Reading: Lk.23 :32-43
On To The Cross
I must have read these verses so many times in the past but when I came to reflect upon them again this week I was amazed at how rich they are. In just a few verses the execution of Jesus Christ our Lord is described. With a tremendous economy of words Luke tells us where Jesus was taken, who was executed at the same time and who else was there. We told how the different participants behaved and how each reacted as the events of the day unfolded.
As we slow down and think about what we are told we will become aware of just how much the attitudes and responses of those involved differed from each other. In particular as our eyes turn to Jesus himself we are left gasping in amazement at his confidence and his calm as he maintains his unswerving trust in his Father. In the most trying of circumstances he does not become self-absorbed but expresses such a loving compassion towards both the arrogant and self-exultant sinners who were present and also to those who are simply caught up in the business of that day. We will ourselves take encouragement, I hope, from that tender, loving and kind reply that is found on Jesus’ lips as he responds to encourage a new convert who expresses his faith with a genuine heart-felt repentance!
The scene that Luke describes includes contrasting extremes of human behaviour. On the one hand he portrays the heartless and vicious cruelty of which humans are capable as he describes the callousness of the Jewish leaders. On the other hand what a contrast we find as we contemplate the God-fearing compassion of the only truly innocent man who has ever graced our world!
As we reflect together upon the events of this scene today we may well want to ask ourselves if any of the different attitudes we observe in the various participants are to be found in our own hearts and lives. But above all let us reflect upon the man in the middle, the man who is crucified between two condemned criminals.
What will we make of this man? How will we relate to him? Will we trust him? Indeed, are we trusting him? Are his extraordinarily kind words reserved for just one of the two thieves or are they addressed to us too? And if they are addressed to us are we thrilled by them? Are you really thrilled by them?
Well now, let us turn to these verses in the Luke 23 and learn from them.
First Things First
The first thing perhaps for us to notice is the almost complete lack of emphasis that is placed upon the physical suffering experienced by Jesus and the other condemned men.
This is an execution and yes we are told that it was an execution by crucifixion but there is no dwelling upon the gruesome details, there is no lingering on the torture, the distress and the agony of it all. This is a sober and restrained account and not a Hollywood script.
There are reasons for such restraint. If the physical nature of the suffering involved was emphasised we would probably be tempted to feel sorry for that innocent man who suffers in silence. But then we would only be reacting to a physical pain that we can imagine and in reality Jesus experienced something far worse than that.
It was as the suffering servant of the Lord that Jesus laid down his life. The death he died was the way by which he would save his people from their sins. As their sin-bearer Jesus bore the outpoured wrath of God so that they might go free. But how could we ever appreciate that if we merely focused our thoughts upon physical pain? So neither Luke, nor any other of the Bible authors, dwells long on the physical suffering of Jesus and it won’t be our focus either.
Luke tells us that Jesus was not the only person to be executed that day but he also makes it very clear that there is a great gulf that divides them. These men might be experiencing the same execution but their cases are really very different – they might be in the same boat but for totally different reasons.
Two of the men were convicted criminals, they were thieves or brigands. They may well have been members of the insurrectionist gang led by Barabbas and arrested at the same time as their leader. Barabbas had been facing execution himself before he was unexpectedly set free when the crowd, incited by the Jewish authorities, clamouring for his release demanded that Jesus should be crucified. No, these two men who were to be crucified alongside Jesus that day were not innocent bystanders, their execution was not the result of any miscarriage of justice, they were guilty and they knew it; they understood that what was happening to them was something they fully deserved.
And how different it was for Jesus!
Pilate knew it. Herod knew it. Many in the crowd know it. Jesus was an innocent man! Even one of those brigands would come to see it and so would some of the soldiers too. Have you realised this as well?
And yet Jesus is put to death along with those so obviously guilty criminals. The word Luke to describe the death of these men literally means “to be lifted up” and he fills out his description by adding they were crucified. And if you remember Jesus had said that precisely this would take place. It would be in the very act of being “lifted up” that he would draw men to himself. And the time had come, it was happening now. It was in “being lifted up” that Jesus would provide salvation for otherwise helpless sinners. This great matter of salvation was very much in Luke’s mind as he recorded what took place on that momentous day.
So there were three men who were taken out to the place of execution and this place had a name, it was ‘The Place of the Skull’. We don’t know why it bore that name and no-one is now entirely sure just where, outside the city walls of Jerusalem, it was. When Jerome produced the Vulgate (a Latin translation of the Bible) at the end of the fourth century AD, he translated this word as Calvaria - we know it better today as Calvary.
And the three men who were taken there to be crucified on that Good Friday morning, would only ever leave it again as dead men. I mention that because some folk have tried to suggest that there is a distinction to be drawn between crucifixion and death. They wish to argue that Jesus was crucified but that he did not die at Calvary.
Different groups have different reasons for supporting such a theory. Some have done so because, having a hard time with believing in miracles, they want to try to explain away the resurrection story. Of course they know that on the third day the tomb was empty and some explanation needs to be found if they can’t (or won’t) believe what Christians have always preached concerning the literal, physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus. So they maintain that Jesus hadn’t died on the cross – yes, he was crucified but that didn’t necessarily mean he died there. And so they try to suggest that instead of dying on the cross Jesus had simply swooned and then in that nice comfortable stone cold tomb he had revived and forced his way out. It’s all nonsense of course but men will clutch at any kind of straw rather than face up to the reality of a miracle working God, rather than face up to the resurrected Prince of life. When you look carefully at what Luke actually wrote in these verses 32 and 33 it is clear that he had no intention of suggesting such a distinction between crucifixion and death for here he identifies crucifixion with death. Crucifixion was simply the means whereby these were men, all three of them, were put to death.
Always the Centre of Attention
They have arrived now at Calvary, the place of execution. And once again Jesus is the centre of attention – and this time quite literally so as the two criminals to be executed at the same time are placed on crosses either side of him. Innocent as though he was Jesus is treated as though he were guilty.
When he was born he had been given the name Jesus, because his God-given mission in life was to save his people from their sins and now, on the cross, the time had come for him to accomplish just that. On the cross he bore the punishment that the sins of his people deserved and from that cross, as he bore the enormous burden of his people’s sins, he cried out in prayer. His prayer shows how he longed for his sacrifice to bear fruit:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
With undiminished confidence and trust he prays in extremis to his heavenly Father. He doesn’t pray not for himself as we might expect if we didn’t already know the story so well, he prayed for others. Jesus prays for others and he does so in a wonderfully generous and kind manner. The breadth of his prayer encompasses those hypocritical religious leaders who had wickedly orchestrated the events that were even now unfolding, knowingly pursuing dishonest means to further their own agenda an agenda which was dominated by one thing right now: the execution of this troublesome man from Nazareth. Jesus’ prayer includes the soldiers - those cruel cogs in a ruthless machine – the ones who have driven the nails into his hands and feet.
The scope of his prayer extends even further than that as it has echoed down the ensuing centuries.
Do you see what Jesus was praying for? It wasn’t more education that these folk needed – it was forgiveness. They might have been ignorant, but that was not their biggest problem – if it was he would have prayed for God to teach them but he didn’t do that. There was then a greater need that had to be met and that need was the need of forgiveness and forgiveness it what sinners need. The loving Jesus who was suffering at their hands pleaded for them:
“Father, forgive them...
He does the same for you. He prays for your forgiveness. How will you respond?
Subsequent events suggest that at least one of the soldiers who was there was touched by what he saw and heard. Later still Luke would write his second book, The Acts of the Apostles, and there he tells us that “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). There has been a great amount of fruit from Jesus’ prayer. Is there any evidence that your life is part of such fruit too?
Attitudes and Words
As we continue to reflect upon these verses it becomes ever clearer that the attitude Jesus displayed and the words he spoke stand out in stark contrast to those of the others who were present at the Place of the Skull that morning.
The soldiers had finished part of their work and now had to sit and wait. While they sat they started rolling their dice so that they could divide up his garments among themselves. But rolling their dice didn't take them long and soon they were listening to what others around them were saying. It didn’t take them long either before they joined in – let’s mock this King of the Jews - it all helped to pass the time I suppose. And at the end of the day they would return home with a few items of a poor man’s clothing. I wonder, would any of them take something more away from that encounter they had had with Jesus?
And how many people in our world, I wonder, are content to have just a passing encounter with Jesus and then return to their homes no better for it?
I hope our encounters with Jesus are not like that. What will remain to you of your encounter with Jesus the end of the day? Just a few rags and tatters? Or will you have the great and free salvation he prayed for people like you to receive?
But the soldiers weren’t the only folk present. Luke points us to two other groups.
The first concerns the ordinary people who were standing by watching - they don’t figure much in Luke’s account and they seem largely passive. We don’t know whether they were sympathetic to Jesus not trying to get too involved or whether they there to watch the free spectacle of an execution. What we do know is that they saw what was happening and they heard the exchanges. Consequently they were well placed to assess the different attitudes that were on display that day. I wonder what they made of it all? Did they come down off the fence and take sides? Did any of them subsequently look to Jesus for salvation? We don’t know about them but we can know for ourselves. Have we come down off the fence of our indifference? Have we abandoned our hesitancy? And have we trusted in Jesus for the salvation that is only to be found in him? Where do you stand in relation to Jesus?
If Luke passes quickly over the people, he delays a little while longer when he comes to the rulers. What a different attitude they had compared to that which Jesus displayed!
Where Jesus prayed compassionately for the well-being of others, all they could find to do was to ridicule the man they had deliberately consigned to the cross. And they knew his track record too. They knew he had gone about doing good. They knew how he had saved others, they knew about the paralytics he had healed, they knew how he had given eyesight to the blind, and they knew how he had transformed the ruined lives of so many for the better. Yet all they can think of doing now is to scoff at him and to reject his claims. Let him save himself!
Together the rulers and the soldiers refer to three different and distinct titles of the Lord Jesus. Mockingly they referred to him as:
· the Christ of God
· God’s chosen one and
· the King of the Jews
It is interesting to note that each is linked to the central theme of salvation. Jesus was crucified as a Saviour - did you know that?
The mockery began with the rulers but it soon spread to the soldiers and it wasn’t long before it was affecting the criminals hanging on their crosses on either side of Jesus. The other gospel writers tell us that both criminals began by mocking Jesus but as time wore on the attitude of one of them changed dramatically. It would appear that the attitude of the other remained the same.
Now there are both warnings and encouragements for us here.
Samuel Johnson once said: “Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
If extremity can concentrate the mind both these men should have been highly focused because both were on the final straight of their earthly lives and they both knew it. But an awareness of the prospect of imminent death and of passing into eternity on its own does not ensure safety. One criminal simply went on mocking. He didn’t believe in Jesus and his challenge to Jesus to save himself and them was no cry of faith. His fellow criminals knew that and rebuked him for failing to fear God, the God before whom he would soon be standing to give an account for his godless life. That unrepentant thief would pass into eternity alone with no Saviour to save him.
We need to heed this warning. Getting older and facing death is not in itself a guarantee of salvation – the first criminal warns us of that. He didn’t cast himself on the Saviour pleading for mercy but continued to resist him.
Yet the experience of the second criminal tells us that it is never too late. As long as there is life there is the possibility of salvation and the second criminal found it. Some of you may have left it very late to trust in Jesus but if you are alive now it is not too late, yet. There is a great encouragement for us in the example of this second criminal but it will only be of any benefit to us if we, like he, exercise personal faith in the Lord Jesus.
The second criminal couldn’t perform a multitude of good works to secure his salvation, but then again no amount of good works will earn salvation for any of us. No, he did what he had to and could do. And this is what he did:
· He repented of his sin
· He looked to Jesus and declared his faith
· He prayed with humility
And that is how you become a Christian. It’s so simple isn’t it?
But have you done that? Have you become a Christian? And if you haven’t, then you must. Come to Christ now, today, with repentance and faith and plead with God to have mercy on your soul. And when you’ve done so tell someone else what you’ve done.
Jesus responds to the thief
Although he was hanging in pain upon the cross Jesus must have rejoiced when he heard the second thief speaking to him. At that moment he began to see some of the fruit of the travail of his soul and he quickly expressed his satisfaction. With generous, loving and compassionate words he spoke to the repentant thief. This man had made a simple request of him and Jesus responded with a promise that went far beyond the terms of the man’s original request:
"This day you will be with me in paradise!"
Although all the man had asked for was to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, Jesus responded by promising so much more. It was an example of him doing “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think,” (Eph.3:20). He’s that kind of Saviour! No words of recrimination. No Tut-tutting. No reluctant hesitation. Just a joyous, generous and glorious promise.
Jesus is better for sinners than we can ever imagine and we dishonour him whenever we are tempted to think otherwise. As Isaac Watts put it in one of his hymns:
“religion never was designed
to make our pleasures less.”
Or as Jesus himself put it:
Jn.10:10 “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (The Message)
Before we leave this second criminal I want you to notice just what a genuine prayer of faith it was that this man addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Just remember what was happening. The man to whom his prayer was addressed was hanging on a cross next to him and his life was slowly ebbing away. Did this really look like a man who was a King, one who had a future kingdom? All of the circumstances would seem to suggest that such a belief was complete and utter folly and yet this criminal had come to believe in King Jesus. The soldiers had gained some bits of his clothing but this criminal had gained far more than that, he had come to faith!!
Perhaps he had already heard about Jesus, but now he had met him. The Spirit must have been at work for he was convicted of his sin, he was convinced that he needed a saviour, and in this man who was being crucified next to him he recognized the very Saviour that he so desperately needed.
There was not much time left for him and he did not hesitate. He looked to Jesus!
I hope you have stopped hesitating and you have looked to Jesus too.
The future prospects of this second criminal had suddenly been transformed out of all recognition. Yes he was still going to die upon his cross but that was not going to be the end of him. At the end of the day he was going to be in heaven (for that is what paradise means) and the greatest thrill of heaven is that Jesus is there. For every believer heaven is all about this: being always with Jesus and what a wonderful prospect that is!
The sands of time were sinking fast for the three men on their respective crosses – indeed they were sinking for all who were there that day and they are sinking for us as well. Jesus would be the first to die but before the day would end this criminal too would die. He would have his legs broken to speed death – the Jews wanted no dying men hanging on a cross during the Passover of Passover. And yet this dying thief was soon to be a guest of Immanuel in Immanuel’s land, with the king who had entered his kingdom.
What a day it proved to be!
What a day for Jesus! The Saviour of the World completed the mission his Father had given him and he was already beginning to reap the fruit.
What rejoicing there was in heaven!
And what a day for a repentant sinner! There was a last minute escape for him – he’d almost left it too late. It was too late for the other thief who remained unrepentant to the end.
Don’t you go leaving it until it’s too late for you. Go to the Saviour while you still can and you too will have your sins forgiven, a place in heaven and the company of the King of Kings. You won’t be bored in heaven for glory, glory dwelleth, in Immanuel’s land.
To God be the glory,