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The Crucifixion: Luke 23:26-49

April 22nd, 2011

The Crucifixion

26As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. 28Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30Then
” ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”
and to the hills, “Cover us!” ‘[d] 31For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Luke’s account of our Lord’s crucifixion is somewhat different than the accounts in the other gospels. See my posts on Jesus’ crucifixion in Matthew here and Mark here. Luke skips over the scourging and mocking of Jesus by the soldiers and goes straight to his carrying of the cross on the road to Calvary. Luke does mention Simon from Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross for him. As I mentioned in my post on Mark’s account, it’s remarkable to me that we not only know Simon’s name, but his two sons’ names as well, Rufus and Alexander (Mark 15:21). We also know where they were from; Cyrene, in modern day Libya. Many scholars believe that Simon of Cyrene’s son, Rufus, is the same Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13. He was a Christian, known in the early church. Since his other son, Alexander, is also mentioned, it seems likely their whole family became Christians, perhaps converted because of this experience.

Typically, the condemned had to carry the crossbar, which was tied to their arms. The uprights of the crosses remained fixed in the ground where crucifixions took place just outside the city. They were marched though the streets naked, carrying crossbeams that weighed from 75 to 125 pounds. Jesus must have been incapacitated from the scourging, so the soldiers had to force someone else to carry his cross. No Roman would carry it for him, and if they forced a local Jew to carry it, it could start a riot. So they forced a stranger to do it. Many speculate that Simon was chosen by the soldiers because, being from northern Africa, he may have had black skin. But there were Jews living all over the empire at that time, so we don’t really know what Simon looked like. He may have been a pilgrim from Cyrene, a convert to Judaism in Jerusalem for Passover, or he may have been a Jew living in Cyrene. Roman soldiers could compel a Jew to do just about anything, and it might just have been chance that Simon was grabbed from the crowd. According to verse 25, Jesus walked in front, while Simon carried the crossbeam behind him. Simon was the first to literally take up his cross and follow Jesus.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include Jesus’ words to the crowd of women who followed, mourning him. It was customary at crucifixions for crowds of mourners to follow the condemned. Jesus, though unable to carry his cross, was obviously lucid enough to speak these words to those women. What Jesus says to them is that they should not mourn for him, but for themselves and their children, who will be adults at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. All through the week leading up to this, Jesus was preoccupied with the coming destruction of Jerusalem 37 years later. Even on the road to Calvary, that was on his mind. Another thing that strikes me about this is that Jesus quoted scripture (Hosea 10:8), as he did throughout his ordeal on the cross. Do we know the scriptures well enough to quote them in our darkest hour? Jesus’ question in verse 31 sounds like a comparison between green wood that doesn’t burn well, and dry wood that burns easily. Perhaps the idea is, if God doesn’t spare innocent Jesus, how much worse will it be for guilty Jerusalem?

32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[e] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

Jesus was crucified between two criminals, one more example of how he was “counted among the rebels” or “numbered with the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12) Jagged spikes were driven through his feet and wrists. His back, torn open from the scourging, scraped against the upright of the cross every time he tried to breathe. Death by crucifixion was a long, slow, horrible way to die. It took hours, and sometimes days. Insects would light on the faces and eyes of the condemned, and birds of prey would peck at them.

Jesus’ famous prayer in verse 34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” also only appears in Luke. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Even while enduring unimaginable agony at the hands of cruel, wicked men, he prayed for their forgiveness. He was living out his own teaching to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44-45, blog) If Jesus was able to forgive those who did this to him, we must also forgive others who wrong us. If you’re struggling with how to forgive someone who has wronged you, this is a good model to follow. Pray for their forgiveness. If we pray for God to forgive others, it will become easier for us to forgive them ourselves.

They divided his clothes, in fulfillment of prophecy in Psalm 22:18. When you see a picture of Christ on the cross, or see it in a movie, Jesus is wearing a loin cloth. But that is only the modesty of the artist, or the movie studio trying to avoid an NC-17 rating. Jesus was crucified naked, as all who were crucified were. This was one more form of humiliation of the Jews by the Romans. Under Jewish law, stoning victims were permitted a loin cloth, but the Romans did not have the moral objections to public nudity that the Jews had. Their athletes competed naked in the public arenas, so to crucify criminals naked was no big deal to them. It was just another way to humiliate those who would offend Rome.

35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38There was a written notice above him, which read:|sc THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

The rulers, or officials of the synagogue, taunted Jesus on the cross. Taunting and mocking the condemned was common in the ancient world. It was part of the humiliation and shame of the cross. This behavior has been common throughout the history of public executions, including public hangings and beheadings in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The most striking of the insults heaped upon Jesus while he hung on the cross is when they admitted that he saved others. The whole city and region were littered with those Jesus had healed and saved from death, yet they still did not believe in him. By throwing this insult at Jesus, they were actually condemning themselves. If we witness what Jesus has done for others and still do not believe, we condemn ourselves.

The soldiers offered him wine vinegar, also in fulfillment of prophecy in Psalm 69:21. This was a cheap sour wine that was a popular drink for soldiers and common laborers because it was inexpensive and quenched thirst better than water. Roman soldiers received this as part of their daily ration. They offered this drink to Jesus because he had said “I thirst.” (John 19:29) This was different from the wine mixed with myrrh that was offered by women to Jesus and the other crucified men as an anesthetic, which Jesus refused. (Mark 15:23) This may seem like an act of kindness, but it was intended to keep victims on the cross alive as long as possible to prolong their agony.

They posted a written notice above him which read, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” This was a notice of the charge against him, which was also customary. But Pilate did it in such a way that it seems to have been intended as a jab at the Jewish leaders whom he despised. He had given in to them in the end, allowing Jesus to be crucified, but he would have the last word. The leaders complained, but Pilate replied back, “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:19-22). The claim to be king would have been considered treason against Rome. Even though Jesus refused to take on the role of a political Messiah, he was still crucified on a false political charge.

But the charge against Jesus was not just wrong because it was a false political charge, or a jab by Pilate at the religious leaders. It was wrong because he is not simply king of the Jews. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When he returns in power and glory, he will rule over all. The question for us now is, “Is Jesus my King? Is he my Lord?”

39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[f]

43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Only Luke tells us of this exchange between Jesus and the criminals on the cross. The word Luke used for criminals is kakourgos in Greek, which indicates someone who has committed serious, violent crimes. Mark uses the word lestes, which means highwayman, robber, or bandit. But Matthew calls them rebels. The NLB translates it as revolutionaries. Crucifixion was not normally the sentence for common crimes like robbery or theft. It was usually reserved for political opponents of Rome; insurgents, insurrectionists. These men may have been the sort of bandits that Jesus talked about in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, blog). They were a serious problem on the roads in Jesus’ day. They swooped down on travelers, stripping them of all their possessions and leaving them for dead. For this reason travelers traveled in large groups whenever possible. Jesus’ family traveled with a large group when he was a boy on their way to and from the temple for this very reason (Luke 2:41-52, blog). For the Romans, keeping the roads they built throughout their empire safe for travel was a big priority, so it’s possible that when these sorts of highwaymen were captured, they were given the stiffest penalty, crucifixion. But it’s also possible that they were accomplices of Barabbas, who led an insurrection and committed murder. These were dangerous men, violent criminals, and very possibly insurrectionists. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Jesus was hung on a cross that was intended for Barabbas.

The first criminal showed the same attitude as the others who were taunting Jesus. In fact, insults were probably being hurled at the criminals as well as Jesus. This was the custom at crucifixions, as I mentioned earlier. So this criminal joined in with the others who jeered at Jesus. For some, the only way to make themselves feel better when things are going badly is to heap abuse on others. Misery loves company. The criminal’s insults had the added element of his own predicament mixed in. His taunt was not just, “If you’re the Messiah, save yourself,” it was “save yourself and us too, while you’re at it.” Many in dire circumstances get angry at God. If God is God, then why is this happening to me? Why doesn’t God get me out of this mess? Have you ever felt that way? I have.

But the other criminal had a completely different attitude. While his cohort reacted to his circumstances with anger, he seemed to understand who Jesus was in a way that even Jesus’ disciples didn’t, at least not yet. The only disciple of Jesus who is recorded in any of the gospels as having been at the crucifixion is John (John 19:26-27). Indeed, even after the resurrection, two of Jesus’ disciples showed a lack of understanding of who Jesus was and what his kingdom was about on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:20-21, blog). While Jesus hung on the cross, his disciples’ hopes of Jesus coming into his kingdom were shattered. But this hardened criminal believed even while Jesus was being crucified that he would still come into his kingdom. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The second criminal showed understanding in several areas.

1. Even though he was a criminal, he feared God. (Don’t you fear God?)

2. He recognized his own sin. (We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.)

3. He understood that Jesus was innocent. (But this man has done nothing wrong.)

4. He recognized that Jesus, even though he was about to die, he would still come into his kingdom. (Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.) Not even Jesus’ disciples had that kind of faith.

Many speculate that this criminal had heard Jesus teach at some point. If these men were the sort of highwaymen I described earlier, I can imagine a scene where Jesus, on the road to Jerusalem sometime during the previous weeks, traveled by where these bandits were hiding, waiting to prey on unsuspecting travelers. The bandits didn’t attack them because their group was too large, but Jesus and his group stopped within earshot of where they were hiding, and they heard Jesus teach and maybe even saw him perform a miracle. The seeds of belief were planted in this criminal. Later, the bandits attacked a different group and these two were caught and arrested. A few days later, here they were, hanging on crosses on either side of the one they had heard and seen days or weeks before. But where one reacted with anger because he had seen Jesus help someone else but was not helping him, the other still placed his hopes in Jesus because of what he had seen and heard. Of course, this is all speculation, but something must have led up to this criminal’s appeal to Jesus. Something spurred him to believe.

The second criminal’s plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” strikes me as not being unlike me saying to a record executive, “Remember me when you’re signing new artists.” It’s not exactly a statement of repentance. It’s similar to what Joseph said to Pharoah’s cupbearer, when Joseph predicted that the cupbearer would be released from prison.

“When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison” (Genesis 40:14).

Did the criminal on the cross repent? It’s not specifically recorded that he did, but he confessed his sin (We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve), and he believed in Jesus as Lord and King (Lord, remember me when You come in Your kingly glory! {Amplified}) Repentance is not something that happens when we first accept Jesus as Savior. Repentance is changing your mind. It’s changing the way we live after we accept Christ. The criminal may not have had the chance to live a life of repentance, but he confessed his sin and believed, which is what is necessary for salvation. (1 John 1:9)

Jesus’ response to the bandit’s plea was: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus obviously thought this man’s confession and faith were sufficient to save him.

This passage raises several doctrinal and theological debates. For those who teach that baptism is necessary for salvation, the thief’s conversion is a problem because he was never baptized. I am one who believes that baptism is a necessary part of salvation, though I don’t believe that baptism alone saves us. We are commanded in the Bible to “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” in Acts 2:38. I do believe that, if and when we have the opportunity to be baptized, if we put it off, we are living in disobedience until we are baptized. I believe the same holds true for communion. But this was obviously an extenuating circumstance. If you accept Christ, and then are killed in an auto accident before you have a chance to be baptized, I think you’re still saved. But I don’t think that excuses us from the requirement to be baptized or take part in the Lord’s supper. If we really believe, we will want to do those things as soon as possible once we become Christians.

Another issue that springs from this passage is the issue of deathbed conversions. This is the only such conversion in the Bible. Many struggle with the idea that one can lead a life of sin and repent at the last moment, and still enjoy eternal life in Heaven. It may seem unfair, but remember the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32, blog). We can’t have that attitude. Jesus also taught that same principle in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16, blog). If we’re tempted to think it’s unfair that someone can slip into Heaven at the last minute, remember that God is a God of mercy. The mercy he shows to the one who repents on their deathbed is the same mercy he showed to you and me. The other side of that issue is that some see this example as a way to put off coming to Christ. They figure that they can do whatever they want, and become a Christian at the end of their life. But we can’t count on getting that chance. Now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).

Another point of controversy is Jesus’ use of the terms today and Paradise. The Bible does talk about those who “sleep” until the final resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15; 5:10). So how could this thief be in Paradise with Jesus that same day? Doesn’t he have to wait like everyone else? I think this boils down to a misunderstanding of time. For those who “sleep” and await the final resurrection, no time passes for them. Time only exists for us in the physical universe. I believe that when we die, the transition to the next life seems instantaneous to us, because for us, time no longer exists. We’re not waiting around in Purgatory or some kind of “soul sleep” for time to play out so we can go to Heaven or hell. Talk of those who have gone before waiting for us in the Great Beyond is based on time-bound thinking. From our perspective, it’s been 2000 years since Jesus and this thief had this conversation. But for the thief, no time passes between his death and when he meets Jesus in Paradise.

So what’s Paradise? Is it just another word for Heaven? To Jews of Jesus’ day, Paradise was an earthly garden, a restoration of the Garden of Eden, which the Messiah would establish in his kingdom. So maybe Jesus is talking about his earthly kingdom when he comes with power. Since he was answering the criminal’s request to remember him when he came into his kingdom, that may be what he meant. That kingdom will be established when Jesus returns and the dead in Christ rise. But again, for those who sleep, it will seem like the same day as when they died. Or maybe Jesus did mean Heaven. Either way, if Jesus is there, it’s Heaven!

Jesus’ Death

44It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

As I mentioned in my post on Mark’s account of the death of Jesus (Mark 15:33-39), the darkness at noon (the sixth hour is noon) which happened at the crucifixion was no natural event. Passover is held during a full moon, and a total solar eclipse is impossible during a full moon, and solar eclipses don’t last for 3 hours. However, I did see this quote from the Roman historian Phlegon in David Guzik’s commentary today:

“In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was an extraordinary eclipse of the sun: at the sixth hour, the day turned into dark night, so that the stars in heaven were seen; and there was an earthquake.”

Apparently this wasn’t just a local event. It was seen all the way in Rome. But it could not have been a natural solar eclipse. This was a supernatural event. The NIV translates the first part of verse 45 the sun stopped shining. This is one of my pet peeves, when I hear someone say the sun isn’t shining. The sun is always shining, folks. The sun never stops shining. If it did, we’d all freeze to death. The sun even shines at night! It’s just shining on the other side of the earth. The Greek word that is used there is ekleipo, which is the word for eclipsed. Something blocked the light of the sun so much that the stars could be seen, but it wasn’t the moon. What was it? No one knows. I’ve always been taught and believed that the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion was God turning away because he could not look at his Son while he bore the sin of the whole world on the cross. But I’ve seen other possible explanations of it in Dr. Ralph F. Wilson’s lessons on JesusWalk.com.

He proposes that it could symbolize the reign of moral darkness which Jesus talked about in Luke 22:53: “Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour — when darkness reigns.” It could also be a portent of the last days, if not a complete fulfillment of prophecy of the last days (Joel 2:31, Amos 8:9-1). In a strict Biblical sense, we have been living in the last days ever since the death of Jesus on the cross. Dr. Wilson even suggests that God may have turned away in anger over how his Son was being treated. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the answer in this life.

Luke goes on to say in verse 45 that the curtain in the temple was torn in two. Mark says it was torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). The veil or curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple (Exodus 26:31-35) was large (60 feet long and 30 feet wide),  and as thick as a man’s hand. I’ve always pictured the invisible hand of God tearing the veil in two from the top down. But it’s also possible that the earthquake caused the fall of one of the lintels that held the curtain up, starting the tear at the top. Josephus, the Talmud, and others do describe a catastrophe of this type in the sanctuary at this time. They took it as a sign of the coming destruction of the temple. It’s also seen as a sign that we can all now enter into the presence of God. We don’t need a High Priest to approach God for us. Jesus is our High Priest. (Hebrews 9)

At the moment of his death, Jesus called out with a loud voice. In his weakened state, he should not have been able to shout at all. Most victims of crucifixion were exhausted or unconscious when they died. They died of suffocation, and when you’re suffocating, you can’t cry out. So Jesus did not die of suffocation, as most victims of crucifixion did. Many say that Jesus was in control of when and how he died. There is, however, medical evidence in the gospels to indicate exactly what caused Jesus’ death. See my conclusions about this in my post on the death of Jesus in Matthew here. When he died, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The word for spirit used here is the Greek pneuma, which means life or self. Jesus’ whole life and self were committed to his Father’s will and plan, right up until the final moment. The really remarkable thing to me about this final statement of Jesus is that he was again quoting scripture (Psalm 31:5). Jesus used his last breath on the cross to quote scripture.

47The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” 48When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Mark tells us of the centurion’s reaction to Jesus’ death (Mark 15:39), but Luke tells us that he praised God. I’m dubious on the idea that the centurion became a Christian at this point. There’s no confession of sin here as there was with the thief on the cross. But the centurion did recognize that this man was different than all the others he had crucified. The tense of the word for praised suggests it was continuous, that he kept saying this over and over. Perhaps this does amount to a confession of guilt. This centurion had been in charge of many crucifixions in his time. I’m sure most, if not all of the men he crucified protested their innocence. If you talk to prison inmates, most will tell you they’re innocent. But this was probably the first time this centurion had realized he really had executed an innocent man. Rather than a confession of faith, the centurion’s statement may have been an admission of his own guilt in crucifying a righteous man. This same centurion was questioned by Pilate who wanted to make sure Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44-45). I wonder how much of this story he told to Pilate.

The crowds who came to witness the spectacle of crucifixion went away sorrowful. Instead of the execution of the guilty, they had been witnesses to the murder of an innocent. But those who knew him, including women that John identifies as his mother Mary, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25), stood at a distance, watching. These same women would be the first to witness the resurrection. They stayed with Jesus until the end, and they were the first to know when he rose.

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