Luke 23:32-33 (esv)
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
Luke 23:39-43 (esv)
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.“
I think one of the most amazing, and telling stories surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus, is that of the two criminals who were crucified with him. It becomes very quickly a wonderful picture of sin and salvation.
Criminals is a pretty broad category. If we look at the Greek word here in Luke which is translated as criminal, it means “one who uses violence to rob openly”. We are not talking about the guy who breaks in at night and steals a few things, but the guy who shows up with a shotgun, shoots all in his way and gets what he wants. Uses violence – there is a good chance that these guys were not just thieves, but murderers as well.
So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
At the beginning of our story, both criminals are reviling Jesus. Another translation says ‘blasphemed’. At the start, they both rejected Jesus, despite the fact they were both about to face death. Even when facing death, as punishment for the sin in their lives, they still blasphemed God.
Before we go any further, let’s step back and take a look at the last week. Jesus had made quite a stir.
And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
Everyone in Jerusalem knew who Jesus was. At the least, the crowds knew that Jesus was a prophet of God. Most hadn’t got as far as the Messiah, but there was a tension in the air when He went around, with people waiting to see. Remember – this wasn’t a ‘one off’ event. This was the third passover that Jesus had come to Jerusalem, and in between He had spent his time traveling all around Israel, teaching and healing. Simply everyone knew who He was, and what He had done to this point.
Remember also that Israel had just spent 400 years without a ‘prophet of the Lord’. It had been an extremely dry time in the history of the people of Israel, from a spiritual perspective. There had not been a ‘word from the Lord’ in over 400 years – and this to ‘Gods chosen people’. First, John the Baptist turns up, causes a stir, but then says to watch for the next guy. And then suddenly Jesus turns up with not only authoritative teaching, but miracles and healing as if to prove His power and authority. Jesus was known, and He was the talking point of all of Israel, and especially Jerusalem. On this holiest of holidays for the Jewish people (the Passover), people were ready for something.
So with that back to our two guys on the crosses either side of Jesus. They were theives, murderers, and most likely more. Both had been caught and sentenced, and were being punished for their sins. And yet they still took the time in their pain and suffering to revile Jesus – because they knew who He was.
And yet – at some point in this process, one of them came to his senses. Being in Jerusalem, you could probably surmise he was an Israelite, and had probably grown up with the temple teaching, understood the feasts and holidays of the Jews (because they were still passionate about their laws). He had heard the scriptures. And suddenly, it became clear.
It started by rebuking the other criminal, who may well have been his partner in crime. ‘Do you not fear God‘?
It followed with confession of his sin. “and we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds”.
Then a confession of Jesus. “but this man has done nothing wrong”. This wasn’t today’s first confession of Jesus innocence, but maybe the most heartfelt. Herod and Pilate had both previously pronounced Jesus innocent (Luke 23:4,15,22).
Finally, he appealed to Jesus. “And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
It was that simple. He turned from his sin, even to the point of rebuking those around him, despite his pain and suffering. He then confessed Jesus – and appealed to Him.
This guy wasn’t baptised that we know of. He wasn’t catechised. He hadn’t learned the creeds. He may not have even read the scriptures for years, or been in a temple since his youth. And yet, Jesus had a response for him.
And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
And here ends the story of the criminal. We don’t hear much else about him – not that there would be much to hear. As it was approaching the sabbath, this is the last we hear -
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him.
We know that he suffered some more pain in this life, but died that day. And true to Jesus word, we can believe that he found himself in Heaven that day.
Because he was saved, on the day of his death, and despite a life of sin.
And the other guy? Unless something happened that is not recorded, he passed into eternal judgement.
What can we take from this criminals life, this thief and murderer?
No matter what you have done in life, you can be saved. Jesus death paid the penalty for us all, because we are all in sin. In our world we might think that being a violent thief and murderer is much worse than many other things – but before God, “all have sinned and fallen short of God” (Romans 3:23).
And what did it take to be saved? He confessed his sin, and we can believe he turned away from it. And ”Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2).
In the end it is that simple. Salvation comes through Jesus, and is available to us all, no matter what has happened in our lives.
Lord God, thank you for sending your Son to us, that we might be made right with you. Keep it focused in our minds always, not just in times like Easter and Christmas, but all of the time. Continually remind us of your sacrifice that we might praise you as we should. Help us to understand it in such a way that we can share your love and sacrifice also with those around us, that they might also know you, and like the criminal, call out to you for salvation. In Jesus Name. Amen.
(Photo: flickr / jkonig)