There is a great benefit from having four gospels, the four accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The benefit comes surprisingly in their differences. Matthew includes an enormous amount of description about the actual process of Christ’s crucifixion and the women at the tomb on the third day. Mark doesn’t describe much about the crucifixion itself but more about what took place around Jerusalem when he died. Mark ends his gospel by saying that Jesus was resurrected and that the women were frightened. John probably gives the most information about the crucifixion, and he spends a chapter and a half describing some of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.
Luke's gospel, however, fits pretty much in the middle. If you’re new to Christianity, it’s a great place to start. It is simple and to the point. Luke describes the crucifixion in a single sentence: “There they crucified him” (23:33). And Luke tells us about more how much mockery Jesus faced as he died on the cross. And as Jesus pays the price for our sins, he says some incredibly important, deeply theological truths.
This is where much of the antagonism toward Christianity comes from. Why did Jesus have to die? Was the crucifixion at the hands of evil men, or did God kill Jesus? If Jesus dying was the plan all along, how is that not just as evil as the evil we see and hear about every day?
But a right understanding of the crucifixion does not pit justice against mercy. Instead of pouring out justice on those who deserve it, Scripture tells us that God bore the brunt of justice upon himself. If we make too much separation between Father, Son, and Spirit, we end up saying horribly wrong things like “God died on the cross”, or God the Father killed God the Son. You might hear that from popular preachers, or on the History channel after midnight, or on a National Geographic or Time Magazine special Easter edition, but that’s an ancient heresy called “patrapassianism”, which says that God the Father shared in the crucifixion and therefore suffers. It sounds powerful, but it says the opposite of what we read in Scripture.
Jesus died at the hands of evil men, Jesus died by the foreordained will of God, and Jesus was not a victim. All of those things must be upheld with conviction. And the two words that Jesus speaks from the cross recorded in the gospel of Luke clarifies much of this for us.
Jesus saved us by not saving himself.
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. If we don’t know how we are saved, how can we know if we’re saved? What are we saved from?
Just a day before Jesus is crucified, he’s eating the final Passover and the first Lord’s Supper with his disciples. This leads to a dispute between the disciples about which one of them will the greatest leader be in God’s kingdom. Jesus puts an end to that, and takes them out to the Mount of Olives to pray. While he’s praying, Judas brings the angry mob that arrests Jesus and takes him to the Jewish court for a sham trial, charging Jesus with blasphemy. The Jews can’t kill Jesus, so they pawn the dirty work off on the Romans. Jesus is taken before Pilate and Herod, but no one has a charge that will stick. So if you squint and hold your tongue just right, you can charge Jesus with being an insurrectionist. To appease the crowds, Pilate permits Jesus to be crucified.
While he’s carrying his cross to outside the city gates, Jesus sees that some people, especially some women, are mourning what’s happening to him. He says to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (23:29-30).
The crucifixion of Jesus is going to inaugurate the end of the Jewish system. That will not be the end of the Jewish people, just the system that they used to glorify themselves. And that will be made evident beyond dispute when the temple is destroyed within a generation. Rome will not go easy on the Jewish people. In fact, they’ll be scattered across the world shortly after the crucifixion. God will judge the people who perform the most evil act of human history: killing the God-Man Jesus Christ.
That doesn’t stop the people from mocking him as he hangs on the cross. As he is is placed on the cross, there are two other people, two criminals, who are being crucified, as well. Their exact crime is not described, but their punishment is. Only insurrectionists and rebels were crucified. They were considered something like enemies of the state. It was a statement about Roman authority. You did not even pretend to go against Rome’s commands, or crucifixion was your immediate punishment. Most likely, these criminals weren’t just thieves but dangerous, violent men.
Crucifixions were public so make sure the maximum number of people, the most foot traffic, would pass by on the way in and out of the city. Most were crucified nude, so along with the worst pain imaginable, you also have all sense of dignity stripped away, as well. Unless this was how you wanted to die, it was the best deterrent against opposing the Roman monster. But no Roman citizen could be crucified, so it was always a punishment for those under foreign rule.
The first words of Jesus on the cross are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34). Imagine that you have just been nailed to a cross because of fearful religious leaders and wicked Roman government power, and the first thing you do is ask for divine forgiveness for them. Why can the church say that Jesus was not a victim? Because for Jesus, this humiliation and physical torture in no way jeopardized his place in the Godhead or his relationship to the Father.
Jesus gladly came to do the work of redemption. The book of Hebrews tells us that it was “for the joy that was set before him [that he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’s ministry has been about showing and telling the people about the redemptive love of God, and that is why he taught often about forgiving our enemies. You were once an enemy of God, and he has forgiven you.
Earlier Jesus said to his disciples, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Instead of demanding justice from those who have hurt you, turn justice back on yourself and pay what they owe you. Why? Because how else can you describe what God has done through Christ?
Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity. Instead of demanding that you and I do anything for our redemption, God himself turned justice back on himself and demanded nothing from you but faith in what has been accomplished. So when you are hurt, taken advantage of, ignored, or suffering injustice, do not think for a moment that God turns a blind eye to injustice. God cares deeply about injustice; but instead of making demands of others, absorb that injustice. Pay it yourself. You are never more like Christ then when you pay the debt of another.
To keep the humiliation going, not only is Jesus stripped of his clothes, but the Roman soldiers in charge of him cast lots for his clothes. It was normal for soldiers to share whatever people who would be crucified brought with them to their arrest. Psalm 22 prophecies about this very moment, saying, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v.18).
It’s an absolutely careless procedure. There’s no will, no executor, no probate, just blind luck about who gets what. The final affects are of so little value that at best it’s a little bit of fabric. But by fulfilling a prophecy that’s several hundreds of years old, it simply highlights that every detail of what is going on is in no way anything less than a component of the covenant of redemption, the agreement between the Father, Son, and Spirit to redeem fallen mankind. Not a moment of this surprises God nor goes against his divine purpose. By having nothing to leave behind besides what he was wearing underscores the humiliation of the crucifixion, but it also highlights the extreme measure of divine foresight into that day.
Psalm 22 plays a major role in understanding how much of the crucifixion was revealed beforehand. In the same passage that says people will cast lots for his clothes, it also foretells of the mockery Jesus faced. Verses 7-8 say, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ’He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”
“Mock” and “scoff” are the same Greek word, and it’s the kind of word you’d use to describe something less than human. It’d be like calling someone a dog or a worm. It’s disgusting, or something you want to get away from. It’s essentially a “curse” word.
The people are literally quoting Scripture as they’re mocking the one to whom the Scriptures say will be mocked by the people. They are rehashing every Messianic role: he saved others, he is the Christ, he is God, he is the Chosen One. And still, they can’t see what their words say. When we say that sin blinds us, this is what we mean. In chapter 18, Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man will delivered over to the Gentiles, mocked, treated shamefully, spat upon, flogged, and killed (vv.32-33). And here it is, before their very eyes.
The soldiers offer him sour wine, which would have been a common drink for the soldiers. It might have a small numbing effect to help ease the pain, but Luke’s main point is that it’s a part of the mockery Jesus is facing. Not only is the crowd mocking him, but the soldiers are, too. “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:36-37). The kind of drink he’s offered just compounds the humiliation of his death. But it also proves another element of the divine plan. Psalm 69 is a prayer for God to save this suffering man, and says, “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (v.21).
The irony is thick. Their mockery of Jesus just emphasizes that they don’t understand how he’s in control. The soldiers tell Jesus to save himself, but Jesus saved us by not saving himself. “If you are who you say you are, prove yourself.” But that’s just the way that Satan thinks. At Jesus’ temptation, Satan said to Jesus, “If you are who you say are, turn this stone to bread. If you are who you say you are, jump off this temple and let the angels save you.” He was who he said he was—the suffering servant, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world by dying for the world, who does not give in to the demands of evil men.
The people have mocked Jesus, the soldiers have mocked Jesus, and now one of the criminals mocks Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:39). This criminal makes the same mistake that so many make today. Many are willing to say that there is something special about Jesus, that he might be a great man who faced an unjust death. But he doesn’t care whether Jesus was innocent or not. There’s no fear of God. It’s not about redemption; it’s about safety, or prosperity, or health. It’s about anything other than what Jesus really is. The first criminal doesn’t say, “It’s so sad that you’re innocent but here with us!” He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be vindicated when this is all over!”
No, he has the same misguided approach to Jesus that so many today do: they want what Jesus can give them without having Jesus as Lord. He wants off the cross and thinks Jesus can help. Why do so many seem to be true seekers? Because every sensible person wants what Jesus can offer, but few want it with Jesus. God is the only true seeker. He finds us, saves us, and keeps us.
But the second criminal is different from the first. He calls out the insincerity of the first by saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41). There is no explanation for the second criminal’s perspective apart from divine mercy. This man at least understands that what he’s enduring is the natural consequence of what he’s done. Like it or not, he’s here because of his own doing.
The first criminal sees Jesus as a ticket punch, a get-out-of-jail-free card, a quick solution to his pain. But the second criminal sees himself as a sinner and Jesus as a Savior. There is no sinner’s prayer, no invitation, no discipleship class, no baptism, and no vote by the deacon board; all there is is a petition for mercy. Go to Christ with nothing but your sin and he will come to you with nothing but mercy.
The second criminal simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). He recognizes that Jesus’s suffering and death is not a contradiction but his only hope. Jesus does in fact have a kingdom; he is the king who stands in the place of his people. He represents us before God. He represented this reprehensible violent murderer before the Father. And if your faith is in him, then Jesus Christ also represents you before the Father.
This is the moment that Christ’s reign began. Otherwise, what comes next makes little sense. In response to this criminal’s request, Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). Christ is entering into his kingdom, and this criminal will be a citizen.
“Paradise” is God’s garden, the same word used for the garden of Eden of the beginning and the garden of the new creation yet to come. It is better than this, but it is not our great hope. Like Titus 2:13 tells us, our great hope, our blessed hope, is that Christ would return to this earth and bring his kingdom with him. It is better to be with the Lord than to be in this body, but if you can imagine it, even better than that is the paradise of the new creation, where righteousness reigns, temptation, sin, and death are defeated, Christ is our temple and our light, and God dwells among his people forever.
Jesus saved us by not saving himself. And he saved us from enduring what he did on the cross. He did not only go through the physical suffering, which the gospels barely mention at all, but instead they focus on the mockery from the people and the fact that he endured the absence of the Father’s presence, total separation from God’s grace, which is the very definition of hell. He did not just save us from pain, but he saved us from eternity apart from God.
The two criminals represent two responses to the crucifixion. One way is to want the nice things that we hope God can give us, all while having this misguided view of who God is and what happened at the crucifixion. The other way is to do nothing but receive divine pardon, make no case for your own worthiness, and trust that what Christ did on our behalf is sufficient reason to enter into his kingdom.