mean “to delay judgment.” In other words, I think Jesus was saying, “Father, I don’t ask You to count them as not guilty because they are guilty. I am only asking for more time for them to come to understand what they have done and to give them time to repent. I’m not asking for some casual cheap grace to cover the awfulness of their sin. I am only asking that You delay Your judgment long enough for Your Spirit to move in their hearts that they might come to their senses and repent. Then when they do repent, Father, please forgive them.” And was that prayer of Jesus from the cross answered? Yes! The first answer came with the conversion of one of the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. Another followed immediately with the conversion of the centurion, one of the soldiers who had crucified Christ. Other answers to the prayer came in the weeks and months that followed the crucifixion—particularly at Pentecost—as untold numbers of people in Jerusalem were converted to Christ. No doubt many of them were the same people who had clamored for Jesus’ death and railed at Him from the foot of the cross. So Jesus was asking God that when people came to their senses and realized the enormity of what they had done and sought the Heavenly Father’s forgiveness, Jesus was asking God not to hold the murder of His beloved Son against them. That’s what the prayer from the cross really means and that prayer was answered.
Then Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them…”
Who are the “them”? Was Jesus praying for Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, the soldiers who drove in the nails, the disciples who betrayed or deserted him, the crowds who stood there howling in ridicule? Was He praying for all of those who are in positions of power and misuse it? Was He praying for all of those who claim faith but do not really have it? Was He praying for all of those who see evil and do nothing to correct it? Who are the “them”?
When Rembrandt painted his greatest depiction of the crucifixion, he actually painted his own face on one of the figures in the crowd. You see Rembrandt understood that Jesus was crucified by sin, and that means that all who sin had a hand in it. We are the “them.” Please never say that it was “people like us”—it was “us”! Let’s not con our consciences. Let’s not whitewash our sinfulness. Let’s be honest enough to admit that if Jesus was killed by sin then we were there as surely as if we had held the hammer and the nails. The Bible says, “He who says he is without sin is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Let’s not fool ourselves with our pious respectability. Let’s not wrap ourselves so tightly in the trappings of our wonderful lives that we see ourselves as without guilt. Let’s not be blinded by a pipsqueak allegiance to our petty little principles. Let’s not fail to see what is true of us—that we have sinned against God and His Son died because of it.
So Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” We are the “them.” Jesus might as well have said that day, “Father, forgive Howard. Father, forgive (fill in your own name).”
I know a minister who was spending the night at the home of a man he had met through his work. They were sitting on the front porch of this man’s house that night talking. At bedtime as they prepared to go back into the house, this man reached into his pocket and took out a key, bent down and put it under the mat at the front door. He said, “This is for my son.” The minister said with surprise, “I’ve known you for several years, and I never knew you had a son.” The man replied, “Oh yes, I have a son. He left home years ago, and we have not seen him since. We have sent messengers and messages to places where we thought he might be. We have tried everything we know to find him, all to no avail. We haven’t heard from him. But when he was a boy, we always put the key under the mat at night so that when he came home late he could get in. I still put the key under the mat every night so that if he should come, he would find it there and know that he is still welcome, that he is still loved, and that he is still our son.”
On the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, for just a while longer, please leave the key under the mat. There may be some who, by Your Spirit shall come to their senses and realize what they are doing and long to return to Your love and receive Your forgiving Grace.” I think that’s what this word from the cross really means. So, my beloved people, let us acknowledge our guilt. Let us acknowledge our need of the Savior. Then let us head home—home to the Lord’s warm and welcome embrace—while our God, in answer to His dying Son’s prayer, still has the key under the mat…