Luke Bible Study (Journey with Jesus)

Luke 23:26-43, Criminal On The Cross


There is no appeals process for the greatest injustice in the history of the world. The person who had never done one thing wrong, morally or otherwise, and lived a perfect life has just been condemned to execution. Every trial exonerated Jesus, yet he is still condemned to go to the cross.

The Walk of Death (23:26-31)

Jesus is led away to walk to the place of his execution. Executions were held outside the city walls. So Jesus takes his walk to his death. But he does not simply walk by himself nor empty-handed. Jesus is carrying the crossbeam for his crucifixion on his shoulders. This was common Roman treatment. Plutarch wrote, “Every criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross on his back” (The Divine Vengeance, 554 A-B). The condemned would carry the crossbeam to the place where the execution would occur. Scholars have done work on how heavy a cross and crossbeam would be. Studies have shown that carrying a full cross is simply impossible. The weight and mass of that much wood could not be carried by a human. The weight of a full cross would greatly exceed 200 pounds. It is simply too large and too heavy. Most of the paintings of medieval and renaissance times depicts Jesus carrying a whole cross, dragging some of it on the ground. Movies have also depicted this. But it is too much for a human to carry. However, carrying the crossbeam is manageable. It is heavy, but it is possible. Verse 26 reveals that Jesus is unable to carry his cross because a random person is selected to carry the crossbeam for Jesus to the place of execution. Simon of Cyrene is chosen by the Romans. This inability to carry his crossbeam reveals the degree of punishment Jesus has endured up to this point. He should have been able to carry his cross, but he cannot. The condemned carried their crosses. The only logical explanation left is that the punishment Jesus endured, from the beatings to the floggings, has significantly impacted the flesh of Jesus. So Simon is carrying the cross of Jesus.

We are also told that Jesus is not walking by himself. Verse 27 tells that there was a great crowd of people following Jesus. Further there was a group of women following, mourning and lamenting for him. But Jesus turns to them and tells them to not weep for him, but to weep for themselves. There is a judgment that is coming against Israel for this action. Jesus prophesied about all of this and how the doom of Israel was coming for killing him.

13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Luke 20:13–16 ESV)

Matthew tells a parable the wedding feast that is rejected by those invited. Listen to his description of what God will do: The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (Matthew 22:7 ESV)

So Jesus warns again about what is coming about the nation because of what they are doing. Verse 29 reveals that the situation will become so bad that blessings and curses will be reversed. Having children was considered the greatest blessing a Jewish woman could have. The blessed people will be those who never had children. People will cry to the mountains to fall on them, a picture that comes from Hosea 10:8. They will be begging for protection and help, but there will be no help. Jesus tells a short parable in verse 31. If everything goes bad when things are good, what will happen to you when things turn bad? God is going to act because of this great injustice.

Crucified (23:32-34)

Luke tells that Jesus is not alone in execution either. There are two others who are marching to the place of crucifixion as well. They are criminals and they are apparently deserving of death. They are carrying their crosses to the place of execution. I want us to see that it was not by accident that Jesus used this image to speak of discipleship.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23 ESV)

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27 ESV)

To follow Jesus means to put yourself to death. This is a metaphor for killing our desires, passions, comforts, and decisions. Now Jesus will be our life. Now our decisions and desires are built only upon what Jesus wants us to do, not what we want to do. To follow Jesus the cross must be carried.

In verse 33 the death march is complete. They come to the place that is called The Skull. In Hebrew/Aramaic the name is Golgotha. In Latin this place is called Calvary. When we sing songs about Calvary or Golgotha, we are singing about the place of crucifixion just outside the city walls of Jerusalem, which means The Skull. The Romans liked to crucify people on higher ground along a busy road so that those walking along the road could see what happens to those who go against the Romans. Verse 33 declares the act with such simple and concise words: “There they crucified him, and the criminals.” This is when the nails were driven into the hands and feet. Some crucifixions were not done with nails but were done with ropes. The reason we know that nails were used for Jesus because when Jesus raises from the dead, Jesus proves that he is alive by showing his hands and feet (Luke 24:40). Therefore, nails were used in Jesus’ hands and feet to hold him on the cross. Thomas’ words are even clearer:

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25 ESV)

The scriptures are clear that nails were used. Studies as well as archaeology has shown that the nails would have been driven into wrist so that the body would be able to hold the body weight of the victim on the cross. It would be very difficult for palms to hold the weight of the body upright on the cross. Nails were also driven into the sides of each ankle, to affix the feet to each side of the post of the cross. Luke simply says that Jesus was crucified, and all the readers in the first century knew the horror of what these sickening words meant. It is at this moment that Jesus says something shocking.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)

In these words we see the heart of our merciful Lord. Jesus is still acting as our intercessor, even while nails are being driven into his body and he is being hung on the wood of that cross. Intercession, when God’s wrath should have fallen. Jesus does not show vindictiveness. Love for people is seen from the cross. Jesus is doing the very thing he taught his followers to do. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). So Jesus does what he taught and prays for those who are killing him. We must never think that we cannot pray for our enemies and forgive those who seek it, no matter how awful they have acted. Jesus is praying for people who are killing him. The disciple Steven, following the example of Jesus, did the exact same thing in Acts 7 as he prayed for those who were killing him. Pray for your enemies. Pray for your persecutors.

Finally, it was customary for the Roman soldiers to cast lot for the victim’s clothing. This occurs for Jesus, which fulfills the prophecy recorded in Psalm 22:18.

Cascading Mockery (23:35-39)

Now the mockery begins to intensify. The people are watching but the Jewish rulers are scoffing at Jesus. “If you are God’s elect, then certainly God will save you!” Basically, the rulers are saying that if you are who you say you are, then God will save you. Or to put it another way, you cannot be who you say you are because we are killing you. You must not be the prophesied Messiah. And so they mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself.” Yet their actions are fulfilling prophecy made about what would happen to the Messiah.

All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (Psalm 22:7–8 ESV)

Everyone is mocking Jesus. No one is defending him. It is a world of mockery against Jesus. “He saved others; let him save himself.” So the rulers are mocking him mercilessly. Then Luke records that the Roman soldiers are also mocking Jesus. They bring sour wine to Jesus. The wine is not sympathetic but to make the suffering last longer. The Romans did not consider this drink to be intoxicating but to give more strength so that the suffering on that cross would last longer. They also join in the mocking. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Some king you are if you cannot save yourself! No bona fide king would endure this. The sign above him is a mockery: The King of the Jews. Even one of the criminals is joining in on the mockery. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” People are watching. The rulers are mocking. The soldiers are ridiculing. A crucified criminal even yells insults at him. Other gospel accounts tell us that random people walking down the road hurled insults at him also.

Everyone fails to understand something about what Jesus was doing. Jesus saved others because he did not save himself. His death is our forgiveness. Jesus is able to save others and himself, but chooses not to save himself.

The Salvation of the Condemned (23:40-43)

But something else amazing happens. The other criminal crucified with them rebukes the mocking crucified criminal. He declares that he and the other criminal are dying justly for their actions. But notice the words, a key emphasis in Luke’s gospel: “But this man has done nothing wrong.” The innocence of Jesus is declared again. Then the criminal makes an appeal to Jesus, asking to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Listen to what Jesus says in response: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus predicts that no one is going to make it past today. Paradise was considered in Judaism as the abode of the righteous. Salvation is today. Today you will be with me, with the innocent in Paradise.

A shocking answer! How can the condemned guilty criminal be with the perfect Lamb of God in Paradise? How can this person, deserving of death, be given the hope that he will be the innocent Son of God? How can Jesus tell this criminal essentially, “Where I am going, you are going too?” This is picture of the amazing grace of God! Undeserved grace to the sinful! We are saved just as this criminal on the cross was saved. Let me explain how.

One of my books said this: “Jesus saved this man immediately, eternally, personally, and also graciously – by faith, apart from any works.” But I want to submit to you that this is not true. Friends, what separated this criminal that will go to Paradise from the one who was mocking Jesus? Or to ask the question another way: Why did Jesus declare salvation to one criminal and not the other? What differentiated these two criminals? It is not their crimes. It is not one mocked and other didn’t, since Matthew records that both the criminals were mocking him for a time. What was the difference? The answer is that the criminal asked Jesus to be part of kingdom. One criminal asked for salvation and the other did not. One criminal had faith in Jesus and the other did not. One criminal made his appeal to the Lord Jesus for Jesus to do something for him and the other did not. Do not declare that this criminal did absolutely nothing. The criminal made an appeal of faith to the Lord. After that appeal was made, the Lord Jesus gave him the promise that he would be with Jesus in Paradise.

Friends, we are saved in the exact same way. In fact, every person in all history was saved in the same way: making an appeal to God for forgiveness and salvation. This is what you are doing when you confess Jesus as the Son of God, repent of your sins, and are immersed in water. You are making your appeal to God to be with him in Paradise. You are asking him to have your sins removed because we are vile sinners just like this criminal. All that we have is to beg for Jesus to cleanse us from our sins and remember us in his kingdom.

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:21–22 ESV)

Baptism is the asking process. There is nothing special about the water. There is nothing special about you. You are simply acting like the criminal on the cross, asking the Lord, appealing to him through the resurrection of Jesus, for a good conscience. The God’s Word translation takes the word “appeal” and translates it as “request” which is also accurate.

Rather, baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience. It saves you through Jesus Christ, who came back from death to life. (1 Peter 3:21 God’s Word)

Jesus saves immediately, eternally, personally, and graciously by faith. All we have to do is ask. He did not save himself so you could be saved.

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