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Luke 23:33-43 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 22-23. THE CONTEXT
This is part of the Passion narrative in the Gospel of Luke—the part that deals with Jesus and the two criminals who were crucified alongside him.
The Passion narrative began in chapter 22 with the plot to kill Jesus (22:1-13)—and the account of the first Lord’s Supper (22:14-23). It includes:
• Jesus’ prediction that Peter would betray him (22:31-34).
• His warning to the disciples of difficult times ahead (22:35-38).
• His prayer on the Mount of Olives (22:39-46).
• His betrayal and arrest (22.47:53).
• Peter’s denial (22:54-62).
• The mocking and beating of Jesus (22:63-65).
• Jesus before the Council (22:66-71).
Chapter 23 opened with Jesus’ appearance before Pilate (23:1-5)—his appearance before Herod (23:6-12)—and his sentence of death (23:13-25). Then they led Jesus to the place of crucifixion, enlisting the support of Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross (23:26). A large group of women were grieving and wailing as Jesus made his way to the cross (23:27)—but Jesus warned them of terrible times ahead for themselves and their people (23:28-31).
LUKE 23:33-43. COMPARISONS WITH MARK AND MATTHEW
Luke’s account of the crucifixion differs from that of Mark and Matthew at a number of points:
• In Mark and Matthew, the mocking by soldiers takes place in the governor’s headquarters rather than at the site of the crucifixion (Mark 15:16-20; Matthew 27:27-31).
• Luke doesn’t mention the word Golgotha.
• Luke uses the word, “criminals,” while Mark and Matthew use the more specific word, “bandits.”
• Neither Mark nor Matthew mention Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them” (v. 34)—nor do they mention the repentant criminal and Jesus’ promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).
• Luke mentions darkness and the tearing of the temple curtain but not the earthquake that split rocks and opened tombs, resulting in the resurrection of saints who had fallen asleep (Matthew 27:51-52).
These differences most likely reflect typical Lucan emphases (forgiveness—concern for the ignorant and outcast) rather than a separate source.
Verse 32 says, “Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with (Jesus).”
LUKE 23:33-38. THEY CRUCIFIED JESUS THERE
32There were also others, two criminals, led with him to be put to death. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified him there with the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”Dividing his garments among them, they cast lots. 35The people stood watching. The rulers with them also scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself, if this is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming to him and offering him vinegar, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38An inscription was also written over him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
“When they came to the place that is called The Skull” (v. 33a). Luke does not use the word, Golgotha, but says that Jesus was crucified at a place called the Skull. We think of the crucifixion as taking place on a hilltop, but none of the Gospels mentions a hill. The Skull may be a hill, protruding from the landscape and resembling a human skull, but that is conjecture. In any event, its name brings forth gruesome images.
“they crucified (Jesus) there with the criminals, one on the right and one on the left” (v. 33b). Crucifixion is intended to degrade the person being crucified. It strips the person of honor and permits people to abuse him. It is the ultimate punishment, reserved by Rome for the worst offenders.
Throughout his ministry Jesus identified with sinners, and their quality has steadily spiraled downward—from ordinary crowds at the beginning to a prostitute in the middle of the story and thieves being crucified at the end. His purpose was to save people of every stripe who were in need of saving (Wright, 455).
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (v. 34a). Some early manuscripts do not include this prayer, which the NRSV marks with brackets to acknowledge a question of authenticity. While scholars are divided, many believe the prayer to be authentic, because it fits so well in Luke-Acts.
• Jesus taught the disciples to love their enemies and to pray for those who abuse them (6:27-28). Here he practices what he preaches.
• Jesus’ concern for the ignorance of those responsible for his death is much like his concern for the ignorance of the people of Jerusalem (19:41-44).
• In Acts 7:59, Luke records Stephen’s prayer, which is modeled on verse 34.
For whom is Jesus praying? Most likely his prayer includes not only the soldiers who are inflicting his wounds, but also Jewish leaders who instigated the crucifixion, the crowd that demanded it (23:18-25), and the disciples who (except for the women standing at a distance—verse 49) are nowhere to be found—perhaps even for Judas.
Jesus’ prayer does not mean that Israel will not pay a price for their evil deed. Jesus has already wept over Jerusalem (19:41-44) and has foretold the destruction of the temple (21:5-6) and Jerusalem (21:20-24)—but his purpose was to save rather than to curse. His death provides salvation to all who avail themselves of his mercy, and thus provides the answer to his prayer (E.E. Ellis).
“Dividing his garments among them, they cast lots“ (v. 34b). This is an allusion to Psalm 22:18, which says, “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Is this the fine robe that the soldiers mockingly placed on Jesus (v. 11)? Probably not, but we don’t know.
Stripping a prisoner of his clothing degrades him—emphasizes the totality of his shame before a public audience.
For these soldiers, it is another day, another dollar—business as usual—just another dirty job! It is, in fact, a day that will change the world, but the soldiers miss its import completely. Once they hoist a cross into place, they face a long, boring wait. Casting lots to see who will win Jesus’ clothing creates a momentary diversion.
Earlier, a woman with a hemorrhage touched the fringe of Jesus’ clothing and, in that instant, received healing. Where the woman saw power, however, the soldiers now see only a pile of dirty clothing worth, at best, a few coins. How often we focus on trivial things and miss the great things happening around us!
It is worth noting that other soldiers relate quite differently to Jesus in this Gospel. In chapter 7, the centurion’s faith exceeded anything that Jesus has found in Israel. At the conclusion of the crucifixion, another centurion will praise God and proclaim, “Certainly, this man was innocent” (v. 47).
Three groups taunt Jesus (vv. 35-39). “The rulers with them also scoffed (exemukterizon) at him…. The soldiers also mocked (enepaixan) him…. One of the criminals who was hanged insulted (eblasphemei) him.” In each case, their derision is tied to a salvation motif based on Jesus’ messiahship.If Jesus is messiah, his mission is salvation (1:69; 2:11, 30). How can he save the people if he cannot even save himself? The ironies, of course, are that:
• The salvation for which they are clamoring is temporal; the salvation which Jesus is effecting is eternal.
• The cross is the place where Jesus brings salvation into being.
• If he were to save himself, he would abort that salvation ministry.
• He prays for the salvation of those who are taunting him.
• He saves the repentant criminal.
The three taunts echo the earlier three temptations of Jesus (4:1-13). The devil said:
• “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (4:3).
• “If you therefore will worship before me, it will all be yours” (4:7).
• “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here” (4:9).
Now the leaders say, “Let him save himself, if this is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” (v. 35). The soldiers say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 37). The criminal says, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!” (v. 39).
Each of these six challenges tempts Jesus to prove his messiahship. In each, Jesus is tempted to use his power for selfish purposes instead of servant purposes. In each, he holds fast to his mission and thereby defeats the tempter.
We, too, are tempted to question Jesus’ kingship. If Jesus is king, why does he permit evil? Oscar Cullmann in Christ and Time suggests that Christ’s Incarnation was like the Normandy invasion that set in motion forces that would lead to victory more than a year later. In the interim many battles would be fought and many soldiers would die. We, like the soldiers who lived in that interim, are living in the interim between the cross and Jesus’ final victory. We should not expect life to be easy (Holladay).
One of my professors compared Jesus’ victory over evil to the mortal wounding of a snake. The wound has sealed the snake’s fate, but the snake is still dangerous. Even though fatally wounded, it can still strike with deadly force. Jesus has mortally wounded Satan, but we should not imagine that Satan is powerless. We have only to read our newspaper to learn Satan’s still deadly power.
When the leaders scoffingly refer to Jesus as God’s “chosen one” (Greek: eklektos), they echo the language of Isaiah 42:1, “my chosen in whom my soul delights.” God also said at the Transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (9:35). When the leaders refer to Jesus as God’s chosen one, they confess more than they intend.
“The soldiers also mocked him, coming to him and offering him vinegar, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (vv. 36-37—see also Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36; John 19:29-30). In Psalm 69:21, the psalmist speaks of being fed poison for food and vinegar for drink—a sign of their contempt. While some have suggested that these soldiers offered Jesus cheap vinegary wine as a sedative, the context makes it clear that their purpose was mockery, not mercy.
“An inscription was also written over him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS'” (v. 38). Such inscriptions are customary. By informing passersby of the nature of the criminal’s crime, Rome hopes to deter future crimes. While the inscription is intended as a statement of condemnation, it ironically states Jesus’ true identity.
What happens to Jesus on the cross fulfills several prophecies:
• “All those who see me mock me. They insult me with their lips. They shake their heads” (Psalm 22:7).
• “They divide my garments among them. They cast lots for my clothing” (Psalm 22:18).
• “They also gave me gall for my food. In my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
LUKE 23:39-43. TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE
39One of the criminals who was hanged insulted him, saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!” 40But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Don’t you even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42He said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” 43Jesus said to him, “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“If you are the Christ, save yourself and us! (v. 39b). “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). Both criminals ask to be saved:
• The first does so out of unbelief (v. 39), but the second does so out of faith (v. 42):
• The first acknowledges no wrong and criticizes Jesus. The second acknowledges his guilt and Jesus’ innocence.
• The first wants only to be freed from his cross so that he can resume life as he has known it. The second asks for Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom—a much more significant vision of salvation.
• The first received nothing, but the second received all that he asked.
“this man has done nothing wrong” (v. 41b). This is one of the several testimonies to Jesus’ innocence. Luke tells of similar testimony from Pilate (23:4, 14, 22) and Herod (23:15). At the conclusion of the crucifixion, the centurion in charge will testify, “Certainly this man was innocent” (23:47).
“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). This is a remarkable statement considering the circumstances. This second criminal recognizes that Jesus’ crucifixion is not going to compromise what Jesus has come to do. The criminal doesn’t expect Jesus to save him from crucifixion, but he nevertheless anticipates that Jesus is due to inherit a kingdom, the precise nature of which he does not specify and presumably does not understand. In the next verse, Jesus will call his kingdom “Paradise,” but that goes far beyond what this criminal understands in this verse. The criminal’s appeal is that, when Jesus comes into his kingdom, he should remember this one who was crucified with him.
“Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). Jesus, as a king, has the power of pardon, and exercises it here. As so often in Luke’s Gospel, he shows concern for the poor, women, children, the outcast, and the Gentile (4:31-37; 5:12-32; 6:6-11, 20-26; 7:1-17, 36-50; 8:1-3, 26-56, etc.).
Does Jesus mean that today he is initiating a salvation that will become effective in the general resurrection—or does he mean that the criminal will wake up in heaven today? By “today” does he mean before sunset (the close of day in Israel)—or within 24 hours—or something broader?
We know that Jesus will spend the next three days in the tomb or in “the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9), so it would not seem possible for him to meet the criminal in Paradise within the next 24 hours. We know only that this is a promise of salvation and that some sort of immediacy is involved.
POSTSCRIPT. JESUS’ DEATH AND BURIAL
Verses 44-56 tell the stories of Jesus’ death (vv. 44-49) and of Joseph of Arimathaea, a Council member who was “a good and righteous man” who had not consented to killing Jesus (vv. 50-56). Joseph went to Pilate, asking for Jesus’ body, and upon receiving it, laid Jesus “in a tomb that was cut in stone where no one had ever been laid” (v. 53). Women who had come from Galilee followed along, observed, Jesus’ burial, prepared spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body, and observed the Sabbath, which followed immediately upon the heels of Jesus’ death and burial.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Scherer, Paul, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
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Copyright 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan