Two Criminals and a King – Luke 23:39-43
By: Northern Seminary
Over the years Hollywood has produced many disaster movies. What almost all of them have in common is a group of survivors trying to escape from an earthquake or an overturned ship or – in the case of Titanic – a sinking ship.
Many of these movies focus on how different survivors face their challenge. That was especially true of the 1974 film Towering Inferno, the story of a fire breaking out mid-way up a brand new San Francisco high rise building, trapping affluent guests attending a party to celebrate the building’s opening.
Between the countless action scenes, the other drama lies in the reactions of different people to the crisis. As flames creep higher up the building, imminent death brings out the best and the worst from people.
The architect and the fire chief are both heroes and save many lives. The owner initially stubbornly refuses to order an evacuation, but his confidence in his building turns to fury when he learns that the electrical engineer, his son-in-law, cut corners to keep the building under budget.
Attempts to escape have success and failure, the failure often related to panic and selfishness. A last group disobeys orders and crowd into an express elevator, only to die when it stops at the floor where the main fire has taken hold. The electrical engineer and others die when they push others aside and rush to use a chair rigged to a line to an adjacent building.
The whole movie is filled with contrasts in reactions. They all face the same impending disaster, but they respond in very different ways.
On what we call Good Friday, three men were nailed to crosses on Calvary. Each of them faced agonizing pain and death. Their suffering is the same, but they react very differently to their experience.
19 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.”
Three men who each react differently as they face death by crucifixion.
- The criminal who cursed.
The words most of us say in this life will not be known two thousand years later. This criminal’s words are known. If only he’d said something better. Luke writes:
”One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” (v. 39)
Our translations don’t bring out the full force of this man’s cursing. Luke in fact reported that the criminal blasphemed against Jesus. This was not ordinary rudeness. This man’s hostility was rage at full volume.
He was the third on Calvary to taunt Jesus. First were the Jewish rulers (v. 35), and then the Roman soldiers (vs. 36-37), and now this criminal. All three of them were low enough to look at a man in agony, soon to die, and still sneer at him.
What happened and what didn’t happen says something important about Jesus and something tragic about the criminal.
The rulers, the soldiers, and now the criminal all taunted Jesus that if he was really the Messiah, or King of the Jews, he should prove it by stepping down off the cross.
We know that Jesus could have done that. It wasn’t the nails or the presence of Roman soldiers that kept him there. The Son of God had more than enough power to climb down. And they invited him to prove it. ‘If you are the Messiah, do it.’
Right at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he faces virtually the same temptation as right at the start. In the wilderness, two of the three challenges the devil put to Jesus was for him to prove himself:
“If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” (Luke 4:3)
“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.” (Luke 4:9)
Jesus didn’t yield then and didn’t yield now. Certainly he could have proven who he was by avoiding death, but that would not be how he would win followers and would not be how he could save people from their sin. As has been said by many, the greatest miracle would not have been Jesus coming down from the cross, the greatest miracle was that he stayed on the cross. He heard their taunts and their challenges, and he refused to move. It was not nails, and not Roman military might, but love that kept him on the cross.
About the criminal…
People in great pain will say anything, and a man suffering crucifixion was in unimaginable agony. So harsh words are understandable. Yet this criminal ridiculed Jesus when the other criminal, suffering the same experience, asked Jesus for mercy. That tells us some things about his thinking.
- He was focused only on his immediate pain and need. The others who taunted told Jesus to save himself. This criminal added “and us.” His mind was fixed on himself.
- He cursed the man hanging next to him for his suffering, as if he was not to blame for his own fate.
- He was blind to anything good, anything special, and anything divine about Jesus. He heard what others said but never considered that it might be true.
I listened to Ken share his troubles many times. His teachers at school had been no good which was why he’d never got much of an education. His bosses in his many jobs had always been unfair, which is why he’d been terminated many times. There had never been enough money to start the kind of business he wanted. His family tied him down and stopped him being the free person to do whatever he wanted. And God never gave him a break, never gave him a real chance to succeed.
When counselors listen to someone like Ken, they sigh deeply for here is a person who sees failure in everyone and everything around them but never admit their own responsibility. What would have been close to the truth with Ken is that he’d been lazy at school and lazy in work. He’d chosen to bring children into the world but now they and God were convenient scapegoats for the way his life had gone badly.
Like that, the first criminal was blind to his own failings that had brought him to his cross, and blind to the person next to him who could have still given him salvation.
- The criminal who asked for mercy.
This criminal reacts in a very different way to the first.
“…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.’” (vs. 40-41)
Four things distinguish this man from the first criminal.
His perspective is different. “Don’t you fear God?” he asks. This criminal isn’t riddled with self-pity. There is a concern about himself, but it’s because he knows he’s lived a life against God’s laws, and he fears what that will mean. He’s dying, and he’s not in a good place with God.
His awareness of his failings is different. He’s being punished justly; he’s getting what his deeds deserve. No doubt he regrets the way he’s lived, but there’s no denial of his sin. He knows he’s lived against God.
His recognition of Jesus is different. “This man has done nothing wrong,” he says. We’re not told how he knows that. Perhaps he witnessed some of Jesus’ interrogation, or he heard words from the crowd, or he intuitively recognized innocence in Jesus. However it happened, he knew this was not a man to ridicule, for this was a good man.
His plea to Jesus is different. The first criminal’s words were taunting. The second criminal’s words are appealing. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s remarkable he asked that, because it’s one thing to recognize innocence, and quite another to ask Jesus that he should be remembered when Jesus comes as king to reign.
At that moment Jesus looked nothing like a king. He was under a sentence of death. He had been beaten brutally and then nailed to a cross. His naked body was drenched in blood from his head, hands, and feet. People stood around mocking him. Where were all the trappings of majesty? Where was his army of warriors? Where were his devoted followers?
Yet, though none of that was there, this criminal saw a king and appealed to him for mercy. He didn’t know much. If anyone had nothing more than faith as small as a mustard seed (Matt. 17:20), it was this man. And he didn’t have long to live. Of those who have left coming to faith until the eleventh hour and fifty ninth minute, this man was supreme.
But his faith may have been small and his timing far from ideal, but still he cried out to Jesus and it was enough.
The famous preacher in London of Victorian times, C.H. Spurgeon, gave his life to Christ in response to the simplest and most feeble of sermons.
On a Sunday morning a snowstorm forced Spurgeon to abandon plans to walk to a distant church, and instead to turn into a tiny Primitive Methodist Chapel. No more than fifteen people were there, and to make matters worse the storm meant the preacher hadn’t turned up. Finally a thin-looking man, probably a tailor or shoemaker, stood up to say something.
Spurgeon was desperate to hear the message of salvation, but (to use Spurgeon’s own words) “this man was really stupid.” Almost all he could do was stick to his text: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Is. 45:22, KJV). The preacher pointed out that “lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain… You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look.” Then, he developed his sermon by pointing out that the text said “Look unto Me”. So there was no point looking to yourself for salvation. The sinner needed to look to Jesus sweatin’ great drops of blood, hangin’ on the cross, dead and buried, rising again, ascending to heaven, sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. Now the preacher shouted his text. “O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!”
With that, Spurgeon says, the poor man had nothing else to say. He was at the end of his tether.
Except he saw Spurgeon sitting under the gallery, and directed final words straight at him. Here is Spurgeon’s own account of what happened next.
“Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, ‘Young man, you look very miserable.’ Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, ‘and you always will be miserable – miserable in life, and miserable in death – if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.’ Then, lifting up his hand he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, ‘Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.’ I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said – I did not take much notice of it – I was so possessed with that one thought. …Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun….”
In his lifetime Spurgeon is reckoned to have preached to ten million people, founded Spurgeon’s college, and with his sermons printed and sold every week for years, plus many other books written, he is one of the most published authors of all time. But it all began with a wretchedly poor sermon and the simplest of responses. Spurgeon was aged just fifteen, but he looked to Jesus, and he found new life.
Giving your life to Jesus has many struggles in the background. But in principle it’s very simple. It’s the cry of faith of someone who knows they will die but wants to live. A thief dying on a cross beside Jesus asked only that he be “remembered” and he was. It was very little and it was very late, but it was enough.
- The King who promised paradise.
The criminal who called out to Jesus had little time left. Jesus didn’t make him wait. There was no bureaucratic request to put his appeal in writing, or delaying tactic of “I’ll think about it.” The man got an immediate promise.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (v. 43)
When it comes to things to do with eternity, we should not get hung up on issues of time. But what is sure is that when Jesus told the man that he would be with him in paradise “today” he meant immediately. No waiting. No period of cleansing himself of his sins. No apprenticeship to prove he was good enough. No course of instruction to improve his doctrine. He had called out to Jesus for mercy, and his salvation would be complete and immediate.
He was promised paradise. The word ‘paradise’ was a Persian word taken over into Greek and used for a place of peace and happiness, like the walled garden of a stately home or a beautiful park of trees and lakes. It is hard for any word – or even many words – to capture the magnificence of heaven. But that criminal certainly understood his future lay in a place more wonderful than anything he’d ever known.
Yet perhaps the promise of ‘paradise’ isn’t the most important thing that Jesus told this man.
What matters most is that despite his miserable, sinful life the glorious eternity ahead would be spent with Jesus. One writer says: “For me the most precious part of Jesus’ statement is ‘you shall be with Me’! Jesus’ presence is what makes paradise, paradise!”
Here is the good news of the gospel. The criminal who heard these words from Jesus had done nothing to earn paradise. He couldn’t bring a bag of good works, or a filing cabinet full of fine sermons, or a résumé of caring Christian service. He’d done wrong, a lot of wrong, and now he’s dying because he’d lived a miserable, cheating life.
But salvation isn’t earned by anyone. It’s not about knowing a lot or doing a lot. It’s about grace, about God being good even when we’re bad and giving us something much more wonderful than what we deserve.
The New Testament says:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
God is merciful to anyone and everyone who will call out to his Son. No one is too sinful and no one is too late. But there is a time, a moment, when the opportunity is there. One criminal was too wrapped up in his own pain and resentment and could not see the Savior was right beside him. The other criminal saw the King, and appealed to him and he was promised paradise that very day. It was his last moment, and thankfully he took it.
 C.H. Spurgeon, The Early Years (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 87-88.
 R.J. Utley, The Gospel according to Luke Vol. 3A, Lk 23:42 (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2004).