Introduction: Hello and welcome to this message from Pastor Skip Heitzig of Calvary Albuquerque. We pray that God uses these teachings to bring people into a relationship with him and we're thankful to hear when that happens. If this message encourages you, we'd love to know. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you'd like to support this ministry financially, you can give online securely at calvaryabq.org/giving. Jesus loves everyone and is compassionate towards all people. As we continue our series called Jesus Loves People we see the mercy of Jesus even as he's being led to the cross. In this message we see how Jesus loves murderers, even those who murdered him. Now turn your Bibles to Luke, chapter 23, as Skip begins the message "Jesus Loves Murderers."
Skip Heitzig: Would you please turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 23; Luke 23, please. The summer of 1976 was the summer of terror for the residents of New York City, some of you will remember from being alive then, others from because you just know your history so well, that one of the most notorious criminals in American history was called David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" he was nicknamed. He went on a killing spree and killed several people in that city and then he was arrested. By his own admission he was involved previously in the occult. When he was arrested, he was sentenced to six life sentences, six life terms, 365 consecutive years in prison.
A few years back I was in New York and I was speaking, and a pastor said, "Would you mind visiting a prisoner in the Sullivan Correctional Institute? His name is David Berkowitz." And my head just turned like, "What!?" He said, "Yeah, I've been meeting with him over the years. He's been a---he's become a believer, and it's true. It's real. He's not doing this to garner favor. He's not getting out. He knows he'll never get out. But the Lord's using him and he listens to you, Skip, on the radio, and he would just love to meet with you." So I spent a couple hours with him in prison. And I heard his testimony, how he was ten years into his sentence and he was given a Gideon's Bible. God bless the Gideons, once again, a Gideon's New Testament and Psalms.
And he was reading Psalm 34 that says, "This poor man cried unto the Lord and he heard his call." Berkowitz got on his knees after reading that and he asked Jesus to forgive him and to be his Savior. And he has seen his life in prison as a ministry to inmates who have emotional problems and coping problems. He sees them really as a congregation. Well, he was brought to my mind, because a couple weeks ago I received this card from him and once again to see on the envelope "David Berkowitz, Sullivan Correction Facility." And he reminded me of our visit, but also once again thanked me and thanked you for the radio broadcast that feeds him and his fellow inmates. And he signed it by saying, "On behalf of all the brethren here in the prison, we salute you, Brother David." [applause]
David Berkowitz, like Christopher Pritchard in the video, has discovered that Jesus loves murderers. I love, love, love the redemptive story that has been in all of these little pericopes of Scripture we've been looking at---whether it's a prostitute, or a religious person, or what we see today, murderers---the willingness of Christ to forgive. Murder has always been an issue, been a problem with humanity. It was the first human crime ever committed, Genesis, chapter 4, Cain killing Abel. And history is peppered with such crimes, when we first had rocks, and then we had knives, and then we got javelins, and then we developed guns and bombs. We've always had a problem with murder.
Want to know a stunning statistic? The United Nations released a report two years ago measuring the murders on the earth in a single year: 437,000 people murdered in a year. That's the population of this place, gone because of murder. You have a 1 in 153 chance of being murdered. That's staggering. It is one of the chief causes of death in our country. It ranks right up there with heart disease and cancer and accidents. You'll find intentional killing as one of the causes of death. But I would venture to say that virtually everyone in this room has gotten away with murder. How's that for a statement? Listen to the words of Jesus carefully. "You have heard that it was said by those of old, 'You shall not murder.' But I say unto you if you are angry at your brother without a cause, you are guilty of judgment."
Murder, we find out from Jesus, doesn't originate with the hands, but it begins in the heart. It is an action, but it is far more. It begins with an attitude toward someone. I found it a bit humorous that one of the famous attorneys in American history Clarence Darrow once said, "I've never killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction out of obituary notices." That's an honest attorney. According to a group of researchers out of New York, 7 percent of our population say they would murder someone for enough money. That is 1 in every 14 people. Whether they could actually pull the trigger is another question. But 36 million say they would be willing to consider the offer. Now, today I bring you to a story that is so very familiar to every believer. You know it well.
But I want to frame it for you a bit differently today. I want you to look at it a little bit in a way that you have not in the past. We want to consider today the greatest murder in human history, the killing of the Son of God. When I say that, I know there are always two sides: there's the divine side and there's the human side. On the divine side it is the ultimate sacrifice---"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." It was a gift. Jesus said, "No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of myself." But that's the divine side. On the human side it is the ultimate crime. It is a flagrant violation of the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not murder." I bring you now to the cross of Christ in Luke, chapter 23, beginning in the thirty-second verse.
"There were also two others, criminals, led with him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right hand, the other on the left. Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.' And they divided his garments and cast lots. And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, 'He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ, the chosen of God.' The soldiers also mocked him, coming and offering him sour wine, and saying, 'If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.' And an inscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS."
I want you to first consider the murder of Jesus. And it was nothing less than that. For look in verse 33 where it specifically says, "there they crucified him." "They crucified him." This is the most evil act ever perpetrated by sinful hearts, the killing of the sinless Son of God, the Son of God, the author of life, murdered. And Jesus would say as much, because he predicted as much. He told his disciples, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men and they will kill him." After the fact, the apostle Peter said to the people of Jerusalem, "You have taken Christ by lawless hands and put him to death." So they murdered him. Not only was it murder, but to add to it, it was a conspiracy to murder.
For we understand the Jewish leaders, the elite plotted against Christ how they might ensnare him and then deliver him over to the secular government to enact the death penalty. Matthew, chapter 12, "The Pharisees went out and plotted against him, how they might destroy him." In the modern criminal code that's conspiracy to murder. That carries alone up to a life sentence. But in reality, what we have here with the Romans who carried out this crime is nothing short of state-sponsored terrorism, because that's how the Roman government used crucifixion. They used it to intimidate, to terrorize people, to say, "Don't you ever think of crossing the Roman government, because this is what you might get."
Crucifixion was so horrible that a Roman statesman by the name of Cicero said these words: "To arrest or bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to beat him is an abomination, to kill him is an act of murder, but to crucify him---there is no fitting word that could describe so horrible a deed." Now the Romans didn't invent crucifixion, the Persians did. The ancient Persians believed that the earth was sacred. And if you're going to execute a person, it shouldn't be touching that ground, because the ground was sacred. So they devised a means by which the victim could be lifted up above the earth and killed, and they invented crucifixion. Before the Romans came along we have record of Egyptians and those from Carthage and the Phoenicians all using crucifixion to execute criminals in pre-Roman times.
But then, then came the Romans, and they, they perfected it. In fact, they loved it. They considered crucifixion to be their favorite form of execution. You may not know this, but you should know that by the time Jesus was put on a cross, the Roman government had already crucified about 30,000 people from Judea and Jerusalem alone, so that for the citizens to see men hanging on crosses was very, very common a sight. And there is Jesus taken to Golgotha and there they crucified him. According to history the idea behind crucifixion is that it deliberately delayed death and gave the maximum amount of pain, torture to the victim. A victim could last for days on a cross. Essentially, a cross, as you know, is a vertical piece of wood to which would be attached a crossbeam known as a patibulum.
Weighed about seventy-five pounds. And it was just that crossbeam that the victim would carry from the place of sentencing to the place of execution. Jesus did that, we are told, and then they laid him down on that as they affixed that piece to the vertical piece. They stretched out Jesus' hands and two large iron spikes, like railroad spikes but much sharper, were used and placed---not through the palms of the hands, that's too fragile, that would rip the flesh---but through the wrists. Because that would, that would stabilize the victim and staple him, without tearing, to that cross. But what you really need to understand is that no victim of human injustice has ever been more innocent than Jesus and yet he was murdered. The murder of Jesus.
Now, that's not the full story. It's not enough to say he was murdered, because behind the scenes we see that even with the most vile act of crucifixion God brought the maximum amount of good out of it, and it was always in the plan and purview of God the Father to see this happen. That's what it means, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." And the prophet Jeremiah---excuse me, Isaiah predicted something. When I first read it, when I was a new Christian, it just---I was stunned by it. Isaiah 53, it said, "For it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he," it says in Isaiah 53, "he has put him to grief." I was shocked by that. "It pleased the Lord to bruise his Son; he has put him to grief"? Why? The very next phrase answers the question: "to make his soul an offering for sin." That's why.
That's God's redemptive purpose in this horrible thing that is going on. And so we're told, verse 33, "When they came to the place called"---please notice the word---"Calvary," it's not cavalry. [laughter] You know why I make an issue out of this is you don't know how many times over the years people have said, "Oh, you're at Cavalry Chapel." I go, "No. We're not a regiment on horseback with swords; that's a cavalry." We're Calvary---completely different." Calvary comes from the Latin calvarium. The Greek is kranium. The Hebrew is Golgotha. It means the same thing: a skull. It indicates the shape of the place where the execution took place. That's the murder of Jesus at Calvary, the Place of the Skull. Next please notice in verse 34 the mercy of Jesus.
"Then Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them.' "Jesus was on a cross for six hours from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. During that six hours he made seven short statements recorded in the Scripture. We call them the seven words, the seven last saying of Jesus on the cross. A person's last words are always significant, but these are most significant. As Warren Wiersbe said, "They are windows that enable us to see into the very heart of God," these seven statements on the cross. I like to think of it this way: While Jesus was doing the greatest work on earth, he was uttering the greatest words on earth. And the first statement is, "Father, forgive them. It's a shocking statement. It's not what we would expect. It's an unusual request for the victim of murder to say, "Father, forgive them."
You know, we talk about Jesus loves people, and it's one thing to say Jesus loves murderers, it's another thing to be the person being murdered and say, "God loves people, God loves murderers." "Father, forgive them." "Forgive them"? This crowd? This world that pushed him away from birth that could offer no room in the inn when he was about to be born? One of whose leaders tried to murder him when he was a baby in Bethlehem? This crowd, whose leaders plotted this murder, who brought forth false charges and false witnesses to get him up on that cross, who shouted vociferously, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" "Father, forgive them"? What is the natural human reaction if you are being attacked? It's not "Father, forgive them."
Let me bring it down to a level we can all understand, because some of you have never been attacked. Let's say you're driving down the road. You're just driving and some---I won't even give a term to that person. Some person pulls in front of you and cuts you off. Is your first reaction, "Father, forgive them"? No, no. I---my first reaction, I pray for them, but it's a very different prayer. [laughter] The other day I prayed a prayer when I was being cut out off by, not one, but two trucks going at least three times the speed limit. I said, "Father, please, may there be a police officer somewhere close by to give these numskulls tickets." Something like that. [laughter] It was like, "Father, judge them, and may they have four flat tires. Oh, that'd be great. And the spare, that'd be even better." [laughter]
"Father, forgive them"? That's not what we would expect. In fact, maybe we would expect Jesus to say, "Father, judge them for this act." We would understand that. Or even if he were to turn to the crowd and say something like, "Three days, just three days, I'm coming back and I'm coming for you." [laughter] But he said, "Father, forgive them." You know what's even more amazing? In the Greek language it's in a continual tense. "He was continually saying," it could be translated, "Father, forgive them." You know what that means? That means that was his undergirding prayer, not once, but during the whole event. So I imagine when they brought Jesus and stripped him at Golgotha, "Father, forgive them."
When they placed him down and they stretched out his hands and put spikes in his hands, "Father, forgive them." When they raised up the cross, "Father, forgive them." And as the day wore on, "Father, forgive them . . . Father, forgive them . . . Father, forgive them." That's his---that's his statement. I read a story this week. I had read it before, but it was just so amazing I revisited it this week. In 1993 a murder was committed by a sixteen-year-old boy. I think he was sixteen at the time. His name was Oshea Israel. He's in prison. He murdered a twenty-year-old boy. The mother of the boy that was murdered, her name is Mary Johnson---let me rephrase this. It wasn't the son of that mother, it was the only son, the only son of this mother was murdered.
The mother tried to get to the prison and visit the murderer of her son. She was denied access by the prisoner himself. Finally, after a period of time, after incessant asking, she was allowed entrance to the prison to have a visit. Now, that is what she said, she goes, "As a Christian," she said, "As a Christian, I knew I had to forgive him, but I just needed to find out why he killed my son." So she went to the prison. She visited with him. And after the visit was over, something came over her. She was so emotionally distraught, she just broke---she had an emotional breakdown and she started collapsing to the ground. The prisoner, the murderer of this woman's son looked at her and he said, "The only thing I could think of in my mind is 'What would I do right now if this were my mother?' "
He said, "I would hold her up." So he grabbed her and picked her up, held her. Picked her up and embraced her, she was so distraught, embraced her. And she hugged him back and just stayed in that position locked in an embraced for a moment. And she had this thought, she goes, "I just hugged the murderer of my only son." And she said, "As I left that day, all of the pain and bitterness and anger and animosity melted away." I want you to think of this scene on the cross, "Father, forgive them," like that woman's hug of the one who took her only son, as Jesus is saying, "They're about to take your only Son, Father, forgive them." And please notice this is a prayer. This is a statement not directed to the crowd, not directed to another criminal on the cross. He will speak to one of the thieves.
We'll get to that next time. He will speak to his own mother in the course of the crucifixion. But the very first words out of his mouth were a prayer directed to the Father. Do you think that's a good idea for us whenever we suffer? You think this might be a great role model for us, that instinctively right out of the shoot our first movement would be heavenward? I like to think of it this way that Jesus stays connected to heaven while he suffers anguish on earth, and I think it's a good model: I'm going to stay connected to the Father. And he prays, "Father, forgive them." Why does he pray it? First of all, he's fulfilling Scripture, right? You remember Isaiah 53, right, where it says, "He bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors"?
That's what the Scripture said he would do. He's doing what the Scripture predicted. He's fulfilling prophecy. He made intercession for the transgressors. Why on earth would you make intercession for transgressors? Easy answer---because transgressors, sinners need intercession, prayer. They need it. Murderers need prayer. Criminals need prayer. So he made intercession for the transgressors. It's a bit amazing to me, really, how we as believers, as Christians, we tend to have this reaction to what the world does whenever we hear of an atrocity, a crime. You know, we usually don't get past the shock of [gasp] "I can't believe that happened! Oh that's so horrible."
And the reason I say that's a bit odd is because listen to how it sounds when I put it this way: "I can't believe that unbelievers are actually acting like unbelievers. Wonder of wonders." Instead of being moved by what we hear or read or see on a news clip, to pray for the transgressors, to pray for them, to enter into that situation by bringing it before the throne of God and interceding. Jesus did. He was fulfilling the text of Scripture. Second reason he did it is because---well, that's just Jesus. That's consistent with his nature. Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them," because that's what Jesus always did. Whether it was the man let down the roof who was a paralytic, the first thing he said is, "Man, your sins are forgiven. Be of good cheer."
Or the woman who barges into Simon the Pharisee's house and cries all over his feet, as we saw last week, "Woman, your sins are forgiven." For Jesus to say it from the cross, "Father, forgive them," well, that's consistent with our Jesus. He's always doing that. He's always reaching out. He's always offering forgiveness. And here's a third reason why he prayed this---'cause it's what you need the most. It is the greatest need of humanity to be forgiven. I've watched thousands, thousands of people march forward through the years in altar calls. I see it in their eyes. I see it in their tears, what they want more than anything else is to be forgiven.
I remember this as a little boy when I offended my father one time. I offended him many times, but on this one particular occasion I knew that I offended him, I knew that I had broken his heart, and I so wanted to hear from him, "I forgive you." I didn't hear it for a while, because he was so deeply offended. Mankind's greatest need is God's greatest accomplishment---forgiveness. May I suggest that you put your name in the verse. Father, forgive Skip. Father, forgive Michelle, or Gail or Pete or George or whatever. Put your name. Personalize it. This is Jesus loving murderers. This is Jesus wanting sin to be forgiven. So we've seen the murder of Jesus, the mercy of Jesus. Please consider the last phrase of what he says in verse 34, the motive of Jesus: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."
We have just come across one the most misunderstood phrases in all of the Bible. Let me tell you what it does not mean. When Jesus says, "They don't know what they're doing," he is not suggesting that they were unaware that they were sinning. Oh, they knew what they were doing. Oh, they knew that this was wrong. They knew that this was evil. They knew because they had brought in false witnesses, it says, with false accusations against Jesus. And we know it to be true because Pilate who interrogated this criminal came out and said, "I find no fault in him at all." And all they could respond is two words: "Crucify him! Crucify him! Cruci---we don't care about justice. We don't care about doing right. We just want him dead."
They knew it was wrong, so he is not suggesting they were unaware. And, by the way, even if they were ignorant of what they were doing, it's no excuse, is it? Does ignorance mean innocence? Well, if you struggle with that, you may want to try going sixty-five miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone until you see a nicely appointed black and white car follow you and stop you. And what would this sound like, "You know how fast you were going, sir?" "Uh, no." "You were going sixty-five. It's a thirty-five mile an hour zone." Now imagine this: "I didn't know." Do you think the officer will neatly fold up his little ticket book and walk away and go, "Okay then, you're innocent because of your ignorance; ignorance equals innocence"? No. You know what he'll say? He'll write the ticket and he'll say, "Now you know."
And when you pay the fine, then you'll know. You're still guilty. So we're still left with the question: What does this phrase mean, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they're doing"? Well, it means two things at least. It means, number one, for the Romans, the Roman soldiers actually performing this deed, they didn't know the identity of this criminal. This was their job. They had crucified thousands of men like him. They didn't know who this was. They didn't have the fixed identity of this man in their minds, and they didn't know. In fact, only one of these soldiers, after the fact, and only after the fact---after his death, after three hours of darkness, after an earthquake, after the veil of the temple is ripped---only then does one of them discover who this is and says, "Truly this was the Son of God!"
But it means a second thing: for the rest of the crowd, they didn't know the enormity of their crime. They knew the reality of it. They knew it was wrong. They knew it was real. But they didn't know how big this crime was. They didn't know the full horror of what they were doing. First Corinthians chapter 2 verse 8, "Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." You know I found that people who reject Christ by and large don't know how an enormous offense that is. They don't. Uh-uh. You know, "There's a lot of different belief systems. I don't believe in Jesus. So what?" They do not understand the enormity of what that is, and how judgment will fall, and how they will be alienated from God forever and ever.
And, actually, I might be even addressing somebody that's your exit strategy. You're going to plead ignorance. That's your strategy. If your strategy is, "Well, you know, I like to call myself a free thinker. In fact, I like the term, not atheist, I'm an agnostic. I just don't know." Which usually means, not always, but it often means, "I don't know and I don't really care to find out. So I'm just going to sort of bump through life not knowing. And if there's a God, and if I ever stand before him at judgment, I'm just going to plead ignorance and say, 'Well, I just didn't know.' "Well, the bad news is now you know. You know too much. Just from this message alone, you know too much and you are held accountable. Don't fret over all those people who have never heard about Jesus.
That's usually the argument. "What about those people that live way out in the jungles and never heard?" You have heard. Let's worry about that. As Peter will say to the people of Jerusalem, "Truly, these times of ignorance God has overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent." So, was Jesus' prayer answered, "Father, forgive them"? Aah, it was, wasn't it, in many ways, many times over? The first answer to the prayer comes when he says to the criminal at his side, "Today you'll be with me in paradise." Something happens in that transaction with this criminal. We'll look at that next time. The second answer to the prayer is with that Roman centurion. And the Bible says this, "Glorifying God," it says, "Glorifying God he said, 'Truly this man was a righteous man! Truly he was the Son of God!' "
There was a conversion, I believe, of that soldier to who this criminal "Son of God" was. The third answer came at Pentecost. Three thousand people come to Christ, and thousands upon thousands more just in the city of Jerusalem will believe in this Jesus in weeks to follow. Some of the very people at the foot of the cross in this scene who are jeering and mocking and not believing will understand the identity of this person and the enormity of this crime, and they will come in repentance. In fact, we know that many priests were around the cross at the time. Acts, chapter 6, says, "A great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." It's a key phrase: "they were obedient."
You see, this prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing," this isn't some promise of instantaneous and automatic forgiveness. It anticipates that there will be in that crowd and in days to come people who will understand the identity of that person and the enormity of this crime, and will in realizing that turn from their sin and turn to him in order to be forgiven. Like Christopher Pritchard, like Oshea Israel, like David Berkowitz---all who have discovered personally Jesus loves murderers. And in speaking of murderers, we have to assume our own guilt for the cross. Our sin put him there. He died for us in our place. And so maybe his prayer will be answered by a few of those in this group turning their lives to Jesus and personally discovering that Jesus loves murderers like us.
Our Father in heaven, I'm always . . . I guess amazed. There's no word for it when I find someone that society considers so bad, so evil, so disposable, being touched by Jesus Christ, having a real conversion experience, and then becoming a tool in your hands, even after all the blood that's on their hands, to be used by you to touch the lives of others, who though may be cast off by society, you said you would never cast off. You love. You redeem. And how we look forward to an eternity spent with sinners who have been forgiven, congregating together before your throne, from every tribe, tongue, people.
Lord, I pray for anybody here who doesn't know you personally, who hasn't turned their life over to you personally. I pray they would come to the awareness of the identity of Jesus and the enormity of the roadblock that exists between them and you if they haven't turned to Jesus. I pray they would be forgiven, in Jesus' name, amen.
Closing: No matter how bad we are or have been, when we come to Jesus in repentance, we will be forgiven. How has that transformed your life? We'd love to know. Email email@example.com. And just a reminder, you can give financially to this work at calvaryabq.org/giving. Thank you for joining us for this teaching from Skip Heitzig of Calvary Albuquerque.