************ Sermon on Luke 23:32-43 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 10, 2011
"The Two Criminals"
"Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed" (Lk 23:32). Have you ever wondered about these two men? Who they are? What they did to deserve crucifixion? Why all four Gospel writers included them in their account of the crucifixion? Why they are included in Scripture? And, what this tells us about our salvation?
As we continue to observe Lent I want us to spend some time this morning looking at the two men who were crucified the same time as Jesus.
I The Two Criminals
A Luke identifies the two men as "criminals" (Lk 23:32). Matthew and Mark identifies them as "robbers" (Mt 27:38). John simply identifies them as "two others" (Jn 19:18). The Greek word used by Luke means "one who uses violence to rob." So, they were not simply thieves who secretly enter a house and steal. Instead, these two criminals were guilty of home invasion. Holding the family captive. Terrorizing. Raping. Pillaging. Murder. And, then, emptying the house and property of any valuables in order to feed their drug or alcohol addiction.
I am sure you agree that such criminals – monsters is a better word – deserve to be punished for their crime. According to the Old Testament law, they were getting exactly what they deserved when they were crucified:
(Ex 21:23-25) But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, (24) eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (25) burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.We might think Roman law to be brutal but at that time it was the fairest system of law ever to be devised and administered on such a large scale. In such a system, even death by crucifixion was considered fair and just if the punishment matched the crime.
B But what was Jesus doing there? He was innocent. He was guilty of nothing. As the second criminal puts is, "But this man has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41). We cannot say that about any other person. We can't say that about the two thieves with whom He was crucified. We can't say that about a saintly grandmother. We can't say that about Mother Theresa or Billy Graham or Gandhi. We cannot say that about you or me. Yet, there was Jesus – an innocent Jesus – being crucified by the fairest legal system that the world had ever known.
Why? Why was Jesus crucified? We can talk about a weak-willed Pilate who failed to live up to his calling as a judge. We can talk about the Jewish Sanhedrin who illegally condemned an innocent man. We can talk about Judas who betrayed Him. We can talk about Peter who denied Him. We can talk about the disciples who deserted Him. We can talk about the crowds who turned against Him. We can talk about the soldiers who did the actual deed. Yet, when it comes down to it, none of these answers are adequate.
Why was Jesus crucified? The only correct answer is to say something about God's plan for our salvation. You need to realize that God is terribly angry both with the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. You need to realize God has laid a curse on everyone who does not do what He has written in His Law – which means, He has laid a curse on all of us. You need to realize God demands that sin be punished with the supreme penalty – eternal punishment of body and soul. You may ask, what does this have to do with Christ dying on the cross, like a criminal? Death by crucifixion is cursed by God. So, by dying on the cross like a criminal, Christ has shouldered the curse which lays on me. Christ has taken upon Himself the penalty which I should suffer. That's why Jesus was crucified – for me, for you, fore everyone who believes!
C Look at Jesus. Hanging there on the cross. Between two monsters. As if He were as bad and evil and wicked as were they. Again, we can ask why?
The answer may surprise you. This, too, was part of God's plan for our salvation from the beginning. Let me remind you what is said about the Messiah in the prophecy of Isaiah:
(Is 53:12) Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.Did you hear what Isaiah said about the Messiah? That He "was numbered with the transgressors"? "Transgressors" – that is another word for sinners, criminals, thieves, murderers, rapists. Christ was numbered with the transgressors. He was counted as one of them. He was treated as one of them. He was crucified as one of them. So, the two criminals were part of God's plan for our salvation. It was no accident that Jesus was crucified between two such criminals.
II Two Responses
A Have you ever noticed how similar both criminals are? Both are suffering the pain of crucifixion. Both are guilty of crimes. Both are receiving what they deserve. Both want to be saved from death. Both see the Savior. Both hear the words from His mouth – "Father, forgive them ..." (Lk 23:34). Both can read Pilate's sign "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Jn 19:19). Both watch the Savior as He graciously and lovingly gives up His life for the sins of the world. Both criminals are in exactly the same position in terms of Jesus. And, yet, their responses are dramatically and sadly different.
Most of us have much in common with these two criminals. We, too, suffer on account of our sins. And, none of us can say, "I do not deserve this." We, too, want to be saved from death. We have all heard of Jesus and His death upon the cross and His gracious words of forgiveness. And, as we will find out, at the two crosses of the two criminals we see a picture of the two ways people today respond to Jesus and His cross.
B Look at the first criminal. What does he do? He imitates the mockery of the religious leaders and asked Jesus to rescue him from the cross. "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Lk 23:39).
At that time, those who were executed were supposed to say, "May my death atone for all my sins." We don't hear that on the part of the first criminal. As an aside, I want you to notice that we don't hear that from Jesus either. Of course we don't hear that from Jesus because Jesus was innocent and guiltless. Instead, what do we hear from Jesus? "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34). Here, too, we see the fulfilment of Scripture; according to Isaiah, "he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Is 53:12).
So, the first criminal offers no sign of repentance. There is no acknowledgment he is suffering what he deserves. Instead, he says, "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Lk 23:39). As if he deserves it! As if he is entitled to this! What a picture of a spiritually destitute, fallen man. To him right and wrong, praise and blame, good and bad are of no consequence. His one goal is to save his earthly life. He is even willing to believe Jesus is the Messiah in order to have this happen. But not out of any real conviction. Not out of repentance and sorrow for sin. He will believe in anything or anyone just so long as it gets him off the accursed cross.
Isn't this sad? This picture of a criminal lost in sin? This picture of a sinner taking his last breath before going to the depths of hell? Doesn't it make you want to cry that his heart is so hard that he refuses to change even as death is approaching?
But now, consider, isn't this first criminal a picture of most humans today? "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Lk 23:39). "If you are king, then get me out of this mess." "If you are so almighty, then save me." What do we see today? No sorrow for sin, no repentance for sin, and no forsaking of sin. Just an entitlement attitude when it comes to salvation – that everyone deserves to be saved. Like the first criminal, people today are willing to give Jesus a shot. But they are also willing to try healing crystals, yoga, transcendental meditation, mysticism, and a host of other weird or false religions – including the Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu faiths. No commitment. No life of service for Jesus. No taking up the cross and following Jesus. Jesus is only a way of escape and not a king to be obeyed. Like the first criminal they, too, are headed straight for the fires of hell.
C Now notice the second criminal. First, he went against the flow. It took courage to defy the influence of his friend and the mockery of the leaders. And, it took faith for him to trust a dying King! When you consider all that he had to overcome, the faith of this criminal is simply astounding. Here is a reminder that we always have to stand our ground so we do not get sucked in by the crowd. This second criminal did not get deceived by all the talk of the people around him.
Second, he rebuked the first criminal saying, "Don't you fear God...?" (Lk 23:40). In other words, the second criminal did fear God. He had a holy fear of God. God was real to him. He knew God as His almighty and holy Creator.
Third, notice his penitence, his admission that he is a sinner. "We are getting what our deeds deserve" (Lk 23:41). "I am a sinner," he is saying. Not only that, but he admits to being the worst kind of sinner. He admits to being a criminal, to doing home invasions and all that goes with it.
How often do we hear this kind of talk today? Politicians and others admit to making mistakes, errors in judgment, miss-communications, and so forth. Instead of laying down their self-righteous defenses, they devise every means imaginable to avoid admission of sin and guilt. But not the second criminal. He was on the cross, after all. He was on display for all the world to see. No more cover-up. No more deceit. No more trying to save face. No more trying to hide his true condition from an all-knowing God. This second criminal shows us the proper way to go, the only way to go: acknowledge our sin and cry out to God for mercy and help.
Fourth, not only did the second criminal admit to his guilt and wrong, but he accepted his punishment as something he deserved. "We are punished justly," he said (Lk 23:41). No cry of protest about how unfair he thinks it all is. Rather, he is humble before God and submits to God's judgment.
Fifth, as I already mentioned, the criminal acknowledges the holiness, righteousness, innocence, and perfection of Jesus. "But this man has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41).
Jesus wants us all to come to this conclusion. Jesus wants us all to acknowledge His perfection. Jesus wants us all to realize He was perfect in our place. Right or wrong, praise and blame, good and bad made no difference to the first criminal – either when it comes to himself or even when it comes to Jesus. But this certainly made a difference to Jesus. If Jesus was not perfect and righteous and holy than we cannot be saved because only someone who is truly righteous can pay for the sins of others. So, we must be able to say with the second criminal, "But this man has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41). "This Man only does what is good." "This Man only speaks the truth." "This Man only thinks what is admirable and trustworthy."
Sixth, the criminal acknowledges Jesus is king: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Lk 23:42). "Kingdom." Isn't this confession simply amazing? To confess a Man with a crown of thorns is King? To confess someone on the cross to be King? To confess that Jesus has kingdom, power, glory, and might though He is being crucified?
And finally, the penitent criminal does one more thing. He pleads for grace and mercy: "Remember me ..." No demand. No entitlement attitude. Remember, both criminals wanted to be saved from death. But one makes it a sinful demand. The other makes it a believing plea. This second criminal asked knowing that Jesus could save Him.
A "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Lk 23:39). Is there any reason Jesus should listen to the first criminal when this is said? Of course not. In fact, we notice a fearful silence on the part of Jesus to this demand. No promise. No hope. No comfort.
B But, notice, the response of Jesus to the penitent criminal: "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43). This is almost too good to be true. "Today" this would happen. Not even a delay. Immediate fulfilment. Instant gratification.
Why? Out of grace, of course. Totally by grace. Wholly by grace. It was the gift of God for an undeserving sinner (Eph 2:8-9). This second criminal realized something – that God owes him nothing, and that any good that comes our way is due to God's mercy and not our merit. Which is why he pleaded instead of demanded. Which is why he asked instead of insisted.
We see Golgotha and we see three crosses. We see a man who dies IN sin. We see another man who dies TO sin. And, we see a Man, the Redeemer, Who dies FOR sin.
Let me speak to you if you are not a Christian. I have heard men say, "I will decide some day, but not today." They are talking about waiting to follow Jesus. Perhaps they have in mind the criminal dying on the cross who was saved in his final hour. They think they can perhaps wait. But I need to say: the first criminal waited too.
If you are not a Christian, your only end can be that of the first criminal. If you are a Christian, then you will be with Jesus in paradise. So, by God's grace, go to Jesus, confess your sin, admit your need for the Savior, and Jesus will remember you!
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