Okay, let’s quickly but slowly get some theological semantics out of the way.
Suppose you look this verse up in many modern Bible translations or Bible websites. You’re going to find an asterisk or square brackets noting that some of the original Greek copies of Luke don’t contain this statement of intercession.
What’s particularly curious is that such omission downplays, or ignores, the prophetic words given to us in Isaiah 53:
12…he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.Isaiah 53:12
When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them”, he interceded on behalf of all those who were putting him to death. In other words, Jesus negotiated for all of us.
In the first centuries immediately following Jesus’ death, there was a flurry of finger-pointing and anti-Jewish sentiment in the burgeoning Christian community. It appeared that some of the early copyists had chosen to omit this passage, allowing the blame for Jesus’ death to fall upon the Jewish people. Indeed,
If you understand the purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, you’ll appreciate that Jesus’ petition to his Father covers Jews and Gentiles alike.
As a theology student, I’ve learnt to have more confidence with theologians who include rather than omit passages such as this. A notable example is the early church father Irenæus of Lyons (b. ~139, d. ~203).
Irenæus clarifies in his work Against Heresies (the earliest known work of systematic theology written sometime during 175-185 CE.), that:
And from this fact, that He exclaimed upon the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” 25 the long-suffering, patience, compassion, and goodness of Christ are exhibited, since He both suffered, and did Himself exculpate those who had maltreated Him. For the Word of God, who said to us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those that hate you,” 26 Himself did this very thing upon the cross; loving the human race to such a degree, that He even prayed for those putting Him to death.Irenæus. Against Heresies (p. 196). Kindle Edition.
Notice the inclusion of “And from this fact“. For Irenæus, Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34 were a matter of certainty, of common knowledge. Indeed, pastor Tony Evans, who’s been named “one of the 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World by Baylor University”, concurs.
Don’t miss that even as he was being tortured to death, Jesus remembered the purpose for which he came—to open the door of divine forgiveness for all who would receive him. He prayed that the Father would forgive even his executioners, because they did not know what they [were] doing.Evans, Tony. The Tony Evans Bible Commentary (p. 1694). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I love how clearly Tony has articulated the significance of Jesus’ prayer while undergoing crucifixion. He did it,
…to open the door of divine forgiveness for all who would receive him.
Divine mercy and intercession are required for both a deliberate sinner and a person illiterate of the sin they’re doing, thinking, or speaking; an individual’s ignorance that what they’re doing is wrong doesn’t annul their responsibility to pay the price.
While the Roman executioners were nailing him to the cross, we see in this verse that Jesus had suffered more from the spiritual assault they were committing to their own
souls than the seven to nine-inch nails being driven through his wrists (between the radius and cubitus/ulna) and ankles.
Following his resurrection, the Great Commission given by Jesus demonstrates how quickly God responded to his prayerful request. As a result of his intercession, total forgiveness is now available for all who seek Him.
This is why the longer you walk with the Lord and understand His Word, the more you’ll appreciate the need, the totality and the profound joy of God’s grace and forgiveness.
To close, here’s some bonus evidence for the necessity, legitimacy and “fruit” of Jesus’ prayer we’ve just reviewed in Luke 23:34,
Some of the fruit of this prayer would be in the salvation of thousands of people in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) “...they do not know what they do“. I.e., they were not aware of the full scope of their wickedness.
Still, their ignorance certainly did not mean that they deserved forgiveness; rather, their spiritual blindness itself was a manifestation of their guilt (John 3:19). But Christ’s prayer, while they were in the very act of mocking Him, is an expression of the boundless compassion of divine grace.MacArthur, John F.. The MacArthur Bible Commentary (pp. 1331-1332). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.