The Criminal on the Cross
From a speech by George B Schultz
You may recall, some years ago there was a popular riddle that went like this.
What is black and white and read all over? Of course the answer was: a newspaper.
In keeping with the reading theme, I have a riddle for you today.
What can you read that you cannot see? I can think of 3 answers but I don't want one of them.
And if you knew the two I wanted, you may have experienced one of them already. The two I
want: Read my mind, Read between the lines.
Those are some of the things we will be considering today, reading between the lines
and reading someone's mind.
Now you can get in trouble doing that. But we will be careful. We will rely on
God's word to guide us correctly.
But first, we need two common understandings before we can read what we cannot see.
Messiah is the English form of a Hebrew word. It is found 39 times in the Old Testament.
The 2 times it is found in the New Testament it is a Hebrew word recorded in its Greek form Messias.
But what does Messiah mean? And in preparation for our reading of things we cannot see, what
does Messiah mean to a Jew?
The word itself means anointed. Anointing is the practice of pouring oil over someone´s head
to indicate that they have been selected and appointed to a particular position. This was
usually a very high calling.
This practice of anointing with oil might seem a little strange to us. When we select and
appoint someone, we have them take an oath of office. And then they only have the position
for a specific period of time, not a lifetime like in the Jewish culture.
Years ago being elected to office may have been our most distinguished position.
Now there may be similar prestige for people who have one-day accomplishments,
make movies, play sports, or even commit crimes.
Whatever the reason, we assign importance to certain individuals. Maybe it´s the:
President (or a candidate for president)
Astronauts that walked on the moon
Professional Sports Players
We show that we have high regard for these people when we go to get a glimpse of them.
What if these people came to your hometown? Would you go see the President, an astronaut,
members of a winning sports team? Not long ago over 1 million fans lined the streets of
Detroit to catch just a glimpse at their Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.
When you think about it, we go and wait for hours to see someone who has done little or
nothing for you, and will do little or nothing for you in the future. And they do little
or nothing for you because they can do little or nothing for you.
But what if it were different. What if, when you went and saw the Red Wings, they would
place you on the team, and successfully teach you how to play, and you joined them on the ice for
their games, as an important part of the team.
What if, when you went and saw the president, he would take you with him back to Washington
and give you an important, well-paying job in the government.
Now you begin to get the picture that a Jew has of Messiah. The Jews believed Messiah
would come and do something for them. God said so. Messiah would benefit the nation above
all other people who ever existed. Messiah would be above Moses, and even the angels. He
would redeem and restore Israel. He would rescue his chosen people from the domination of
the Roman Empire. There would be blessing upon blessing for Israel, and God would
establish his kingdom with them forever.
There was no other person who would do so much for so many. They looked forward to the
time of this anointed one of God, the Messiah.
With our understanding of Messiah we are halfway there. The second common understanding
that we need so we can read what we cannot see is...
The Fear of God
We live in an age where the fear of God is more history than practice. Keith Green states
it well in his song where he wrote the words as if God was singing it to us.
To Obey is better than sacrifice
I don't need your money, I want your life.
And I hear you say that I'm coming back soon,
But you act like I'll never return.
And while the Jews also had their times of forgetting God, they also had their times
of fear of God.
The Jews had a unique history. It was Abraham who was chosen by God, and who talked with
God in ways we can only imagine. His son Isaac was spared from death by an angel. In turn
his son Jacob was renamed Israel by God and given twelve sons, to begin the twelve tribes
of Israel. Their history continues with mighty and miraculous works involving Joseph,
Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and others as recorded in the Old Testament.
When their families would get together they would pass along the stories of how God parted
the waters, gave them the Ten Commandments, had the walls of Jericho fall down, and all
the other wonders.
They were so full of fearful respect for their awesome God that they did not even fully
pronounce his name. They chose to call him Adonai (my Lord) instead of the revered name
of Yahweh. They understood and took to heart who he was, for the name Yahweh means
"he causes to be, he creates". They understood the vast difference between themselves,
the created thing, and the one who could speak them into existence. Or for that matter,
could speak them out of existence. When they considered these things, they had the fear
Now that we have a common understanding of Messiah and the fear of God we are ready to
read between the lines. We are ready to read someone's mind.
We will read between lines of scripture a story that records a change of heart. And the
person who's heart was changed, and who's mind we will read, is...
The Criminal on the Cross
Let us consider three sections of scripture:
Two robbers were crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left. Those who
passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who are going to
destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross,
if you are the Son of God!" In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law
and the elders mocked him. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself!
He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in
him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the
Son of God.'" In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped
insults on him.     Matthew 27: 38-44
Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.     Mark 15:25-32
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ?
Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God,"
then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom." Jesus answered him,
"I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."     Luke 23:39-43
Here is where we must read between the lines. What happened between the lines that
state the two criminals hurled insults at him and the line that indicates one of them
feared God? What changed the attitude of one of the criminals that lead him to make
those last statements?
He had two things going for him that you and I don't have:
1. He knew he wasn't going anywhere that day.
2. He knew that day he was going to die.
We have never been put in a situation like that. Yet we can imagine in part what
that would be like. We can imagine what he might have thought. And being ever so
careful, using scriptures as our guide, we will attempt to read his mind.
In scripture we read:
A large number of people followed as they lead Jesus up to be crucified.
Jesus was crucified near the city; near a main road so many could see him.
Those who passed by hurled insults at him.
Many of the Jews came and read the sign hanging above his head that read "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".
We do not know all that was said that day. But let me give you some thoughts on what
they might have said. On what our criminal might have been thinking.
As he was hanging there (from a fairly good vantage point) he saw many people staring.
I presume he saw that most of the attention was directed to this person next to him.
He may have seen a few people come up to the vicinity of Jesus, maybe not too close.
They might have been crying as they looked at this Jesus. Maybe there were even a few
people who commented that this person healed them. They were blind but now could see,
they were lame but now could walk.
Maybe this type of information just came out as insults. "You healed that blind beggar
by Jericho, why can't you heal yourself." "You raised Lazarus from the dead, why can't
you save yourself."
Whatever was done or said may have got our criminal thinking. He might have considered
the prophets of old:
Moses parted the Red Sea
Joshua parted the Jordan river
Isaiah prayed and had God withhold rain for over 3 years
All because God was with them. They did not have the power themselves but were using
the Power of God. They could not perform these things if God did not provide the power
and approve of it's use.
This man hanging next to him performed more signs. He healed the sick, made the lame
walk, caused the blind to see. He multiplied bread to feed thousands. He must be a
prophet of the most high God. And perhaps this reasoning lead him to say to the other
criminal "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."
Nothing wrong. He has performed more signs than any other prophet who walked the face
of the earth. No one could do these things unless God was with him. And God has not
left him since right up to the time he was arrested he still demonstrated God's power.
When they came to arrest him and said they seek Jesus of Nazareth, he responded "I am he"
and they all drew back and fell to the ground. When one of his disciples cut off a servant's
ear he reached out and healed it.
And what has he been saying? These people standing around have been repeating it. He said
he was the Christ of God, the Chosen One (Luke), the Messiah. People have been commenting
he claimed to be the King of Israel (Mark). He himself said "I am the Son of God" (Matthew).
And the motivation was there for the criminal to deeply ponder these things. After all,
he wasn't going anywhere, and he was going to die. He might have thought, Jesus
demonstrated beyond doubt that God was with him by his miracles. Jesus said he was sent
by God to bring salvation. He said he was the way to heaven, the only way. He said he was God.
And our criminal might have been the only one clearly thinking and reasoning that day. For
while others in their grief and despair were sad and saying they thought this might have
been the Messiah, the criminal could have reasoned, this is the Messiah. This man from
God said he was. And while that criminal could not understand why he was hanging there
on that cross next to him, he might have understood that it was because he wanted to.
No one can oppose God, and this Jesus has to be who he said he was, there is no other
explanation for the miraculous signs. So he must be choosing to be there.
He might have thought to himself, I don't know why, but I do know who this is hanging
on a cross next to me. This is my Messiah. And this reasoning may have been what prompted
him to say, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
And the reply that he received was beyond all expectations. This may have been the first
time that Jesus spoke to the criminal. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, today you will
be with me in paradise."
What would that be like, to have God turn and look you in the eye, and say to you, "I tell
you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." It would be joy, comfort, and relief
to know that your fate is secure. Our criminal experienced that.
So what does all of this mean to us, living some 2000 years later? We have 2000 years of
more proof that no one has ever walked the face of this earth and demonstrated power
over the things of this earth like Jesus did. We have 2000 years of more proof that the
message Jesus brought was from God. And that message from God to you is recorded in the
And what is that message?
We are all sinners and headed for hell.
God has provided a way for you to be saved from that torment.
Jesus is the way, the only way, for you to be saved.
It says in Romans 10:9 That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe
in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Many people have trouble with that because it is so simple. It does not require much
effort on your part.
For those of you who think it is beneath your dignity to get to heaven by the simplicity
of the Gospel message; for those of you who think you get to heaven by doing good works;
for those of you who think you get to heaven by doing sacrifices in your life, maybe the
best thing for you today is to be stripped of all your clothing and be nailed to a cross
like our criminal.
Then you would have a few hours of deep thought: of who you really are, of what your
situation really is, and where you are really going.
And as you are hanging naked in front of everyone you will realize that you amount to
nothing. Your works, your wealth, your achievements, your character, your mind, your
talents all amount to nothing as you hang there in a helpless condition, being stuck
to the wood with the nails through your hands and feet.
Perhaps then you would ponder and realize that the only thing you amount to is being a
sinner in the sight of the almighty God. The only thing in your future is an eternity
of punishment in the real existence of hell. God makes that clear.
Maybe then you would remember the words you heard earlier today, that if you confess
with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from
the dead, you will be saved.
And if you are still having trouble believing it is just that simple, let's take
another look at our criminal.
What did he have going for him?
A Good life? Can you imagine the life of a criminal? Go the county jail or any of our penitentiaries or prisons,
pick out someone with a death sentence or life imprisonment, and ask them to tell you about their good life.
It was not our criminal's life that got him saved.
Good works? He was being killed for committing a crime. He was such an undesirable person that society was
eliminating him from the face of this earth.
The only thing our criminal had going for him was that he confessed with his mouth and
believed in his heart.
Lets look at his words. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He confessed
he was Lord when he spoke of him coming into his kingdom. He knew that this person nailed
to the cross next to him was going to be established as ruler over all. He confessed that
Jesus is Lord.
The next part is interesting. "Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead".
At first, one might think it is difficult to believe that God raised someone from the dead who has
not even died yet. But look at the situation. Jesus is hanging there on the cross, and
for all our criminal knew, they both were going to die shortly. Yet our criminal asked
to be remembered when Jesus enters his kingdom, something that he can only do when he
is alive. He did not know how, or when, but he believed in his heart that this Jesus
would someday be brought back to life in order to enter his kingdom. He believed in
his heart that God would raise him from the dead.
That is all our criminal did to go from an eternal death into an enternal life.
That is all you have to do.
And how would God respond to you? If you could hear it, it would only be slightly
different because of the situational difference. We might not die today.
But His response to you would be, "I tell you the truth, today you have guaranteed,
that when you die, you will be with me in paradise."
The criminals on either side of Jesus were there for a reason. They give us a picture of all mankind,
for all the people who have ever lived can be represented by one of those two criminals.
Like both of the criminals, all people are sinners and all are going to die. But the difference
between the two criminals, like the difference between all who have ever lived on this earth,
is that one will enter heaven while another will not.
As one of the criminals showed us, it does not depend on our works or effort, but only on
trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. Today you can have the same surety of eternal life in heaven
that he had when Jesus spoke directly to him. Accept Jesus as your savior today,
before it is forever too late.