QSince Israel is guilty of crucifying their Messiah, what practical effect did the Lord’s statement in Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” have upon the Jews?
AIn general, I believe the Lord’s prayer on the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” reveals the Lord’s heart with respect to sinful man. It was not His desire to impute sin to man, but to forgive him. In this way He reflected the mind and heart of God; “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
In relation to the Jews, “Father, forgive them” is closely connected with the provisional offer held out to Israel in the first seven chapters of the book of Acts.
The sending of the Messiah, God’s Son, was the final test God had for the nation of Israel. We see this in the parable of the husbandmen in Matthew 21, and Mark 12. “Having yet therefore one beloved son, he sent also him to them the last, saying, They will have respect for my son. But those husbandmen said to one another, This is the heir: come, let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours.” The nation of Israel is guilty of the death of Christ, inasmuch as they called for His crucifixion, uttering the solemn vow, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). Note that this guilt is in a national sense, not individually.
In the law we find that a woman’s vow could be annulled by her father or husband if he heard it on the day she said it (Num.30:5, 8, 12). The Lord Jesus did just that for Israel! In grace, after being lifted up on the cross, Jesus “made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12) when He cried “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.1 He sealed the sin of the crucifixion as a sin of ignorance (the ignorance of unbelief), and on that basis God could give an extension of grace to Israel after the cross, which we read of in Acts 1-7. For example, Peter preached, “And now, brethren, I know that ye did it in ignorance… Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come , etc.” (Acts 3:17-21). God had opened an offer of forgiveness to Israel, provisional on their receiving the witness of the Spirit. We can read in Hebrews 2:4, for example, that God was bearing them witness “both by signs and wonders, and various acts of power, and distributions of the Holy Spirit, according to his will”. If Israel would receive this witness, and repent of their sin, God would bring in the times of refreshing; the Millennial reign of Christ. Some did receive that witness, and fled to Christ for refuge (Heb. 6:18), Himself becoming a city of refuge for the “manslayer”.
However, the nation at large rejected that provisional offer, and Stephen speaks to those who rejected it according to their responsibility as murderers, as we see in Acts 7:52; “the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers”. Stephen was raised up to bear witness to Israel’s rejection, both of Christ, but also of the Spirit; “O stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, ye also” (Acts 7:51). This is why Saul of Tarsus was not raised up to unfold the truth of the Church until the provisional offer to Israel was rejected, and Stephen was stoned.
Nevertheless, though Israel is certainly guilty (as a nation, not individually), the prayer “Father, forgive them…” still has efficacy with God on Israel’s behalf. Through the sacrifice of Himself on the cross, Christ has opened a path for Israel’s future restoration. But when they are restored, Israel will have to acknowledge that sin, repent of it nationally (Zech. 12:10), and acknowledge the price that had to be paid for their restoration; i.e. the very life that they took – as far as responsibility is concerned “taken”, though in actuality it was “laid down” of Himself – has become the basis of the expiation of that very sin (Deut. 21:1-9).
To summarize, the Lord’s prayer of forgiveness on the cross did not absolve Israel of their blood-guiltiness, but it did become the basis for God to offer a provisional pardon to the nation.