CHRIST’S DYING PRAYER
A Sermon by B.H. Carroll
TEXT: Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. – LUKE 23:34.
There are three thoughts in the text: When he offered this prayer, or the circumstances under which the petition fell from his lips; next, the petition itself; and third, the reason assigned for it in the text with an application of the principles involved in the several thoughts in tracing out that prayer to see what became of it.
I have been enabled a number of times in my life to genuinely pray for my enemies. I do not think there was ever a case where I did not sooner or later bring myself to the point that I could really and sincerely and earnestly pray to God to forgive them. But I confess here and now that I have never been able so to pray at such a time as marked this prayer, “Father, forgive them!”
When does he say it? Right in the commission of the injury. Right at the time the indignity was the freshest and hottest; when they had placed him between two thieves; these are the associations; when they crucified him; when they had written an accusation over his head; when they were pointing their fingers at him; when there had not yet been wiped from his face the saliva they so shamelessly spat upon his cheek; when the pain was yet in his head where the hair had been rudely jerked out; when the thorns were yet on his brow, and when the scorn and gibing and jeering and slander and slime were poured out on him; then, he said, “Father, forgive them.” I confess I could not have done it. It is a sublime exhibition of the divinity of Jesus Christ. When the martyrs, like Stephen, offered such prayers, they were sustained by him. They saw him standing to approve and encourage.
Now, the second point: What was it he asked? He asked that God would forgive that offense against him; that he would not lay it to their charge; that he would provide for a pardon; that he would stay the sword of divine justice; that he would lay the hand of restraint upon the quivering thunderbolt of his wrath, ready to smite such an offender. Forgive them! Blot this out! Hold it not against them!
I ask you to look at that and I ask you if the earth could have furnished any such demonstration of divinity as that. I have often considered the prayer that he taught us to pray, in which he says: After this manner pray ye: Forgive us our sins, or debts, or trespasses, as we forgive them that sin against us.”
It is the most searching lesson to which the human mind could be directed. Can you offer that prayer? Are you willing to place your own case in as much jeopardy as your heart prompts you to put the case of an offender against yourself? Are you willing to say deliberately, “Lord, God, be merciful to me as I have been merciful. If I have taken my enemy by the throat in my mind and said, °Pay me what thou owest’; if I have in my imagination delighted in the thought of his downfall; if his misery and anguish have seemed to me as a pleasing thing to think about as it lies out in the future before me, can I say, Lord, God, do me that way’?”
The forgiveness of sins! It is the essence and basis of salvation. It is that which makes the name of Jesus the sweetest name on the earth, because it is only through him, by him and on account of what he has done, that any of us can ever be forgiven. Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – we do get into a state of mind that strips us of our self-importance, that divests us of our conceit, that is stern and just enough in self-examination and self-judgment to strip us of self-pity, and when we get in that condition (and we never get there unless led by the Spirit of God), there never has been a man of us, or a woman of us, or a child of us, when there, but will say, “The thing that I need more than everything else in this world is forgiveness. I am a sinner! I am a sinner!”
There is something about sin that is very defiling. It is a slimy thing, and contact with it, and especially when it lingers and we cannot divest ourselves of it, or of its loathsomeness, eats into our hearts, corrupts the fountains of purity and takes away from us the dignity of manhood and gives us the image, not only of beasts, but of devils.
There is also in it, when we look at it as to its consequences to ourselves, a persuasion that deepens as time lengthens, that we must meet the judgment – a thought of it, not only with reference to the penalty to be imposed upon ourselves, but in its far-reaching consequences to others, and to those entirely innocent of the offense.
Let a man sin and he cannot terminate it in himself. To save his life he cannot keep the weight and burden and consequences of it from resting on his wife, on his child, on the unconscious babe sleeping in its mother’s arms. He cannot throw the shadow of that sin off the cradle of his infant. He cannot dispel the shadow of that sin from his own grave, nor can he drive it from the future of those that are nearest and dearest to him.
Sin is the abominable thing that God hates, and the only thing that he does hate in the world. And hear, “Father, forgive them, forgive them!” Would you exchange it for this, “Father, give them long life! Father, make them rich! Father, put their hands on the neck of their enemies”? O what possession conceivable to the human mind, what conception that the heart of man can entertain, is comparable to the richness of the forgiveness of God! Forgiveness!
That does not mean that you have deserved it. That does not mean that you have bought it. That does not mean that there is a measure of good in you on account of other things, that by an equalization, striking a balance, will entitle you to it. But mercy, grace, forgiveness! And forgiveness how long and how far? Forgiveness forever! And how many times? Seventy times seven! There is something in the subject of the forgiveness of sins as represented in this prayer of Jesus Christ, that to me holds up the excellency of his divine character, the necessity and the richness of his sacrifice more than everything else in the Bible.
Now, the last point of the text before we come to the application: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Let us consider that somewhat. Does that mean that by ignorance we are justified? Does that mean that ignorance is a sufficient extenuation or palliation of an offense? It means this, so much and no more, that to the extent that it has blinded the offender it is a pardonable case under the conditions provided in the gospel. That is all that it means. Did you ever read in the Bible where Jesus Christ prayed for the devils? Is there one hint that these intelligences, who once peopled heaven and sinned knowingly and wilfully and maliciously – that any provision was made for their pardon? Can you show me anywhere in the Bible where a man by processes of self-degradation, by constant hardening of heart, by continual departure from God, goes on until at last he sins against the Holy Ghost, against spiritual light and knowledge, may yet claim the benefit of this prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”?
Unquestionably the apostle put this identical interpretation on it when he carried the message of life and salvation to those very men who had heaped these indignities so undeservedly upon the Son of God. He says, “I wot, brethren, that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.”
This leads us into a line of thought that, it seems to me, deserves more than usual care and attention. How much of what is done here on this earth, by men, is covered by their ignorance ? To what extent has the lack of spiritual knowledge placed them inside of the possibilities, inside of the orbit of the influence of this prayer for forgiveness? I am sure there must be some way to understand it.
Let us not, however, try to measure this ignorance as palliating offenses against ourselves. The trouble about that case is our selfishness; and our desire to see vengeance meted out against the offender will not permit us to admit enough of ignorance in the case. But let us take a case wherein we have been the offenders, wherein we have done things that are obnoxious to the divine law, wherein we have trampled upon the rights of our fellow men, wherein we have rudely and cruelly wounded the feelings of the innocent.
Now when it comes to such a case, I am sure each of us will say, “I did not thoroughly understand it. It was not altogether intentionally done. I did not have full light on the subject. Doubtless I saw some of it, but I did not get all its bearings. Indeed, do not make me out that kind of a criminal; surely I am not that bad. Is thy servant a dog to do such things? If I had known even as much as I know now, if I had occupied a higher standpoint of observation, if I had had a broader sweep of vision, so that I could have made due allowance for the influences which had been at work upon this enemy of mine, which led him to do the thing that provoked this wrong upon my part, why, I am sure that I would not have hit quite so hard. O just think of the things I did not see! Just think of how short is my view of the past or future! I am sure I had no realization that consequences would keep on and on and on until they struck the shores of eternity. If I knew it theoretically, I did not realize it. Ignorance, Lord, ignorance! Let me be in that orbit of possibility! It was not all malice, it was not all intent upon my part to do such a thing.”
Ah, we do make fine pleaders, when it comes to our own cases, and we stand with our self-pity, described in one of the matchless poems of old, where a man walking down the aisles at night over the cold marble floor of a silent church, was so touched by compassion on himself that he fell to weeping and wondering that God and angels and men had not seen how much he deserved pity.
On one occasion God said to David: “You have done a great wrong. Now which will you take – that I shall judge you or that I shall turn you over to your enemies?” – “Lord God, you judge me! You judge me! Never turn me over to a man to judge me. Never turn me over to an enemy, and let him tell what I owe. Never let him, be the one that is to trace the secret workings of my mind, and to paint just exactly the object that I had in view in everything that I did and said. Not mine enemy! Let me fall into thy hands, O God!”
And I do not hesitate to say that if I stand before the judgment bar of God, knowing omnipotence, knowing omniscience, knowing omnipresence, knowing the eternity of hell, knowing that from that fiat when once spoken there would be no recovery, I would say, “Lord, God, you speak my sentence.”
Now I will make the application. Studying such a prayer as that, the prayer itself, the tremendous thing asked for, studying the time and circumstances under which that prayer was offered, studying the vast charity of the mind that supposed, that took for granted, that there were some unforeseen, mitigating circumstances to be reckoned to the offender; that he did not have full and complete light; that there were some influences operating upon him, perhaps, that he inherited, some coming from the side pressure of others, something that came under the general name of ignorance, and that stripped the deed of entire devilishness and malice – I say, looking at that prayer under those three conditions of it, I have an intense longing to see what became of it.
Once I was reading a history, you have read the history doubtless, a very famous one, an ancient history in which the historian with a graphic power that I have never known to be surpassed, describes a struggle made by a free people for the maintenance of their liberties – describes the young hero that led them in conflict against the terrible odds of the conquerors of the world; describes them as they brought their bare breasts, exposed to dart and arrow, and placed them against the iron-sheathed bodies of their enemies, and at last the interest is keyed up higher and higher until you see that glorious young hero take his position on a bridge in a river, until it seems that every eye, above and below, is fixed, and right there, without another scratch of the pen, the historian stopped, and there is not a man living that knows the sequel of it; it stops right there on that bridge.
Well, I cannot describe to you how that thing used to affect me. I wanted to read the rest of it. I wanted to see what became of that hero. I wanted to know the end of that story. But there the historian’s volume ended and no successor from either side completed the story. But the interest that I felt in watching the conclusion of that patriotism, of that unflinching heroism, of bringing that undisciplined and unpanoplied valor to fight bravely, triumphantly, against the ironclad and invincible phalanx whose eagles had soared and screamed over the capitals of the world, that is an infinitesimal thought beside the interest that was in my heart to see what became of this prayer, such a prayer as this, a prayer offered under such circumstances. What did become of it?
There is a story of a little child in a boat with its father and mother, gliding down a gentle stream, until suddenly it brought them to a lake covered with lilies, and from the lilies of the lake, and from its strange loneliness, suddenly a huge, beautiful, strangely beautiful white bird rose up and gradually floated out of sight in the blue sky, and the child stared at the vacancy in space and said, “Mother, where did the bird go?”
So would I inquire of this white-winged bird, this purest utterance that in time of awful trial ever fell from lips that were called human, what did become of this prayer? It rises amid the groans of the one who offered it. It rises in the thick pall of darkness that surrounded him. It rises from the midst of the anguish of his physical, mental, and spiritual suffering. It rises above the head of the mob that had sought and had obtained his death warrant. It rises above the clouds that floated serenely and unthinkingly by, and above the cold, pitiless stars that have looked tranquilly down on human suffering since human eyes caught their sparkle until now, and it went out of human sight, lost – lost in the dim distance of the skies above. What became of that prayer? It has gone out of sight like the bird.
But I turn over here to another book. Men have lost sight of the prayer. When they quit thinking about the prayer, a very faulty man got up to preach a sermon, and under the influence of that sermon three thousand men and women of the murderers are forgiven. There comes from the throne of mercy, from the home of the divine beneficence – there comes a swift-winged messenger, not where a lonely and solitary criminal is awaiting the execution of the death penalty, but where a multitude of men and women are under sentence of death, and there are three thousand pardoned in one day three thousand souls forgiven in one day.
And shall the preacher say, “What a work I have done today, what a work!” Was it the preacher? I tell you it was the prayer that had been forgotten. It was the petition that the sufferer himself offered in his dying agony: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It was that petition that pierced the skies and moved the heart of God and interposed the arm of Omnipotence and brought down peace and salvation to the murderers of the Lord Jesus Christ. It will be, it seems to me-I do not know, but it seems to me – that when we get to heaven, one of the most curious and at the same time one of the most entertaining and one of the most profitable employments of that blessed estate will be to take up the books and from each event read back and trace its cause.
How many a one will find that he has crowned himself for what he is entitled to no credit at all! There will be seen what became of the white birds of prayer. There will be seen, mapped out plainly in God’s unerring book, that humble piety, unrecorded piety, so far as earthly records are concerned, has said in the solitude of some night, “Lord, God, forgive that sinner!
I stand absolutely overwhelmed in the presence of the sweetness and of the power of genuine prayer. Prayer! I can understand when I turn over and read the apostle’s extreme solicitude when he writes to this man and that man, and this church and that church, asking favors. What does he ask for? Every time one thing seems to him to be more important than everything else. It is this, “Brethren, pray for me. Pray for me! Brethren, when you meet at the church, when at night you kneel down by your bedside, when God’s eye is upon you, pray for me. Pray for me that I may be kept from evil. Pray for me that I may have strength in preaching the truth of God. Pray for me!”
O thou greatest of all the gifts of a loving heart to a friend, prayer, thou art the sweetest and best! I do not want to say it so much that it will become commonplace, but I know I do feel it. I will never be able to make you know what effect has been produced upon my mind sometimes when I have been lying sick and somebody comes home and stands by the bed and says, “O you ought to have heard them pray for you tonight!”
Are you a sinner, a lost sinner? Then you ask men to do this. Go up to them and say, “Brethren, pray for me. O send up a petition to the throne of God’s mercy, that my sins may be blotted out.” Just that.
Now I have just this to add. I do not know how to bring it about. I am sure you do not. But whenever you can get a congregation of Christians fully to realize what tremendous power there is in prayer, whenever you can get that congregation united in mind and all bowed down together and saying, Lord God, send a revival; send convicting and converting grace among the people,” then when you get through, and you are a member of that congregation, and you catch that spirit, and you feel it on you, there begin to run through you thrills just like the sensations under a galvanic battery.
You do not know what is the matter with you. You begin to feel an uplifting of the mind, an exaltation of the spirit, a glorification. You begin to see all the worldly things that had charmed you fade into nothingness, and heaven comes down and gets nearer and closer until you can catch the luster upon its golden spires, and until you can inhale the fragrance of its atmosphere, and until your own soul is illumined by its splendor, and until you say, “I am in direct touch with God.” It is the grandest experience in the world. That is the conquering church. Go trace the prayer of Jesus.
I talked with an old man once and asked him if certain Scriptures were at all times equally profitable to him, and he said not; that sometimes certain passages were very precious, but at other times he could not get hold of them. But he said, “Here is one that I can always put my finger on. It is where Jesus is offering his intercessory prayer for his disciples, and when he says, “I pray not for these alone, but for all who shall believe on me through their words. Now, I have believed on him. He is praying for me, the High Priest that liveth forever, the High Priest that does not die, the High Priest on whose garments the bells never cease to tinkle, the High Priest whose lips never become husky with pleading, the High Priest in heaven, pleading his own blood and the fulness of his own sacrifice before his own Father and in behalf of those who have been washed in his blood.” That is one of the grandest thoughts and one of the most comfort ing in all the scheme of redemption. He prayed, and is now praying for us. He ever liveth to make intercession for us.
I want to ask you today when you go home to read the three Scriptures I have read to you this morning, and then, as each precept is called over by your lips, ask yourself this: “Can I do it? Can I do that? Isn’t it better for me to do that?” If ever you should take vengeance in your hands and strike an enemy down to death, there will come a time when you will look at him smitten, and his wife smitten, and his children smitten, and his friends smitten, and when you see how powerless he lies, no longer able to lift his hand or to open his lips and speak a word, the dawnlessness and the helplessness of death, and you will look up and say, “Lord God, I would give a world if I had not struck that blow.” Give place to wrath – let God do the judging.