A Tale of Three Criminals

A Gospel Story, based on Luke 23:39-43

Long ago, in the Roman province of Judea, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, three criminals were crucified. The Romans reserved crucifixion for thieves and rebels. There is strong evidence that two of the criminals were murderers and insurrectionists.[Mark 15:7] They likely belonged to a group known as Zealots. These were radical Jews committed to kicking Rome out of Judea and establishing an independent Jewish State. They were the Zionists of their day. The Zealots were notorious for being thieves and murderers. They would steal from or kill anyone, even their own people, to further their cause. Because of their crimes against society, they were receiving their just reward.

The third criminal was crucified for very different reasons. The Jewish leaders wanted him dead because He was a threat to their political power. Rome put Him to death as a favor to the Jewish leaders, thereby keeping the peace. The third and most important reason He was crucified is that God had ordained it. [Acts 4:27-28; et al.]

He is called a criminal, not because of His own crime, for He had none. As already noted, His main crime was being a threat to the established order, both Jewish and Roman. No, He hung on that cross in the place of every other criminal who lived or would live. There was insufficient room on that middle cross to fit every criminal who had sinned against God, i.e., all humanity, for “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”[Rom. 3:23] He was nailed to the cross in their place.

This third criminal had not sinned nor displeased God in any way. On the contrary, He "always did those things pleasing” to the Father.[Jn. 8:29] For even God testified, “This is My Son, in whom I am well pleased.”[Matt. 3:17] As He hung between heaven and earth, He did so, even for the sins of the other two hanging next to him. These two criminals had to pay their debt to society, but their debt to God was being paid, even as they were dying. Only one of the two criminals would avail himself to the ransom being paid. This third criminal was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

This One was there as a servant and witness to God’s Truth.[Rom. 15:8] He is even called the Truth.[Jn. 14:6] The reality of the situation was that after a long age of sacrificing animals, “Which can never take away sins,”[Heb. 10:11] He stood as the true, once-for-all sacrifice for sin.[Heb. 9:28] God had "prepared him a body" for just this purpose.[Heb. 10:5] It was by His death God would close out the Age of the Sinai Law[Heb. 9:26] and establish the Messianic Age, in a New Covenant. However, the Jewish rulers were not willing to recognize Him as God’s Anointed One.

Consequently, they refused to relinquish their position as leaders of the people. They knew if He was recognized as the Messiah of God, they would have to step aside as Israel's leaders.  If this were to happen, they knew the Age of the Mosaic Law would end and the times of the Messiah would begin. They belonged to the Age of the Law and would stop at nothing to maintain their power. However, they could not stop the Messiah from coming.[Gal. 4:4-5] By putting God’s Anointed One to death, they unwittingly cooperated with God in bringing about their own end. Hence, the thing they wanted to prevent was the very thing they helped bring about. This was the Wisdom of God at work,

Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [1 Cor. 2:8]

The two criminals hanging that day with God’s Anointed One had two different destinies. Initially, they both joined the crowd, casting accusations at the one hanging in their midst. They both reviled this one who claimed to be Israel’s Messiah. They joked about the title hanging above His head. However, as time passed, one of the criminals began to turn his attention toward introspection. The other thief continued his reviling, requesting the middle crucified one to save them all from this horrific end.

The destinies of these two criminals were determined while they hung between heaven and earth. The only difference between the two was that one ended his life in faith, while the other did not. We don’t know the name of the malefactor who came to believe. For our purposes here, we shall call him Joses.1

Joses did not believe because of a “I don’t want to die and go to hell” attitude. He was not looking to be rescued from his present distress, as the other thief cried for. He knew he was going to die. He had accepted this as his fate.

Joses is the perfect picture of a prime candidate for salvation. He had reached the bottom. His life could not get any worse. There was no one weeping for him, as there was for the “King of the Jews.” He had no hope of bettering himself through a self-help program. All earthly support and means of deliverance were gone. His natural life was slowly dripping out of his body. He had nothing to offer anyone. All his Zealot friends had deserted him.

In fact, the third criminal who was scheduled to be crucified with them was set free. The three of them had been captured during a failed attack on a Roman outpost, although they were able to kill one of the soldiers.2 Pilate gave the people a choice between releasing Barabbas, a murderer, and an insurrectionist (Mark 15:7), or this Jesus of Nazareth, their king. The people cried out for the release of Barabbas.3 Jesus of Nazareth became the substitute. Joses began to wonder why he was not chosen to be released, instead of Barabbas, who was the worst of the worse. It seemed to Joses, the only luck he ever had, was the bad kind. This only drove home the fact, that he was without hope and without God in this world. Everything had been taken from him; he was destitute in every possible way. He was as exposed and vulnerable as a man could be. He had nothing left to lose and nothing left to give. He was ready to die in despair, as a failure. He had truly come to the end of himself.

Then came his turning point. He turned his focus away from himself, and set his gaze upon the crucified form of Jesus, next to him. He saw something was different about him, he had never seen before. Jesus was not cursing His executioners, nor those who reviled and spat upon Him, although He had every reason to do so.

Joses may have remembered seeing him teach in the temple or the marketplace. He may have been among the thousands sitting on that hillside in Galilee, watching Jesus feed the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes. He may have remembered the taste of the bread and the fish in his mouth. He may have been among those who wanted to forcibly seize Jesus, to make Him king.[Jn. 6:15]

Again, He read the sign over the head of Jesus. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Joses began to understand this was not an accusation of ridicule, but a statement of fact. As he watched Jesus struggling to breath, he noticed something regal about Him. As impossible as it might seem, Joses realized this man was king. Suddenly, a light dawned upon him, and a burst of faith filled his heart, from what source he could not tell. He just knew. This Jesus of Nazareth was the true King of Israel. He believed this One, beaten and bleeding next to him, was Israel’s promised Messiah-King. As he gazed at Jesus, their eyes locked. As Joses pushed upwards with his legs, taking a deep breath, these words poured from his lips, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He saw by faith that this crucified criminal, was his Hope, his Savior, and his King. Joses was not a theologian. He had no Certificate of Completion from a rabbinic seminar, on How To Spot the Messiah. He probably remembered some of the prophecies from his attendance at synagogue, and learning Torah as a child. He saw this substitute criminal through the eyes of faith. He no longer knew this crucified one after the flesh.[2 Cor. 5:16]4

In the words of this believing criminal, we have the perfect picture of what it takes to believe unto salvation. Let's go back in time and stand at the foot of the crosses of these two criminals. One is dying for his crime against society, while the other, innocent of any crime against man or God, is dying for humanity's crimes against God.

The believing criminal, Joses,

1. Proclaims his own guilt. He says, “ . . . we indeed justly . . .” have been condemned. He recognizes his crucifixion is a just reward. He does not maintain his innocence to the end. He does not claim to have been framed.

He agrees with God, that, " . . . the wages of sin is death . . ." and that, "the soul that sins, it shall die.” [Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:4, 20] In today's society, it has become a rare thing for most to take responsibility for their own actions or sin. We are quick to blame our mistakes, and errors (SINS) on our upbringing, the environment, or on society in general. This man could have blamed his problem on God, the Romans, the Jewish Leaders, or proclaimed he was just a pawn in a game, over which he had no control. Instead, he chose to face his situation straight on and say, "I am guilty; I am receiving what I deserve.”

2. Proclaimed Jesus’ Innocence. He stated to the other criminal, who continued to rail upon Jesus, that this Man "has done nothing amiss.” By saying Jesus did nothing amiss5 (lit. “out of place”), he proclaims that not only has He done nothing worthy of death, but nothing, "wicked, or morally improper.”

Many today look at Jesus and see only a good man, or perhaps a prophet. The death of a good man or a prophet could never bring about mankind’s redemption. Many good men have died throughout the ages, and the blood of many prophets have been shed. However good or righteous these men may have been, they still had the stain of sin on their souls. Yet this One was the "spotless lamb of God,” proclaimed by John the Immerser, and validated by God Himself.

The personal experience of sin was as foreign to Jesus as the personal experience of true righteousness is to the natural, unregenerate man. He knew no sin. The Bible defines sin as “The transgression of the law.”[1 Jn. 3:4] Saying, “He knew no sin,” meant He walked in perfect obedience to the Law of God. This means He had no intimate, personal relationship with sin. He harbored not a scintilla6 of rebellion in His heart, toward man or God. Sin had not entered his own soul, although He was intimately "acquainted with grief and a man of sorrows.” He did not feel the grip of sin’s death in His own soul, yet He lived and walked in the midst of its dominion. Therefore, God had to MAKE Him to become Sin for us so that He could MAKE us to become Righteousness in Him.[2 Cor. 5:21]  God made Him something He was not naturally, i.e., sin, so that He could make us something, that we were not naturally, the righteous of God in Christ.

3. Recognized His Kingship. He requested of Jesus, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In that simple statement, He acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, and His Messianic Kingdom. This is a TREMENDOUS statement of faith considering, that the one he is saying this about, is being crucified right next to him!

This criminal proclaims the Entire Gospel message while dying for his crimes. His dying words are still being heard and marveled at today.

HE PROCLAIMS:

  1. The Innocence/Sinlessness of Jesus of Nazareth
    "He has done nothing amiss (out of place).”
  2. The Grace and Mercy of God’s Messiah
    Remember me,” a criminal.
  3. The Resurrection and Kingship of Jesus
    "When you come into your kingdom.” He believed Jesus would live to take possession of His Kingdom.

Jesus responds to such a one only with words of grace and assurance. Seeing this faith exhibited by this former rebel, Jesus says, "I say to you, Today, you shall be with me in Paradise".7

Jesus assures him there would be no break in their fellowship. He promised that upon his exodus from this life, he would join Jesus in paradise. Amid His own pain and suffering, Jesus extends grace and assurance to a rebel, who sees Him for who He really is. He sees this crucified one as his King.

The most important lesson of Joses’ life, he learned at the very end. All his life he struggled to be someone that mattered. He craved the acceptance of his peers. He wanted to be seen as having worth. It is likely, he never received these things, until he hung upon that cross.

He learned that although he had nothing left to give, he mattered to Jesus. At the end of his life, his only peers were those hanging on an execution stake, just like him. One of his peers, the only one that mattered, accepted him just like he was, broken and empty. This peer, the King of Israel, took time from His own sufferings, to show Joses, he had worth in His eyes. He had such value, that this suffering king told him, “You to be with me today, in paradise.”

The lesson we should come away with from this former rebel, now a citizen of heaven, is simple. No matter where we may find ourselves, if we can look away from ourselves, we will see Jesus is close to us. The refrain from a beautiful hymn written in 1922, says it best.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

He desires us to be where He is. The first step in this journey is recognizing the gift of salvation, that God hung on that tree. We need to understand that each of us is Barabbas, a rebel for whom Jesus took our place. Christ Jesus was made to be sin for us, so that through faith in Him, we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.

1Joses is a shortened form of Joseph.

2Some literary license has been taken but is still within the realm of possibility, based upon how the Scriptures describe Barabbas. He is noted as one who committed murder during an insurrection.[Mark 15:7] The insurrection happening at a Roman outpost is the license taken. Mark makes the point that Barabbas' crime was murder during an insurrection. It also makes the point of saying Barabbas was “bound with them that had made insurrection with him.” So it is not a stretch to think that originally, the three to be crucified were three malefactors who had made an insurrection against Rome. Barabbas had committed murder during this insurrection. At the last moment, Barabbas was released, while Jesus took his place. We have in this the picture of the scapegoat offering. One goat was set free, while the other was slain for the sins of the people.

3This choice would come back to haunt them. It would be about 37 years later, that men like this Barabbas would take control of Jerusalem, during the Jewish war with Rome. These men would be the cause of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Jews. They chose a Zealot over their Messiah-King. So God gave them what they wanted and it led to their destruction.

4He no longer look at Jesus according to fleshly standards, meaning he did not see Jesus as a fellow criminal, being put to death. He saw Jesus in the light of His true nature, a King, preparing to enter into His glory and His Kingdom.

5This term, amiss (atopos), can mean any wrong conduct from something considered unbecoming, as in bad table manners, to something completely wicked. It literally means, “no place” or out of place. It is any conduct that is considered out of place. This is the estimation of the criminal who believed. He couldn’t even find in Jesus a charge of bad manners.

6scintilla, “A hint or trace of something that barely suggests its presence.”

7Some attempt to make this statement of Jesus to say, “I say to you today, you shall be with me in paradise.” In this way, Jesus is not saying that the thief would be with him in paradise on that very day. No, they try to make it read, “I am telling you today, as opposed to yesterday, or tomorrow.” Let that sink in. When else was Jesus going to tell him, what he had to say? The thief had no tomorrow, and yesterday was gone. The only day that Jesus could tell him anything, was right then. This is one of the stupidest interpretations of a verse there is. A third grader could tell you what Jesus meant.