As we head further into the Easter season, is it both appropriate and important for us to celebrate what Christ did to provide salvation from sin. In fact, the Bible calls upon God’s people to regularly remember all that Jesus went through so that we might be made right with God. Why does God encourage this kind of remembrance? Taking time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice is both evangelistically useful as we share the gospel message who do not know it and sanctifying for those who already know the gospel as they grow more like their Savior. On this Palm Sunday we are going to spend special time reflecting on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as revealed in Luke 23:33-46. In this passage Jesus make three powerful statements that highlight what he accomplished on the cross—statements that ought to inspire us on several levels.
I. STATEMENT #1: A Plea for Forgiveness-23:33-38
The location in which these compelling statements are made is revealed in verse 33—“When they came to the place called the Skull” (23:33). This site was “out” of the city as Jewish custom prescribed and was appropriately given this grim name (Latin equivalent is “Calvary”) for its ominous and macabre features that resembled a human head. Perhaps this was a familiar spot for these kinds of executions, familiar even to Jesus throughout His life and ministry.
It was at this spot that “they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left” (23:33b). In ancient times, crucifixion was synonymous with horror and shame, a death inflicted on slaves, bandits, prisoners of war, and revolutionaries (Isa 53:12-“and was numbered among the transgressors”). Josephus even called it “the most pitiable of deaths.” Cicero described it as “that cruel and disgusting penalty” as victims were made a public spectacle, often being affixed to these cross beams in unusual configurations until vultures would devour the corpse. So gross was this specific program of execution that it was prohibited for a Roman Citizen unless the emperor Himself sanctioned it.
However, despite this ominous location and the especially horrific situation in which he found himself, Jesus makes a shocking statement in between gasps for air and through his excruciating pain—“’Father, forgiven them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (23:34a). Yes, in his most precarious position, most painful moment, Jesus requests that forgiveness be granted to those performing these unspeakable acts against him. Remember, by this time Jesus would have already received the verberatio (the most severe of the beatings administered under Roman law). He would also have been stripped naked, have received a series of whips with a gruesome instrument of torture, and would have been made to carry this heaven cross all the way to this spot (see John 19:17). Then, both his feet and wrists were nailed to the crossbeam which then would have been raised high enough for the victim’s feet to clear the ground and then placed on a stake. All this torture Jesus went through although he was totally innocent. All of these wrongs were committed against the one who had done no wrong and yet, Christ asks God to forgive the very people who were afflicting upon him the most grievous fate ever conceived by man.
This request becomes even more peculiar when the executioners are described next in Luke 23:34ff as “casting lots, dividing up His garment among themselves” (23:34b). Not only did these soldiers not show respect to Jesus’ body in the beating they administered and in the nailing of his hands and feet to the cross, but here they show no respect for his humble personal affects. The language used here seems to point to Psalm 22:18 which reads “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots,” recalling a practice of oppressors taking plunder from the battlefield (Strauss, ZIBBC, 492).
Not only were the Roman guards dividing what few things Jesus possessed, but many nearby “stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at him saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.’…” (23:35). This again points back to Psalm 22 (particularly verses 7-8) and indicates that repeated and ongoing ridicule was hurled in Jesus’ direction as he hung there dying. While many questioned Jesus’ ability to save himself, little did they know that in his suffering and death he was providing a means for them to be saved—yes, even those who were hurling abuse at them.
In addition to the abuse of the onlookers was the mocking of the soldiers—“The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’…” (23:37). Again the irony here is biting. While Jesus may not look like a Savior in the traditional sense here, it is through his death that he would pay the penalty of sin, provide satisfaction for the wrath of god, and pave the way for people to be made right with God.
Adding insult to injury, an inscription was placed at the top of the cross for all to see—“Now there was also an inscription above him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’…” (23:38). But here again, what the rulers and mockers meant in hurtful jest correctly identified Christ as the true Messiah of his people—the long-anticipated Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world.
In the cacophony of these sneers, insults, offenses, and torture, Jesus takes the time to ask for God to forgive those bringing him personal injury and blaspheming his name. Friends, no one has suffered so much so unjustly, and while Christ would have been perfectly justified in asking God to smite those inflicting this pain and suffering, he instead asks for grace to be extended—grace, which, by the way, was only made possible because of what Jesus went through in these moments on the cross! In essence, Jesus asks to receive the punishment that these soldiers and crowd members deserve. In the place of wrath, Jesus asks for God to extend grace and forgiveness. What a powerful statement! What a sobering thought as we consider how difficult we find it at times to call upon God to forgive others when we go through far less than what is witnessed here (and when we recognize that we are far less innocent than Jesus was). The plea for forgiveness demonstrates the transcendent love of Jesus who was more concerned about the hearts of men (even those men who tortured him) than he was about seeing them receive what was coming to them. This plea for forgiveness also calls those who follow Christ to be people who are quick and ready to forgive as those who have been forgiven much. “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32).
II. STATEMENT #2: A Promise of Salvation-23:39-43
The second statement Jesus makes from the cross is hear amid a conversation takin place seven feet above Golgotha. As we eavesdrop on this peculiar conversation we learn that “One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’…” (23:39). Though ill-advised in retrospect, one might understand how such a voice could be heard in the midst of such agony.
In many ways this first thief represents a large sector of humanity. Those who in the face of suffering shake an angry fist at the God they do not even believe in find a sympathizer in this man and might even be caught saying what he says here, “Are you no the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” This Hellacious cry echoes throughout the generations among those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ. Seeing no way of escape from their death or agony, instead of reaching out to Jesus in Faith for salvation, they question Him, His love, His sovereignty, and in their unbelief grasp only at straws. Calvin says of this raging blasphemer, “this objection is directed against God Himself; just as wicked men, when they do not obtain what they wish, would willingly tear God from heaven. They ought indeed, to be tamed to humility by strokes; but this shows that the wicked heart, which no punishments can ben, is hard like iron.” The voice of rage says, “There is no God, look how much I’m hurting! If there was a God, why would he allow me this pain?”
However, another voice joins the conversation in verses 40-41—“But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’…” In what this second criminal says, the reader is made aware of another way, the proper way, to view one’s own predicament before Christ. Though in the first man’s response to pain and agony we heard the voice of a raging blasphemer, here we he the surprising and yet unmistakable voice of reason coming out of brokenness before the Lord.
The first statement uttered by this second voice is a statement of rebuke. “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” In other words, the second thief asks the first, “Does not your present condemnation compel you to fear God?” In this statement, the second robber is hoping that the first recognizes that death is coming soon, and it is no time to be blaspheming an innocent man. Though their present predicament was desperate and difficult, it would not compare to what he would feel before God in the judgment seat. Though he was now feeling the results of being condemned by the Roman government, he would soon discover what it would feel like to be condemned by God Himself!
The second thief understands that what they are experiencing is exactly what they “deserve.” He acknowledges here that the punishment which was common to all the three was “justly” inflicted on him and his companion, but not on Christ who had been dragged to the punishment of death, not by his own crime, but by the cruelty of enemies. He reasonably concludes, in light of his crime, that the punishment he is suffering at present is natural and expected, not something surprising or unjust.
As alluded to earlier, this man might represent all who reasonably conclude that their present sufferings, agonies, and even anticipated death are a result of their own sinful choices, depravity, and extant wickedness that infect the entire fallen world. The difficulty they face in life and the hardships around them are understood by these as the product of sin in their lives, the lives of others, and in creation itself. Therefore, what they are experiencing and will experience after death without Christ is not understood as unjust, but the proper penalty assigned to each of them. The only thing they can do in light of this is call upon the Lord because of their brokenness and desperation.
Calling upon the lord is exactly what is demonstrated by the second thief in this passage, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” In this phrase readers everywhere are given one of the most remarkable and striking examples of faith ever recorded! This thief, who not only had not been educated in the ways of Christ, had instead given himself up to a life of sin and endeavored to rid himself of any sense of right and wrong. However, here he suddenly rises higher than all the apostles and other disciples whom the Lord Himself had taken so much pains to instruct and adores Christ as King and calls to be invited to His kingdom! This he does while bleeding out and gasping for air on a cross!
Those who in their brokenness understand their sin and the effects thereof are able to understand Jesus saving power for them by means of the Holy Spirit. In this we learn that those who place their faith in Jesus Christ are reaching a reasonable conclusion, Jesus is the only means of escaping the sting of death and have eternal life.
To the reasonable thief Jesus says, “truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (23:43). This promise reveals that Jesus, though presently humiliated before the onlookers, was still the same powerful Savior of the world who was capable to bring life out of death and fulfilling every facet of His office. This thief could expect life after death that very death with Jesus in Paradise.
“Paradise” is a word meaning heaven. Death is not defeat for those who belong to Jesus Christ, it the beginning of life with God in a more profound way. This is what the second thief could expect following his last breath. In fact, anyone who turns to Jesus, even in the last moments of her life, is granted fellowship with Christ for eternity.
Romans 10:13-“Woever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Jesus has always been about awarding faith with grace. Here, he awards the faith of a thief at his execution with the grace of eternal life with Him in heaven. This same grace is available today to all who call upon Him. What a promise! What a blessing! The promise of salvation for this thief is also available to everyone today and, like this thief, it is never too late to call upon the Lord.
III. STATEMENT #3: A Proclamation of Sacrifice-23:44-46
The third statement uttered in this passage is a proclamation of sacrifice. We learn that this statement is made at a very specific time—“It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured” (23:44-45a). When the sun was supposed to be highest in the sky (12:00noon), it is miraculously obscured in darkness, highlighting the darkness of sin that had been applied to the Son of God. The long shadow created by God the Father’s back turned toward his Son is evidenced in this darkness. It is a troubling sight, but a sight necessary so that people might escape the darkness of sin and death and enter the light of God—“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
During this three-hour darkness “the veil was torn in two” (23:45b)—i.e. that veil that separated men from the presence of God that resided in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Before this veil was miraculously torn, only the high priest under the most special conditions could enter to enjoy the glory of God’s presence. However, Jesus’ sacrifice now renders access to God available to all who would choose to seek him.
Having taken on the sin of mankind (as evidenced in the darkness) and having made a way for people to relate to God (as evidenced by the veil being torn), Jesus’ sacrifice is ready to be complete and in verse 46 it reads, “and Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’…” (23:46). This answers the question concerning the responsibility for Christ’s death. While some blame the Jews and other the Roman soldiers and still others claim everyone everywhere who has ever sinned is responsible, ultimately, Jesus laid down his own life as a sacrifice. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:18). It is this sacrifice, present here, that was required for men and women to be saved.
The totality of the sacrifice is highlighted at the end of verse 46b—“having said this, He breathed His last” (23:46b). Christ was not merely ridiculed, tortured, mocked, or nailed to a cross; he died to make salvation possible. He died so that people might be forgiven and receive the promise of paradise.
Do you know this today? Have you received the forgiveness of God? Do you know the promise of heaven? Have you placed your faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? If not, what is keeping you? Friend, if Jesus was willing to extend forgiveness to those who tortured him and mocked him at his execution, surely he is willing to forgive you. Friend, if it was not too late for the thief on the cross to apprehend the promise of heaven, it is not too late for you either. The implications of Jesus’ sacrifice offered all those years ago still apply today.
If you have already received the forgiveness of God today, do you prove you have been forgiven by showing forgiveness to others who have wronged you? If Jesus forgave those who crucified him, if Jesus forgave you, how much more should we be willing to forgive others? If you have been given the promises of paradise in heaven, is your walk characterized by that confidence? If glory awaits us in the end, why should this world paralyze us in fear and worry? The implications of Jesus’ sacrifice offered all those year ago do not just apply to our conversion, but they inform our present walk. This is why we ought to take time to remember what Jesus did.