The Repentant Criminal on the Cross, Luke 23:39-43

Image from Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey (1903; CC Flikr), modified by author.
Image from Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey (1903; CC Flikr), modified by author.

Jesus Christ was crucified along with two other men, criminals, who, according to Matthew and Mark, insulted or mocked Him (Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32).  But Luke provides for us a different picture–that one of these criminals was redeemed–and today I was very pleasantly surprised by a new insight on this.  Luke 23:39-43 reads:

 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?”  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This has always been an inspiring passage, one of hope.  It also teaches, directly from the words of our Lord, that people go straight to heaven when they die (as does 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 and 1 Philippians 1:22-24, though some try to teach otherwise).  I basically hadn’t thought about it much otherwise, but then I realized today what a drastic measure of faith and spiritual knowledge the criminal showed by him when he asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

How did the criminal know about Jesus’ kingdom, and that He would be coming into it?  Obviously the criminal knew it was spiritual, not just physical, since they were all dying.  How did he know that?  Most of the disciples didn’t even understand all this, and for the most part, they weren’t even with the people at the crucifixion (Luke 23:49, but also see John 19:25-27).  The disciples displayed their lack of understanding after the crucifixion, so they wouldn’t have been good witnesses during the event in any case.

On the road to Emmaus they grumbled about Jesus not fulfilling what they thought He was supposed to do, until the post-Resurrection Jesus met up with them and “interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27b).  The women, too, had to try and convince Peter and the others that the Lord was resurrected . . . not dead.

Yet the criminal (can I call him something . . . Bob?) came to an astonishing understanding of Jesus’ purpose during his last hours on earth, without having been a disciple.

Of course, it was the Holy Spirit’s doing, but did the Spirit just simply give this man the spiritual knowledge all of a sudden?  How much did Criminal Bob talk with Jesus on the cross before this?  My bible note suggests that Jesus talked with  Criminal Bob.  Certainly He could have, but they couldn’t have talked much, since when a person is crucified it’s very hard to breath.  In fact, that’s the idea of crucifixion–you are caused to have excruciating pain while you force your body in a position to allow breathing.  [I do have problems with the explanation of crucifixions that claim these extreme symptoms, at least when applied to Jesus and the two criminals, simply because they are said to have talked so much!  Perhaps they had a foot support or the nail didn’t go through the medial nerve . . . I don’t know.]

However Criminal Bob came to his understanding doesn’t actually matter.  What matters is that he was a blind criminal, then he came to see before it was too late.  There is hope for anyone.  Hope and grace are continually present and active!

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