The Crucifixion, pt.3

Many people base their salvation upon a thread of Scriptures pertaining to “faith-only” and usually tie it together with the present account in Luke 23.39-43, the thief on the cross. Usually, their contention is that the thief was saved because of his faith and accepted Jesus as his personal Savior. Therefore, all a person needs to do today to be saved is put their faith in Jesus. Unfortunately, this one example of a man saved under the old covenant just prior to the death of Jesus does not square with what Scripture says about salvation under the new covenant. Nor is it consistent with every example of a person being saved by the apostolic preaching. Therefore, a person desiring to know what they must do to be saved (a common question in the New Testament book of Acts also authored by Luke) must look elsewhere for that answer.

Why then does Luke include this unique incident of a contrite criminal? To confuse millions of Bible readers about how one obtains salvation? Nay, verily. Instead, Luke includes this incident to make a striking contrast. Those who are reviling Him, be it the Jewish authorities, the Roman soldiers, or the other criminal are calling on Jesus to “save himself” (v.35, 37, 39). It seems Luke highlights the fact that the cross is for the salvation of others, indeed, all of mankind (A theme of Luke’s; cf. 1.79; 2.31-32 7.1-10, esp.v.9). Further, Jesus is fulfilling His mission in providing salvation through the cross from the emarginated in society, even the prisoners and ciminals (cf. 1.52; 4.18-19; 7.22-23). This passage was not written to explain to people what they must do to be saved; it is written to show that Jesus never lost sight of the mission of Messiah even during the agony of the crucifixion.

All the voices are yelling, “Save yourself.” That’s not the point. The point is that Jesus through His substitutionary death on the cross is saving others. Even in this moment of His greatest weakness, as it were, He is accomplishing His greatest work: salvation for all mankind.

The Reviling

Many believe that both of the criminals began their final moments on their respective crosses by railing at the Son of God, joining in with the rest of those who mocked Jesus. This much can be gleaned from the parallel accounts (Matt 27.44; Mark 15.32). However, Luke records that one of the thieves had a change of heart, repentance. Key figures in church history such as Athanasius, Origen, Hilary, Chrysostrom, Theophylact, and Euthymius have held much the same view. Both of these thieves had crucified near Jesus, presumably equidistant and therefore were equally near Jesus. Both no doubt heard Jesus’ various sayings and had beheld His unjust suffering those six hours on the cross. Both were wicked men in need of salvation. Both were suffering acute pain and quickly approaching death. Both had equal opportunity to respond to the Messiah. Yet only one has a change of heart.

The one criminal is railing at Jesus, heaping up further insults on the Son of God. The tense of this verb indicates that this is something he kept on doing, as if he were continuing his activities which began at the first on the cross. The word itself is a form of the word for which we get “blasphemy.” This gives us an idea of the insults and slander which this man was speaking to Jesus. Part of the blasphemy is recorded by Luke: “Are you not the Christ?” This is a rhetorical question, the criminal expecting an affirmative answer. Of course you are the Christ and therefore you should be able to save yourself and us.

The Rebuke

“But the other rebuked him.” In this action, we see this criminal’s repentance which will be dealt with more in detail in a moment. But he rebukes his fellow criminal: “Do you not fear God?” God, the just judge; shortly these men will stand before the throne of God and give an account for what they have done. It is interesting that the thief then says their punishment is them “receiving the due reward of our deeds.” In other words, this is justice, which the thief says in v.41. Hence, he connects God and justice in nearly the same breath. God is a God of justice, pouring out His judgment on nations in history and at the end will justly judge each man. This criminal says it is God’s justice that they hang on their crosses, but Jesus is different: He “has done nothing wrong.” Here is a critical theological point: as Jesus hangs on the cross, the One who knew no sin becomes sin on our behalf (2 Cor 5.21). He is taking upon Himself the just judgment of God. In other words, God is justly judging our sins, meting out in due measure His wrath, punishing our sins through the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus.

The Repentance

There are a number of reasons put forth by scholars as to why this criminal did repent. J. C. Ryle in his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels lists several of the reasons scholarship has put forth as to why this was: “Some say, as Bengel, that he was a Gentile; and some as Scott, that he was a Jew. – Some thin, as Suarez, that he had heard our Lord preach, and seen Him work miracles at some former period. – Some think, as Euthymius, that he had heard our Lord’s answers to Pilate, and been struck by them and so learned to believe in our Lord’s kingdom. – Some think, as Stier, that he was struck by the title put over our Lord’s head on the cross. – Some think, as Theophylact, that he was pricked to the heart by hearing our Lord’s prayer for His enemies, and by seeing our Lord’s patience under suffering.” Ryle accurately notes: “All these are purely conjectural ideas.” Luke records precious little concerning what they dying man thinks of Jesus and why he repents. But it would seem to be based upon his knowledge of the innocent man hanging before him that he makes a request.

The Request

What did this criminal know about Jesus? The criminal knows Jesus’ identity. “Jesus.” The name itself means “salvation.” And here is a criminal, nearing death, conscious of need for freedom from the great sins on his record and he turns to Jesus for salvation. This implies this man was familiar with the fact that Jesus could do something about his sins. Perhaps word had even reached the ears of this criminal that there is a man who forgives sins: Jesus of Nazareth.Some later manuscripts add the word “Lord” after “Jesus” but this seems to be an interpolation added later. The criminal knows Jesus’ intelligence. “Remember me” is the criminal’s plea. This implies this man is aware of Jesus ability to grant him divine favor, even the favor of a just God. He also seems to have some idea that Jesus will know him in the after and identify as a person who died in faith. The criminal knows Jesus’ instruction. “Your kingdom,” that is Jesus’ kingdom. Now it could be argued that the criminal knew Jesus had claimed to be a king because on a placard above the cross was written “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in three languages. But inferred is the man’s knowledge of the Messianic kingdom and Jesus coming “into” His kingdom, that is His rule and reign as the church’s cosmic sovereign ruler. Implied also is the Lordship of Jesus, ruling over His kingdom. Again, perhaps word of the Messiah has reached the ears of this criminal and kingdom thoughts have been planted as seeds finally sprouting vines of faith.

The Reward

Because of the faith this criminal manifests, Jesus has a rewarding declaration for him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Truly” is “amen” in the Greek. “So be it.” “You” is emphatic; “you, even you.” “Today” for some reason is tricky with many scholars but means, simply, “today.” Not tomorrow, next week, or two thousand years yet future from when Jesus spoke these words. “Before the sun yet scorching the their tortured bodies set” (Pulpit). “Paradise” –  This is the only occasion Jesus speaks of the resting place for the righteous in this language. It conjured up, for the Jews, thoughts of perfect Eden before the fall and “Abraham’s bosom” which we have seen Jesus use earlier in Luke (16.22). It probably refers to the place where God dwells (see 2 Cor 12.4) but if nothing else, it points to a splendid place of bliss and the pleasure of fellowship with God.

Again, this is not an account to point to establish doctrine concerning salvation for people under the new covenant. Luke deals with that in his next volume Acts. What we should take away from this account is that indeed Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and has the ability to forgive sins, something we have seen Him do earlier in Luke (5.20; 7.48). Here is a pentient criminal whom Jesus uses to once more demonstrate His authority and power.

The Crucifixion, pt.2

As we continue through the crucifixion scene, we cannot but see that multiple prophecies are finding their fulfillment in the historical account of Jesus’ death. Intermingled with these prophetic fulfillments is the Christ’s cries from the cross, petitions even to heaven itself for the people performing this heinous deed.

Numbered with the Transgressors

Luke especially points this out and is the only gospel writer who gives us the details concerning the dialogue between Jesus and one of these criminals in particular. The word “criminal” is actually a contraction of two words in Greek, one meaning “evil” (kakon) and the other “work” (ergos) and is variously translated “criminal” or “malefactor.” Literally these are “evil doers” (Gk. kakourgoi). These are bad men receiving their due punishment. Between these evil doers is crucified the sinless Son of God. Isaiah records how the suffering Servant would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53.12b) and how through that action he would “make intercession for the transgressors” by bearing “the sin of many.” Jesus, in the upper room scene with His disciples, when He institutes the Lord’s Supper has already pointed to the vicarious nature of His death: “this is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26.28, ESV. Emphasis mine). All of this prophecy, from Isaiah to Jesus, finds its fulfillment here in the crucifixion.

Nailed to a Cross

As mentioned in Part 1, the manner in which Jesus was to be killed, namely crucifixion, was prophecied nearly a millenium before Jesus lived in Psalm 22.16: “they have pierced my hands and feet.” This is a prophetic picture of crucifixion. Two thousand years removed from the first century Roman Empire, this cruel form of torturous death has lost its impact upon the human psyche. The cross was not a warm, fuzzy, friendly image in the early church. Indeed, for nearly a millenium the cross was not the main symbol of Christianity as it is today. People understood what crucifixion was all about. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero (102-43 BC) called crucifixion “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” He went on to say, “It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination.” He goes on to say, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.” Indeed, under Jewish law, being hung on a tree was a curse (see Gal 3.13 where Paul quotes Deut 21.23). It was an ugly, miserable, horrible way to die.

And yet, it should be noted that the gospel writers spend very little time dealing with the actual practice of crucifixion. Luke puts forth very simply that Jesus was crucified with next to no emphasis on the actual suffering and torment of crucifixion. The primary focus concerning the sacrifice of Christ is that 1) it happened, really and truly and 2) there are real benefits and significance for mankind as a result of the death of Jesus. Further, by comparison, the majority of the focus in the gospel narratives is on the life and teachings of Jesus as well as presenting the actual, factual resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, the crucifixion scene (i.e. the death of Jesus) seems to be pointing forward to Sunday morning when the tomb is empty (i.e. the resurrection of Jesus).

Jesus is crucified at the place called the Skull (or “Calvary,” KJV which translates it such from the Latin calvaria). In Aramaic, it is Golgotha (see John 19.17). Most scholars say this hill is north of Jerusalem looks like a skull and is therefore named appropriately. It should be noted, though, there is a tradition that this is the place where, after vanquishing his opponent, David came and buried the skull of Goliath. Yet another tradition says this is the place where Adam’s skull was buried. But is seems most likely the hill was named for what it resembled: a skull. “There they crucified Him.” The statement is brief yet sums up the entire event. One criminal is to His right, the other on His left. Here, heaven’s love and heaven’s justice will meet and the problem of sin will be settled.

Casting Lots for His Garments

Luke records a unique of Jesus from the cross in v.34: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Here is a prayer, short and simple, from the lips of Jesus. He prays the Father forgive “them.” Who? The Jews? The Romans? Either or both seems to be acceptable. As Barnes points out the Romans did not know that they were crucifying the Son of God and the Jews did not know that they were yet filling up the cup of God’s wrath. Even while the mobs cry “Crucify Him” Jesus crys out to the Father “Forgive them.”

Meanwhile, at the foot of the cross, the Roman soldiers are busy gambling for the clothing of Jesus. Yet another prophecy is fulfilled from Psalm 22.18: “they divide my garments among them,/ and for my clothing they cast lots.” The garments, history tells us, were the clothing of a simple man, even a poor man. Modern-day televangelists want people to believe that Jesus had a big house, drove a Rolls Royce, and wore designer clothing (Prosperity preachers Dr. Apostle Frederick K. C. Price, Creflo Dollar, John Hagee, Jesse Duplantis, Kenneth Copeland, et al). John Chrysostrom says this detail is added to show the poorness of the Lord’s clothing. In other words, He wore dressed in simple fashion.

Wagging their Heads

In verse 35 we have yet another fulfilled prophecy as Luke alludes to Psalm 22.7-8. Indeed, Matthew records this account and the words of the rulers are nearly identical to the words of David (see Matt 27.39, 43). There is a marked difference between the people (who seem to have comprised the bulk of the crowds calling for Jesus’ crucifixion) and the rulers. The people are nearby just standing and watching all of this. What was going on in their hearts and minds? Remorse? Guilt? Memories of this great Teacher? The triumphal entry just days earlier? However, the rulers of the people scoff and deride Jesus, calling upon Him to “save himself” from His present predicament. They call Him the “Christ of God.” This term has come up in Luke previously (9.20) when Peter called Jesus this same thing. No doubt they were calling Him this in that Jesus, less than 24 hours previous, had stood trial and acknowledged as much before them (22.67, 70). “His Chosen One” is unique to Luke’s account of the crucifixion. It is a term that speaks of divine favor, something that the Son of God would no doubt have. The rulers draw even more attention to the fact of Jesus’ unheard of claims and his present plight on the cross.

But the jeering does not stop with the Jewish authorities. Even the Roman soldiers (v.36), the executioners themselves, join in the ridicule, mocking Jesus as He hangs on the cross. There is yet further fulfillment of prophecy from Psalm 69.21: “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” The soldiers, Luke tells us, did just this when they offered him “sour wine.” This was cheap wine, really vinegar wine heavily diluted with water and gall. Luke is the only gospel writer to mention that there was mocking that accompanied the offering of sour wine to Jesus. Their mocking is simple but sadistic: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” The “if” can also be translated “since.” Having the placard posted over Jesus on the cross (v.38) would point them to an understanding that this man has claimed to be someone great. Therefore, since He is a King, he should be able to save himself.

Verse 38 presents an interesting historical note. All four gospel accounts mention a placard with an inscription and while “the four reports of the inscription slightly differ verbally” there is no difference “substantially” (Pulpit Commentary). Some of the oldest manuscripts do not have part of v.38 (“in letters of Greek and Latin and Hebrew”) but that this was an historical fact is evident because John records (John 19.19) and no authorities dispute this. The message on the placard is the crime for which the condemned is dying. In Jesus’ case, He claimed to be “The King of the Jews.”

These are several of the prophecies we find fulfilled directly in the historical crucifixion of Jesus. Now Luke will shift focus to an incident duirng the crrucifixion which is cause for much misunderstand pertaining to salvific matters. What’s next is Luke’s account of the thief on the cross.