“A Tale of Two Men”
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left… 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 23:32-33, 39-43
All four gospel accounts record that Jesus was crucified with two other men. This took place on a hill called “The Skull” probably due to a nearby rock shaped like a human skull. A fitting place for the darkest hour of human history. The authors do not name the two men crucified with Jesus but reveal only that they were “criminals,” literally malefactors, evil-doers, good-for-nothings. We don’t know their precise crimes but death by crucifixion was a punishment reserved for rebels against the Empire. These men may have been insurrectionists executed as threats to Rome. The crucified bodies were signs which said, in effect, “This is what we do to people who rebel against Caesar.” Crucifixion was an effective deterrent to rebellion and a bloody reminder of who was in charge.
In contrast to the guilty men surrounding him, Jesus was innocent and was not suffering for his own sins but the sins of others. Yet, in fulfillment of prophecy, all the abuse was hurled at him (Psa. 22:6-8; Isa. 53:12). Though his crucifixion looked as if Jesus were cursed by God and had failed to establish God’s kingdom, it was actually part of his enthronement and God’s eternal plan (Lk. 9:22; 17:25; 18:31-33). Those who wished to thwart God’s purposes by killing Jesus actually fulfilled God’s plan (Acts 2:23; 3:17-18; 5:30-31). Despite appearances, the cross was part of God's crowning victory not his defeat (Col. 2:15).
These two men crucified with Jesus teach us an important lesson.
One man mocked the Messiah. Rather than fearing God, he ridiculed the agent of his own salvation, assumed Jesus was guilty when he was innocent (identifying himself with Jesus, Lk. 23:39), failed to see that the Savior would be delivered not from death but through death, and only wanted deliverance from physical death.
The other man was promised Paradise. He admitted his guilt, recognized Jesus’ innocence and the spiritual nature of his kingdom, and surrendered to Jesus asking him to “remember” him when he came into his kingdom. He knew who Jesus was and what he came to do. He died with Jesus in a way that the other man did not and so received God’s amazing grace.
This text confronts us with the question, Which man are we? The scene on Calvary is a miniature picture of the entire gospel story. Jesus is still the rejected but sinless Savior. His cross is still the symbol not only of his rejection by men but of his love for all men. And every person corresponds to one of the two men crucified with Jesus. Like those two men, we all are guilty and deserve death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23), but Jesus stands in the middle offering us life.
Will we be like the one who simply dies, not seeing Jesus for who he is, never humbling ourselves, never changing our minds? If so, we will die in our rebellion without hope. Or will we be like the second criminal, who admitted his guilt and entrusted himself to Jesus? If so, we can received the promise of eternal life too. Both men were crucified and died with Jesus, but only one would live with him. Have you died with Jesus in baptism so that you can live with him in the resurrection? (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:3-4)