Until this year, I didn’t dwell much on Jesus’s crucifixion. Who would hang out at the gloomy execution when the empty tomb is right around the corner?
My categories were far too simple. I thought of the resurrection as the event where all of the good stuff happened, where all of the change took place, where the gospel reached its climax and hope bloomed. But through a closer study of the crucifixion itself, I’ve seen just how transforming that grisly, dark event can be.
In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus was crucified between two criminals (Luke 23:32–33). And while the salvation of the second criminal is a rather famous story, Matthew tells us that both men, along with many others, were hurling abuse at Jesus (Matthew 27:44).
So, what happened? What made the second man rebuke his partner in crime, confess his sin and Jesus’s innocence, and cry out for deliverance to Jesus as his king (Luke 23:40–42)? Certainly God changes hearts, but what means did he use for this dying man?
There was just a parenthesis of time. Yet Luke wrote the answer bold, with exclamation points. What changed this man was Jesus, dying on the cross.
The criminal watched Jesus submit to the humiliation of the cross. He saw the added disgrace of his near-nakedness (Luke 23:34). He heard the sneering of the rulers, the mockery of the soldiers, and the taunting of his fellow criminal (Luke 23:35–39). And he observed Jesus suffer all of this without defending himself or lashing out.
Above everything else, what likely captured this criminal’s heart was the love of Jesus. There is hardly another explanation for Jesus’s posture in his last hours. In love’s chief display, Jesus prayed one of the most shocking prayers in the Bible.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend and denied by another. He had endured baseless accusations and a trial in which he was declared innocent. He had submitted when a cowardly ruler gave in to a mob, demanding Jesus be killed.
He felt nails driven through his flesh. He knew the excruciating pain that would last until the end. He heard all the scorn and the mockery and the insults.
And yet, as he hung dying, he asked his father to forgive them. They didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t grasp who he was. Please forgive them!
Jesus’s love broke through the second criminal’s hard heart. He knew it must all be true—all the teaching and rumors and questions about Jesus—because he saw Jesus extend love in the face of hate. And Jesus received that criminal with one of the world’s greatest promises: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
But the criminal wasn’t the only one changed by the crucifixion.
We don’t have much back story on the centurion. Did he join the soldiers in their mockery (Luke 23:36)? Was he a proud Roman who delighted in punishing this likely rebel? Or did he carry out his duties with indifference, just part of the job?
We may not know where he started, but we know where he ended up.
Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47)
The centurion witnessed three hours of darkness (Luke 23:44–45) and an earthquake (Matthew 27:51). He also saw Jesus take his last breath after crying out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
How did this lead to the centurion knowing Jesus was innocent? How did this lead to praise for God?
No one but an innocent man would gladly, with a great cry of relief, entrust his soul to God. Anyone with even a hint of sin—and even a glimmer of an understanding of God’s justice—would tremble in their final moments. But Jesus was innocent, and he knew that God would soon vindicate his unjust death through resurrection.
Why did the centurion praise God? Again, we don’t have many details. But it’s possible the centurion was on day-long guard duty. He may have witnessed Jesus’s interaction with the criminal and all that came before it.
When the criminal proclaimed Jesus’s innocence and asked Jesus to remember him, perhaps the centurion wanted to believe. And then Jesus’s final cry and the signs of God’s judgment (darkness and earthquake) convinced him.
If Jesus was innocent, everything was upside down. The mob was wrong. Everything Jesus taught was true. So in that moment, the centurion didn’t weep in regret. He praised God, because God’s innocent son welcomed and died for sinners.
What About You?
We often want to read past Luke 23 (the trial and crucifixion) to Luke 24 (the resurrection). We want to get to the good stuff. And we should!
But there is earth-shaking, curtain-tearing power in the crucifixion—the son of God killed for sinners, an act of unthinkable, glorious love. We should all pause a little longer at the cross to consider the horrible scene.
Let’s not stay silent, though. Consider Jesus’s compassion and, like the criminal, run repentant to your Savior. Consider Jesus’s innocence and, with the centurion, cry out with praise to God.
Note: some of these ideas were fleshed out in conversation with my Home Fellowship Group on April 19, 2020. So it’s possible I’ve—ahem—borrowed some ideas here.