In these verses we have,
I. Divers passages which we had before in Matthew and Mark concerning Christ’s sufferings. 1. That there were two others, malefactors, led with him to the place of execution, who, it is probable, had been for some time under sentence of death, and were designed to be executed on this day, which was probably the pretence for making such haste in the prosecution of Christ, that he and these two malefactors might be executed together, and one solemnity might serve. 2. That he was crucified at a place called Calvary, Kranion, the Greek name for Golgotha—the place of a skull: an ignominious place, to add to the reproach of his sufferings, but significant, for there he triumphed over death as it were upon his own dunghill. He was crucified. His hands and feet were nailed to the cross as it lay upon the ground, and it was then lifted up, and fastened into the earth, or into some socket made to receive it. This was a painful and shameful death above any other. 3. That he was crucified in the midst between two thieves, as if he had been the worst of the three. Thus he was not only treated as a transgressor, but numbered with them, the worst of them. 4. That the soldiers who were employed in the execution seized his garments as their fee, and divided them among themselves by lot: They parted his raiment, and cast lots; it was worth so little that, if divided, it would come to next to nothing, and therefore they cast lots for it. 5. That he was reviled and reproached, and treated with all the scorn and contempt imaginable, when he was lifted up upon the cross. It was strange that so much barbarity should be found in the human nature: The people stood beholding, not at all concerned, but rather pleasing themselves with the spectacle; and the rulers, whom from their office one would take to be men of sense and men of honour, stood among the rabble, and derided him, to set those on that were about them to do so too; and they said, He saved others, let him save himself. Thus was he upbraided for the good works he had done, as if it were indeed for these that they crucified him. They triumphed over him as if they had conquered him, whereas he was himself then more than a conqueror; they challenged him to save himself from the cross, when he was saving others by the cross: If he be the Christ, the chosen of God, let him save himself. They knew that the Christ was the chosen of God, designed by him, and dear to him. “If he, as the Christ, would deliver our nation from the Romans (and they could not form any other idea than that of the Messiah), let him deliver himself from the Romans that have him now in their hands.” Thus the Jewish rulers jeered him as subdued by the Romans, instead of subduing them. The Roman soldiers jeered him as the King of the Jews: “A people good enough for such a prince, and a prince good enough for such a people.” They mocked him (Luke 23:36, 37); they made sport with him, and made a jest of his sufferings; and when they were drinking sharp sour wine themselves, such as was generally allotted them, they triumphantly asked him if he would pledge them, or drink with them. And they said, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself; for, as the Jews prosecuted him under the notion of a pretended Messiah, so the Romans under the notion of a pretended king. 6. That the superscription over his head, setting forth his crime, was, This is the King of the Jews, Luke 23:38. He is put to death for pretending to be the king of the Jews; so they meant it; but God intended it to be a declaration of what he really was, notwithstanding his present disgrace: he is the king of the Jews, the king of the church, and his cross is the way to his crown. This was written in those that were called the three learned languages, Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, for those are best learned that have learned Christ. It was written in these three languages that it might be known and read of all men; but God designed by it to signify that the gospel of Christ should be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, and be read in all languages. The Gentile philosophy made the Greek tongue famous, the Roman laws and government made the Latin tongue so, and the Hebrew excelled them all for the sake of the Old Testament. In these three languages is Jesus Christ proclaimed king. Young scholars, that are taking pains at school to make themselves masters of these three languages, should aim at this, that in the use of them they may increase their acquaintance with Christ.
II. Here are two passages which we had not before, and they are very remarkable ones.
1. Christ’s prayer for his enemies (Luke 23:34): Father, forgive them. Seven remarkable words Christ spoke after he was nailed to the cross, and before he died, and this is the first. One reason why he died the death of the cross was that he might have liberty of speech to the last, and so might glorify his Father and edify those about him. As soon as ever he was fastened to the cross, or while they were nailing him, he prayed this prayer, in which observe,
(1.) The petition: Father, forgive them. One would think that he should have prayed, “Father, consume them; the Lord look upon it, and requite it.” The sin they were now guilty of might justly have been made unpardonable, and justly might they have been excepted by name out of the act of indemnity. No, these are particularly prayed for. Now he made intercession for transgressors, as was foretold (Isa. 53:12), and it is to be added to his prayer (John 17:1-26), to complete the specimen he gave of his intercession within the veil: that for saints, this for sinners. Now the sayings of Christ upon the cross as well as his sufferings had a further intention than they seemed to have. This was a mediatorial word, and explicatory of the intent and meaning of his death: “Father, forgive them, not only these, but all that shall repent, and believe the gospel;” and he did not intend that these should be forgiven upon any other terms. “Father, that which I am now suffering and dying for is in order to this, that poor sinners may be pardoned.” Note, [1.] The great thing which Christ died to purchase and procure for us is the forgiveness of sin. [2.] This is that for which Christ intercedes for all that repent and believe in the virtue of his satisfaction; his blood speaks this: Father, forgive them. [3.] The greatest sinners may, through Christ, upon their repentance, hope to find mercy. Though they were his persecutors and murderers, he prayed, Father, forgive them.
(2.) The plea: For they know not what they do; for, if they had known, they would not have crucified him, 1 Cor. 2:8. There was a veil upon his glory and upon their understandings; and how could they see through two veils? They wished his blood on them and their children: but, had they known what they did, they would have unwished it again. Note, [1.] The crucifiers of Christ know not what they do. They that speak ill or religion speak ill of that which they know not, and it is because they will not know it. [2.] There is a kind of ignorance that does in part excuse sin: ignorance through want of the means of knowledge or of a capacity to receive instruction, through the infelicities of education, or inadvertency. The crucifiers of Christ were kept in ignorance by their rulers, and had prejudices against him instilled into them, so that in what they did against Christ and his doctrine they thought they did God service, John 16:2. Such as to be pitied and prayed for. This prayer of Christ was answered not long after, when many of those that had a hand in his death were converted by Peter’s preaching. This is written also for example to us. First, We must in prayer call God Father, and come to him with reverence and confidence, as children to a father. Secondly, The great thing we must beg of God, both for ourselves and others, is the forgiveness of sins. Thirdly, We must pray for our enemies, and those that hate and persecute us, must extenuate their offences, and not aggravate them as we must our own (They know not what they do; peradventure it was an oversight); and we must be earnest with God in prayer for the forgiveness of their sins, their sins against us. This is Christ’s example to his own rule (Matt. 5:44, 45, Love your enemies); and it very much strengthens the rule, for, if Christ loved and prayed for such enemies, what enemies can we have that we are not obliged to love and pray for?
2. The conversion of the thief upon the cross, which is an illustrious instance of Christ’s triumphing over principalities and powers even when he seemed to be triumphed over by them. Christ was crucified between two thieves, and in them were represented the different effects which the cross of Christ would have upon the children of men, to whom it would be brought near in the preaching of the gospel. They were all malefactors, all guilty before God. Now the cross of Christ is to some a savour of life unto life, to others of death unto death. To them that perish it is foolishness, but to them that are saved it is the wisdom of God and the power of God.
(1.) Here was one of these malefactors that was hardened to the last. Near to the cross of Christ, he railed on him, as others did (Luke 23:39): he said, If thou be the Christ, as they say thou art, save thyself and us. Though he was now in pain and agony, and in the valley of the shadow of death, yet this did not humble his proud spirit, nor teach him to give good language, no, not to his fellow-sufferer. Though thou bray a fool in a mortar, yet will not his foolishness depart from him. No troubles will of themselves work a change in a wicked heart, but sometimes they irritate the corruption which one would think they should mortify. He challenges Christ to save both himself and them. Note, There are some that have the impudence to rail at Christ, and yet the confidence to expect to be saved by him; nay, and to conclude that, if he do not save them, he is not to be looked upon as the Saviour.
(2.) Here was the other of them that was softened at the last. It as said in Matthew and Mark that the thieves, even they that were crucified with him, reviled him, which some think is by a figure put for one of them, but others think that they both reviled him at first, till the heart of one of them was wonderfully changed, and with it his language on a sudden. This malefactor, when just ready to fall into the hands of Satan, was snatched as a brand out of the burning, and made a monument of divine mercy and grace, and Satan was left to roar as a lion disappointed of his prey. This gives no encouragement to any to put off their repentance to their death-bed, or to hope that then they shall find mercy; for, though it is certain that true repentance is never too late, it is as certain that late repentance is seldom true. None can be sure that they shall have time to repent at death, but every man may be sure that he cannot have the advantages that this penitent thief had, whose case was altogether extraordinary. He never had any offer of Christ, nor day of grace, before how: he was designed to be made a singular instance of the power of Christ’s grace now at a time when he was crucified in weakness. Christ, having conquered Satan in the destruction of Judas and the preservation of Peter, erects this further trophy of his victory over him in the conversion of this malefactor, as a specimen of what he would do. We shall see the case to be extraordinary if we observe,
[1.] The extraordinary operations of God’s grace upon him, which appeared in what he said. Here were so many evidences given in a short time of a blessed change wrought in him that more could not have been given in so little a compass.
First, See what he said to the other malefactor, Luke 23:40, 41. 1. He reproved him for railing at Christ, as destitute of the fear of God, and having no sense at all of religion: Dost not thou fear God? This implies that it was the fear of God which restrained him from following the multitude to do this evil. “I fear God, and therefore dare not do it; and dost not thou?” All that have their eyes opened see this to be at the bottom of the wickedness of the wicked, that they have not the fear of God before their eyes. “If thou hadst any humanity in thee, thou wouldest not insult over one that is thy fellow-sufferer; thou art in the same condition; thou art a dying man too, and therefore, whatever these wicked people do, it ill becomes thee to abuse a dying man.” 2. He owns that he deserves what was done to him: We indeed justly. It is probable that they both suffered for one and the same crime, and therefore he spoke with the more assurance, We received the due reward of our deeds. This magnifies divine grace, as acting in a distinguishing way. These two have been comrades in sin and suffering, and yet one is saved and the other perishes; two that had gone together all along hitherto, and yet now one taken and the other left. He does not say, Thou indeed justly, but We. Note, True penitents acknowledge the justice of God in all the punishments of their sin. God has done right, but we have done wickedly. 3. He believes Christ to have suffered wrongfully. Though he was condemned in two courts, and run upon as if he had been the worst of malefactors, yet this penitent thief is convinced, by his conduct in his sufferings, that he has done nothing amiss, ouden atopon—nothing absurd, or unbecoming his character. The chief priests would have him crucified between the malefactors, as one of them; but this thief has more sense than they, and owns he is not one of them. Whether he had before heard of Christ and of his wonderous works does not appear, but the Spirit of grace enlightened him with this knowledge, and enabled him to say, This man has done nothing amiss.
Secondly, See what he said to our Lord Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom, Luke 23:42. This is the prayer of a dying sinner to a dying Saviour. It was the honour of Christ to be thus prayed to, though he was upon the cross reproached and reviled. It was the happiness of the thief thus to pray; perhaps he never prayed before, and yet now was heard, and saved at the last gasp. While there is life there is hope, and while there is hope there is room for prayer. 1. Observe his faith in this prayer. In his confession of sin (Luke 23:41) he discovered repentance towards God. In this petition he discovered faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. He owns him to be Lord, and to have a kingdom, and that he was going to that kingdom, that he should have authority in that kingdom, and that those should be happy whom he favoured; and to believe and confess all this was a great thing at this time of day. Christ was now in the depth of disgrace, deserted by his own disciples, reviled by his own nation, suffering as a pretender, and not delivered by his Father He made this profession before those prodigies happened which put honour upon his sufferings, and which startled the centurion; yet verily we have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. He believed another life after this, and desired to be happy in that life, not as the other thief, to be saved from the cross, but to be well provided for when the cross had done its worst. 2. Observe his humility in this prayer. All his request is, Lord, remember me. He does not pray, Lord, prefer me (as they did, Matt. 20:21), though, having the honour as none of the disciples had to drink of Christ’s cup and to be baptized with his baptism either on his right hand or on his left in his sufferings when his own disciples had deserted him he might have had some colour to ask as they did to sit on his right hand and on his left in his kingdom. Acquaintance in sufferings has sometimes gained such a point, Jer. 52:31, 32. But he is far from the thought of it. All he begs is, Lord, remember me, referring himself to Christ in what way to remember him. It is a request like that of Joseph to the chief butler, Think on me (Gen. 40:14), and it sped better; the chief butler forgot Joseph, but Christ remembered this thief. 3. There is an air of importunity and fervency in this prayer. He does, as it were, breathe out his soul in it: “Lord, remember me, and I have enough; I desire no more; into thy hands I commit my case.” Note, To be remembered by Christ, now that he is in his kingdom, is what we should earnestly desire and pray for, and it will be enough to secure our welfare living and dying. Christ is in his kingdom, interceding. “Lord, remember me, and intercede for me.” He is there ruling. “Lord, remember me, and rule in me by thy Spirit.” He is there preparing places for those that are his. “Lord, remember me, and prepare a place for me; remember me at death, remember me in the resurrection.” See Job 14:13
[2.] The extraordinary grants of Christ’s favour to him: Jesus said unto him, in answer to his prayer, “Verily I say unto thee, I the Amen, the faithful Witness, I say Amen to this prayer, put my fiat to it: nay, thou shalt have more than thou didst ask, This day thou shalt be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43. Observe,
First, To whom this was spoken: to the penitent thief, to him, and not to his companion. Christ upon the cross is like Christ upon the throne; for now is the judgment of this world: one departs with a curse, the other with a blessing. Though Christ himself was now in the greatest struggle and agony, yet he had a word of comfort to speak to a poor penitent that committed himself to him. Note, Even great sinners, if they be true penitents, shall, through Christ, obtain not only the pardon of their sins, but a place in the paradise of God, Heb. 9:15. This magnifies the riches of free grace, that rebels and traitors shall not only be pardoned, but preferred, thus preferred.
Secondly, By whom this was spoken. This was another mediatorial word which Christ spoke, though upon a particular occasion, yet with a general intention to explain the true intent and meaning of his sufferings; as he died to purchase the forgiveness of sins for us (Luke 23:34), so also to purchase eternal life for us. By this word we are given to understand that Jesus Christ died to open the kingdom of heaven to all penitent obedient believers. 1. Christ here lets us know that he was going to paradise himself, to hades—the invisible world. His human soul was removing to the place of separate souls; not to the place of the damned, but to paradise, the place of the blessed. By this he assures us that his satisfaction was accepted, and the Father was well pleased in him, else he had not gone to paradise; that was the beginning of the joy set before him, with the prospect of which he comforted himself. He went by the cross to the crown, and we must not think of going any other way, or of being perfected but by sufferings. 2. He lets all penitent believers know that when they die they shall go to be with him there. He was now, as a priest, purchasing this happiness for them, and is ready, as a king, to confer it upon them when they are prepared and made ready for it. See here how the happiness of heaven is set forth to us. (1.) It is paradise, a garden of pleasure, the paradise of God (Rev. 2:7), alluding to the garden of Eden, in which our first parents were placed when they were innocent. In the second Adam we are restored to all we lost in the first Adam, and more, to a heavenly paradise instead of an earthly one. (2.) It is being with Christ there. That is the happiness of heaven, to see Christ, and sit with him, and share in his glory, John 17:24. (3.) It is immediate upon death: This day shalt thou be with me, to-night, before to-morrow. Thou souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, immediately are in joy and felicity; the spirits of just men are immediately made perfect. Lazarus departs, and is immediately comforted; Paul departs, and is immediately with Christ, Phil. 1:23.