Summary: This sermon considers the two differing outcomes of the two criminals who were led to the Cross alongside Jesus
Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad
In Luke 23:32-43, we find the story of the two criminals who were hung on a cross with Jesus. This story for these two criminals is a little bit like ’A Tale of Two Cities’. Here we have the story of one criminal displaying pride and it’s consequences, and one criminal demonstrating humility, with it’s consequent benefits. The two thieves provide two different responses to their predicament, and receive two different outcomes to their plight that day on the cross.
The two criminals, who were led out for execution, were located on the right and left of Jesus. As it says in Luke 23:32-33 (NIV), "Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals-one on his right, the other on his left." It would be obvious to both criminals that they were with Jesus Christ, who’s fame was known throughout all of Galilee. And therefore, the words that Jesus spoke out on the cross would have been heard by both of them that day. As Luke 23:34 (NIV) records, ’Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing...” It would be clear to both criminals that Jesus was talking to his Heavenly Father, and therefore, both their responses, and their reactions were duly noted in turn, in the following sermon.
Pride Comes Before A Fall
The first criminal to respond to Jesus is recorded in Luke 23:39 (NIV), where it says, "One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The state of the first criminal’s heart was one of hardness. Even though he was employed in the same circumstances as Jesus, this thief chose to insult him. But what the thief was saying was quite revealing. He demonstrates that he would respond to Jesus, if Jesus would perform a miracle, saving himself and the two thrives together. Like many people, this thief was waiting for a sign before he would activate his faith, rather than activating his faith, and putting his trust in God first. But the thief was actually looking for a way of escape, and may not have put his trust in God, even if Jesus had worked a miracle right their and then on the Cross. Of course, a miracle would take place at the cross later on that day, but this particular criminal would, more than likely, not be around to witness it. Neither did this particular criminal demonstrate any sign of remorse or repentance, even during a time when he was obviously close to his own demise and death. His heart was hard, and even at the last chapter of his life, allowed pride to be his master. He obviously blamed everyone but himself for his predicament.
But what about the other thief on the Cross alongside of Jesus? Of him, it says in Luke 23:40-41 (NIV), ’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.”’ The first observation here is that the second criminal starts out by rebuking the first criminal, hanging at the side of Jesus. He comes to the aid of Jesus, by sticking up for him, and his plight on the Cross. He recognises that what is happening to Jesus, is not the same as that which is happening to him and his partner in crime. No doubt the Cry of Jesus, in Luke 23:34 (NIV), “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," must have had a profound effect on this particular criminal. He, therefore, asks the other criminal, "Do you not fear God?" As it says in Proverbs 1:7 (NIV), ’The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.’ And this is precisely what this criminal is demonstrating in his own life right now. He continues by acknowledging his predicament, signifying a state of humility for his own personal estate. He then goes on to state that both criminals are being punished justly, for they were getting what their deeds deserved. But Jesus had done nothing wrong. Here, this criminal is acknowledging his own guilt, and he is also taking responsibility for his own actions in life. He’s not playing the blame game, or trying to get out of his circumstances of demise. He doesn’t even ask Jesus to get him out of his problems, but humbly accepts his lowly estate before the One who is most highly exalted. He acknowledges that Jesus was on the Cross for doing no wrong, which was a different scenario to the personal predicaments of him and his friend. He saw a difference between why he was on the Cross, and why Jesus was on the Cross, which is the nuts and bolts of the whole Christian message of salvation, which comes through Jesus the spotless lamb of sacrifice.