As we look at this familiar passage today which deals with the crucifixion of Jesus, there is a temptation for a preacher to try to present something which is very familiar in a fresh way. And so often the way that is done is to dramatize the story by adding all sorts of details concerning the method of crucifixion, or the torture of crucifixion, or other details that might make the story more interesting.
But the gospel writers do not expend much effort attempting to dramatize the physical act of the crucifixion. Luke just states it as simply as possible in vs.33, saying “there they crucified Him.” No gory details of how that was accomplished, or how painful or horrific crucifixion was. And so I think it’s appropriate for us today to be mindful of the way the writer presents this event, so as not to unnecessarily dramatize it. Not that we want to minimize the pain and suffering of the cross, but to see first and foremost the purpose of the cross. To focus too much on the mechanics of the torture of the cross is to possibly miss the doctrine of the cross and that would be the greater tragedy.
So our goal today is not to give a dramatic description of the crucifixion, but the doctrine of the crucifixion. 1 Peter 3:18 states simply the doctrine of the crucifixion, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God.”
Now in this passage today we will just consider a portion of the crucifixion, and in so doing we will discover first what qualifies Jesus to bring men to God, then man’s rejection of that qualification, and finally the salvation of one man who accepted Christ. And the key component of this salvation is the principle that Christ is King. Christ is King. I think that is what Luke is presenting here. The whole chapter up to this point has been predicated on the charge his accusers made about Him before Pilate. Their charge in vs. 2 was that He claimed to be a king, and that was deserving of death.
Notice that the chief priests accuse Him of being Christ, a King. They state it in such a way as to make the two synonymous. Christ is the Greek word which was translated from the title Messiah. Christos means Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of God. He was anointed to be the Ruler who would sit on the throne of David, who would rule the world with a rod of iron. The chief priests and scribes would have been very familiar with the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 9:6, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” So there was a correct understanding on the part of the Jews concerning the Messiah that He would also be a King, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
So that is the primary charge which the Jews made concerning Jesus, which they used to have Him put to death. And since that is the charge, Pilate tries Jesus on those grounds. In vs. 3, Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.” And yet Pilate finds no guilt in Him. He sees no evidence for His kingdom. He is looking at the physical evidence of a kingdom or a kingship and he doesn’t see it. And even Jesus Himself tells Pilate in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
So the central issue then is the kingship, or lordship of Jesus. Was He the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the anointed One who would set up His kingdom on earth? That is the central issue of that day, and it is the central issue of the ages. There is no disputing the fact that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died 2000 years ago. But there is much dispute as to the nature of this man. Was He in fact God incarnate, God in the flesh, or was He just a man? Was He just a kind man, perhaps a bit deluded, but a good teacher, a Gandhi like figure that taught peace through passivity? Or was He the Messiah, the anointed King of God in human form? And if He was indeed the King of Kings, as He claimed, then what should be our response to Him?
There can be but two possible responses; either reject Him as King, or worship Him as King. And in this passage we see those two responses depicted. First let’s look at several examples which Luke presents of the King rejected. We have already seen how Pilate acquiesced to the voices calling for Jesus to be crucified. We heard him ask if Jesus was indeed a King, and we heard Jesus tell him that it was so. And yet, ultimately Pilate rejects Jesus as King. He probably knew nothing of Jesus as Messiah, he cared nothing for Jewish religion. But he understood what it meant to be a king. It was what he desired for himself, it was his aspiration. And there was no way that he would bow to a Jewish prophet who claimed to be a king. That would mean he would have to relinquish his throne and bow to Jesus, to serve Him. And there was no way that Pilate would do that. So he agreed to crucify Jesus as the chief priests and the people demanded. He did what so many politicians do, he acquiesced to popular demand in order to preserve his position of power.
And in vs. 38 we read Pilate’s proclamation which he had written for the soldiers to place upon the head of the cross. “Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” The chief priests had argued with Pilate, saying don’t write that this is the King of the Jews, but write that he said he was the King of the Jews. But Pilate refused to change it, saying, what I have written, I have written. And so by his own words he will be judged. He proclaimed that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and yet he rejected Him and had Him crucified.
So he consented to crucify Jesus. He handed him over to the Roman soldiers who led Him away to Golgotha, which means the Place of the Skull. And there they crucified Him, along with two criminals, one on either side. Little could they know that this fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12, which says that He was numbered with the transgressors.
The second group then that we see who reject Jesus was the soldiers. As they throw Jesus’ lacerated body onto the cross and pound the nails in His hands and feet, Jesus prays aloud, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Oh, the soldiers knew what they were doing all right. They had undoubtedly done this sort of work many times before. But what they could not understand was that they were pounding nails into the very Son of God. They thought it was some sort of joke. Pilate had written this sign to put on His cross announcing that Jesus was King of the Jews, and they began to make fun of Jesus because of it.
Vs. 36 “The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’” But obviously, this demand for Jesus to save Himself as evidence of His Kingship, or His Messiahship, shows that even these soldiers understood that there was something more implied in His Kingship than mere political power. They understood that it implied a supernatural power. Kings didn’t have power of immortality, but gods did. So if you were really God, they said, then save yourself from death. That is what they demanded. Even these pagan soldiers understood the connection between God and King that was implicit in His title. In fact, this theme is common to all those that reject Christ that day, in their minds the criteria for the Messiah was that He had to save Himself. And that is what they could not understand. That is why Jesus said that they did not know what they were doing. None of them understood that Christ came to die on the cross. It was His mission. Not to save Himself, but to die for them so that they might be saved.
This prayer for their forgiveness exemplified a love for His enemies that we are also told to show for those that hate us. To forgive those that hurt us, even as Christ forgave those that were crucifying Him. He recognized that they were lost, and they were the ones that He had come to save. As Jesus said in Luke 19:10 “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” These soldiers for the most part rejected Him as King, the reviled Him and mocked Him, though there is one that is identified in vs. 47, the centurion, whom we will look at next time who did eventually respond to that prayer and praised God after witnessing Jesus on the cross. We should learn from Jesus’ example that how we respond to people’s attacks on us can bring glory to God in spite of how painful it may seem to us in the meantime.
Luke says that these soldiers cast lots for His clothing. They saw the death of Christ as a means of gaining material things, and yet they missed completely the inestimable value of what Christ was accomplishing in His death. They gambled for His clothes, while He purchased for them a robe of righteousness with His blood. That act was prophesied in Psalm 22, by the way, as were many of the events of the crucifixion.
The other category of Christ rejecters that day was the crowd mentioned in vs. 35, “And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.’ Once again you see the demand for Christ to validate His kingship by saving Himself. They could not understand the cross. It didn’t fit into their idea of what the Messiah/King was supposed to do. And the world today doesn’t appreciate the need for the cross either. 1Cor. 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The world isn’t really interested in a cross centered gospel. They don’t want to hear that they are sinners and God has poured out His wrath against sin by putting His Son on the cross. But they do want a gospel of deliverance. The world’s response to the offer of a Messiah is to say, “get me out of this mess and then I will believe in You.” Christ is only beneficial to those in a dilemma. Those in a crisis. Don’t preach the message of the cross, instead preach the message of the crisis. That will sell. But don’t preach take up your cross and follow Me. That isn’t a popular message.
There was one other category of those that rejected Christ that day, and that was the two thieves on the cross on either side of Jesus. Even they were hurling abuse at Him. The other gospels tell us that initially they both began to pick up on the crowd and soldier’s rejection and mock Jesus. But Luke is the only gospel writer to show that there begins to be a distinction between the two criminals behavior. And so Luke describes one criminal as saying in vs. 39, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” He too shows a certain understanding of theology. He knows Jesus claimed to be the Christ. He knows that involves some sort of salvation. But he is obviously only interested in physical salvation from his suffering. He is mocking Jesus. And yet by his own words he too condemns himself. He admits Jesus is the Christ and that Jesus came to save, and yet he is only interested in physical salvation.
I’m afraid that a lot of people fall into this category. They are not sorry for their sins. They have no interest in repentance. They refuse to bow to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But they think that they have a certain understanding of theology. I’m often amazed at how unsaved people are quick to point out what errors there are in the Bible or in the church. They dismiss the need for their salvation by what they perceive to be the hypocrisy of others. And yet they are guilty of the very thing that they accuse Christians of. They do not do what they believe is the right thing to do. But in finding fault in another they somehow think that they can excuse themselves. But the Bible tells us that every man will give an account to God for the things that he did himself. And as James tells us in James 4:17 “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” We are all guilty of sin. Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous, no not one.” None of us have an excuse.
And that leads us to the last character that we will look at this morning, and the only one of this group for whom the crucifixion was efficacious. That would be the other thief that was hanging on a cross on the opposite side of Jesus. Though this man was a guilty criminal, though his sins so serious that he was punished with crucifixion, and though he too initially mocked Jesus, yet something has happened in his time on the cross to change his heart. And that change is apparent in his response to the other criminal’s mocking challenge to Jesus.
Starting in vs. 40 we read, “But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’” And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” This dying criminal was saved in the last hour by faith in Christ Jesus. Everyone else said Jesus if you are the Christ save yourself. This man called out for Jesus to save him, and Jesus said that today he would be with Him in Paradise. Jesus doesn’t answer all the taunts of the crowd and the priests and the soldiers, but he answers the call of the penitent sinner.
And so I would like to look at this sinner and his response to Jesus as an illustration of what encompasses saving faith. At first glance we might look at the brief response of this man and wonder how it qualifies this man for salvation. But in spite of his economy of words Luke provides us with a full description of the doctrine of salvation if we look closely.
First of all, as he hangs on the cross, a witness to the crucifixion of the Messiah, he becomes very aware of God and the fear of God. He said to the other thief, “Do you not even fear God?” Listen, the first evidence that God is doing the work of conversion in a person’s life is a realization of the fear of God. I’m afraid the gospel of God is done a great disservice and possibly many well intentioned people are not saved because we substitute teaching the fear of God with the love of God. We are afraid that teaching the fear of God will scare people away and hope that teaching the love of God will seduce them to salvation. But I believe the Bible teaches both the fear of God and the love of God. However, 3 times, in Psalm 111:10, in Prov. 9:10 and in Prov. 1:7, the scriptures say that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.
In Romans 3 which I quoted from while ago in vs. 10 it states that there is no one righteous, not even one, and then that section ends in vs. 18 with a culminating statement; “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” We sin because it is our nature to sin, but we continue in our sin, and progress in our sin, and harden our hearts toward God because we don’t fear God. We don’t fear judgment. We don’t fear the righteousness and holiness of God. We don’t care that our sin is an affront to a holy, righteous God and that He cannot abide sin.
But this thief on the cross, how exactly he came about it I don’t know, feared God. Maybe as the reality of his impending death sank in, he began to remember the scriptures his mother read to him as a boy. Maybe he remembered lessons he had been taught about hell and the judgment to come. But the beginning of wisdom for this man is the fear of God. He may not have thought much about God when he was embarking on a life of crime. He thought he could push such thoughts out of his mind. But now he is dying, and he realizes that he is going to have to face God at the judgment. And it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. So he comes to fear God.
The second essential element of his salvation came in the realization of his sinfulness. A proper fear of God usually results in a proper sense of one’s guilt. Verse 41 “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” He says I know I’m a lawbreaker. It’s a true assessment of his condition. He’s guilty, he’s aware of his sinfulness, he’s in a sense saying I am a sinner. I deserve to die. I am receiving what I deserve for my deeds. This is the attitude of true repentance.
You know, only when you agree with the law of God that you deserve to die for your sins are you willing to die TO your sins. Repentance is simply dying to your sins. Crucifying the flesh and it’s sinful passions. Gal. 5:24 “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Those who continue in their sins show a disregard for the fear of God and they prove they have not truly repented of their sins.
The third essential element of his salvation that is evidenced in his confession that he believed in the righteousness of Christ. Jesus was the spotless lamb of God that came to take away the sins of the earth. He was tempted in all points like we are, yet without sin. His sinlessness was evidence that He was the anointed Son of God. If He wasn’t without sin, then He could not atone for sin. Jesus said in John 8:46 “Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?” His sinlessness was a greater witness to His divinity than His miracles. 2Cor. 5:11 says, “God made Jesus who knew no sin, to become sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Salvation is only possible because Jesus was righteous, and because He was righteous, therefore Jesus was God.
When we talk about salvation we talk about the necessity for repentance and faith. And we see in this dying thief both of these attributes; repentance under the fear of divine wrath and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And there is one final expression of that saving faith that I am so glad that Luke incorporates for us here in this passage. And that is the thief shows saving submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This principle is what ties all this passage together. As I have been saying, every skeptic, every scoffer, from Pilate, to the priests, to the soldiers and even the other thief on the cross all scoff and reject the Kingship of Christ. It’s been the constant theme of their mocking of Him. But this dying thief on the cross understands that Jesus is King. He understands that if Jesus is the Christ, then He must be King.
Look at what he says in vs. 42, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” You can’t have a kingdom unless you are a king. And so this dying thief sees what all these others could not see; that Jesus was the Christ, the King. The only way that happened was Jesus gave him eyes to see and a heart to understand.
I’m afraid that far too often the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a message that is lost in today’s modern version of Christianity; where Jesus died on the cross to deliver us from some sort of personal mediocrity, or some sort of crisis, so that we can have a more successful, happy life here on earth. I believe Luke includes this conversion to show us that the doctrine of Lordship is not an ancillary doctrine that can be added or ignored after conversion, but it is a necessary and vital part of salvation. We must be willing to acknowledge who Jesus is and then be willing to surrender our lives and will to Him to be used for His glory and for His kingdom.
If the other principles such as a proper fear of God, and true repentance, and a right understanding of the righteousness and holiness of Christ are in full effect, then the doctrine of the Lordship of Christ is a non issue. It naturally follows those things. It is a product of repentance and faith. And this man showed that he had the right kind of theology, producing saving faith.
Hey, and get this. He even has an understanding of the resurrection as well. Now that’s really incredible, isn’t it. You say, how do you know that? Well, he would have known that no one survived crucifixion, so he had to have believed that Jesus would die and then rise again and bring about his kingdom. Furthermore, I think you could even argue that he had an understanding that it was a spiritual kingdom.
And Jesus responds to this man’s faith with an affirmation and encouragement which is the hope that he would be with Christ in Paradise. Vs. 43, “And [Jesus] said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Now I would love to run down a rabbit trail with this statement and give you my version of eschatology, but I will leave that for another day. However, understand this; Paradise is wherever Jesus is. He says you will be with Me….in Paradise. Wherever Paradise is, Jesus is. It literally means the Garden of the Lord. It doesn’t mean the Garden of Eden, I think it will be better than that. But it does mean that there is no sin there. And as in the Garden of Eden man walked with God and talked with God so we that are saved as this man was saved will be with God in Paradise, in the presence of God, communing with God.
And finally, one last thing. Jesus said, “Today.” There is no separation from the love of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Rom. 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul said in 2 Cor. 5:8 that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. It’s instantaneous. Listen, Jesus and the thief that day both died in the flesh, their bodies were placed in the ground, but they were alive in the Spirit. 1Pet. 3:18 “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
Listen, for those who repent and have faith as this thief on the cross did, Jesus promised in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Do you repent and turn from your sins and in faith in Christ confess Him as your Lord and King? If you do this, you will live. You will never die. Christ came to die for you so that you might be saved. I pray that you won’t reject Him, but confess Him as your Lord and Savior.
The old hymn writer puts it well; “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day; and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.”