Jesus was born in a stable among the animals and died between two criminals. We’re unsure of their crimes, but whatever they did warranted the death penalty. They deserved to die. Some people mistakenly believe that their good works guarantee their place in heaven; I’m certain these men believed their crimes were beyond God’s saving grace.
Luke speaks of their encounter with Jesus in his twenty-third chapter: “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” (Luke 23:32–34).
Jesus experienced the betrayal of a friend, the mockery of a false trial, and the abandonment of his followers. He was beaten and scourged. The suffering of the cross afflicted Him as the wrath of the Father was poured out on Him.
The Controversy of Jesus
‘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 him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” (Luke 23:35–37).
Jesus was crucified for blasphemy. He claimed to be God. Nothing is more controversial than that claim. The identity of Jesus is the most debated subject of history.
Jesus experienced the betrayal of a friend, the mockery of a false trial, and the abandonment of his followers.
Sam Harris wrote, “Jesus Christ – who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens – can now be eaten in the form of a cracker.”[i]
Christopher Hitchens said, “…the case of the Virgin Birth is the easiest possible proof that humans were involved in the manufacture of a legend. Jesus makes large claims for his heavenly father but never mentions that his mother is or was a virgin…”[ii]
A Turning Point
Luke next writes:
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there 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.” (Luke 23:38–41)
We know from Matthew’s gospel that both criminals were hurling insults at Jesus. At this juncture, one of them has a change of heart. The criminal recognizes his place in the created order before God. He knows he’s dying and realizes the only way he’s coming off that cross is as a corpse. Death causes us to reflect on eternity. ‘What happens next? Will God let me in?’ Maybe you’ve asked yourself such questions. At times, leading theorists, who have denied the existence of God, question their beliefs:
Philosopher Thomas Nagel says, ‘It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’[iii]
Physicist Stephen Hawking suggests, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have begun in just this way except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”[iv]
Philosopher Kai Nielsen explains, ‘Suppose you suddenly hear a big bang and you ask me, ‘What made the bang?’ and I reply, ‘Nothing, it just happened.’ You would not accept that. In fact you would find my reply quite unintelligible.’[v]
The criminal comes face to face with his frailness. He recognizes he has no power and no options. All he can do is die. But he also realizes something unique about Jesus. He understands that Jesus is vitally connected to God. He calls out to the other criminal, telling him to stop mocking Jesus, because he should fear God. We should be awed by a Being so supremely powerful that He calls the entire universe into existence and sustains it by His might and will.
The criminal recognizes his guilt. He knows he deserves death. He’s not alone. All of us have sinned, deserving death. We all deserve Hell. Our sin has caused spiritual, relational, emotional, and physical death. We have all broken God’s laws. Our crimes are against Him. Some of us have crimes so heinous, that we don’t believe God would ever save us. This criminal confesses three life-altering truths.
Three Crucial Confessions
(1) The criminal confesses that Jesus is innocent. He comes to the realization that Jesus has done nothing wrong. Maybe it happened when Jesus asked His disciple John to look after His mother. Maybe it happened when He heard Jesus ask God to forgive those killing Him. Maybe it happened when He read the sign, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ Maybe it happened as he and the other criminal hurled insults back at those killing them while Jesus responded to His executioners with kindness and grace. But somehow, as they hung there dying, the criminal realized Jesus’ innocence and intimate connection to God.
Then the criminal makes an audacious request. He asks Jesus to remember Him in His kingdom. “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom'” (Luke 23:42).
(2) He confesses His need for Jesus. He asks Jesus to remember Him. Crucifixions were lonely places. The only people who typically came to watch you die were those you had wronged and your executioners. You were your mother’s heartache and your father’s shame. No one wanted to remember you. You were alone. He asks Jesus to remember him.
Miraculously, this criminal looks at Jesus, while Jesus is dying, and asks Jesus for help. He knew only Jesus could do something about his impending death. He knew only Jesus could save him.
(3) He confesses Jesus is King. He knows He has a kingdom. As Jesus’ lungs are collapsing, as His body bleeds out, as He’s parched with dehydration, as the wrath of the Father is being poured out on Him, the criminal recognizes that Jesus is King.
This is no dumb crook. He confesses the innocence of Jesus, his need for Jesus, and the kingship of Jesus, as he dies on the cross beside Him. And he waits for Jesus’ response.
The Gracious Response
All the criminal is going to do is die. He won’t be able to tell anyone about his conversion to Christ. He won’t be baptized or join a church. He won’t be able to right his wrongs or make amends. All he can do is die. Jesus could have rightly told this criminal to go to hell, but his answer is graciously good.
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Not because the criminal deserved salvation, nor because of anything he could do…simply because the atoning work of Christ is enough, Jesus saves Him. He can save anyone. How do I know? He saved me.
I didn’t deserve salvation. I couldn’t earn salvation. Yet because of the grace of God the Son, the Spirit of God reached into my life, convicting me of my sin and bringing me to a place where I could thrust myself on Jesus for salvation as the Father adopted me into His family. Jesus was forgotten on the cross so I could be welcomed into His Kingdom. On my very best days, my works fall short of His righteous standard and on my very worst days my sin isn’t beyond His redeeming grip of grace.
As He as dying, Jesus knew He fulfilled every Messianic promise. Jesus knew he never sinned. Jesus knew that death could not hold Him, Satan could not defeat Him, and sin had no claim over Him. He knew he was telling the criminal the truth. He was declaring the certainty of His victory. That very day, the criminal would be with Jesus in paradise.
But the other criminal continued to hurl insults. He thought he was the victim, as he mocked Jesus.
As you’ve read this maybe your heart has been warmed with God’s love for you, demonstrated supremely in the person of Christ. Maybe God saved you recently or maybe you’ve walked with Him for years, and you know you were that criminal, forgotten and deserving of damnation but He saved you—thanks be to God!
And maybe you’ve read this, and you haven’t yet crossed that line of faith, but you know God’s Spirit is at work in your life. You know the Father has whispered that He loves you. I want you to know that anytime, anyone, anywhere comes to Jesus and asks, ‘Jesus, do you have it in you to remember me in your kingdom?’; the answer is always the same, ‘I tell you the truth…you will be with me in paradise.’ He delights in saving. Happy Easter!
[i] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 73.
[ii] Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great How Religion Poison Everything (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2007), 116.
[iii] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press: 1997), 130.
[iv] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History in Time (New York: Bantam Press, 1988,) 63.
[v] Kai Nielsen Reason and Practice (Harper & Row, 1971), 48.