[July 24]--Two Criminals, Two Destinies

Luke 23:39-43

I guess I’m sort of a geek when it comes to thinking through things, but I wonder about the weirdest questions at times. Why do two people hear the same sermon and one of them receives Christ and the other doesn’t? Two kids are raised in the same family with the same background, and attend the same church growing up. One becomes a minister, and the other grows into a hellion. Theologians have their own answer to questions like that, but I really believe it’s a mystery we’re not meant to solve this side of the veil.

I do have to say, however, that today’s passage is a great illustration of that mystery. Jesus had been abandoned by his disciples, but he wasn’t alone. His mother was there, along with some other women, and even John was there. But he had two other companions, and they were dying alongside him.

By the way, if you ever hear these men called “thieves,” that’s a misnomer. You weren’t crucified for theft. That’s why the newer translations call them “criminals.” Remember that crucifixion was the most horrible, painful, degrading and tortuous means of execution the Roman Empire had ever devised, and they were experts in dishing out painful death to people whom they didn’t like. It was reserved for the basest of criminals and for slaves. Roman citizens were exempt from it.

Since Barabbas was supposed to be executed along with them, and he'd taken part in (and possibly led) an insurrection (a sure-fire way to get yourself crucified by Roman soldiers), these probably were his partners in rebellion. That's why the NIV translates Mark's description of them as "rebels," and the NET Bible describes them as "outlaws," as opposed to other translations which have rendered them as "robbers." Remember, theft by itself wasn't a capital crime. Quite possibly they'd come from similar backgrounds. We’re not told anything else about their story before this.

We also know from Mark’s Gospel that both of them had verbally abused and mocked Jesus while hanging from their own crosses. It’s only natural, I suppose. You’re in incredible pain and humiliation, and you’ll end up lashing out at anyone who becomes a convenient target. The world had cursed them, so they just passed on the hate.

But then something happened. We don’t know what it was. There are a lot of Christian songs about these men, and they each espouse a theory on what brought about the change of heart in one of them. I tend to think it was our Savior’s reaction to his murderers that got his attention: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” I’m sure that no one at that scene had ever witnessed something like that.

He’d heard the mockery: “You’re the King of the Jews!” He'd seen them nail a sign over his head that read “King of the Jews.” So from that he was able to reason that what Jesus’ enemies claimed in mockery, this Man really was.

What did the criminal know? Well, he knew that Jesus was the King, and that eventually this King was going to come into his Kingdom. He knew that Jesus was innocent of wrongdoing. He knew very well that he himself was a sinner and in need of mercy. His plea to the Savior showed that he was just throwing himself on “the mercy of the court,” so to speak. The man hadn’t been baptized. He had led a life of crime and murder. He certainly had a very deficient theological understanding of Jesus. He couldn’t expound on the book of Romans for you. But he knew enough, and he grabbed hold of what he knew and ran with it.

And how did Jesus respond to this? Mercy. Forgiveness. Restoration. Glorious promises. When a sinner puts his trust in Christ, that’s enough.

Now, there’s a word of warning here for anyone taking “comfort” in this story. If you haven’t received Christ, and you’re thinking “I’ll get around to that someday,” this story is not meant to encourage you to put it off any further! I don’t know who told me this a long time ago, but it’s absolutely true: The Bible records one “deathbed conversion” so that no one will despair, but it only records one, so that no one will presume.

If you’re a believer, then this is a great time to meditate on and express your gratitude to your Savior. You deserve Heaven no more than that filthy, murderous criminal. Jesus’ blood had to cover you just as much as him. His grace, mercy, and forgiveness is upon you.

If you happen to be reading this, and you've never placed your trust in Christ, please read this, and receive him today. As countless preachers and teachers have pointed out, those two men symbolize all of humanity. All of us have a date with death, and one of those two men represent each one of us: Either a condemned criminal who has been forgiven, or one who's not. And how we respond to Jesus will be the only thing that makes a difference, both in this world and the next.

Lord Jesus, I thank you so much for your grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Your blood has cleansed me and made me whole. You are so good to me, aren’t you?

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