Jesus on Forgiveness: Looking at Luke 23:34

A reading to accompany New Testament 2019: Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families, December 31-January 6. “We are responsible for our own learning: To truly learn from the Savior, I must accept His invitation, ‘Come, follow me.'” 

Excerpted from The Testimony of Luke, New Testament Commentary, by S. Kent Brown, pages 1077, 1081, 316, 338-39.

Let’s look in depth at the text of Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (KJV).


23:34 Then said Jesus: The earliest text (75) and many other manuscripts omit the first part of this verse, leaving only the portion that begins with “And they parted his raiment.” Such evidence seemingly points away from the following saying as originally belonging to Luke’s record. But the saying fits Luke’s language. And Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60 seems to draw its inspiration from the words of Jesus reported here, thus buttressing its genuineness as a saying of Jesus, whether or not it originally stands in Luke’s record. Significantly, the imperfect tense of the verb implies that Jesus repeats his request again and again, pleading with his Father to forgive these unknowing men. Incidentally, the Joseph Smith Translation preserves these words, with a clarifying insertion.

Father, forgive them: The placement of Jesus’ words directly after writing about the crucifixion (see 23:33) may signal that Luke is stressing, first, Jesus’ control of the whole situation, though his enemies do not know it, and second, Jesus’ control of his pain-filled body. Jesus addresses God as “Father” previously. Here he plainly makes intercession for others.

they know not: Jesus’ expression about his executioners’ ignorance mirrors Peter’s later remark about the Jewish rulers’ “ignorance” (Acts 3:17; see JST 13:27), thus pointing to the genuineness of Jesus’ prayer. The Joseph Smith Translation adds a surprising, clarifying explanation of Jesus’ meaning: “they know not what they do. (Meaning the soldiers who crucified him,)” (JST 23:35). Hence, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to the soldiers alone, not yet to “the rulers” (Luke 23:35; compare Acts 3:14–19; 7:60).


The Joseph Smith Translation’s stunning addition to the Savior’s plea for forgiveness in 23:34, which forms the heart of these verses because of the abuse that he receives—“Meaning the soldiers who crucified him” (JST 23:35)—pushes forward the issue whether certain wicked acts can be forgiven. To be sure, some cannot, such as blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (see Luke 12:10; D&C 132:27). But what about other serious sins? Are there limits to divine mercy? Are there bounds to celestial clemency? In response, we notice that, in the only existing sample of the Savior’s intercessional language in modern scripture, he limits his appeal to his Father, seeking the Father’s graciousness only for those who “believe on my name,” begging him to “spare these . . . that they may . . . have everlasting life” (D&C 45:5). This engaging framework fits snugly with other passages from latter-day scripture that set out a limit to salvation—only for those who believe and repent (see 2 Ne. 2:6–7; Mosiah 3:17–19; Alma 12:15; D&C 29:43–44; etc.). Why? Because saving the wicked, particularly those who “have willfully rebelled against God . . . and would not keep [the commandments of God]” cuts across God’s justice: “salvation cometh to none such; for the Lord hath redeemed none such; yea, neither can the Lord redeem such” (Mosiah 15:26–27).

From a different angle comes God’s mercy for those swallowed up in the days of the Flood. After God says to Enoch that “a prison have I prepared for them,” that is, for those who will perish in the Flood, he then goes on to declare about the Savior: “That which I have chosen hath pled before my face [for these people]. Wherefore, he suffereth for their sins.” More than this, God holds out the possibility that they can repent and receive forgiveness: “inasmuch as they will repent in the day that my Chosen shall return unto me.” In a word, after the Savior’s ministry, after he endures mocking and mistreatment, after he suffers for the sins of all, he returns to his Father with the power and right to plead for the forgiveness of those who will repent, in the next life, even though “they shall be in torment” in that “prison” until “that day” (Moses 7:38–39; also Moses 7:57; compare the distant “times of refreshing” in Acts 3:19). Might Jesus’ accusers receive forgiveness? Only he knows. Scripture shows us a door (see 13:24; also 12:48; Moses 7:39—“he hath suffered for their sins”). They need to turn the lock.

Compare also Jesus’ actions in Luke 6:12:

Why does Jesus go away to pray? The next scene will show that Jesus is praying for and about the Twelve whom he will choose (see 6:13–16). But it is probable that he is also distraught when foreseeing the horrible wrath that these opponents, also children of God, will pull down on themselves by pursuing their conspiracy against him. On this view, it seems that Jesus prays for these men and is reflecting on them and their actions when he utters instructions about how one is to respond to enemies (see 6:27–36). That Jesus does pray in this manner appears later in his words from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (23:34; also Acts 7:60).

And compare Luke 6:28:

Bless them that curse you: Jesus begins to spell out what it means to “do good” (6:27). A subtle link to Jesus’ Atonement may lie in these words because he is seen as cursed owing to the manner of his death, a form of executing criminals (see Deut. 21:22–23; 1 Cor. 12:3; Gal. 3:13).

pray for them which despitefully use you: Jesus spends the night in prayer (see 6:12). What does he pray for? One obvious answer is that he prays for and about the Twelve. Moreover, knowing that he will not ask followers to do something that he is unwilling to do, we can reasonably conclude that he prays for his enemies who find one another and enter into a conspiracy the prior day. In a related vein, the Joseph Smith Translation broadens the group who are to receive the benefits of a disciple’s prayers by adding “and persecute you” to the end of this verse, bringing the saying close to that in Matthew (JST 6:28; see Matt. 5:44).

6:29 unto him that smiteth thee: Jesus’ instruction shows a progression from attitude (love) to words (bless, curse) to deeds. In offering the other cheek, the disciple demonstrates his genuine love for an enemy. At this point, the Joseph Smith Translation adds, “or, in other words, it is better to offer the other [cheek], than to revile again,” a statement that both clarifies and interprets Jesus’ peaceful intent (JST 6:29; see D&C 98:23–27).

smiteth thee on the one cheek: The Greek verb tuptō points to a hard blow to the jaw with the fist, not merely a slap.99

cloke: This outer garment (Greek himation) is the most valuable piece of clothing that a person may own and hence is of value to thieves and others.

forbid not to take thy coat also: To willingly surrender one’s clothing to an adversary is to show in a dramatic, palpable way one’s love. Such human acts, which brim with mercy, mirror God’s mercy (see Luke 3:11; 6:36).