Luke 23:35-43 The 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." 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
It is Noon on the Friday before the Passover Sabbath. Jerusalem is always bustling around the Passover. It has become even more tense and tumultuous since the Romans have taken over. But everybody’s nerves are even more taut this particular Friday. The Roman soldiers are on high alert. The Jewish religious leaders have a blood lust in their eyes. There is fear and confusion among most of the residents of Jerusalem. But there is also a mob mentality aching for violence among some of the others staying in Jerusalem for the Passover.
You are there in Jerusalem that spring Friday. You have traveled with your family to the Holy City to celebrate the Passover Feast with your brother who lives in Jerusalem. While there, you heard about this Jesus who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah, the heir of King David’s throne. During the week, you happened to catch Jesus teaching the crowds in the temple courtyard. He was very persuasive. He had an air about Him. There was something special about Him … but He still seemed very ordinary.
Early Friday morning you learned that the Jewish religious leaders didn’t consider Jesus to be so ordinary. They had Jesus illegally arrested very late on Thursday evening. Then they held an illegitimate trial convicting Jesus of blasphemy – of claiming that He was the Son of God.
They had Jesus dragged before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He was afraid of the trouble the Jews could cause him. Pilate hated Judah. He felt it was a backwards land filled with religious hicks. But he was nervous that Caesar would send him somewhere even worse if the Jews complained about him again. So he surrendered to the threats of the Jewish religious leaders and the intimidation of the Jewish mobs. He gave Jesus over to his soldiers to be crucified.
Your brother had gotten up early to check on all the commotion at Praetorium, the Governor’s headquarters. He came home and told you about the events surrounding Jesus. The two you leave your family behind at his house for their own safety. Then you join with the huge crowd that is heading out the city gate toward the hill of the skull called “Golgotha.” Your brother tells you that’s where the Romans have been conducting public executions since they’ve been in power.
You and your brother squeeze your way to the front of the crowd on top of Golgotha’s hill. Two criminals are already hanging on crosses. They look gaunt and pale.
You see Jesus. He is laying on a wooden cross beam. You have heard Jesus speak and heard your brother talk about his faith in Jesus. But you aren’t sure. You are intrigued. Your mind is racing with all kinds of questions. How could the religious leaders hate Jesus so much to have Him crucified? What could Jesus have done to warrant such cruelty? But most of all, you are wondering how Jesus can be the promised Savior, the long-awaited Messiah, the heir to David’s throne, if He is being crucified as a criminal.
You watch intently as a Roman soldier stretches Jesus’ arm out across the beam. Another soldier raises his hammer … and drives a nail through Jesus’ wrist. You hear Jesus’ scream. Then another nail. And another scream.
Though you don’t know this man, your heart breaks for Him. But then you learn that through the pain, Jesus’ heart breaks for those who are crucifying Him. … His heart breaks for you.
With dried blood on His face from the crown of thorns; with His back torn raw from the scourging; with nails freshly pounded into His hands; you can hear Jesus’ speak. His words aren’t filled with curses. His words aren’t filled with hate. Instead, His words are filled with forgiveness. Unbelievably, Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing!”
In the midst of His torment, Jesus is offering forgiveness to the soldiers, to the religious leaders, to the mob … and strangely, it feels like He is even offering forgiveness to you.
The soldiers lift the crossbar and fasten it to the central beam. They place Jesus’ feet together and hammer another nail through. Jesus’ screams are fresh and new.
You are disturbed by what you are seeing. You feel physically ill at what you are witnessing. But you seem to be one of the few people to feel that way. The religious leaders standing behind you aren’t bothered in the least by this violence. They begin mocking Jesus. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One,” they call out. Even though the Roman soldiers hate the Jews and don’t know Jesus at all, they feel comfortable joining in the mockery. They taunt Jesus, “The sign above your head says ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ Well, if you are the King of the Jews, then save yourself!”
Then surprisingly, one of the condemned criminals even joins in the disgusting banter, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
The whole scene is disturbing and disgusting. … But you can’t turn away.
There is only one voice among the hundreds gathered around Golgotha that speaks up in Jesus’ defense. … And he was the other criminal. He directs his strong and stern words first to the criminal on the other side of Jesus, “Don’t you fear God,” he says, “since you are under the same death sentence?” A condemned criminal’s endorsement doesn’t count for much, but you find it compelling, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
After the criminal catches his breath, he turns his gaze toward Jesus. His words are much softer. He didn’t beg for his life before with the soldiers, but now he pleads for his soul, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Through the pain it seems like Jesus is able to muster a smile. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hanging on a cross; covered in blood; crowned with thorns; yet Jesus never seemed more regal than He did that very moment. There is such conviction in Jesus’ words it seems as if He really can open paradise for that criminal. … More than that, it feels as if Jesus really can open paradise to you.
“Let him save himself,” the religious rulers call out. But Jesus is not on the cross because of anything He has done wrong. He is there for everything that the soldiers, the religious rulers, and the criminals have done wrong. You realize that He’s there for everything that you have done wrong.
Jesus does not save Himself, because Jesus is about saving others, saving sinners, saving you.
It is not the nails that are keeping Jesus on the cross. Nor is it the physical pain and agony that cause His death. You recognize that Jesus has an unearthly strength about Him. If feels like at any time He chooses, He can jump down from the cross, totally healed of all wounds. He claims to be God in the flesh. What are mere pieces of metal and wood to the God who created the rocks and trees from which the nails and cross were formed?
Jesus is being held on the cross by love. There aren’t many around who see it – you, your brother, John, Mary, and the dying thief – but it’s there. His love for His beloved disciple and His mother, who are at the foot of the cross. His love for the dying thief. His love even for the chief priests and the Roman soldiers. Yes, even His love for you.
Over the last few hours and days, the Holy Spirit has been working faith in your heart through Jesus’ words in the temple courtyard and through His words and actions on Golgotha’s hill. Your eyes see a condemned criminal on a cruel cross, but your faith sees a King on His bloody throne.
Your King is sentenced to death so you might receive the promise of eternal life.
Your King hangs naked on His shameful cross so you might be robed in righteous robes around His glorious throne.
Your King dies in the darkness so you might live in His kingdom of light.
Your King had all of heaven rejoicing at His birth. But now all heaven is silent at His death.
Your King is covered with sin. He was innocent of blasphemy before the Sanhedrin. He was innocent of insurrection before Pilate. He was innocent of any wrongdoing before God. Yet all of the sin that had ever existed in the world was laid on Jesus’ scourged back. Your sins are there, too.
Your King takes it all. Each bit of anger. Each fragment of wrath. Every particle of God’s hatred of sin. Jesus lived with it all. Jesus finds Himself alone – afflicted by enemies, forgotten by friends and forsaken by God.
Your King cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” as He endures an eternity of hellish punishment during His hours on the cross. It is the wrath of God. The sun darkens and the sky turns black as a sign of God’s judgment on all of humanity. God is pouring out His divine wrath for countless generations of sinners upon His holy Son. Jesus endures this so you might enjoy an eternity in paradise.
Your King shouts, “It is finished,” because, even though He appears weak and wounded and worthless, He has just crushed the serpent’s head; He has stripped death of its power, and He has conquered sin. None of them have any control over you any longer. Salvation is won. It is completed. It is finished.
Your King is also your God. In His death, God dies. But in His resurrection, God raises up humanity.
Jesus is the King of the soldiers who crucified Him. He is the King of the religious rulers who rejected Him. He is the King of the criminal who repented before Him. He is the King of the Jews. He is the King of the world. More than that … He is the King even for you. Amen.