Jesus On the Cross
[Luke chapter 23, verses 32-43]
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Last week when we ended our ongoing study of the writings of the apostle Luke, we left off at verse 31 of chapter 23, where Jesus was being led off to be crucified. A crowd of people followed after him, mourners who knew his fate and who wept and wailed at the sight of our Lord and Savior. No wonder! By this time Jesus had been beaten with fists and whipped with a whip with multiple cords on it for the maximum and most gruesome effect. Jesus had been beaten so badly he was nearly unrecognizable. And he hadn’t even been crucified yet! This week we will pick up at verse 32, Jesus is being nailed to the cross in what has to be the saddest part of the Bible. But it’s only that way on the surface of things as they stand, because of what will happen three days later. So let’s all get started, OK?
“Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.’” (Luke 23, verses 32-37)
In the Bible’s original Hebrew-to-Greek translation that occurred about the turn of the 2nd century AD, the word for “the place called the Skull” is ‘Golgotha’, the word from which the modern term ‘Gothic’ has its roots. Although I’ve never been there myself, I understand this place is a hill with what appears to be the upper half of a human skull on one side of it, with just the eyes and nose visible along with a prominent crown. So our Lord and Savior was crucified that day in between two criminals who had received the death penalty, presumably for murder or attempting insurrection against the Roman Empire who ruled the Middle East of that time with an iron hand, or some other capital offense. They crucified Jesus Christ as a common criminal, but he was also crucified because he was viewed as a threat to the establishment. Although our Redeemer didn’t set out to be one, Jesus ended up receiving capital punishment for being a revolutionary. A revolutionary for what, you ask? Jesus preached and taught all about equality, an issue that some people are just now figuring out after 2,000 years. He taught that God had a Son who was an intermediary between God and humankind, something previously unheard of. He accused the religious establishment of his day of apostasy, of misleading the people and of spiritual dereliction of duty because they were so hypocritical. When he overturned the tables and chairs of the money-changers in the Temple before driving them out with a whip he had made, that was just the icing on the cake that was the Lord’s ministry – a wedding cake! This would be a wedding cake for his Bride, who is the church. The fact that Jesus used a home made whip to drive them out of the Temple was the primary reason Jesus was whipped so badly on the morning of his crucifixion.
Despite everything that was being done to him, all our Savior could say was, “‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” OK, let’s all get some perspective on this. Jesus is in the process of being nailed to a cross. He has already been bound to the cross with rope to hold his hands and feet down to keep them firmly in place, so that when they drove the nails through it would be impossible for him to move. Plus, there were soldiers there holding Jesus’ limbs in place anyhow. The pain must have been excruciating to the point of being off the scale. Jesus had already been beaten half to death, even to the point where someone else had to be commandeered to carry his cross. And yet, instead of calling those who were driving those nails every curse or swear word ever invented like any of us would have done (including myself), or screaming out in pain, “Why? Why?”, Jesus simply asked his Father in heaven to forgive them. I’m sure he was crying out in pain as he did so, which makes this all the more remarkable. Even as the Roman soldiers gambled for his clothes – meaning Jesus was hanging on the cross in his underwear in early to mid April in early to mid morning, with the air temperature ranging from the upper forties to near 60 degrees Fahrenheit – Jesus asked the Father to forgive them anyway, even while his teeth chattered in the chilly Passover morning air that day.
“The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself….” By “the rulers”, I’m sure the apostle Luke meant the Temple rulers as well as the governing authorities there in Jerusalem. For three and a half years the religious leadership of that day – the Pharisees, Sadducee’s, the Chief Priests and teachers of the Law – had expended enormous time and resources following Jesus around, testing him and trying every way they knew how to trip Jesus up, or to catch him in a contradiction, or to find an angle from which to attack him from a Biblical standpoint. Now they had Jesus right where they wanted him – nailed to that cross ten feet up in the air, with his fate as Lord, Eternal Savior and Kinsman Redeemer of all humankind sealed for all eternity! This is why we go to church every Sunday: To honor Jesus’ supreme sacrifice that he made on the cross for all of us by dying in our place for our sins against God. Whether we intended to sin or not is besides the point – we have all still sinned at least once in our lives. When it comes to God, even one sin is too much because God is purity personified. Sin, on the other hand, however innocent or harmless or fun it may have seemed at the time, causes us to fall short of the glory of God. So although Jesus declined to save himself when he was challenged to do so, it was because this was destined for 3 days into the future, something no one else understood at that time. And now let’s conclude today’s study starting at verse 38.
“There was a written notice above him which read: ‘This is the King of the Jews’. One of the criminals who hung there with him hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God’, he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23, verses 38-43)
The message in these last few verses is unmistakable! It doesn’t matter who condemns, insults or attacks you if God is still on your side. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have done (or not), or where you have been – not even as a condemned criminal hanging on a cross right next to God’s promised Messiah or Anointed One, right where he can see you. Jesus isn’t interested in your background. In fact, he really couldn’t care less about that, in my estimation. What Jesus is most interested in is your destination in eternity. Jesus isn’t interested in your past, he’s focused on your future. Another thing that stands out here is the stark contrast between the two criminals Jesus was crucified with. One of them taunted Jesus because he hadn’t saved himself and the others. But then, “….the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God’, he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” One recognized Jesus as being not only an innocent man, but also as being the Son of God, or the Jewish Messiah, depending on your point of view. The other condemned man clearly did not, as you read. Prior to this, neither had followed Jesus even though they likely had both heard of him. But it was not until they met on the day they were crucified that the two criminals had a decision to make – a decision for or against Christ. Do we believe in Him or not?
“Don’t you fear God?”, asked the second condemned prisoner to the first. He was likely quoting the Bible when he asked that question: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1: 7) What followed was one of the most memorable exchanges between Jesus and those he saved. “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” The man on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him – effectively asking for his final absolution – was the one whose soul got saved. We can safely conclude that it was the contrite heart as well as the faith of the second man that saved his soul. It wasn’t because he led a great life, because he had not. He was a condemned criminal. But his willingness to take responsibility for his sins and his expressed faith in Jesus as the man who would save his soul – that is what saved him. And that, in the end, is all that can save our souls. Our deeds can’t save us, no matter how well intentioned and numerous they may be. Nevertheless we are commanded by Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Moreover, a complete lack of faith will condemn us no matter how much we may selflessly help others. Our deeds can’t help us there either – unless they are combined with unwavering faith in Jesus Christ as our living, risen Savior. And next week we’ll move on to part 4 of Luke chapter 23.