On the Cross (Luke 23:34–38)

By S. Kent Brown. This is an extract from The Testimony of Luke. For this reading, compare Matt. 27:37–43; Mark 15:26–32; John 19:19–27.

New Rendition

34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And dividing his garments, they cast lots. 35 And the people stood watching. And also the leaders kept sneering, saying, “Others he saved. Let him save himself, if he is the Christ, the chosen one of God.” 36 And the solders coming to him, ridiculed him, bringing vinegar to him, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 And there was also a writing above him, “This is the King of the Jews.”


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 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.

As Jesus exits the city, reversal stands at every bend.[1] Only days before, crowds greet him as the king on his entry into Jerusalem—“Blessed be the King,” they shout (19:37–38). Now, at the place of execution, the authorities and soldiers exhibit spite as he is executed as king (see 23:35, 37–38). As he leaves Jerusalem, “a great company of people, and of women, . . . lamented him” (23:27). Now, “the people stood,” silent and looking on, as “the rulers . . . derided him” (23:35). As he approaches the place of execution, the crowd “bewailed . . . him” (23:27). Now he bewails the city and its inhabitants as he warns, “weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children” because “the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren” (23:28–29).

On one level, it appears to passersby that Jesus is unable to turn his fate. For them, he lacks messianic power, leaving them silent (see 23:35, 48). But the misunderstanding about the nature of his messiahship rests on a lack of perception. Jesus announces long beforehand, in another place, that he does not fear those who are able to take life but then have no more power (see 12:4). His real, mercy-filled power manifests itself in forgiving others (see 5:20; 7:47–48) and, under the current circumstances, in pleading with his Father to forgive his executioners (see 23:34; JST 23:35; also D&C 45:3–5). Jesus’ terrible situation on the cross, which seems to point to his defeat, really shows off his power to remit sin and to bring willing souls to himself (see 23:34, 43).


23:34 Then said Jesus: The earliest text (P 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.[2] 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.[3] Incidentally, the Joseph Smith Translation preserves these words, with a clarifying insertion (see the Note below).

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 (see 10:21; 11:2). On Jesus’ willingness to forgive, see the Notes on 6:12, 28; 22:51. Here he plainly makes intercession for others (see the Note on 6:28; D&C 45:3–5; Moses 7:39).[4]

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; emphasis added). Hence, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to the soldiers alone, not yet to “the rulers” (23:35; compare Acts 3:14–19; 7:60).

And they parted his raiment, and cast lots: This expression derives from Psalm 22:18 (LXX Ps. 21:18). Because clothing possesses value (see the Notes on 6:29; 10:30), the soldiers remove Jesus’ clothing and cast lots for it, a customary action taken against those to be executed.[5] On the nature of lots (Greek klēros), see the Note on 1:9.[6]

23:35 the people stood beholding: Luke consciously draws a distinction between the general population who do not participate in bringing Jesus to his execution and the officials who do, those who at this moment “derided him.” The participle rendered “beholding” (Greek theōrōn) may indicate that the crowd is gawking at the spectacle of Jesus now disrobed (see Ps. 22:7; the Note on 23:48).[7] These people are not hostile, but rather respectful.[8]

the rulers: This group stands in contrast to “the people” of the city. Luke now lumps all of Jesus’ accusers into this group (see 23:13). Under this title, they bear the weight of guilt for urging Jesus’ death (see 24:20; Acts 2:23; 3:13–15, 17; 4:10, 26–27; 5:30; etc.; D&C 21:9 [“crucified by sinful men”]).

derided him: The droning drumbeat of doubting derision continues from an earlier day (see 16:14). The persisting derision lies in the imperfect tense of the verb, signaling the ongoing vitriol, whereas the simple past tense of the soldiers’ mockery points to a “less persistent” harassment on their part.[9] The pronoun “him” is missing from the earliest manuscript (P 75) and a number of others. But it is clearly assumed in the context.

also with them: This expression too is omitted in the earliest manuscript and others. Luke’s damning words seem to rest on just “the rulers.”

He saved others: For Luke, the authorities’ words bear a deep sense of ignorance, a complete lack of understanding that he heals and saves people according to their faith (see 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42), in addition to requiring them to carry their crosses, not abandon them (see 9:23; 14:27).[10]

if he be Christ: According to this expression, and that in 23:39, a popular conception holds that the Messiah will be able to deliver himself and others from difficulty. Specifically, the deliverance will take the form of a physical, perhaps military rescue (see also 23:37; 24:21; Alma 14:20). In a word, the Messiah is thought to be more like Barabbas (see 23:18–19). Moreover, there is a Christological sense in the rulers’ expressions that God will choose his Messiah from among mortals rather than send the Messiah from the heavens. In a theological vein, “the rulers” are attacking the most profound insight that the Twelve receive about Jesus, that he is “the Christ of God” (9:20).[11]

Christ, the chosen of God: The Christology inherent in the words of the officials is low, that is, they conceive the Messiah to be a person of God’s choice from among humans rather than being God’s own son. Importantly, the text preserves the definite article, signaling “the Christ,” “the Messiah,” “the Anointed One” (see the Note on 24:26). A further aspect arises from the Greek term eklektos, “chosen,”[12] that occurs here, though it is on the lips of Jesus’ detractors. It has very much to do with Jesus’ prior election by God and with his obedience to that divine choice, in this case choice made in premortal life (see Moses 4:1–3; Abr. 3:27). In addition, Luke is the author who brings together Jesus’ election and suffering, thereby settling the question of what election consists of in Jesus’ kingdom (see 9:35, 44; 17:25; 24:26, 46; Isa. 42:1; 53:12; the Notes on 9:35; 18:7).[13] Moreover, because the title “Christ, the chosen” comes from Jesus’ detractors, it points to an earlier understanding that the elect one of Isaiah 42:1 is the Messiah.[14]

23:36 the soldiers: These individuals appear for the first time in the narrative, even though their looming presence is surely assumed from the moment that Jesus’ accusers bring him to Pilate. They represent a third group at the cross, besides “the people” and “the rulers” (23:35). According to John, four soldiers crucify Jesus (see John 19:23). Like “the rulers,” they turn against Jesus and thus stand in need of his forgiveness (see JST 23:35; the Note on 23:34).

mocked: The soldiers’ mocking (Greek empaizō) forms one of the prophesied insults of Jesus’ experience (see 18:32; Mosiah 15:5). According to Matthew and Mark, the chief priests and scribes join in this sin “of the tongue” (see Matt. 27:41; Mark 15:31).106[15]

coming to him: The soldiers appear to approach the crucified Jesus as if he is a king. But their mockery[16] and offering of vinegar demonstrates the insincerity of their action.

vinegar: The Greek term oxos refers to sour wine. In the context, the offering of such wine seems to fit with the general contemptuous tone of the soldiers, almost as if they are mockingly saluting a deposed monarch with unfit wine: “a burlesque gift to the king.”[17] Mark writes that the soldiers give Jesus “wine mingled with myrrh,” a drink that has an anesthetic quality (Mark 15:23).[18] The vinegar seems to tie to Psalm 69:21: “in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Wine, another product of the vine which is sweet, will become the symbol of Jesus’ blood in the Eucharist. Hence, a certain level of irony or disconnect may exist in the reference to vinegar.

23:37 If thou be the king: The taunt tastes like the devil’s earlier taunts, “If thou be the Son of God” (4:3, 9), thus putting the soldiers’ words on the same level of feigned respect (see 20:19–21).

the king of the Jews: This title, as others, misleads. For here the Messiah is conceived to be an earthly king, not heavenly. Even so, by quoting these words Luke continues to underline Jesus’ kingship (see 18:38; 22:29; the Notes on 2:11; 19:38; 23:2–3). The soldiers read these words, of course, from the placard which hangs from Jesus’ neck on his walk to the place of execution and then is affixed to the top of the cross.[19]

save thyself: Coming on the lips of the soldiers, as this imperative expression does, these words illumine the concept that, for these Roman soldiers, deliverance must include the ability to shove aside Roman military might (see 19:38–39; 23:35, 39; 24:21).

23:38 a superscription: The Greek term epigraphē generally means an inscription, that is, words written on a solid surface.[20] Often, such an inscription, or placard (Latin titulus), hangs around the neck of the condemned person, or on the top of the pole, with the charge written on it.[21]

in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew: This long phrase does not appear in certain early manuscripts of Luke, including the earliest (P 75). We compare John 19:20, which most think is the source of this phrase in Luke.[22] If this be true, the vivid phrase in John likely goes back to an eyewitness recollection.

This: The demonstrative pronoun, which comes at the end of the inscription in the Greek text of Luke, is usually understood as contemptuous—meaning “This fellow”—thus completing the belittling of Jesus (see the Note on 18:11).[23]

The King of the Jews: All of the Gospels repeat this title, with slight variations, underlining its place in the memories of witnesses (see Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; John 19:19). Even though the inscription is intended to show Jesus as a criminal, its appearance at the end of a long chain of references to the Savior’s royalty serves to complete Luke’s testimony about Jesus’ kingship (see 19:38; 20:41–44; 23:2–3, 37). The version that John preserves of this inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” ( John 19:19), becomes the source of the abbreviation INRI, from the first letters of each word of the inscription in Latin.

[1] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1495

[2] TDNT, 5:713, n. 455; Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 110–11; Marshall, Luke, 867–68; Morris, Luke, 356–57.

[3] Smyth, Greek Grammar, §§1790, 1890–94, 2341; Blass and Debrunner, Greek Grammar, §§325, 327.

[4] TDNT, 5:713.

[5] Plummer, Luke, 532; Marshall, Luke, 868.

[6] TDNT, 3:758–64; Fred D. Gealy, “Lots,” in IDB, 3:163–64.

[7] Plummer, Luke, 532; TDNT, 5:346.

[8] Brown, Death, 2:989–90.

[9] Plummer, Luke, 533; Smyth, Greek Grammar, §§1790, 1890–94, 2341; Blass and Debrunner, Greek Grammar, §§325, 327

[10] Brown, Death, 2:995–96.

[11] Brown, Death, 2:993.

[12] BAGD, 242.

[13] TDNT, 4:186–89; 5:687, 689.

[14] TDNT, 5:689.

[15] TDNT, 5:630.

[16] Brown, Death, 2:997

[17] Brown, Death, 2:997; also Johnson, Luke, 377.

[18] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1505.

[19] Brown, Death, 2:998.

[20] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 628; BAGD, 291.

[21] TDNT, 7:573; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1505; Skinner, “Two Crucified Men,” 379–80; compare Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars: Gaius Caligula 32.2.

[22] Plummer, Luke, 533; Marshall, Luke, 870; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1505.

[23] Marshall, Luke, 870; Brown, Death, 2:998.