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THE PRAYER OF CHRIST FOR HIS MURDERERS.
BY WILLIAM HULL.
LUKE xxiii. 34.–Father, forgive them; for they know not what
To the Jews the cross of Christ was a stumbling-block, to the Greeks it was folly; and by both classes of unbelievers it was made the subject of reproach, of insult, of sarcasm against the first Christians, that their Lord was crucified, that the founder of their superstition was executed as a malefactor, and was doomed by a judicial sentence to die an ignominious death.
The simple fact that he was condemned to suffer by a public tribunal, connected with the extraordinary doctrines which the apostles founded upon this fact, were at once pronounced to be fatal to his claims as the great prophet of God, and serious inquiry was precluded by instant scorn and contumely. They would not enter into the deep import of this awful transaction, so confounding to the pride of self-righteous man ; and the doctrine of atonement by the blood of this holy victim, as well as the resurrection of the dead, being foreign to their philosophy, they treated them with laughter, and consigned them to oblivion. So was it with the Sadducees of Jerusalem, with the sceptics of the Academy and the Lyceum; and the profane scoffers of these “last times” have trodden faithfully in their steps. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men;" and this calumniated doctrine and hated cross redeemed from contempt by their indissoluble connexion with the eternal interests of man. The forgiveness of sins, and redemption from the grave, are consequences of the death of Christ, in which every member of the human family will glory, whose mind, disen
thralled from the bondage of corruption, expands to the quickening influence of religious hope, and, with noble ardour, seeks its true happiness in moral perfection, and an immortal fellowship with God.
Passing by, however, the consequences of the Saviour's death, there are circumstances attendant on the crucifixion itself, which, instead of attaching dishonour to the blessed Jesus, invest him with incomparable dignity; while they throw back the infamy of this dark transaction upon the men who imbrued their hands in innocent blood, and crucified the Lord of glory. It is one thing to sufferit is another to suffer deservedly; and in the present instance the victim was innocent. Moreover, the personal character of any individual is to be estimated, not by the external circumstances in which he is placed, but by his conduct under these circumstances. In poverty, in adversity, in persecution, in the solitude of the exile, and in the death of the martyr, the most exalted of human virtues have been put forth, and the most noble of heroic sentiments have been uttered. It is the man that gives dignity to his station, and not the station that gives it to the man. This is applicable to the crucifixion. It is not possible to read with intelligence and feeling the narrative of the evangelists, and not perceive that the greatness of Jesus Christ rose with his sufferings. It would be an employment both interesting and profitable, to trace him from the garden of Gethsemane, where he first tasted the extreme bitterness of the cup of sorrows, to the moment of his expiring on the cross. Every successive incident which led him onwards to that tragical hourthe treachery of Judas—the banditti who arrested him with swords and staves, as if he had been a midnight robber—the flight of his disciples in the moment of danger—the tribunals of Pilate and of Herod—the crown of thorns and the purple robe—his notice of those women, who, with feminine tenderness and courage, followed him weeping to the cross—in short, all the events of that awful season served but to illustrate and magnify his character. What an example of fortitude, of meekness, of affection, of piety! What admirable wisdom in knowing when to speak, and when to be silent ! What patient endurance in thus submitting, for our sakes, to the revilings of an insolent and ferocious mob, when a word from his lips would have brought upon them fire from heaven, and consumed them in the very moment of their deepest guilt! Such is the majesty of Jesus Christ-great amidst the humiliations of his life--greater still as he passes through the baptism of blood to the consummation of his work. “Certainly this was a righteous man,” exclaimed a Roman and a soldier, when he saw what was done, and glorified God. And even from one of the most intractable disciples
of the infidel school has the concession been extorted—“If Socrates lived and died like a philosopher, Christ lived and died like a God!"
Let us then hear no more of the shame of the cross, unless to reprobate the crimes of his destroyers-unless to the dishonour and condemnation of those who, by their sins, still crucify again the Lord of life, and put him, as it were, to an open shame!
In nothing did Jesus Christ appear more eminently great than in the feelings he discovered towards the instruments of his torture, at the very time when they were sporting with the sufferings of their victim. They nail him to the cross; they transfix his hands and his feet; they fill that trembling delicate frame with agonies which have no name by which they can be expressed, and under which his human nature sunk and died—and yet, as if feeling more deeply the situation of these desperate wretches than his own, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
You have in these words an affecting PRAYER, enforced by a PLEA equally affecting.
I. Your attention is invited to the PRAYER, which, in whatever light regarded, is fitted to awaken profound emotion and salutary reflection.
1. Observe the persons on whose behalf it was presented—the men who perpetrated the most flagitious and sanguinary deed that ever stained with its pollutions the face of the earth—the men who crucified the Son of God. The moral turpitude of their crime was aggravated by two considerations. In the first place, the victim of their ferocity was guiltless of the smallest offence. Whom had he injured? Had he blasphemed his God? No. It was his meat and his drink to do the will of his Father, and to glorify him upon the earth. Had he insulted the lawgiver of the Jews ? No. His mission was to interpret, to honour, and to magnify the law. Had he been convicted of outrages against the peace and order of society? No. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. He was more than innocent. His life was not simply free from stain, but adorned by a series of constant and honourable virtues. He wept over human miseries, and relieved them; and doubtless around the cross upon which he was suspended, many were to be seen who had experienced his healing power in happier days, receiving at his hand health and gladness, and deliverance from the grave. And this gave to the sins of his destroyers their crimson hue. They inflicted on him the last indignities which malice could suggest, not merely although he was innocent, but because he was innocent; because he set an example of sinless purity, and because he reproved, with mild but fearless expostulations, the crimes which were bringing down the judgments of heaven upon a profligate and impenitent people. They were guilty of innocent blood !
In the next place, their conduct was aggravated by the more than ordinary rancour, the pitiless hatred with which they pursued him to the grave. The mind revolts from following them through the long series of insults, of dishonours, of sarcasms, of brutal violence, inflicted upon the blessed Jesus. Humanity shudders at the recollection. Even nature seemed to feel the ignominy of that dreadful day, and while sympathizing with her humbled Lord, frowned upon the perpetrators of his death. The earth trembled; the rocks were riven; the sun was darkened ; and the vail of the temple was rent in twain. Never had the world groaned under such a mass of iniquity. It was the accumulation of the guilt of ages upon a single point of time—the most intense display of infernal malice and energy—as if the prince of this world felt himself making the last desperate struggle for empire, before his kingdom should “fall like lightning from heaven.” It was the hour and the power of darkness; and, if amid the stillness, the dread, the anxious horror of that season of darkness, any voice ascended to heaven in tones of distress and supplication, it might be expected that the vengeance of heaven would be invoked by that voice upon the actors of this inhuman and appalling tragedy. There is a voice it is the voice of supplication; it is the voice of Him that bleeds upon the cross; it is Jesus pouring forth his soul in prayer-not for himself, not for his friends, but for blessings upon the men that torment and destroy him! “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" Miracle of miracles! grace unparalleled, supernatural, divine !-When he is reviled, he reviles not again. He returns blessing for cursing; and the strongest testimony of affectionate solicitude he could bestow on his dearest friends, he gives to his unfeeling foes, by praying for their salvation with his dying breath. Let this prayer be written upon all our hearts, and let us daily read it, that the lessons it teaches may never be forgotten. And what does it teach?—that there is hope for the most forlorn and desperate of sinners, who seek for mercy, since they may yet have an interest in the intercession of the great Mediator. That it becomes us, like Jesus Christ, to pray for those who are sunk deepest in the gulf of transgression, and who have not yet learned to pray for themselves; and above all, that we forgive them that trespass against us, as we hope ourselves to be forgiven of God. When we are wrongfully and injuriously treated, the flame of resentment must be extinguished,
and revenge sacrificed to mercy. “ Bless them which persecute you. Bless, and curse not. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him ; if he thirst, give him drink. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” The prayer of Jesus Christ is the most impressive of all comments on these admonitions.
2. Not less remarkable is the subject of the prayer itself. He does not implore that these guilty men may be arrested in their career, and not suffered to aggravate their ruin by proceeding to the consummation of their crime. He knew that the cup might not pass from him : nor does he limit his intercession on their behalf to the mitigation of their punishment; although that would have been an act of prodigious grace, considering the atrocity of their conduct, lost as they were to every feeling of generous sympathy towards the unresisting victim of their violence. No. It is more than this. He prays for nothing less than their forgiveness, the plenary absolution and remission of their sins; and forgiveness of sins, be it remembered, includes not simply the non-infliction of punishment--not simply an escape from the penalty of violated right and the wrath of insulted Heaven, but the restoration of the offender to the favour of God, to peace of conscience, to the hope of salvation, and finally, after death, to the fruition of immortal life and blessedness, when the heirs of redemption shall mingle with the unfallen spirits of light before the throne of God and of the Lamb. In a word, the prayer of the Saviour amounted to nothing less, than that the men who nailed him to the cross might live to put off the savage nature which could revel in the blood of innocence, and, through repentance and faith, be qualified for an eternal alliance with himself in the glory of his mediatorial kingdom. Such is the compassion of Jesus Christ! His enemies inflict upon him an accursed death, and he invests them, in return, with the power of an endless life. They aim at his destruction, and he accomplishes their salvation : while the stage prepared by impious hands for an exhibition of crimes from which the sun withdrew his beams, is transformed into a theatre for the more wonderful manifestation of the riches of redeeming love. Nor should we do justice to this subject, if we did not embrace the occasion it presents of pausing for a moment to contemplate, to admire, and to adore the infinite love of God, which forms the principal theme of the christian revelation, and is eminently conspicuous in the gift and sacrifice of his beloved Son. Here it is seen in deep contrast with the guilt and wretchedness of man. That love not only pardons, but it blesses and saves. It not only remits punishment, but it clothes the reclaimed offender in radiant garments of righteousness and