The Man Whose Death was Like No Other – Luke 23:32-38
By: Northern Seminary
Through history there have been many times when someone has given their life to save others. Often a Medal of Honor or a Victoria Cross has been awarded posthumously. Someone died so others would live. It happens outside of war too, such as when fire fighters rush into a blazing building to save those trapped there and then a roof collapses, or a police officer is killed trying to rescue a kidnap victim.
What Jesus did by dying on the cross was like that, and yet not like that. Yes, he also gave his life so others could live. But there are at least two major differences. One was that he saved people for all eternity, not just for more years of life on this earth. The other difference was that his death was the purpose of his life. Jesus didn’t die because an emergency had suddenly arisen and he had to act in the moment for the sake of others. His death was a goal right from his birth. His death was in the background of every word and deed through all his days. His death was the destiny on a hill outside Jerusalem towards which he walked resolutely. Jesus was always meant to hang on a cross. His was a death like no other.
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.
Luke’s description of the death of this “King of the Jews” has five striking aspects about Jesus.
- The King who was executed among criminals.
Louis XVI of France was deposed by the French Revolution, and met his death in Paris on January 21, 1793. On the morning of his execution, his valet helped him dress, after which a priest heard his confession and gave him Mass. A carriage was waiting, and he was transported to the sound of drums and with an escort of cavalry to the Place de la Révolution. He walked unaided across the scaffold, spoke his final words, and then knelt with his head across the base of the guillotine before the blade fell and his life ended.
Not all rulers have been allowed to die with dignity, but there can have been hardly any who were led to their death along with common criminals. But that’s how it was for Jesus. Luke writes: “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed” (v. 32), and Jesus was crucified with one of these men on his left and another on his right (v. 33).
Years later Paul described that moment for Jesus:
“And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
There are many ways in which that cross was humbling for Jesus. One of the first was being led out as if he was just one more common criminal to be crucified with that day’s quota of offenders who deserved to die.
- The King who was destined for a cross.
Most kings are destined for a life of ease and privilege. Modern kings don’t sit back and eat, drink, and be merry. Most are hard at work on civic engagements, out among the people, seen to be doing good for their country. But, that said, their lives are pretty comfortable. They’re not poor, not disadvantaged, not slaving in bad working conditions for long hours on six or seven days a week, not lacking health care, not lacking choice about what to do with their time, not lacking friends, not lacking influence, and so on. Mostly they live on the bright side of life.
How different for Jesus right from his childhood. His birth in a stable, laid in a manger, was soon followed by a prophecy over him in the temple courts by Simeon that he would cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and that he would cause a sword to pierce the heart of his mother, Mary (Luke 2:34-35). Jesus was little over a month old, but already there was an awareness that a wonderful but dreadful purpose lay ahead for him.
The adult Jesus knew that destiny very well. He spelled it out for his disciples:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matt. 16:21)
The disciples protested, as if such suffering could be avoided. Jesus would hear none of it, even telling Peter to “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matt. 16:23).
There was one last opportunity for Jesus to sidestep his destiny. Wracked with anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane about the agony that lay ahead, he prayed:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
The cross was prophesied for him and foreseen by him, and Jesus refused to go any other way. This was his Father’s will, and therefore would be his choice.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion has no graphic details. His opening words are very plain, nothing more than the facts. “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there…” (Luke 23:33). Luke didn’t need to say more than that – all his readers knew that this was the worst way for any person to die. It was torture drawn out until the victim finally died of exposure, loss of blood, or because he could no longer lift himself up to breathe. Even the cheap wine Luke says the soldiers offered to Jesus (v. 36) may have been less about mercy than about giving a little extra strength so a victim’s suffering went on longer.
Jesus hung there, perhaps completely naked, crowds watching him, soldiers casting lots to see who got to keep his clothes. And all the time the most dreadful agony anyone could experience was his. The King was fulfilling his destiny on the cross.
- The King who prayed for forgiveness, but not for himself.
Just before someone faces execution, he’s usually given the chance to meet with a pastor or a priest to confess his sins. He knows that he’s about to die. It’s his last chance to seek God and find forgiveness for his wrongs.
Jesus also seeks God for forgiveness, but not for his wrongs. He prays for those who have done the wrong of crucifying him.
“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” (v. 34)
Jesus could have been praying for those who had hammered the nails into his hands and feet. But most likely his prayer is wider than that. He was praying also for the crowds who had shouted “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21), and he was praying for the Jewish leaders who had incited that crowd. Jesus was seeking God’s forgiveness for everyone who had conspired against him.
Most of my life I haven’t found it too hard to forgive people. When I have found it tougher was when I sensed people were being unjust:
- If they’ve asserted I did or said something which I hadn’t.
- If they’ve attributed motives to me I’d never felt.
- If they’ve criticized me without knowing the facts.
- If they’ve tried to undermine my role.
Or any other action or accusation that was simply unfair. It’s hard to let that go. My instinct is to fight back, probably to prove that I’m right and to hear them say that they got things wrong.
Jesus tried to prove nothing. Jesus didn’t wait for anyone to admit wrong. Whether people had accused or condemned him deliberately or out of ignorance, he just prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The King who had done no wrong prayed for those who had done great wrong.
- The King who allowed people to stand before him mocking and taunting.
Jesus had been taunted before he ever got to the cross.
It happened soon after he was arrested. In chapter 22 Luke writes:
“The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” And they said many other insulting things to him.” (Luke 22:63-65)
It happened again when the Jewish leaders were vehemently accusing him before King Herod.
“Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.” (Luke 23:10-11)
And it happened again when the Roman governor’s soldiers gathered around Jesus to scourge him.
“They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matt. 27:28-31)
That wretched, cruel, malicious treatment of Jesus did not stop when he was on the cross. He was in agony and dying, but still they mocked. Luke says:
“The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him.” (Luke 23:35)
That wasn’t all.
“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 23:36-37)
The taunting was not only spoken, but also written.
“There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.” (Luke 23:38)
There was truth in those words, but they were not written to inform but to inflame, not to praise but to punish.
After all that, there was still more mockery to be heard from one of the criminals dying beside Jesus, as we shall see in the next study.
Every one of us who has felt falsely accused or been mocked for holding to good principles can be comforted that our Savior knows that experience very well. He understands. The one who was King was taunted and let it happen so he could do all God required for our salvation.
- The King who chose to stay on the cross.
Both the rulers and the soldiers heckled Jesus with shouts to save himself.
First, the rulers:
“He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” (v. 35)
Then the soldiers:
“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” (v. 37)
Jesus had healed the sick, driven out demons, fed huge crowds, calmed storms, and even raised the dead. Jesus could have done exactly what they said – save himself. But he didn’t. He chose to stay on the cross.
Why? One commentator gives the reason succinctly: “Luke’s readers would have realized the irony in this taunt, for Jesus in coming to save others could only do so by not saving himself.”
To save himself would have been to abandon his whole purpose on earth. When the birth of Jesus was announced to shepherds, the angels were very clear about the significance of this little baby:
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
The child was the one God had sent to be the Savior of Israel and of all people. It wouldn’t happen only because he’d come into the world. It wouldn’t happen only because of his good life, his miracles, even his love for all people. That little child needed to grow up and die on a cross and then be resurrected again. His death for sin had to happen. It was key for the salvation he would bring. Jesus could have climbed down from that cross, whole and unharmed, and he would have amazed and terrified every soldier, every religious leader and every person standing there on Calvary. But then he would not have finished his work. Then the great redemption God had planned would not have been done. Then the Father’s will would not have been done.
So they taunted him to save himself. But this King chose not to. In order to save us, he stayed where he was, bleeding, suffering, dying.
There are many heroes who have given their lives to save others. Their courage and sacrifice is amazing. Yet only one – King Jesus – was ever born with the sobering purpose to die on behalf of all sinners.
When Jesus visited Jerusalem, did he glance at the hill called the Skull just outside the city walls, the place where crucifixions happened? Did he think of the day he would walk bleeding and battered up that hill, and die there nailed to a Roman cross? If he did, it changed nothing about his purpose. He did not waver. He did not change his message, his actions, his agenda. He changed nothing in order that nothing was changed about the outcome, which would be the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of all who own him as their Savior.
 These two are the highest awards in the United States and United Kingdom for a personal act of valor by a member of the military.
 It was customary for a condemned criminal’s clothes to belong to the executioners. What happened with Jesus was also a fulfilment of Psalm 22:18.
 R.H. Stein, Luke (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 589.
 Luke 23:33. In Greek Skull is Kranion; in Aramaic it is Golgotha; in Latin it is Calvariae, hence our name Calvary for the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.