Luke 23:26-43, The Savior on the Cross

[March 22, 2009] After pronouncing Jesus innocent, Pilate condemns Jesus to the shameful death of hanging on a cross. Today, in Luke 23:26-43, we watch the way that Jesus goes to the cross and the grace that flows from Him even as He is dying. In Luke Jesus is no mere victim, not at the hands of men nor at the hands of God. He pays no attention to the mockery around Him and accepts no sympathy from loved ones, but goes boldly to the cross. Even as He is nailed to the beam, and even He hangs dying, He speaks and acts as the Savior.

Bearing the Cross of Jesus (Luke 23:26)

But before we get there, Luke tells of one, Simon the Cyrenian, who bears the cross of Jesus and carries it behind Him. Simon is probably named because he was an eyewitness who could be approached for his testimony concerning this part of the story.

That he bears Jesus’ cross illustrates very graphically what the disciple of Jesus is called upon to do. Not only are we to accept the redemption of Christ’s blood; not only are we to accept our own death on the cross with Jesus by identification; not only is the dying of Jesus to work death into our souls so that we die inwardly to self; and not only are we to bear our own cross by accepting the Father’s will in our own life—but we are also to bear the shame and humiliation of Jesus in the world, in a world which rejects Him.

The cross represents the utter belittling and scorn of those in power towards Jesus, and thus toward all of His true disciples. When we commit to the church, we commit to this way—the way of the disciple.

The Mourners and the Mockers (23:27-38)

A great multitude of women also followed Jesus, mourning and lamenting Him. This shows that the Jewish people did not kill Jesus. Rather, they were horrified by His death: here and in verse 35 they could only look on with grief.

Those who mock Jesus are the “rulers,” that is, the high priest and his men, and the soldiers. The chief priests were unnerved by the thought that Jesus might be “God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” Pilate ordered the placard above Jesus’ head that read, “THIS is the King of the Jews,” to show what he thought of that idea. It was humiliating not only to Jesus but to the Jews. The soldiers joined in Pilate’s mockery.

Both the rulers and the soldiers mocked Jesus for not saving Himself. They did not understand that if He were to save Himself, He could not save them (Isaiah 53:12, wonderful fulfillment). Yet, in spite of themselves, by speaking of saving Himself, they touch the note of salvation—for it was in not saving Himself that He saved others.

Jesus’ Words to the Women (23:28-31)

Jesus accepts no sympathy from His mourners, but addresses them as the “daughters of Jerusalem” in the words of Jeremiah, showing how much He, like the prophet, loved Israel and mourned for the great city. These are Jesus’ final words as a prophet to Israel. From the beginning Jesus was—among other things that were parts of His being Israel’s Messiah—an apocalyptic prophet who called Israel to repentance. As when He wept over the city when it came into His view on Palm Sunday, He had persistently pointed out that the Jews in Palestine were on a collision course with disaster, a disaster that would involve the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus was long familiar with the underground Zealot movement in Galilee and the inspiration it drew from the Pharisees. It was a nationalist movement that believed it was its duty to make God’s promises come to pass by force, by their own zeal and sacrifice. Jesus’ cousin Simon the Zealot was involved with them. Jesus had seen the fruits of this way of thinking when He was a child, when the Romans brutally stomped out a rebellion in Sephoris, a town only nine miles from Nazareth. From Jesus’ point of view, this movement resisted the words of the prophets that placed Israel under the judgment of God in history, to bide their time in exile—even in the Holy Land—until the coming of the Messiah who could purge them of their guilt. He foresaw that the Zealots would eventually have a showdown with the chief priests, who had a stake in the pagan world (their power depended on their collaboration with the Roman occupiers) and with the Romans, whom the Zealots wanted to overthrow after the example of the Maccabees.

Jesus had spoken in the line of the prophets from the beginning, when He took up the torch from John the Baptist and proclaimed the immediacy of the kingdom of the heavens in His own Person.

If the Romans treated Jesus (who was a green tree) in this manner, what would happen to Israel when it actually rebelled? It would be like a dry tree.

In the renewal movement under the rabbis, the Jews did finally pay attention to the words of the prophets, but only after the double military defeats of 70 and 135 AD.

When Jesus proclaimed that women without any children were blessed, this hints at the probability that Jesus, foreseeing doom on the nation like Jeremiah did, would have followed the example of Jeremiah and not have married for the same reason.

Jesus the Intercessor (23:34)

After these words to the women, Luke gives us a glimpse of the fruits of His atonement, an atonement so awfully paid for in Matthew. Isaiah says, “He was numbered with the transgressors, yet He alone bore the sin of many and interceded for the transgressors” (53:12). As the soldiers nail Jesus to the cross, He prays for their forgiveness. He could have simply “committed all to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23), not resisting His opposers but being satisfied with God as His avenger. Instead He actually prays that God would forgive them.

When Peter says to the people of Jerusalem, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as also your rulers did” (Acts 3:17), God was offering the city a chance to repent. Paul availed himself of this refuge in “ignorance” (1 Timothy 1:13). Thus the barren fig tree, even though Jesus cursed it in Matthew 21:19, was to be given yet more time to repent and thus bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9)—like Nineveh in the days of Jonah. We too reject Christ in our ignorance. Will we avail ourselves of the opportunity that remains for us?

The prayer that Jesus offers here, “Forgive them,” is only a glimpse of the Lord’s passion. His whole life and His offering up of Himself to the Father on the cross is all an intercession for us. As Son of God His birth in a manger, His childhood and youth in Nazareth, His identification with us in baptism, His sympathy for the sick, the despised and the sinful, His pleading with people—in His heart He was always bearing us to the Father. He did not die as a victim, but as an offering to the Father—His death was the climax, the culmination and conclusion of His lifelong intercession for us.

Put aside the notion that the degree to which Jesus suffered was some sort of payment for our sins, as if pain was the only coinage that the Father accepted. It was not pain but the intercession of One who bore our repentance and accepted our judgment as part of the repentance that WE owed. His obedient death was the final step of His lifelong intercession. This intercession was His passion, and it is His intercession that saves us.

The Repentant Thief (23:39-43)

Jesus was crucified between two thieves. The two thieves stand in stark contrast to each other. One thief ridicules Jesus for not saving Himself and “us.” In the bitterness and humiliation of his suffering he lashes out against Jesus. This is unbelief.

But the other thief rebukes him. “Do you not even fear God?” He realizes that their sins have brought them justly to their punishment at the hands of men, and they would soon have to answer to God. “We justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for what we did, but this Man has done nothing amiss.” Jesus, he recognizes, has done nothing wrong. So his conscience is awakened. He has a sense of guilt before God, and he confesses it. He also recognizes that Jesus is sinless (to whatever degree he understood this). Prior to this, according to Matthew and Mark, he had joined with his fellow thief in reproaching Jesus. A change came over him. He had awakened.

These are the first signs of conversion: the awakening of the conscience and the fear of God. This enables the thief to recognize his own sinfulness but also the sinlessness and righteousness of Jesus.

More happens, however. He also recognizes Jesus’ lordship. (Follow these stages in yourself.) Think about that: Jesus had been betrayed by one of His disciples, Peter denied Him, and His chosen Twelve had all forsaken Him. Here Jesus was condemned to death, beaten and naked, and bleeding and dying on the cross. There was no sign of glory or even dignity. Others saw Jesus as being no different than anyone else. People scorned His kingdom. From a human point of view there could be no hope. Yet, this thief is somehow taught of God. He speaks to Jesus of His kingdom as if it were a fact: “When You come into Your kingship.”

He believes that the Lord will return, he believes in his kingdom, at the time when the King is rejected and crucified, when according to man there could no longer be any hope.

This thief asks that Jesus would remember him when He begins His reign. He asks for nothing else, yet he asks for this much. He entrusts himself to Jesus and confides in His grace even though he acknowledges his own sin. He trusts so much in the grace of God shining through Jesus that he can ignore his own shame and ask Jesus to remember him. He trusts in Jesus despite the circumstances he found himself in, or the form of humility that Jesus bore. Can we?

Even though the thief is certainly in agony, and even though he believes that Jesus is the Lord, he does not seek any relief at the hands of Jesus but only asks that Jesus remember him. It is enough to have a portion with Jesus in His coming kingdom.

The final step of conversion is to call on the Lord. It is not enough to believe this or that. One must also cry out to Him. This the thief does. We also need to take this active step: not just believe things about Jesus, or even about God, but to call to Him.

As a result, this thief becomes the joy and comfort of Jesus’ heart. In death He is the first-fruits of Jesus’ labors. He alone comforts Jesus by calling to Jesus’ mind the paradise that awaits Him when He finishes the work that the Father had given Him to do. So we also bring joy to Jesus when we turn to Him.

The thief only asks to be remembered when Jesus returns in His kingdom, whenever that will be. But Jesus replies that he will not have to wait for that day when His glory is manifested to the world, but on this very day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Jesus crucified was more than the King, He was the Savior.

For while the thief bore the result of his sins at the hands of men, and so might we, the Lord of glory at his side was bearing the result of his sins at the hands of God. Through the work of His intercession and obedience, in a way that could only be known to faith, the sins of Jesus’ companion were put away forever, they no longer existed; they were forgotten. The only thing left to be remembered was the grace that took them away and which forever cleansed his soul of them. The thief, no longer a thief but now the companion of Jesus, was at that moment as fit to enter paradise as Jesus Himself.

Here is a picture of salvation: without good works, without sacraments or ritual, without any conditions—but evidenced by the awakening of this man’s heart and his calling on the Lord. In the church we rest in Christ with this assurance of salvation through grace. Grace is the generous action of God’s love toward us, and it always exceeds all of our expectations. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). The faith that recognizes the Lord of glory under His terrible humiliation draws forth the living water from the smitten Rock.

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