Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” 43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” -Luke 23:32-43
Those familiar with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion know that Jesus was not crucified alone, but two other criminals were crucified with him, one on his right, and one on his left. The two criminals are mentioned in each of the four Gospels, with differences in detail. Matthew and Mark refer to the two men as rebels, or insurrectionists. They were not petty thieves, but dangerous rebels arrested for plotting against the Romans. Luke uses a more common word translated in English as criminals. This is not a contradiction, rather the more precise word interprets the more common. John only refers to the two men crucified with Jesus as “others.” The point is, understanding the more precise descriptive used by Matthew and Mark, these criminals crucified with Jesus were not petty thieves. They were dangerous and violent men engaged in operations against the Roman government. Crucifixion as used by the Romans was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: murders, rebels, rioters, insurrectionists. It was not used for petty thievery. It is an insight into the political danger the Romans associated with Jesus that they condemned him to that way of execution reserved for the most evil and most dangerous. Crucifixion was truly scandalous in the eyes of the people.
The two rebels beg the same mind, but then turned in different directions during the crucifixion. In Matthew and Mark it is clearly stated that both criminals “reviled him” and “heaped insults” on Jesus. Luke records that only one of the criminals “blasphemed” Jesus. John’s Gospel makes no mention of such words from either of the criminals.
But it is Luke’s Gospel alone that records the story of one of the rebels defending Jesus and turning to him for mercy; 39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Luke 23:32-43
All that can be said is that one criminal turned, repented, and believed in Jesus for salvation. Both criminals began the day blaspheming Jesus. One had a change of heart and mind and was drawn to trust in Jesus. Both were destined for hell. One was rescued along the way and promised that by the end of the day he would join Jesus in paradise.
How could this happen? There was no preaching at the crucifixion site. No baptism available. No one carrying on an evangelism dialog with the two crucified criminals. But they heard Jesus’ words from the cross. They heard his gracious call for forgiveness. They watched as Jesus, in the agony of death, took time to care for his dearest disciple and for his beloved mother. They perhaps heard snippets of conversations about Jesus and his work. The repentant thief, in spite of his criminal life, perhaps had heard Jesus before and knew something of Jesus’ teachings, though he had not believed. What can we say of this except, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,
And do not return there,
But water the earth,
And make it bring forth and bud,
That it may give seed to the sower
And bread to the eater,
11 So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
The repentant criminal’s words seem a bit awkward and incomplete when we think of a proper confession of sin and confession of faith. But Jesus read and understood his heart. Jesus knew what he meant. Jesus accepted his confession of faith. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The story of the two rebels reminds us how important time is. As long as there is breath, there is time yet to turn and believe in Jesus. The crucified rebels had only hours to live. No time to waste! One only continued to rebuke Jesus. The other listened, took what he heard to heart, and in the end believed. One, not the other, went to paradise with Jesus that day.
So we are reminded, For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you. And in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” – 2 Corinthians 6:2
Heavenly Father, grant me faith in my final hour to humbly confess your name and your kingdom. Have mercy on me as you did on the dying rebel, hear my weak and stammering words, and by your grace alone receive me into paradise. Amen.
Two rebels (Greek – λῃσταί, “rebels, insurrectionists) were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. -Matthew 27:38-44
With Him they also crucified two robbers (Greek – λῃστάς, “rebels, insurrectionists), one on His right and the other on His left. 2 ]So the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was numbered with the transgressors.” 29 And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 Likewise the chief priests also, mocking among themselves with the scribes, said, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him. -Mark 15:27-32
There were also two others, criminals (Greek –κακοῦργοι, “evil doers”) led with Him to be put to death. 33 And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots. 35 And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.” 36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.” 38 And an inscription also was [i]written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” 43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” -Luke 23:32-43
And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, 18 where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center. 19 Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: ESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. – John 19:17-19