Between Two Criminals
Cary Stockett, Luke 23:32-43
As I read this passage from Luke, I couldn’t help but think how often in recent years, driving on highways and interstates, I’ve seen here and there where a landowner has erected three crosses, in the middle of nowhere really, simply to be seen by those driving by. I suppose what made me think of it is that here in our text we’re reminded of why there are three crosses in those impromptu displays: that Jesus was crucified between two criminals.
Jesus and the two criminals hang there together as three men all exposed to the same abuse, the same agonizing pain, and the same slow, but irreversible death throes. All three men had each one been arrested somewhere, and then locked up and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous days. Now they shared the same death, Jesus and the criminals.
Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, has said that this text, if we understand it properly, contains the whole history of the world, and of all God’s dealings with humanity.
There are many paintings and artists’ renderings of the crucifixion of Christ that, for various reasons, omit the two criminals from the scene, as if to focus on Jesus alone. Yet whenever this is done, a crucial and all-important element of the story is missing, not only historically, but spiritually and theologically. Because the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus the Lord—precisely because he was and is Lord—did not die alone. Paul in particular emphasizes that when Jesus the Lord died, the whole human race, past, present and future, all died with him. Take for example his statement in II Corinthians: “We are convinced that one has died for all, therefore all have died” (5:14). His point is that when Jesus went down, we went down; he took us with him. What happened to him happened to us.
The old hymn asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The emphatic answer for all of us is, yes, we were there, and not only were we there, we also were crucified in him. The whole human race (I say again), past, present, and future, was crucified in Jesus. “One has died for all, therefore all have died.”
So here in the passion narrative, we have that phrase, “all have died,” portrayed so clearly and vividly, typified in the criminals crucified on either side of Jesus.
Have you ever noticed that all four gospel writers make it a point to mention this aspect of the crucifixion, that Jesus dies between two men who are crucified with him? I’ve given that a good deal of thought, and I can think of no good reason this seemingly small detail was so faithfully remembered and recorded, except to indicate our crucifixion with Christ. When he died, we died—all of us.
And just as surely as we were put to death in Christ, in his resurrection, we were raised up to new life, and a completely new existence and standing before God. Peter reminds us of this when he writes that we have been born again in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (I Pet. 1:3).
Yet this universal crucifixion of the whole human race does not leave us without a choice to be made. In fact, it thrusts upon us a command to choose to live in the reality of this death, and to open our eyes to the new life we have because of it. This is the call of the Gospel, the mandate of the New Testament: to believe the truth, the wonderful good news of what has happened to us and the whole world in Jesus Christ.
Now, because I believe so strongly in what Christ did for the whole world—that all were included in his death and resurrection—some have at times misunderstood, and inferred that I am teaching that everyone is going to heaven. Let me say that though I wish I could believe that, I do not, and do not teach it.
Interestingly, that very point is another significant part of the story that Luke gives us, that one criminal believed, and one, from all we are shown in the text, apparently did not. And though both were crucified with Christ, it was only to the believing thief that Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
So this good news that we were all crucified and resurrected in Jesus pursues us, it confronts us and will not leave us un-bothered, it grabs us, as it were, by the shirt collar and compels us to make a choice. But mind you, it is not a choice of whether we will die and be raised in Jesus—that has already been done, quite apart from our respective votes on the matter. Instead, it is a choice of whether or not we will joyfully and thankfully embrace the truth of who Jesus is, and what he has done with us; whether we will joyfully and thankfully embrace our true identity as those who were crucified with Christ. For in this picture of the two criminals we have a clear and distinct word of assurance that this is, in fact, the truth about us. It is who we really are.
In that certain confidence, we boldly say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live…I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:19-20).
Today we come to the table of the One who was not ashamed to be crucified between two criminals; of the One who is not ashamed to call us sister and brother; of the One who is not ashamed to stand for all time as our great High Priest. And be assured that he is in no way ashamed to bring us now to his table. So let us prepare to respond to his call in faith and gladness.