The king of the Jews. 23:33-43
In a very matter-of-fact way Luke describes the crucifixion of Jesus: of the three "criminals" led to the place of execution, the place called "The Scull"; their being nailed to the transverse beam of the cross; Jesus' words of forgiveness, "Father, forgive them"; the curiosity of the gathered crowd; the scoffing of the religious authorities; the mockery of the soldiers as they divide the spoils between them; the attaching of Pilate's notice, "This is the king of the Jews"; the argument between the two insurgents ("criminals"), with the statement of faith by one and Jesus' promise to him of eternal reward, "today you will be with me in Paradise"; the oppressive darkness that shrouded the land between noon and 3pm.; the final words of Jesus, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"; the statement by the soldier, "certainly this man was innocent"; and finally, the silent witness of Jesus' friends.
v33. Jesus and two criminals (Mark has bandits, although the word has political overtones) are led to "calvary" ie. the place of The Skull, presumably named after a skull-like rock formation that existed just outside the city wall. Here they are crucified, with Jesus between the two criminals.
v34. As the soldiers gambled over Jesus' limited possessions, Jesus exclaims "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Jesus' ministry serves to justify sinners, it gains for sinners a declaration of right-standing before God. Such involves "forgiveness", a forgiveness which Jesus prays for and which his sacrificial death now achieves.
v35. Luke seems to make a point of separating the response of the "rulers" from that of the people. The religious officials sneer at, abuse Jesus, while the people look on quietly. This is a nice descriptive touch, probably driven more by Luke's theology than just sentiment.
v36. The soldiers also get into the act, mocking Jesus by offering this kingly claimant some cheap wine.
v37. The soldiers think that Jesus' claim to kingship is all a bit of a joke. From Luke's perspective, the joke is on them, since Jesus is a king.
v38. In this verse Luke underlines the messianic kingship of Christ.
v39. The first criminal sarcastically suggests that since Jesus is the Christ he might like to do something about their situation.
v40. The second criminal has recognized Jesus' messianic credentials and so reminds his friend that it is dangerous for a justly condemned criminal to deride God's righteous one.
v41. Here we see Luke underlining Jesus' innocence.
v42. The faith of the thief is firm, and so he asks Jesus for his eternal care. The phrase "remember me" is actually a common prayer found on gravestones of this period. If God is willing to remember us, then we are bound to survive the grave.
v43. Jesus proclaims the blessing that belongs to those who rest on God's mercy in Christ. This blessing, "paradise", is available "today" for those with faith.
I do love reading the verses on gravestones. Sadly, we don't put much on gravestones these days. "At rest" is about it, although as Billy Connely puts it, "they're dead, not resting." Probably the best verse is on Spike Milligan's grave stone: "I told you I was sick!" Many old gravestones have lovely verses and even little stories. In the first century a common inscription on gravestones was "remember me." It was a kind of little prayer to the gods that they might remember the person in the grave. If the gods choose to remember the dead then they may well survive the grave.
As Jesus' life slipped from him on the cross, a thief asked him, "remember me"; he asked Jesus to protect him from the darkness that was about to overcome him. Obviously, the criminal believed that Jesus could answer the prayer, and because he believed, Jesus promised him "paradise". The promise wasn't a maybe in the future, but an immediate place in the resurrection community - hid in Christ now and alive with him in eternity.
Far too often the gospel is presented in complex terms when it is actually a very simple message. God offers us eternity in his presence through Jesus. All we have to do is ask and it is ours. Like that criminal on the cross, all we have to do is ask Jesus, "remember me." When speaking with my own son Paul, as he was dying from a brain tumor, I told him the story of the thief on the cross and of his request that Jesus remember him. I explained to my son that those who ask Jesus to remember them receive the promise, "today you will be with me in paradise." What more is there to say?
It is true that each generation hears the gospel in slightly different terms. The between the wars generation, overwhelmed by the horror and guilt of depraved humanity, need to hear the words, "Father forgive them." The baby boomers need to hear of a "paradise" where we find true friendship with God. Generation X/Y needs to hear of the mystery and magic of the "Chosen One" who is truly King - the Lord of the universe. Yet in the end, the gospel is not generation-specific; every generation can handle the simple prayer, "remember me".
Consider how the gospel is framed in this passage and try presenting it to each other as if to an unbeliever of similar age.
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