At our property along U.S. 127, you see a common adaptation of what took place on the Golgatha hillside. Nestled among the hills and overlooking the passing cars are three crosses that serve as a symbol of an event that changed the world.
For on that hillside sits the same number of crosses Scripture tell us were there at Golgatha on the afternoon of Jesus’ death. One for Jesus and one each for the two criminals who were crucified with him. We give a lot of attention, and rightly so, to the one in the middle – Jesus – who died unjustly and committed no act that was worthy of this kind of brutality. Yet, the two criminals play an important role in helping us to understand what took place that day.
To set the scene for us, Jesus and the two criminals have already been placed on the cross. There were two ways someone was affixed to the cross. They were either tied to the cross or were nailed to it. John tells us that Jesus was nailed to the cross. Jesus is facing the deep and unthinkable pain that goes along with the crucifixion. At the same time, he is experiencing the public humiliation that went along with this kind of punishment and torture. Jesus was mocked by the religious leaders who insisted that he put on a show and save himself. The soldiers joined in by gambling for Jesus’ personal items, which was a customary act for a crucifixion.
They were not alone in their mockery. Joining them were the two criminals who were crucified to Jesus’ right and left. Luke does not describe this, but the way the story of the other two criminals is told in Matthew and Mark leaves us with the idea that both criminals, revolutionaries as they are also identified as, join in mocking Jesus.
One of the criminals seems to find the activity unsettling and decides he has had enough. He wants nothing more of that mockery and asks Jesus to remember him when he enters his kingdom. What follows is the second statement Jesus makes from the cross and the only one that is addressed to those also being crucified with him. In Luke 23:43 we hear Jesus say, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
At face value, this might seem like an empty promise because nothing about what was taking place seemed like “paradise.” Make no mistake about what was meant with these words. There was nothing empty about this promise. We’ll see why in a moment. Yet, while giving this criminal this promise Jesus also gives voice to one of the core marks of his mission. Jesus is in the business of reaching and saving the lost even up to the point of his death on the cross.
There is a progression within the story that helps us to see how this plays out. Every moment in Luke 23:39-43 builds to this encounter between Jesus and the criminal that allows for this identifying moment.
It starts with the way the criminals mock Jesus. These two individuals were among the worst of the worst in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire used crucifixion as a form of capital punishment on revolutionaries who sought to challenge and overthrow Rome’s rule. Rome used crucifixion as a way of determent to keep others from trying to incite a revolution. This was especially the case when you consider that bodies were often left hanging on the cross for days so that people would see the dead bodies.
To be crucified, then, typically meant your actions raised to such a level that Rome considered you a threat. Now, to get to this point you have to have a little gumption about you and have no fear of being willing to express your perceived force or ability upon another. That is essentially what these criminals do in mocking Jesus. They hear the religious authorities and join in.
You see this in the sarcastic remarks from one of the criminals. He basically says to Jesus, “Look, if you really are the Messiah, then jump down off this cross and save all of us.” The criminal doesn’t believe Jesus can do this. He uses his final moments to insult the Messiah.
The other criminal, though, is a different story. Perhaps feeling uncomfortable about what he was doing he decides he wants no more of it. He says they did everything to deserve this punishment. There is an admission of guilt in regards to his actions that led him to this moment. He also announces that Jesus is innocent and did not deserve to die this way. Something specific is going on with this criminal. He is having a change of heart and begins to see Jesus for who he truly is.
The second criminal is in the process of repenting. In its most basic form the act of repenting is about having a change of heart. Repenting is about turning away from living for our self and seeking our own desires, and turning towards Christ and the Lord’s love for us. Repenting is part of the process of receiving God’s grace and often comes when we have encountered the Lord’s love and truth. On this cross, this criminal has an encounter with Jesus. He has heard Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” He has remembered the stories told throughout the streets about Jesus. He is bringing these experiences into his heart and is making the decision to turn away from the mockery and turning towards seeking Christ.
He does so through this prayerful request of asking Jesus not to forget him when he enters his Kingdom. The repentant criminal wants Jesus to remember him at the Day of Judgment, when God would return to reclaim all people. He wants to be among the people who Jesus brings into God’s eternal reign.
Jesus is quick with a response. He looks over to this repentant one and announces that on this very day he would be with him in paradise. That is more than the repentant criminal could ever ask for. Jesus not only tells him that he would remember him, but he would also bring him into paradise that day.
Paradise was a term in the New Testament meant to describe the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1. It was a place of perfection and what God intended creation to look like. In time, the thought developed that those who believed in Jesus and accepted his grace would be those who would receive the benefits of experiencing this paradise, truly heaven, upon their death. What Jesus tells his repentant criminal is that on this very day, after he has breathed his last breath, that he would experience a new life in paradise. That he would experience the heavenly paradise that awaits those who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior.
And he says so it in front of religious leaders who have mocked him and drummed up charges that led to his arrest and crucifixion. This is a crucial point, because what Jesus does through these words is to continue the work he came to do. A work that made the religious leaders of Jesus’ time uncomfortable. Jesus came not to comfort the righteous, but to save the lost.
This is fleshed out in a familiar story in Luke 19. It is the story of Zacchaeus. He was a rich tax collector, which meant that he often took more money from the people in order to finance his own interest. He would have been considered an outside and outcast by the religious leaders, yet Jesus walks up to him. He even tells Zacchaeus that he wants to dine with him, which was a sign of relationship and friendship in Jesus’ time. That was too much for the religious leaders, who scoffed at the audacity of Jesus dinning with a sinner like Zacchaeus. Jesus hears their complaints and responds. He says, “the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”
Did you hear that? Jesus came to save the lost. That was his purpose and one of the main purposes of his ministry. He came to bring the lost home to God. It was a work that began from the moment of his baptism and continued up to his last breath on the cross. Jesus routinely sat with sinners and outcasts to build relationships with them and to remind them that God still loves them. On a cross that would serve as the greatest mean of grace the world has ever experienced, Jesus was surrounded by sinners and he uses the moment to allow one repentant sinner to experience grace. He uses the moment to save the lost.
To be sure, it would be easy to hear these words from Jesus and the promise of a paradise and keep them for ourselves. They are a comforting reminder of what awaits those who believe. The reality of Jesus’ ministry, though, does not allow us to keep this promise and these words to ourselves. Just as Jesus sought opportunities to seek the lost and to remind them of God’s love through the relationships, so shall we also seek to find opportunities to do so in our community
Jesus’ mission of seeking the lost and reminding them of God’s love continues through the church today. We are called to take the promise spoken on the cross of redemption and grace for all and take it to those who are hurting, to those who have been rejected, to those who have felt broken by the world, and to those who have made some of the worst mistakes imaginable. Like Jesus, we have to meet them where they are. We cannot expect the lost to meet us here. We have to be like Jesus and go to them. Jesus met the lost on the streets. He went to their homes and ate with them. He even engaged them with his final breaths. All with the purpose and desire for every person to experience the joy of seeing Jesus for who he truly is and to be with him in that perfect place.
The question, I believe, for each of us today is this: How can we continue Jesus’ mission of reaching the loss here? What can we do to share the hope and love of Christ with the worst of the worst, so they may experience the love of the Lord just as the repentant criminal did on the cross?