Crucifixion in the ancient world was intended to take as long as possible. No vital organs were damaged, so it took two or three days to die, often from shock or asphyxiation, as muscles used for breathing grew weak.
Luke 23:39–43 is a conversation between Jesus and the criminals crucified alongside him, and it is in the Bible because crucifixion was slow. There was time to talk. This conversation is surely one of the most extraordinary in the Bible. It shows us the similarities of these three dying men, and yet, at the same time, how very different Jesus is.
The First Criminal
The first criminal speaks to Jesus with bitter sarcasm: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
His words betray a terrible misunderstanding. When he tells Jesus, “Save yourself and us!” he’s talking about salvation from the physical agony of crucifixion. But he doesn’t understand that it’s precisely by staying on the cross and not saving himself that Jesus is able to save others from God’s judgment, a fate far worse than physical death. Saving himself is the one thing Jesus must not do. Instead, he must surrender himself. He must bear God’s wrath if we are to avoid it. His death doesn’t call into question his claim to be the Messiah. It proves it.
The Second Criminal
The second criminal rebukes the first. He points out how all three men are the same: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” They have all been condemned by Rome to death. But there is also a crucial difference. The two criminals deserve to die, while Jesus doesn’t: “this man has done nothing wrong.” Even though Jesus is suffering the same Roman judgment and the same physical pain as the criminals, he is the sinless one who doesn’t deserve it.
But Jesus is different in another way, too — one that the second criminal misses. Jesus’s sentence of condemnation goes way beyond Roman punishment. On the cross, Jesus is condemned by God himself. He is “smitten by God,” and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The two criminals bear Rome’s judgment. Jesus bears Rome’s judgment and God’s judgment. Though his sin is infinitely less, his punishment is infinitely greater.
Finally, Jesus speaks. The second criminal had said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus decides who goes to heaven. And it turns out to be very good news for this criminal that Jesus is so different from him. Because Jesus is innocent and bears God’s judgment (not just Rome’s judgment), he can make a way for the criminal to be with him, forever. Their difference is the criminal’s salvation. Jesus dies so the criminal can live. He bears hell on the cross so the criminal doesn’t need to bear it forever.
What’s the result of this conversation between three crucified men?
The first criminal bears Roman condemnation on the cross and then God’s condemnation forever. And he deserves both.
The second criminal bears Roman condemnation on the cross but no condemnation from God forever. He deserves the first, while the second is a free gift.
Jesus, though he deserves neither Rome’s condemnation nor God’s condemnation, bears both on the cross. And so he secures for the second criminal — who is every bit as bad as the first — the free gift of eternal life.