With the exception of a handful of people, Luke 23 finds Jesus surrounded by some pretty terrible folks. There’s Pilate, the Roman governor with a history of cruelty and a penchant for expediency. There’s Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who had Jesus’s cousin John beheaded to save face with his party guests. There’s also Barabbas, the murderer who’s freed so that Jesus would die. And of course, there are the Jewish leaders who arrested Jesus and brought Him to trial in the first place. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi of Star Wars, we may never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than the one found in this chapter.
But in Luke chapter 23, we find these famous words from Jesus: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (v.34). He’s been falsely accused, spat upon, beaten, tortured, condemned, mocked, and nailed to a cross, yet Jesus uses His hard-fought breath to ask His Father to forgive the people responsible for His pain. Of course, the cross had first been God’s plan (Acts 2:23), and Jesus laid down His life willingly (John 10:18), but none of that cancels out the wickedness on display in these scenes.
A few verses after Jesus uttered this prayer, we read that one of the criminals being crucified next to Jesus used his waning strength to mock the Son of God. He shouted to Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (v.39). Oh, the irony. If only this thief had known that it was precisely because Jesus wanted to save people like him that He would not step down from that cross, even though He could have at any time.
On the other side of Jesus was another man being crucified for his crimes, but this one struck a different tone. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he said (v.42). None of the Gospel writers tells us how this thief knew who Jesus was or that He was bringing a kingdom, but however he knew, his encounter with Jesus sparked faith. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43).
On the surface, this man should have been no different than his counterpart on the far side of Jesus. Both were criminals, rightly convicted for crimes against the state. Both were sentenced to die, with just hours left till their muscles gave out and they suffocated under their own weight. But one taunted Jesus, while the other reached out in faith. The gospel has the power to transform the hearts of even the vilest of sinners. This side of the grave, no one is too far gone to turn, repent, and receive the grace of God.
That’s how good Jesus is. He endured everything this world could throw at Him, only to die and make a way of salvation for the very people doing the throwing. In the cosmic scheme of things, there’s not much separating you and me from the two criminals who died next to Jesus. We, too, are guilty. We, too, deserve death. And we, too, must decide what we will do when confronted with Jesus.
Written by John Greco