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The central issue of Jesus' crucifixion is his character and work. From the creation to watching bystanders, everything and everyone have opinions about the death of this king-prophet. This passage consists of many subunits: the journey (vv. 26-32), the crucifixion (vv. 33-38), the discussion with the two thieves (vv. 39-42) and the cosmic signs along with human reactions to Jesus' death (vv. 43-49).
Jesus dies as an innocent sufferer, yet even to the end he is saving those who look to him. In fact, he even continues requesting forgiveness for those who kill him. As the hymnwriter says, "Amazing love, how can it be?" Around him reactions run the entire spectrum, from cruel mocking to painful mourning. The division of opinion Jesus causes is evident in this key event. Neutrality is not really permitted by Jesus' life and claims, if one understands who Jesus saw himself to be. His death as described here is attested by several ancient historians, though often very briefly (Josephus Antiquities 18.3.3 63-64; Tacitus Annals 15.44; t. Sanhedrin 43a; see F. F. Bruce 1974). Each of us must face up to the claims of both his person and his death, deciding either for him or against him.
Jesus' journey to his death is halted temporarily when the cross becomes too heavy for him to bear. Such cross bearing was customary, but the day had been a long one. Romans did not bear the cross, which was considered a symbol of great shame. Someone was chosen from the crowd—Simon from Cyrene, a major North African center of Judaism, was conscripted to bear the cross (Mt 27:31-32; Mk 15:20-21; on Cyrene, Acts 6:9; 11:20; 13:1; 1 Maccabees 15:23; Josephus Antiquities 14.7.2 114; 16.1.5 169; 16.6.1 160; Jewish Wars 7.11.1-3 437-50). Cyrene is located near the modern area of Tripoli.
Many suggest that Simon pictures the disciple following in the way of Jesus, but this seems unlikely. The description of his following with the cross does not echo the wording of Luke 9:23 and 14:27, and Simon suffers nothing during the process. At best what is pictured involves Jesus' sharing the shame of his death march with another who accompanies him. But such shame is less than a picture of discipleship with its accompanying rejection by the world.
Though exhausted and needing aid, Jesus still interacts with the crowd, especially a group of women mourning over his coming demise. Luke singles them out from the large number of people. The great multitude appears to be caught up in the curiosity of the event, but the women who trail behind are not merely curious. They beat their breasts and wail for him (Mic 1:8; Zech 12:10-14). It is debated whether these mourning women are merely the standard Jewish mourners present at any death, those who gave the victims drugged drink to soothe their painful end (t. Sanhedrin 43a) or genuine in their grief. Whatever option is intended, the text appears to treat their lament as entirely sincere. Jesus explains to them that the real tragedy is not his but the nation's.
In prophetic-sounding words, Jesus addresses the women as representative of the nation: "daughters of Jerusalem" (Is 37:22; Mic 1:8; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9). Jesus notes that they weep for the wrong thing: "weep for yourselves and for your children." Jesus' rejection means judgment for the nation (Lk 13:34; 19:41-44; 21:20-21). In fact, that judgment represents the price for anyone who rejects Jesus. A key period of divine activity will come, as Jesus notes: "The time will come" (5:35; 17:22; 21:6, 23; Schneider 1964b:671). All blessings and curses will be reversed, for in those bitter days of judgment it will be better to be barren than to bear and nurture a child. As Jesus had told the Sanhedrin, he is the real judge, and to reject him is to come under God's judgment. So Jesus warns these women of the nation's coming pain for slaying its promised one. It will be better in those days to ask the creation, both mountains and hills, to collapse on top of one than to experience the misery of this judgment.
Jesus closes with a parabolic question: "If men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" The basic point is clear enough. The green wood is Jesus, while the dry wood is Jerusalem in judgment. If this situation is bad, it is nothing compared to what is to come. But there is debate as to who "they" are that treat the live (or green) wood this way: Rome, the Jews, humanity or God? One of two options is best. Most likely is that the word is a circumlocution for God. If God does this in judging his own Son for the sake of forgiveness, what will his judgment look like on those who reject his offer (Schneider 1967:38 n. 7; Stein 1992:586)? A similar indirect reference to God appears in 12:20. The point is that if it is possible to consume live wood, think how easy it will be to consume wood that is dry (Is 10:16-19; Ezek 20:47).
If this reading is not right, then "they" would be the nation itself, since that is the natural historical referent (L. T. Johnson 1991:373). The tragedy, Jesus says, is not his death but the nation's failure to choose deliverance, life and forgiveness. The failure to choose correctly about Jesus has grave consequences.
So on this note the journey to the cross continues. Jesus and two criminals head to their fate. The Greek term describing the other offenders, kakourgos, is a generic one for "lawbreaker" (Prov 21:15). Mark 15:27 and Matthew 27:38 describe the men with the term lestes, which can mean "bandit" or "revolutionary." This is the word Jesus used to question his arrest in Luke 22:52.
At "the place of the skull" (kranion), Jesus is crucified. The hill had this name because it protruded from the ground much as a head does from a body. Here Jesus is nailed to the cross beam (Jn 20:25; Col 2:14). The beam was placed on the upright piece of wood, and the whole structure was then lifted up and dropped into the ground. Jesus would hang there unable to get support to breathe.
Even in this desperate situation, Jesus prays for those who will kill him. He asks that his executors be forgiven, since they have acted in ignorance. Jesus' intercession lays the basis for God's offer of forgiveness. National consequences will follow from Jesus' rejection, but God's love expressed here shows that the rejection need not be permanent, neither for an individual nor for a nation.
Though Jesus pleads their ignorance, such ignorance does not remove culpability. They have chosen a course that reflects a lack of understanding, but they still need God's mercy. Jesus' lack of vindictiveness illustrates the very love he called for from his disciples (6:29, 35).
As the men hang, the soldiers cast lots for Jesus' clothes. This allusion to Psalm 22:18 portrays Jesus as a righteous sufferer (Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24; Jn 19:24). Unjustly afflicted, he dies with nothing on his back.
The scene produces various reactions. Some watch out of curiosity; others mourn. Still others treat the event with indifference, entertaining themselves on the leftovers of clothes. But the rulers sneer (Ps 22:7). They contest Jesus' ability to save, even as he prays to call for their forgiveness. The irony is amazing. Vindictiveness is face to face with compassion. Certain of their victory, they challenge Jesus to step down from the cross: "He saved others; let him save himself." This is the first of three taunts in the Lukan account (the others are in vv. 37, 39), all dealing with the issue of Jesus' saving activity. Ironically, by accepting the way of the cross, saving is exactly what Jesus is doing. But these rejecters never see it. The taunters make the issue Jesus' person: If he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One, then Jesus should be a deliverer (contrast 9:35). In their view a Messiah does not hang on a cross and suffer. What the taunters do not realize is that the servant of God does suffer for his own (Is 52:13—53:12). Suffering precedes exaltation.
Soldiers join the taunt: "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." These taunts are ironic, unconscious testimonies. Though intended to make fun of Jesus, they speak truth about which the utterers are unaware.
In fulfillment of Psalm 68:21, they offer him sour wine, what the text calls vinegar, to relieve his thirst. But the taunt and action together show that compassion is not the motive. The rapid repetition of the titles, a detail unique to Luke, keeps Jesus' person the issue. Is he who he claimed to be? That is the question Luke wishes his readers to ponder. Even the placard describing the charge says simply, "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." Such an inscription was common at a crucifixion (Suetonius Caligula 32; Domitian 10; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.1.44). It was called the titulus. All the Gospels note that such an inscription hung over Jesus, but with some variation in the wording (Mt 27:37; Mk 15:26; Jn 19:19). The inscription itself is filled with ironic testimony. Even in hatred and rejection, there is testimony to Jesus.
The reactions to Jesus vary in intensity. Perhaps no incident sums up the range of responses more than the discussion among the thieves and Jesus. The other Synoptics mention these thieves, but they only note that they reviled Jesus (Mt 27:44; Mk 15:32). Apparently one of them has a change of heart, however, as he hears Jesus intercede for others and watches him tolerate the taunts. The final taunt comes from one of the thieves: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us." When the criminal chimes in against Jesus, it is too much for the other lawbreaker.
It is often said that the thief on the cross does not evidence his faith, for he has the equivalent of a deathbed conversion. But the testimony he gives for Jesus in his last moments is one of the most eloquent evidences of faith in the Bible. The faith in his heart is expressed by his lips. He addresses his colleague first and then Jesus. He expresses his rejection of the taunt by exclaiming, "Don't you fear God, . . . since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." It could be said that the injustice of the entire crucifixion is summed up in this short commentary. Other men die justly, but Jesus hangs on the cross as a matter of injustice. To mock Jesus is to support injustice at its worst. Those who fear God had better realize what it means to taunt him.
Then in words full of faith, the thief turns to Jesus: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The criminal anticipates the restoration and resurrection. He asks to be included. His depth of perception stands in contrast to the blindness of those who taunt. This man, despite a life full of sin, comes to Jesus and seeks forgiveness in his last mortal moments. He confesses his guilt and casts himself on Jesus' mercy and saving power. Luke could not have painted a clearer portrait of God's grace.
Jesus' reply gives the man more than he bargained for in terms of acceptance. The thief hopes that one day in the future he will share in Jesus' rule. Instead, Jesus promises him paradise from the moment of his death: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." The "truly I say to you" formula represents Jesus' most solemn way to reassure his neighbor. Faith's confession and request have been heard. From this day the man will be in the abode of the righteous—the Jews' longed-for paradise, the restored creation in which the righteous dwell (Is 51:3; Ezek 31:8-9, Assyria pictured like the garden of Eden; Testament of Levi 18:10-14; Psalms of Solomon 14:2-3; 1 Enoch 60:8; 61:12). Jesus does not explain how this will work, but the assurance he gives to the thief is clear. Ironically, though dying amidst mocking, Jesus has saved while on the cross. The request of the taunts has been granted to one who learned to believe.
Next the heavens join the discussion, issuing their own commentary on events. In Scripture, when God moves the creation to speak, events are marked as having a high significance. Creation speaks with darkness and through a sign in the temple. At the sixth hour (midday), darkness descends on the earth. This suggests the presence of judgment (Joel 2:10, 30-31; Amos 8:9). God is aware of what is taking place. The sign lasts for three hours. The sun's failure pictures creation awry.
Even at the place that signifies God's presence all is not right. The curtain of the temple was torn in two. Two questions arise for readers here: Which curtain is in view? What does its tearing signify?
Two curtains are possible. Is it the curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies or the curtain that separated the outer court from the temple proper? The Greek term used by Luke, katapetasma, is itself ambiguous. There is no way to decide for certain. Either way, the basic symbolism of a disruption at the nation's place of worship is clear.
What does it mean? Numerous suggestions exist (Green 1991:543-57; Sylva 1986:239-50): (1) It shows that a time of judgment on the nation has come, as the darkness also indicates. (2) It reflects judgment on the temple. (3) It shows Jesus opening the way to paradise (23:43). (4) It pictures the end of the old covenant (Heb 8—10). (5) It shows that all have equal access to God. The text does not tell us specifically which of these is meant, though all are good candidates. Contextually, the first three options all make good literary sense. Canonically, all the views could apply, since Hebrews is an exposition of the significance of Jesus' death and Acts makes it clear how the gospel can be sent to all in light of who Jesus is and what he has done. Judgment and grace often appear side by side in God's plan.
Jesus dies uttering words from a psalm of confidence, Psalm 31:5. This psalm was often used in Jewish evening prayer as one commended oneself into God's care during the night's sleep. As Jesus enters the sleep of death, he takes a similar step of faith. His last words are a commentary not only on his death but also on his life: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." From first to last, Jesus has lived to serve God. His life's creed on his lips, he dies. The psalm comments on the trust that Jesus places in God as he passes away. The other Synoptics quote Psalm 22:1 and its lament, while noting that Jesus dies uttering a loud cry. Luke supplies the detail of this final confident cry to God. Lament has gone to trust and victory. The righteous sufferer has suffered and won by trusting God every step of the way. Stephen will die a similar death years later (Acts 7:54-60).
One more witness, a soldier, observes what takes place and in one sentence echoes the sentiments of the saved thief on the cross: "Surely this was a righteous [innocent] man." The ambiguity of the rendering reflects the ambiguity of dikaios, which can bear either meaning. In the context, where Jesus' innocence has been stressed from start to finish, "innocent man" fits. But such a verdict implies Jesus' purity of character (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). Here is the final verbal testimony at the cross. A soldier witnessing the traumatic events of the day has come to his own conclusion: Jesus was who he claimed to be. The other Gospels make this same point though they summarize it differently: "Surely this man was the Son of God!" There is no contradiction here, since to call Jesus innocent is to accept the claim of who he is.
The event's mood emerges in the closing description. It was sad and wrong for Jesus to have died. The multitudes return home in mourning and beat their breasts. Some of them have been forced to pause and consider what has taken place. Maybe Jesus' condemnation was a serious mistake. Perhaps his death was a deep tragedy. Apparently events have helped some change their minds about Jesus. Sometimes a closer look at Jesus does change a person's mind.
The Galileans and women who had followed him from Galilee (see 8:1-3) stood at a distance. They have watched it all. They have seen the jeering and taunting. They have seen the casting of lots and the soldiers mocking. They have seen Jesus die between two very different thieves. They have seen the lights of the world's stage fall dim as the sleep of death came. They have seen it all. People do react to Jesus in a variety of ways. They assume that Jesus' story has ended here. But a few days hence they will be amazed to discover that it has all just begun. God's testimony to Jesus in exaltation still remains.
The One who came to seek and save the lost has saved by dying. To take the opportunity of gaining life, there remains only for each one to respond to him.