Jesus was crucified between two men. In the Gospel according to Luke, while the three of them are hanging there in agony, the two men speak to each other, and to Jesus. In their brief comments, two very different perspectives are represented; that of Law and that of the Prophets.
At the time of this world-changing event, Jews and Gentiles alike believed that being powerful and wealthy was an indication that God or the gods had favored you. Caesar was called “lord” and “son of god” because the Caesars had been successful in bringing peace (the Pax Romana) to the Roman Empire through violent conquest. Their success was understood to be evidence of divine favor.
Likewise, for Jews, the mighty acts of Moses were understood as evidence of God’s favor. King David’s military victories were also recognized as proof of God’s hand at work. The Law of Moses was foundational to this view. Deuteronomy 28 promised that, if the people were obedient to God, their enemies would be scattered and they would be prosperous. Many understood the miracles Jesus had been doing to be evidence that God was with him as well, but now that Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross, between two criminals, his identity as Messiah/King was in doubt.
It is from this perspective that the first criminal speaks.
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:39
This is the voice of the Law. If Jesus is the Messiah, the “Son of David”, there is no way that he could die an ignominious death on a Roman cross. The Law won’t have it! God would not allow his Messiah to be killed! Then the other criminal responds.
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:40-42
This is the voice of a prophet, and he makes two statements that are absolutely antithetical to both the Roman and Jewish-legal worldviews.
First, “this man has done nothing wrong.” The fact that Jesus was being crucified was, in the minds of both Gentiles and legally minded Jews, de-facto proof that he was guilty. Because Jesus did not violently withstand Rome and because he did not live up to the example of the victorious Jewish Patriarchs, there was no way in the minds of most people of the time, that Jesus could have been divinely favored. His claim to being a king was seen as simultaneously false and blasphemous precisely because he was hanging on a cross and did not save himself. He was then, on account of his crucifixion, guilty.
In that world, this criminal’s recognition that Jesus was innocent was prophetic in nature. The very fact that, today, we know victims of political and religious violence can be innocent, is because of Jesus’ crucifixion. If Jesus had called down legions of angels to save him by violently destroying the political and religious leaders who condemned him, he would have validated what they believed…that overwhelming violence is evidence of divine blessing, that the strongest are divinely favored, and we would still believe that today.
The second prophetic statement made by this perceptive criminal is, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This was recognition that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah/King, as he was dying on the most powerful symbol of the terrible might of the Roman Empire. Not even Jesus’ closest disciples could see this. They had deserted him. Even Peter, the most strong willed of them, had denied him three times, yet, as life was being extinguished from both himself and Jesus, this self-confessed criminal speaks some of the most lucidly prophetic words ever expressed – that Jesus was in fact the King of the Jews and that in dying he was about to be crowned King of a kingdom that not even death could withstand.
Two criminals with widely divergent worldviews hung beside Jesus. One looked back to the Law for justification of his violence, the other looked forward to a kingdom in which swords are turned into plowshares. One followed the lead of the crowd, who, when Jesus didn’t rise up in violence to overthrow Caesar, cried out “crucify him!” and “we have no king but Caesar!” The other followed the Good Shepherd, even unto death, knowing that even death was not powerful enough to separate them. One followed the letter of the Law, the other followed the law of love. One followed a god who proves his divinity by shedding the blood of his enemies, the other followed a God who proves his divinity by shedding his own blood for his enemies.
To both of these criminals, to the soldiers who had crucified him, to the religious and political leaders who had condemned him, and to us, Jesus says, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This is the Gospel…the good news of Good Friday. The voice of the prophet is the good news.
This blog is adapted from the message, “Three Crosses – Two Churches”.