Crucified with Criminals
April 1, 2012 / No. 3613
Dear radio friends,
In this message we will meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ from the point of view of Luke 23:33. I want us to focus especially on the last words of this verse: “they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.”
We know that this detail of Jesus’ death, that He was crucified between two criminals, is significant because it is recorded in all four of the gospels. In Matthew 27:38 we read: “Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.” John 19:18 says, “they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” To this Mark adds that this happened in fulfillment of prophecy (Mark 15:27, 28), “And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.” The prophecy that is fulfilled is Isaiah 53:12.
It was no accident that Jesus was crucified between two malefactors. This happened by God’s appointment and according to God’s eternal purpose. Who was responsible for this we do not know. It may have been a statement from Pilate against the Jews: “Here is your king, debased and identified with the lowest in your society.” Or it may have been that the Jews wanted this so that Jesus and His disciples would be shamed. In either case, God was sovereign. Though wicked men did it, God determined it, and the fact that Scripture makes much of it means that it is worthy of our study.
Jesus’ crucifixion between these two criminals is a sign. It tells us something. God is telling us something by it. In this Jesus is identified with sinners, and at the same time He creates a division between sinners—the one saved and the other eternally condemned.
Who were these malefactors? They were men convicted of capital crime, men who had been involved in theft and murder, who had been previously tried and placed on death row. These were men who were worthy of death, as one of them acknowledges later in verse 41. Why does God put these two on either side of Jesus? What do they represent? They represent to us the entire human race. Here we are told about humanity as a whole—what every man is and what every man deserves. Notice, as they are described, there is no distinction made between them. They are simply described as two malefactors. They are lumped together. We do not know which one was on Jesus’ right or which one was on His left. Both have been judged as murderers, and both are condemned to death. There is no question concerning their guilt. Who are they? They are sinners, both of them, worthy of death.
And that is humanity. This is the world of man. That is you and that is I. All of us are represented in these two criminals. In Romans 3 God’s Word says that we are all under sin, there is none righteous, no not one; there is none that doeth good, no not one; there is no fear of God before their eyes. And because of this, all are worthy of death, that is, eternal death in hell. This is so because we all have a common head, a common origin in Adam. His sinfulness and his guilt are transmitted to all men. Romans 5:12, “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” And verse 18: “By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” We are all lumped together in these two malefactors. We all bring forth the same fruits of unrighteousness. We are all sinners. We all deserve the same condemnation.
Dear listener, do you see yourself in these two malefactors. Alongside Jesus, we are the guilty sinners.
It is significant that these two were crucified. The Scripture tells us that this death, by crucifixion, symbolized the curse of God against man. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were forbidden to leave hanging overnight those who were crucified because “he that is hanged is accursed of God.” In their death, not only is the Roman judiciary condemning and saying they are not worthy to live and walk among men, but God Himself is saying this about them. This is the accursed death. The one who is suspended on a cross is not worthy of the earth and is not worthy of heaven with God. He hangs in a no-man’s land where every man belongs. In the crucifixion of the malefactors, God says to all humanity: “You are cursed.”
Jesus is numbered with these two transgressors. He is crucified between them. The three are lumped together under the curse. Yet there is a difference between them. Not only a difference between Jesus and these two, but a difference between the two. Jesus, being in their midst, divides them. The death of Jesus Christ makes a distinction between the two of them. Later in the chapter we learn that one believes and is saved, and the other is hardened and condemned eternally.
I said that they symbolize humanity. In the human race, throughout all of history, there is this same separation caused by the cross and suffering of Jesus Christ. The gospel comes throughout history, and it divides. It leaves in its wake two peoples. Its message that all are sinners brings two responses. It creates believers and unbelievers.
This distinction is not because one people are better in themselves than the other. It is not the case that one of these malefactors is not as bad as the other one. Both are justly condemned. Matthew tells us that initially both of them joined in with the multitudes in mocking Jesus. We are all in the same condemnation.
The explanation for these two peoples, for the difference between these two malefactors, is the sovereign predestinating grace of God. In eternity, in the mind and purpose of God, there are already these two peoples. God has known and loved His own people from before the foundation of the world. He has determined their number and who will be included in that number. He has chosen His people and rejected the rest. In His love, He sends His Son to die for those whom He has chosen. And in His death, Christ creates this same division. He does not give a loving sacrifice of salvation for both of these criminals, nor for all of humanity, but He dies to secure the salvation of His own by making payment for their sins.
From the beginning of history to its end, the message of the gospel makes this division. In the very beginning (Gen. 3:15), God speaks of two seeds—the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. He speaks of their enmity. In Genesis 4 that division becomes clear in the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is the wicked son and Abel, the believing son. And that division is created by the sacrifice of a lamb. One rejects it, the other believes it. Jesus, in the midst, creates a divide in the human race.
How does He do this? Let us look at the scene at Golgotha. In the first moments of the crucifixion, Jesus does nothing. The result is that both express the same hatred for God and His Son. Both curse Him. Both rail on Him. Before the work of grace comes, the elect malefactor is exposed for what he is by nature. But then Jesus turns His attention to this sinner and begins a wonder work of grace in Him. He works quickly, for He has only a few hours before this man will die. There is no time for extended instruction and gentle leading. He must work quickly and powerfully.
What we see and hear of this work is what goes on externally. But there is another work, an invisible and powerful work, going on in the heart of this one chosen, elect criminal. God, by a sovereign work, plants in the heart of this one, this child eternally loved, a principle of new life, a seed of regeneration. God works on him by the power of the Holy Spirit so that he is born again, born from above. And born again, he can now see and desire the kingdom of heaven. Apart from that work, he is spiritually blind and dead.
Accompanying that work of the Holy Spirit is what we see and hear externally at the scene of Calvary. Jesus brings the gospel to this poor sinner—a gospel that will bring this railing, cursing man to see that he deserves eternal death, and a gospel that will bring him a word of mercy and grace in his repentance. He hears that gospel in the prayer of Jesus from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” That prayer comes to him powerfully and personally. He realizes that the One next to him who calls God His Father is the Son of God. He realizes that the One next to him, who prays: “Forgive them,” has the power to forgive sins. He realizes that the power of forgiveness is in the death of the One with whom he is crucified. God confirms that word in his heart by the Spirit. And the distinction is clear immediately.
The other criminal hears and witnesses all the same things. There is no difference there. And yet, he is hardened. His own words condemn him. That shows us the innate hardness of heart in man. Wherever Jesus appears with the Word of the gospel and the message of the cross, the thoughts of men’s hearts are revealed. The cross is an offense and a stumbling block to many. The cross declares sin and the justice of God. It tells us that we all deserve condemnation from God. It tells us that Christ is the only way. It calls us to forsake all trust in ourselves for acceptance with God, to be empty of self, to be repentant of sin, and to trust in Jesus alone—the only way of salvation. And to the unregenerate heart, that is an offense, a stumbling block. It hardens the natural man in his sin.
Here the malefactor continues to curse and rail on Jesus. He heard what Jesus prayed. But he says, “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” He will not be humbled. He will not recognize what he deserves. He will not trust in Christ for salvation. That takes a work of God’s grace. This is the natural man’s response to the gospel.
But God works grace in the heart of the other. In him there is a softening and a repentance. He turns to his fellow murderer and, speaking past Jesus, he says to him: “Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly…but this man hath done nothing amiss.” He is saying, “You’re about to die for your sin. Don’t you fear God, the Judge?” What an evidence of faith that confession is.
Faith is both knowledge and confidence. This man knows what is essential for true faith. He knows himself. Concerning his own crucifixion, he says, “we indeed justly.” He confesses his sin. He knows what he deserves. He does not evade the guilt of his sin. When all eyes are on him, he makes a public confession. And he trusts not in himself but Christ. “Lord,” he says, “remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Not “remember me for what I’ve done,” but “God, be merciful to me the sinner.”
And he knows his Savior. He says of Jesus, “This man hath done nothing amiss.” Here is the spotless Lamb of God, crucified, condemned by all who stand around the cross, but not by this man. By these words concerning Jesus he sets to naught the judgment of the whole world against Christ. He contradicts the verdict of Pilate and Herod and the Sanhedrin and the high priest and all the people who cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” This man, he says, “has done nothing amiss.” The spotless Lamb of God. And what confidence there is in his faith. What a confession concerning Jesus.
What a trust in Him for salvation. “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” In those words we have an amazing expression of trust in Jesus. When everyone else has forsaken Him, this man trusts in Him. He is the first one to see and understand the cross and the suffering of Christ for what it is—the first New Testament believer. When the disciples despair; when the Jews are looking for an earthly king; this man understands the work and the kingdom of Christ. He sees that shortly Christ will be enthroned in His heavenly kingdom. And he sees that the suffering of the cross is the way for the sinless Savior to bring His people with Him into that kingdom. “Lord,” he says, “remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
What a marvelous work God does in the salvation of this sinner in his dying moments. The work of salvation that God accomplishes in the hearts of His elect today by the gospel is no less remarkable. By the same Spirit He brings the same gospel to open our blind eyes and to give us a living, confident faith in Jesus. Praise God for His sovereign grace.
As we finish this message, let us move our vision from the two thieves to the center, to Christ, who is numbered with the transgressors.
Who numbered Him with the transgressors? Who counted Him a criminal with the others? The world did. Men did. They viewed Him as just one more of the many thousands who deserved to die. They rejected Him. But in doing this, they bring condemnation on themselves. The whole proceeding of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion shows His innocence. They need false witnesses. Pilate declares four times: “I find no fault in him.” Judas, admitting that he had betrayed innocent blood, went and hanged himself. Christ is innocent. Man who has condemned Him is guilty.
Yet, though He is innocent, God His Father numbers Him with the transgressors. Who counts Him a criminal? Who numbers Him with the transgressors? God does. The crucifixion is an expression of God’s curse resting on His Son. He is crucified with sinners because He is crucified for sinners. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. God takes the curse off His people. God takes the curse off the one malefactor and off all of His sheep and He lays that curse on this spotless Lamb. He who knew no sin is become sin for us. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.
And the beauty of the cross is that the Savior does this willingly. He numbers Himself with the transgressors. Not only does the world crucify Him. Not only does God condemn Him for us. But He says, “I lay down my life of myself.” And in so doing, He actively and lovingly takes on Him the guilt of the sin of His own sheep.
And that is the basis of our trust in Christ. He first loved us! The malefactor heard. He repented. He believed. And that night he went to Paradise—all because Jesus was crucified with criminals.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the Son of Thy love, for His willingness to take our sin on Himself, and for the gospel of the cross that is still proclaimed today to bring us sinners from darkness and unbelief into the light and to faith. We are sinners. We are worthy of death. But believing, we confess. Because He died the accursed death, we have confidence and hope. We thank Thee, Lord. Thanks for Thy unspeakable gift. Amen.