Luke 23:18-43

Sun, 09/03/2008 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

This morning we come to one of those passages in the Bible that I find hard to read. I certainly can’t read it without stopping. The events that are recorded here are the most amazing events in the whole of human history. The love we find here is the deepest in the whole of human history; the injustice we see here is the most perverted in the whole of human history; the cruelty we read of here is the most vicious in the whole of human history. This was no ordinary event. This was a one-of-a-kind, breathtaking, awesome, miraculous event. That is why I can’t read it without pausing. I can’t quite believe it really happened. I can’t read it without worshipping the God we meet here.

I wonder how you react to this story? The way Luke tells it, that’s the question he’s asking us. He’s not just telling us the story – he’s asking us to react to it was we read it. And as with two weeks ago, he does that by including other people in the story. As we see how they react, we can see how we react, and we can compare ourselves to them.

We get a lot of reactions to Jesus in this story. Pilate, the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, the women who follow him to Golgotha, the religious rulers, the soldiers, and the two criminals who were crucified with him. Many people may react to Jesus in the story, just as there are many people here today, but I think the actual reactions we find, then as now, can be reduced to just 3.


Let’s start with dismissal. Dismissal. Or we could say scoffing. Mocking. Sneering. Deriding. Despising. Dismissing.

This is how the Jewish rulers treat him. Verse 35: “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.”

“A fine Christ you make”, they say. The Jewish people were under the thumb of Roman occupation. When the long-promised deliverer came, surely he would bring this to an end, bring about their liberation and their freedom. Yet here he is, strung up for all to see, unable to save even himself. His claim to save anybody else looks weak when he can’t even look after number one.

This is how the soldiers treat him. Verse 36: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’”

“A fine King you make”, they say. “You’re about to die. Any king whose fate is to die like this is a king no more. They are nothing more than a defeated king. A pretend king. A king in name only. Rome is king. You are not. That should be transparently obvious for everyone here to see.”

It’s how Pilate treats him. Verse 38: “There was a written notice above him, which read: This is the king of the Jews.” I think when Pilate wrote that he was probably being sarcastic, but I could be wrong.

It is also how the first of the two criminals treats him. Verse 39: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.”

“A fine Saviour you make,” he says. “You’re not much use when it comes to jail breaks, are you? Here you are, in the slammer, on the cross. Claiming to be a deliverer. If you aren’t going to get yourself out, at least get me out. But you can’t can you?”

It’s cruel, isn’t it? He’s there because of love. He willingly submits to his Father’s will. He could get down from that cross any time he chose. He could summon twelve legions of angels to help him if he wished. But he’s there by choice. And along with the physical pain and the darkness of his Father’s anger, he has to endure all these taunts, accusing him of weakness. Weak is the one thing he is not.

That’s the reaction: Dismissal. Anyone being executed on a Roman cross can’t be the Christ. Anyone being executed on a Roman cross can’t be a king. Anyone being executed on a Roman cross can’t be a Saviour or deliverer.

What we’ll see a bit later on is that this kind of reaction is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it misunderstands the kind of Christ he is. It misunderstands the kind of King he is. It misunderstands the kind of Saviour he is.

Did you pick up that this year one of the runners in the London Marathon will be 101 years old. Why is that newsworthy? I think it’s because we think it’s unlikely. But this year there will be one, and if you doubt it you are making one of two misunderstandings. You might think that 101 year-olds don’t run marathons. So you think you know what 101-year-olds are like, and your picture of someone who is 101 does not extend to them running a marathon. Well in that case, you’ve misunderstood the kind of 101-year-old we’re dealing with here. Or you think that marathon runners aren’t 101 years old. So you think you know what marathon runners are like, and your picture of a marathon runner doesn’t extend to someone who is 101. Well in that case, you’ve misunderstood the kind of marathon runner we’re dealing with here.

The religious leaders thought they knew what the Christ would be like, and their picture of the Christ did not extend to someone hanging on a Roman cross. The soldiers thought they knew what a king is like, and their picture of a king did not extend to someone hanging on a Roman cross. The criminal thought he knew what a Saviour is like, and his picture of a saviour did not extend to someone hanging on a Roman cross. And so they dismiss him – but wrongly, because they’ve misunderstood what kind of Christ, what kind of king, what kind of Saviour we’re dealing with here.

If you react to Jesus’ death in this way – with dismissal, mockery and scorn, what are the implications for you? They come in verses 29-31. Jesus is addressing the group of mourning women – we’ll think about them in a moment. But he addresses them as representative of all the inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem. The city that refused to see Jesus as Christ, as King, as Saviour, and so put him to death.

So what will happen to this city? Well let’s start at the end, at verse 31. “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Jesus is likening himself to a fresh, vibrant, green, growing piece of wood. If you find a fire that can set a tree like that alight, dead, dry, brittle wood doesn’t stand a chance. If God can allow something this horrendous to happen to him, what chance does the dead-wood city of Jerusalem have?

And so Jesus speaks of the day in the future when it would be better not to have children. The Bible usually regards children as a blessing, but here that is unthinkably reversed…. Jesus speaks of the day when people would rather be buried in a landslide. Verse 30: “Then, ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills “Cover us”’” Jesus is picking up on Old Testament language that prophesied God coming to judge his own people. When that happens, God’s people would rather be dead – if a falling mountain could hide them, they’d take that as a way out.

Well, when a city rejects Jesus in this kind of way, God will come and judge them. And it will be so terrible that childlessness and death would be preferable.

So there’s the first response that we find here: Dismissal. And those who dismiss Jesus have a fate worse than death to look forward to.


The second response we find here is to be detached. Detached. If dismissal is the negative response to Jesus, detachment is the so-called neutral response.

We find this in Jesus’ response to the women who follow him to Golgotha. I don’t know about you, but I think that Jesus’ response to them is utterly surprising. Don’t you think that they look like Jesus’ most loyal supporters? All his disciples had fled; Judas had betrayed him; Peter had denied him; but these women followed him as mourners even then.

And yet Jesus rebukes them. His words are clearly worded as a rebuke, but why? It’s because they are mourning the wrong thing. They’re mourning for him; they should be mourning for themselves, as residents of Jerusalem.

Jesus turns to them, just as he turned to Peter after his denials. They are weeping, just as Peter wept. Why did they not stand by him, align themselves with him, when nobody else did? They did not. So it is not Jesus they should feel sorry for. They should pity Jerusalem. And now they should pity themselves, because the fate that will befall the city will befall them as well.

Do you see now why I say their response is actually the detached one? It’s the neutral one. They’re quite happy to say that what’s happening is tragic, that it’s a sad story. But they weren’t willing to stand by him. They don’t want to reject Jesus; they don’t want to dismiss him; but they’re not willing to go as far as to receive him either. And Jesus tells them not to weep for him; if that is their response, they should be weeping for themselves.

Which is why I said that this response is the so-called neutral response. There is no such thing as a neutral response to Jesus. If you try and sit on the fence, avoid joining the clamour against him but without siding with him, then you haven’t stood by Jesus. Don’t weep for him; weep for yourself.

I don’t know how many of us here saw the film The Passion of the Christ. I haven’t seen it, but only because I’m not really an 18-rated sort of person. I usually find that the reason why the BBFC awarded the 18 certificate is exactly the reason why I don’t enjoy the film. But plenty of people quite enjoy 18s, or would make an exception for a film with such important subject matter. If I had a stronger stomach I would gladly have watched it.

People who came out after watching that film mostly said that they were greatly moved by what they saw. I don’t doubt that the BBC’s own version of The Passion will be similarly moving.

Now I’m not wanting to criticise the film, as much as reflect on its limitations. The only way it can move us is by showing us how horrific Jesus’ suffering was,... and it was. But Jesus is warning us not to be horrified at that. Far more horrific is the fate that awaits those who dismiss Jesus, or who despise him. And here is Jesus’ point in these verses: Far more horrific is the fate of those who do no more than feel shocked and saddened at what Jesus went through. The fate worse than death that awaits those who dismiss Jesus or who sit on the fence is something that no dramatisation can show you – but that is the real tragedy.

So there are two of the responses we find in this passage. Some people dismiss Jesus. Others are detached in their response to him, but that is no better.

Depend on him as king

The third response is to depend on him as king. To depend on him as king.

Quite obviously, we get this response from the second criminal. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Let’s backtrack a moment to Barabbas. Barabbas was a convicted murderer. Furthermore, his murders were committed as part of a political uprising. In short, he was a practising terrorist who got caught. Terrorists today get little sympathy in the public eye, or in the eyes of the judiciary, and it has always been so because of the way they work. As a murderer, he should be executed. By rebelling against the Roman empire, that execution should be by crucifixion.

Then there’s Jesus. He’s repeatedly been declared innocent. Pilate made 3 attempts to have him released. Verse 16: “Therefore I will punish him and release him”. Verse 20, Pilate appealed again, but by this time the Jews are shouting so loudly we don’t hear what he says. Verse 22: “Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” Jesus is innocent, and as such, he should be released.

But because the Jews can shout louder than Pilate, that doesn’t happen. Jesus gets crucified. Barabbas is released. They swap. There is not just one act of injustice here, but two. Jesus should be released, but is crucified. Barabbas should be crucified, but is released.

We are learning that Jesus died the death that Barabbas should have had. Barabbas goes free because Jesus takes his place.

But that is not the way it usually works. You’ll remember that the first criminal wanted Jesus to free him as well, and Jesus did not do it. That is because he’s misunderstood what kind of Saviour Jesus is – Jesus is a Saviour who cares about justice. He doesn’t just go about unlocking all the prison doors and issuing a free pardon to everyone. Justice matters.

But the second criminal had it right. He knew he had done wrong, and he knew he was guilty. There was no hiding from that. Jesus did not save him from death. Jesus saved him through death. That is because Jesus was not saved from death either. But the criminal knew that God would save him through death. That the other side of his death, Jesus would be king. And so he asks Jesus to look after him when that happens. “When we’re both dead, and you are king, look after me Jesus”. And he gets far more than he asked for: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

That’s what goes on here. Jesus, after his death, looks after that criminal, after his death. But the lesson we learnt from Barabbas is still relevant. You see the way in which Jesus looks after this criminal is by swapping places with him. They both die physically – they don’t swap in that sense. But Jesus suffered the judgement of God so that paradise could await this man after his death.

You see this is what the various mockers had all missed. They all thought that Jesus’ death ruled out his being an effective Christ, or King, or Saviour. In fact: He is Christ even though he dies. He is King even though he dies. He is Saviour even though he dies.

In fact, we can go even further than that. He could not be a King or a Saviour without dying. The criminal recognised that Jesus would be king after his death. Jesus was a Saviour to that criminal because he swapped places with him in his death. Jesus had to die in order to be King and Saviour. As he had taught all the way through – the Son of Man must suffer and die, he had said repeatedly.

One day our Queen will die. When she does so, if she hasn’t already abdicated because of age or ill health, she will cease to be queen. She’ll hand over to whoever is next in line at that point. For the Queen of England, death is the point when she stops being queen. It’s topsy-turvy to think that her death somehow makes her queen, but that is exactly what happens with Jesus.

Spiderman is really useful to have around if you’re trapped in a burning building. But if he gets killed by some grand villain, it’s time to make your own way out of the building. A dead Spiderman, who is genuinely dead, is no superhero to help you. It’s topsy-turvy to think that his death somehow makes him useful to you, but that is exactly what happens with Jesus.

That’s because, as we’ve seen, Jesus death is where he swapped places with us.

You probably haven’t heard of Sergeant Ian McKay. McKay was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Falklands conflict where as part of Company 3 Para he took part in the highly strategic assault on Mount Longdon on 11th June 1982.

3 Para found that the enemy’s machine gun positions were well-placed, and the gunmen were accurate. Casualties were heavy and they were stuck. The platoon commander took McKay and a few others to reconnoitre the most troublesome machine-gun post the commander was killed. Let me read the rest of the story from his citations.

“It was clear that instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter and increasing casualties to ensue. Sergeant McKay decided to convert this reconnaissance into an attack in order to eliminate the enemy positions. He was in no doubt of the strength and deployment of the enemy as he undertook this attack. He issued orders, and taking three men with him, broke cover and charged the enemy position.

“The assault was met by a hail of fire. The corporal was seriously wounded, a private killed and another wounded. Despite these losses, Sergeant McKay, with complete disregard for his own safety, continued to charge the enemy position alone. On reaching it he dispatched the enemy with grenades, thereby relieving the position of beleaguered 4 and 5 Platoons, who were now able to re-deploy with relative safety. Sergeant McKay, however, was killed at the moment of victory, his body falling on the bunker.

“Without doubt Sergeant McKay’s action retrieved a most dangerous situation and was instrumental in ensuring the success of the attack. His was a coolly calculated act, the dangers of which must have been only too apparent to him beforehand. Undeterred he performed with outstanding selflessness, perseverance and courage. With a complete disregard for his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all those around him.”

Everyone in those two platoons who survived that battle did so because McKay died. He died so that they did not.

Jesus’ death is what makes him king, and it’s what makes him Saviour. Jesus died so that that criminal could enter paradise. And everyone else who depends on him as king can be assured of a place in paradise, the moment they die, because Jesus bore the judgement of his Father instead.


Like I say, I can’t read this passage of Luke without having to pause in wonder and amazement at what I’m reading about. Luke invites every reader to make their response to the death of Jesus.

What is your response? Negative, neutral or positive? Hostile, distant or grateful? Dismissing, detached or dependant.

To dismiss him, to react negatively, is a bad move. Those who do so await a fate worse than death. They are the real tragedy of this story.

To stand-off at a distance, or to be moved by Jesus suffering but no more, is also a bad move. There is no fence to sit on, so however moving you find the story, anything less than standing with and alongside Jesus is to side with his enemies. We should feel truly sorry for people who respond in this way, but we should certainly not be one of them ourselves.

But to respond to Jesus positively. In joy. In gratitude. In wonder. In dependent trust. That is a most wonderful thing. Jesus died so that he could be king, so if he’s looking after you when you die you have nothing to fear. Jesus died to bear the judgement of God in place of sinners like you and me, so if he did that for you, then you have paradise to look forward to the moment you die – paradise with him.

Oh yes – the events recorded here are truly amazing.

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