Learning from a Criminal: Luke 23:32-43

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In our last episode, we focused in on Mark’s gospel, and what we can learn from it about Jesus’ time on the cross. Mark’s gospel is very similar to Matthew’s gospel. However, Luke’s gospel, which is the one we will be looking at in this episode, shares a unique event that the other gospels don’t include, and this detail may shed light on why Jesus decided to be crucified on that weekend.

While prophecy pointed to the time Jesus would die, remember that the Godhead could have written prophecy to say whatever they wanted it to say, so Jesus wasn’t acting outside of the Godhead’s plan, nor was He trapped by it. The whole Godhead wrote this particular weekend into prophecy and creation for a specific reason and I believe Luke’s gospel shares what this reason might be.

Our last episode focused on and ended with Jesus receiving insults from everyone around Him, but I hinted at not everyone being so hostile. Let’s read what Luke shares with us, and about one condemned man’s request for a favor from Jesus. Our passage is found in Luke’s gospel, chapter 23, and we will be reading from the New International Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 32, Luke tells us:

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

Pausing briefly here, what we have just read echoes what we see written in Matthew and Mark’s gospel. However, from this point forward in Luke’s gospel, he draws our attention onto the two criminals, and how each one interacted with Jesus. Continuing in verse 39, Luke tells us:

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

When we read these last four verses, it is very tempting to shift our entire focus onto Jesus’ promise in the last verse, how immediate this promise sounds, and on how this criminal gets saved at the last possible moment. It is tempting to focus on the “deathbed confessional” and use it as a model or plan for our lives.

However, focusing on these verses in this way is both risky, and it cheapens the gift God is offering to us. We don’t know anything about these two criminals, about what they did, about when they were arrested, about how long they had been in prison, or if they had any previous interaction with Jesus.

It is very probable to conclude that with how famous Jesus was among the people, that these two criminals definitely knew about Jesus, about His ability to perform miracles, and about His love for the least in society, but we don’t have any idea if either had met Jesus before.

Regardless of their past, what we see displayed on the cross from these two criminals is amazing. The first criminal hurled insults at Jesus and he challenged Jesus to save Himself and them. This criminal had a selfish focus and a focus that was only looking at the present world. In an odd sort of way, this first criminal, who may have been thrown in prison for following a messiah who wanted to overthrow Rome now turns to Jesus and challenges Him with the notion regarding Jesus being the Messiah, even though Jesus has never shown any military interests, and He avoided being sucked into political discussion.

However, the second criminal has a different focus. The second criminal focuses not on the present life and present circumstances, but on the future one. I believe that the Godhead chose that weekend for Jesus to die because they wanted this criminal with them in heaven!

But while turning to God at the end of one’s life might seem appealing, it is a very dangerous plan. At the very least, since we don’t know when we will die, or if we will die suddenly or gradually, following a deathbed confessional plan is dangerous because a sudden death means we won’t have chosen God. This plan only works if our life follows a predictable plan, and while some aspects of life are predictable, there are plenty of cases where lives are cut short quickly because of sin.

However, where this criminal is when He comes to Jesus is different than each of us. We have no evidence for this criminal accepting Jesus, then rejecting Him, then coming back to Him here on the cross. It’s possible this is what happened, because God is ready and willing to forgive, but it is also very possible that this criminal had never met Jesus and sharing a cross next to Jesus was the first chance he got to be with Him.

But this conversation while these men were on the cross reveals three amazing things about conversion that we might not realize at first.

First, this conversion demonstrates a fear and respect of God. The criminal opens his mouth by first defending God against the criticism of the other criminal. Verse 40 tells us the second criminal rebukes the first one saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence?” The second criminal defends God and acknowledges God’s right to judge.

Second, the second criminal acknowledges that he deserves the punishment he is being given. Another way to say this is that this second criminal acknowledges that he is a sinner who deserves to die. At the most basic level, everyone who has ever sinned, and this is everyone who has ever lived except Jesus, deserves death. The second criminal acknowledges that his life and his choices deserve death, by saying in the first part of verse 41, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.

But thirdly, the second criminal acknowledges that Jesus is innocent and that He is being punished while not deserving this punishment. Verse 41 finishes with the criminal acknowledging, “But this man [referring to Jesus] has done nothing wrong.” This criminal defends Jesus publicly against the ridicule of everyone else present, and he publicly allies himself with Jesus even though they both are facing death.

All three of these themes in these two verses of defense ally this second criminal with God, and the only way this criminal could acknowledge this is if the Holy Spirit had been working on his heart leading up to this moment. Even before asking Jesus for the favor, the criminal displays a relationship with God that shows God has been working on his heart and in his life.

This criminal isn’t doing a 180 turn spiritually while on the cross, but in however long he had been locked up in prison, the Holy Spirit had been working on his heart leading him to realize his sin and his need for a Savior.

The declaration on the cross concludes with a request of Jesus. The criminal asks Jesus in verse 42 to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The criminal acknowledges that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and that it is of a heavenly nature. The criminal acknowledges the divinity of Jesus in his request.

We could spend an entire other episode talking about the ideas surrounding Jesus’ answer to this criminal’s request and the debates that exist over how immediate Jesus’ promise sounds, but these debates are less relevant than the simple truth that Jesus accepted this criminal and his request. Jesus accepted this criminal’s request because in this request, we see evidence of a changed heart and a changed life, and this sort of change can only come from a heart that has let the Holy Spirit work on it behind the scenes.

Jesus is ready and willing to accept us when we come to Him with a heart that the Holy Spirit has been working on as well. This passage points us to the powerful truth that: Where you finish your life is more important than where you start it – and the only place that is worth ending your life is being allied with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit living in your heart!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always seek God first and choose today to let the Holy Spirit live in your heart and in your life, and publicly ally with Jesus. While it might be easier to hide your faith, a hidden faith is not valuable to others or to God in the big picture. This criminal displays a faith that is public through his defense of Jesus before making his request. God has called us to defend Jesus and to publicly acknowledge Him before others.

Also, as I regularly challenge you to do, always pray and study the Bible for yourself to grow your personal relationship with Jesus. Prayer and Bible study are ways of bringing the Holy Spirit into your heart and into your life and God is happy to give you the Holy Spirit when you are earnestly seeking to grow towards Him. Intentionally move and grow towards God today through prayer and studying your Bible.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, chicken out of, or fall away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year of the Cross – Episode 45: When Luke tells us about a criminal asking Jesus for a favor, we discover some amazing truth about someone who was nailed to a cross next to Jesus. You might be surprised with what this criminal says, with what he asks, and with how Jesus responds!

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