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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

The Gospel According to an Anonymous Criminal

It is common knowledge that when Jesus was crucified, he was not crucified alone. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that Jesus was crucified between two unnamed criminals, one on his left and one on his right. When we read the crucifixion accounts, often on Good Friday, Jesus us obviously the focus, and rightly so. It is Jesus’ crucifixion - not that of either of the criminals beside him - that tore down the curtain and paid for our sins.

But Luke gives us a reason to consider the two anonymous (often overlooked) criminals on either side of Jesus.

The Setup

Luke sets up his account of Jesus’ crucifixion and death in such a way that we’re confronted with the fact that virtually everyone present is either watching Jesus’ suffering passively or actively and irreverently mocking Jesus.

And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wineand saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Luke 23:35-38 ESV

Luke notes everybody present for Jesus’ crucifixion and details how they responded to Jesus’ suffering.

First, Luke describes the crowd who stands by and watches. They are not actively mocking Jesus, but neither do they intervene or protest in the face of scorn. Those who follow Jesus are likely lumped into the crowd, but Luke seems to be pointing out that those who are favorable to Jesus do not make up the majority. Most in the crowd are simply watching what is happening passively. Jesus will find no help or comfort from them.

Second, we have the Jewish leaders who are responsible for Jesus’ trial and subsequent execution. They are not satisfied to stoically look on as their desires are carried out, they are flagrantly scoffing at Jesus and making a mockery of his status as God’s Messiah. Despite the entire Old Testament’s witness (with which they are intimately familiar), they reject and despise Jesus and are challenging him to save himself if he is really God’s Chosen One. The irony is heartbreaking.

Thirdly, presumably following the lead of the rulers, the soldiers begin mocking Jesus as well. They echo the taunt of the Jewish leaders, telling Jesus to simply save himself if he’s really the King of the Jews.

Even the sign hung above Jesus on the cross identifying the crime of which he is guilty ironically mocks him. He is identified as the King of the Jews, which drips of sarcasm in the face of the actual punishment and suffering being inflicted on him. The Romans clearly do not see him as a legitimate rival ruler to Caesar. They are simply playing along. The implication is almost certainly that, if he were actually the King of the Jews, he would not find himself in the dire predicament he’s in.

Luke paints a picture which echoes the Messianic prophesy in Psalm 22:6-8.

But I am a worm and not a man,

    scorned by mankind and despised by the people.

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!”

Psalm 22:6-8 ESV

Jesus is being mocked, taunted, and scorned from virtually every side. He finds himself completely alone and seems unanimously rejected by all parties involved.

An Unlikely Source of Favor

Luke masterfully leads us from the bewildering rejection of the crowd, the Jewish leaders, and the Roman soldiers to the two anonymous criminals being crucified on either side of Jesus.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, 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.”And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43 ESV

In light of the universal mockery surrounding Jesus, even one of the criminals (who is also being executed) gets in on the fun. He takes a jab at Jesus, superficially petitioning for him to fulfil the wishes of his onlookers and save himself. While he’s at it, he should save the other two as well.

Suddenly, the second criminal being executed rebukes the first! This is a jarring development. Jesus is not totally rejected and despised after all, and his support comes from an unexpected source.

The second criminal, addressing the first, reasons that they are both receiving the punishment for their sins and that they are getting what their actions have earned them. But he sees through the crude ugly shouts and the mean-spirited teasing directed at Jesus.

He seems to see the situation with astounding clarity. Jesus is obviously innocent.

The second criminal recognizes that Jesus is getting a punishment that he clearly doesn’t deserve. What the two criminals are receiving on the cross is brutal but just. They are paying for sins they are responsible for. Yet this anonymous criminal somehow recognizes that Jesus alone is suffering unjustly. He is the only one not guilty, and yet he is being mocked relentlessly and made a laughing stock to such an inflamed degree that the punishment obviously does not match the crime. What they are doing to Jesus is extreme overkill.

Not only does the second criminal recognize that Jesus is innocent and is suffering unjustly, but he seems to grasp the truth of who Jesus is. He says very little, but his words betray far more than one might initially realize.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is a simple request, but the implications are startling. The anonymous criminal gets it. He sees the crowd, the leaders, the soldiers, and their hideous treatment of this innocent man.

He does not say “remember me if you come into your kingdom.” Implied is that he realizes that Jesus is coming into his kingdom, that he is the promised Messiah and the King of the Jews. But his statement does more than simply acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ claims. He is petitioning to Jesus to remember him when he comes into the glory that both men know await him.

Given the situation this is a startling insight. There is certainly no earthly benefit for aligning himself with Jesus, especially when one considers the insults being hurled at Jesus from every side. Yet the criminal demonstrates a desire to be aligned with Jesus, which in all likelihood represents a repentance for his sins (for which he is even now being executed). Understanding his status as a sinner in the face of a just God, the man brings his inadequacies and postures himself humbly before Jesus, knowing that Jesus is a representative of God on earth.

This reading between the lines of the man’s petition to Jesus is confirmed by Jesus’ own response: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus assures the man that, despite their bleak surroundings, they will shortly enter into paradise together.

A Lesson In Simplicity

Jesus is obviously the central player in the story. But we can learn some valuable insight by looking closely at Jesus’ interaction with this lowlife nobody who is being publicly executed beside him.

This anonymous criminal (whose name history does not even remember) repents of what is presumably a sin-riddled life which has consisted of a long sad string of one bad decision after another and spends the final few hours of his life in extreme physical anguish but reassured that better things await him on the other side of death.

Compared to the religious leaders (who are the ones who have instigated Jesus’ demise), our anonymous criminal’s understanding of God likely seems infantile. He almost certainly doesn’t fully grasp Jesus’ divinity. He likely doesn’t know the Scriptures and how they bear witness to Jesus (or if he does know them, his pattern of behavior demonstrates that he has been indifferent to the morality found there). It is also unlikely that he understands the theological significance of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice which he is witnessing firsthand.

And yet the things that the religious leaders should understand but fail to, the criminal being crucified next to Jesus somehow gets. He doesn’t understand the fine details, but he fundamentally understands that he is a sinner who faces punishment for his wrongdoing, and in realization of his own inadequacy he appeals humbly to Jesus to redeem him and allow him, undeserving though he is, to participate in God’s Kingdom.

This anonymous criminal offers a shocking contrast to the religious leaders. He presumably has had none of the advantages of head knowledge about God, and yet they are the ones publicly humiliating and executing Jesus, and he is the one who finds himself asking for a fresh start with the understanding that what he seeks can only be given through Jesus.

The people who should have been first in line to sit at the feet of Jesus and converse directly with God Himself in human form (any theologian’s dream) miss the mark spectacularly while the man the reader would least expect to respond appropriately does.

This serves as a wonderful illustration of a biblical truth: head knowledge means nothing without a right heart. Certainly it is important to seek to learn more about God and to have a right understanding of him, but knowledge about God in itself is not the end game. Head knowledge is simply the vehicle through which we get to know God better. The difference is the fine line between knowing about God and actually knowing God. Without the proper personal response to the gospel message, all the knowledge in the world about the intricacies of how God works and who he is are meaningless.

The simplicity of the gospel message is profound. It really is that simple. The anonymous criminal on the cross did not know the fine details, but he fundamentally understood the simple concept that he was a sinner who was woefully inadequate before a perfect God. His response to this realization was not one of hostility but of humility. Only this proper posture before God allows one to really repent and turn away from the sin that has separated one from God. This is what the criminal on the cross realizes (in not so many words).

And his response, the only response that leads to eternal life, was to call out to Jesus, knowing that he didn’t deserve anything other than the coming punishment, and to trust that somehow there was a way for Jesus to intervene on his behalf. He may not have understood fully what was happening, but he saw Jesus for who he was: the way, the truth, and the life. This fundamental realignment with away from our sin and towards God through Jesus Christ is so eloquently simple, and yet it is the key to eternal life.

The anonymous criminal on the cross reminds us that we don’t need to understand all the intricate ins and outs of theology to be saved. The gospel is for everybody, regardless of their IQ or their access to the latest in biblical scholarship.

There is a beautiful simplicity in the childlike faith that we must aspire to. Theology is important, but the gospel is essential.

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03 de jun.

I am reminded by this verse. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. John 10:27-29 And this one as well. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us…

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