“There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death” (Luke 23:32)
A Meditation on Luke 23:32-43
Drama has never had a more momentous stage than Calvary; and never a weightier speaker than Jesus Christ. Luke 23:32-43 records three speeches from that great stage; one by that great Speaker, and two other by common men. Had we actually been there on that dramatic evening our eyes would have been lifted up to three rugged “podiums” which held their speakers probably not much higher than the average man’s height. If on that evening we had been close enough, we would have heard three utterances from three condemned men, each hours from death. The Lord, through His Word, gives us the opportunity to look to those crosses with the eyes of our minds and to listen to those three speeches from three the crosses.
The Speech of Unbelief
The first speech we hear might well be called “The Speech of Unbelief.” It is uttered by the first criminal, and recorded in verse 39. From the start we should be aware that this speech is not only a true historical narrative; it also paints a picture of every natural man. This becomes clear when we answer the question, “who was this first speaker?”
The speaker is identified in our text as a “criminal” or, more literally, as an “evildoer” or “malefactor” (KJV). In Matthew 27:38 and Mark 15:27, the men crucified on the right and left are called “robbers.” The word denotes the idea of a revolutionary or an insurrectionist. This is certainly the way Jesus used the word when, on the night of his betrayal, he was approached in the garden by a detachment of soldiers: “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me?” (Matthew 26:55). He knew they viewed Him not as a petty thief but as a revolutionary, an insurrectionist, and a rebel.
The bottom line is that the first speaker is a rebel, or an evildoer. He has not only failed to submit to the laws of the land but to submit to the will of God. This speech, then, is not only a true historical record; it is also a picture of natural man who at his core is in rebellion against God. The rebellious nature of this first speaker’s heart is made plain when we evaluate his brief speech: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!” What is the meaning of this speech?
First of all, it is clearly not a sincere request for help. True, one might read this speech with a sympathetic intonation and get this impression. This is not, however, the way we should read this passage. It is not the way the words were understood originally. The other criminal understood the words to be mockery; thus his rebuke. Luke, also, introduces this speech by calling it “blasphemy.” This speech was not a sincere request but an impious demand.
More specifically, it is a speech of mockery. Sadly, this mockery was likely instigated by the religious leaders who crucified the Lord. It is improbable that this man would have known much about Jesus’ ministry. It is doubtful that he had evaluated the messianic character of Christ which undergirds his slanderous statement. But, from his proximity to Jesus Christ, he had heard the mockery of the chief priests around him recorded in Verse 35: “the rulers…sneered, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.” This first criminal seems to be mimicking the scornful sneers of the rulers of the people.
Thirdly, this is a speech of folly. This fool demands that Christ come off the cross to save him! How little he understood of the mission of Christ. How ignorant he was of the way in which Christ, “when the time had come for Him to be received up…steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It was the will of God that salvation come only through Christ’s death on the cross; the very thing that Christ was resolved to do. This rebel obviously hated the cross and saw no value in his or in Christ’s cross.
Imagine, for a moment, the agony which our Lord was presently experiencing. He had obediently been led to the cross and was at that moment bearing the punishment of God for the sin of His people. At the height of His expression of love and self-sacrifice this impenitent fool says to the Savior, “Get off your cross and save us.” What arrogant folly! And yet, even in his folly he gives us a glimpse of the manner in which Christ suffered for His elect. Christ bore the reproaches even of foolish robbers.
How many there are today just like this man. They find fault with the Lord for not dealing more kindly with them while at the same time living in rebellion against Him. In times of personal or national crisis many mimic the language of this fool. “If there is a God, why didn’t He save us? Why did He let this happen to us?” If you are like this impenitent thief, you must admit your rebellious folly. Your only hope is to ask the Lord who created you to change your heart: “Lord, I have been living my life at enmity with you. I am a rebel. Conquer me by your divine power!”
The Speech of Belief
This is, in fact, the lesson that we learn from the speech made by the second criminal (vss. 40-42). This speech, like the last speech, is more than simply a historical record. It is also a picture of regenerated or reborn man. This assertion is equally born out by identifying the speaker. This man lived his whole life as a God-hater. Yet, something dramatic has happened upon the cross; there is a change in his life perspective. On the cross this criminal confesses Christ. And what brought about this confession; this change? It was not that he had undergone a period of indoctrination. He had not submitted, after a period of intense study and scrutiny, to a new religious philosophy. No. The reality is that the heart of this formerly hardened criminal and rebel had been changed by a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit through the brief but intense ministry of the crucified Christ. Doesn’t the description of this man approach the definition of regeneration? This man is a picture of all regenerated men.
And while we can not see the actual heart change we can see its evidence. Even during the brief span of his post-conversion life, we see fruit. We see a vivid example of repentance and faith.
His repentance is demonstrated through both personal introspection as well as in censuring his former partner. Foundationally, the penitent thief confesses his own sin. Speaking in the first person he says, “We are condemned justly.” He agrees with the decision that justice has given him. He agrees that he has lived as heinously as the punishment he now receives: “We receive the due reward of our deeds…”
Secondly, in censuring the other thief, he demonstrated a hatred of sin. He heard the sinful raging of his former partner and it vexed him. So he rebukes the sin of his companion (in which he is implicated by the request, “…Save…us.”). We might even say that he was evangelizing the other thief starting with his sin. He is saying, “Don’t you fear God? Look at yourself! You stand guilty before God and are being punished to death for your sin.” The penitent thief points out how the other did not fear God even though he was on the brink of being punished not only by death but also by Hell. He was on the edge of a very slippery slope. Still he did not repent.
This same scenario was given brilliant imagery in the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil. In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards illustrates the precarious position of unrepentant sinners. He portrays a man held by a thread over a raging fire: “You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold It was in God’s plan that the first sinner to have the vicarious death of Christ applied to his account would be one who had the least to offer in return.
This was that thief; on the brink of hell. And so the penitent’s rebuke: “You are on the brink of hell and you blaspheme Christ? Wake up, fool!” Edwards concludes his charge against foolish, unrepentant sinners in the same manner: “Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. And that is exactly what the penitent criminal did; and in so doing he teaches us the essential character of faith. First of all, he ascribes to Christ the praise due to his righteousness: “This man has done nothing wrong.” He realizes that he and Christ stand worlds apart in terms of righteousness. As a result he does the only thing he can do. He commits himself and his salvation to the protection of Christ. True faith arises out of a sense of personal need. This man saw his sin, he saw the sufficiency of the Savior and he entrusted his soul to the Lord. We are given no doubt that if this man had somehow survived his crucifixion he would have lived henceforth a sanctified life. He was already showing the fruit of mortification of the old man and the coming to life of the new. But God had something better in store for him. It was in God’s plan that he not survive this crucifixion. It was in God’s plan that the first sinner to have the vicarious death of Christ applied to his account would be one who had the least to offer in return. It is striking that after this urgent and sincere request the penitent thief fades from the narrative. All he can do is to plead for mercy, hoping for a favorable response. The response is given in the final speech, this time from the cross in the center.
The Speech of Salvation
The last speech is reserved for Jesus Christ (vs. 43). In His reply we again have not only a record of history but also a picture; this time a picture of God. F.W. Krummacher says that “in Christ’s reply Calvary becomes a palace, the cross a throne of the Judge of all worlds.”1 The crucified Christ speaks as the judge of the souls of men. This judicial sovereignty is demonstrated in the first words from His lips.
He says, “Assuredly, I say to you…” His answer bears the stamp of truth and finality. It is as if He is speaking, not from a cross, but from a throne with a scepter in hand. And although He speaks with the authority of ultimacy, His reply is one of loving intimacy. The real emphasis in the Lord’s reply seems to be on the words “with me.” In these words, Christ exceeds the man’s request. The thief asks Christ to remember him; to think about him. Who is it that we remember? I remember with deep affection my grandmother who is no longer with me but with the Lord. We remember those who are apart from us. But Christ tells this man, in effect, “I will not need to remember, for today you will be with me.”
Notice further, that Christ did not say “some day” you will be with me, but “today...” Why today? What was so significant about that day that it would bind together forever the Lord of Glory and a lowly criminal? It was, of course, the death of Jesus Christ. The moment that Christ died He defeated death and removed the separation between God and man. So He says “today you will be with me. You will no longer be alienated from God because of your sin. Today I die, and through my death you will be united to me.”
Neither does Christ promise an amorphous or merely sentimental presence with the penitent thief. Rather, He concretely qualifies this promise with the words “in Paradise.” This Paradise is clearly a synonym for heaven or the dwelling of God (Cf. Rev. 2:7; 22:2). It is a term that both points back to the Paradise of Eden and points forward to the Paradise of Heaven. The way to the Paradise of Eden was blocked because of the sin of man. Christ, through His death, has conquered sin and opened the way to paradise. What a sound to these ears! This promise of Paradise perfectly matched this man’s need. In paradise, “There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying…[nor] pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). The wretched thief who presently hung on a cross of shame would by day’s end be reigning with Christ in Heaven (Rev. 22:5). But first, death comes.
As we well know, the three men on those three crosses died that day. This is a documented historical fact. As we conclude, we reflect on the outcome of each of those three deaths. The one unrepentant thief descended into hell, never to escape it. It is a sobering reality that this thief is in Hell this very moment being punished for his brief rebellious life. The One in the middle, also descended into hell, in a manner of speaking. He died bearing the curse of Hell for those whose names are written in the book of life.
Only one of the three men never descended into Hell. The repentant and believing thief never drank to the bottom the cup of the wrath of God. Yes, he deserved to do so. But this penitent thief was saved by the intercession of the Son of God. And when he died, he did not go down to hell but went up to forever be with the Lord. Isaiah 53 speaks of the crucifixion and death of these three men: “He was numbered among the transgressors…and made intercession for the transgressors.” This passage directs our eyes to the Son of God, crucified with a rebel on each side. But Isaiah also teaches us about the intercession that Christ made from that cross: “He made intercession for the transgressors.”
Notice, that while Christ was numbered among two transgressors, He only made intercession for one of them. How is it then, that Isaiah speaks in the last part of that verse of “intercessors” in the plural? Who is he referring to here? He is referring to the rest of those for whom Christ died. We are the transgressors! When Christ died that day, He died not as an intercession for the penitent thief alone but for every one who truly repents and trusts in Him.
We have pointed out that the speeches made to the left and the right of our Lord paint a picture of both the unbelieving and the believing soul, respectively. In other words, each of our lives echoes the words of one of these two men. Which speech more accurately describes your life perspective? All of us by nature are born rebels and desperately need the conquering intercession of Jesus Christ. The question remains, will you apply for this intercession as the one evildoer did? Christ’s answer remains the same to everyone who makes that heartfelt petition: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom?” “Assuredly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
1 F.W. Krummacher’s, “The Suffering Savior.” (Chicago: Moody, 1947), p. 364.
Mr. Bill Boekestein is a graduate of the Puritan Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.