Crucified, Died, Buried
Passage: Luke 23:26–23:56
How can Jesus save others?
“Robert Leibowitz owes his life to a message on a T-shirt.” That was the subtitle for a news article published a few months ago. Robert’s kidneys were only functioning at 5%. They were failing. He was running out of time and he didn’t think his name would come up on the donor list before it was too late. But since he had an advertising background, he came up with a solution.
Robert printed these words on a plain, white t-shirt: “In Need of Kidney. O Positive.” Below that he had his cell phone number. Then he went to Disney World and walked around for a week. People took photos of him and one person posted it on their Facebook page. By the end of the week, that post had been shared with 90,000 people.
Robert started receiving hundreds of calls. He had suffered with kidney disease for 15 years and was on the transplant list, but he wasn’t going to get a kidney in time. So he resorted to finding a live donor, which would require someone who was a perfect match for his body on multiple levels and who was willing to give up their kidney.
Three people flew to New York where he lived but were denied because they weren’t a perfect match. Some people called Robert and were interested in helping but then flaked out and didn’t follow through. Eventually, Robert found someone who was both a perfect match and was willing to give him a kidney to save his life. Robert was desperate and knew he had one chance to live, so he took it and ended up finding the person who could solve his problem.
Today, we are continuing to prepare for Easter in a series called “For You.” Everything that Jesus goes through during the final days of his life was for you.
This week, we will see that Jesus was crucified, then he died and was buried for you. Right in the middle of our passage today, we hear an incredible conversation between Jesus and a criminal who crucified next to him. He’s like Robert with the kidney failure: he knows he has a problem, he has no power to fix it, and his only hope is that someone else can. So he asks Jesus for help.
But it’s a little strange, isn’t it? How can Jesus help him? Jesus is whipped just like he is. Jesus is hanging on a cross just like he is. Jesus is going to die just like he is. So how can Jesus be of any help?
The big question this passage answers is: how can Jesus save others? How can Jesus save others?
We will walk through the passage then come back to our big question.
The Crucifixion (Luke 23:26-56)
Imagine we are a film crew documenting Jesus’ life and we have followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem. We thought this trip to Jerusalem was going to be big news because Jesus was going to start a revolt against Rome and we wanted to get the action on film. It has turned out to be big news for other reasons: Jesus was betrayed, arrested, put through a rigged trial, and will now be executed.
We just filmed Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, attempt to release Jesus. Israel’s religious leaders tried to convince him that Jesus is a rebel against the Roman Empire but Pilate has determined that Jesus is innocent. Even so, he gives into the pressure of a crowd to have Jesus executed. So he sends Jesus to death by crucifixion.
Our passage begins with Roman soldiers leaving Pilate’s headquarters and escorting Jesus to the place of crucifixion outside of the city. He is required to carry the horizontal beam of his cross. But because Jesus has been up all night, questioned and beaten, and now whipped by Roman soldiers, he is unable to carry the cross himself so a man named Simon of Cyrene is pulled from the crowd and conscripted to help him carry it.
As Jesus is led away, the reality of Jesus’ fate is becoming public. He was arrested secretly at night, but now the people of Jerusalem are reacting. A group of women follow Jesus, mourning and lamenting his death. In verse 28, Jesus turns to them and says, “Don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves.” Jesus is a messenger of God’s kingdom but the leaders have rejected him, arrested him, and orchestrated his execution. Jesus warns that these actions have consequences. And indeed, Jerusalem was besieged and the temple destroyed about 40 years later in AD 70. Jesus is doing God’s will so they shouldn’t weep for him. They should weep for their city that is rejecting God.
In Jesus, we see God’s love for his enemies. He doesn’t say, “All these people are going to get what’s coming to them. Good riddance!” No, Jesus tells the women they should be crying for the fate of people who reject him and the God who sent him. The same fate of judgment awaits anyone who rejects Jesus today but like Jesus, we should have a gut-wrenching desire that they turn to him.
When they arrive at the place called “The Skull,” Jesus along with two criminals who were led out of the city with him are crucified. If we were a film crew documenting this event, we would see a wooden cross shaped like an “X”, a “Y”, a capital “T”, or a small “t”. We would watch Roman soldiers attach Jesus to it by driving nails through his hands. The cross would have a little ledge to sit on, but it would be angled down so that Jesus would need to pull himself up by his arms to stay on it. But his arms would be spread out to his sides and bearing most of his weight, so as he hangs he would become weaker and weaker, unable to pull himself up. As this happens, it would become harder and harder to breathe and eventually he would die by suffocation.
As we watch the soldiers attach Jesus to the cross, we hear him pray in verse 34:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
These men have beaten Jesus, stripped him of his clothes, put nails in his hands, and hoisted him up for everyone to watch him die. And yet, Jesus doesn’t curse them. All it takes is someone cutting me off in traffic for my anger to flare. But Jesus shows his love and compassion even for the people who have rejected him and are crucifying him. He desires that they would be forgiven and prays for them. He wants them to realize their mistake and turn. If you have ever felt that you are too bad for God to love, this moment proves that you aren’t. Jesus is a perfect picture of God’s love and the picture he paints is of a God who loves even his enemies. Even as the soldiers divide up his clothes among themselves, Jesus looks on them with a desire that they turn to God.
As a film crew, imagine we step back to get a shot of the whole scene and everyone participating. We see Jesus crucified beside two criminals, Roman soldiers at the base of the cross overseeing the execution, a group of Jerusalem’s religious leaders talking amongst themselves, and a crowd of people watching.
After getting this wide shot, we begin moving in for a closer one. We pass the crowd watching. Then as we walk through the religious leaders, we hear their conversation with each other. They scoff at Jesus and make fun of him to each other. We hear what they are saying at the end of verse 35:
“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35c)
As we move closer to the cross, their voices are behind us and we can now hear the soldiers who are standing around the base of the cross. We can also see a sign above Jesus’ head that names his crime. It says, “This is the King of the Jews.” That’s the charge the religious leaders brought to Pilate: that Jesus is claiming to be a king and is trying to start a revolt against Caesar. The soldiers think it’s a funny joke. Some king he is. He’s naked and nailed to a cross. They mock him and offer him some cheap sour wine as a joke: “Here’s some wine, your highness.” Verse 37 tells us what they are saying to him:
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37)
Looking up, we focus our camera on Jesus and the two criminals crucified next to him and we hear what they are saying in verse 39. It says:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
Everyone’s commentary is the same. “He saved others. If he really is God’s special chosen one, he should be able to save himself.” “If you really are the king, save yourself.” “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” If Jesus really is who he says he is, everyone thinks he should be able to save himself. They all find it comical that Jesus has claimed to be a powerful king and yet he is hanging helpless and weak and unable to save himself or anyone else. They are asking the big question of this passage with a mocking tone: how can Jesus save others? How can he possibly be a Savior for others if he can’t even save himself?
We’ve heard one criminal speak, but then the other criminal responds to him. Verse 40 says:
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:40-42)
Hanging next to him, this criminal looks at Jesus and doesn’t just see a man too weak to carry his own cross who is bloodied and about to die. He sees a king who can save him. He sees that Jesus truly is who he says he is and that Jesus can do what he says he can do. This criminal is like Robert with the failing kidneys: he’s dying and has one chance for salvation, so he takes it. His problem is that he is guilty and there’s no chance of doing good deeds to make up for it. This is it. He can’t promise Jesus that he will do better or that he’ll serve him faithfully. He wants to be part of Jesus’ kingdom - he wants to be part of the salvation Jesus promises. But he can’t do anything to earn it. All he can do is totally rely on Jesus’ mercy to let him in.
Jesus responds in verse 43:
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
A guilty man asks to be part of Jesus’ kingdom and he gets it. The criminal hopes Jesus will remember him in the future and let him into his kingdom, but Jesus makes an even greater promise: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus is going to the presence of his heavenly Father and this man is going with him.
But think about how odd this is. Jesus is in no position to grant anything. He is in no position to make promises. He is hanging on a cross about to die. How can he make and keep this promise? How can he continue talking like he is a king with a kingdom?
Verses 44 and 45 give us heaven’s commentary on the situation and tell us how Jesus can make this promise. Verse 44 says:
44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. (Luke 23:44-45)
The sixth hour is noon so there is darkness from 12:00 to 3:00pm. God is making it clear that an event of cosmic significance is taking place. The darkness shows that Jesus is under the shadow of God’s judgment. Jesus is not just serving the sentence of a guilty rebel against Rome but a guilty rebel against heaven. Jesus is bearing God’s judgment for our rebellion against him.
The result is that the curtain of the temple is torn in two. In Israel’s temple there was a room called “the Most Holy Place” or “the Holy of Holies” covered by a massive curtain because it was where the presence of God dwelt. This room was only entered once each year by the high priest. The message is clear: sinful, guilty rebels against heaven cannot be in God’s presence. But as Jesus takes God’s judgment for our sin in our place, the barrier keeping us from God’s presence is torn in two. Because Jesus serves the sentence of a guilty rebel, guilty rebels now have access to God.
This is how Jesus can promise the criminal on the cross that today, after they die, he will be with Jesus in God’s presence. Because Jesus is bearing the penalty for sin, the criminal on the cross can be forgiven and enter Jesus’ kingdom.
After several hours, our film crew hears Jesus’ last words in verse 46:
46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:46-47)
With his last breath, Jesus quotes the faith-filled words of an Old Testament Psalm and entrusts his life to God.
The Roman captain over the soldiers has been witness to all that’s happened: Jesus’ message to the mourning women, his prayer of forgiveness for his captors, the mocking insults, the conversation with the criminal and the promise of paradise. Now, as Jesus dies, he sees Jesus as more than a crucified criminal. He praises God and declares Jesus’ innocence.
With Jesus’ death, the crowds begin dispersing. Those who came out to see the spectacle leave mourning. Jesus’ followers who came with him from Galilee watch at a distance. Then Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. He was one of the religious leaders, but he didn’t take part in handing Jesus over to be crucified. Unlike them, he was a follower of Jesus, waiting to be part of the kingdom that Jesus said was coming. Jesus was executed as a criminal, but Joseph gives him a proper burial in a tomb.
All of this happens on a Friday. For Jewish people, the next day begins at sundown. Since it is getting late on Friday, the Sabbath is near and Jews don’t work on the Sabbath in observance of the Old Testament command. Some of the women who were followers of Jesus watched where Joseph laid Jesus’ body and they prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body, but they waited until Sunday to do so because of the Sabbath.
Big Question: How can Jesus save others?
The big question this passage answers is: how can Jesus save others?
It’s a valid question. How can this man crucified as a criminal offer salvation to anyone else? How can he promise paradise to a criminal dying with him? He can’t even save himself, so how can we expect him to deliver on his promises of salvation?
Just like Robert with the kidney failure, we have a problem and we are desperate for a solution. The bible gives us a deadly diagnosis. In the words of the criminal on the cross, if we received the due reward for our deeds, we would all be under the same sentence of condemnation. No amount of good deeds can erase our sin. We are beyond taking a few spiritual vitamins and supplements. We are beyond changing our spiritual diet and starting a spiritual exercise routine to make ourselves better people. We need to be made completely new. We need someone else to step in if we have any chance of living.
The criminal on the cross had one hope. He had no time to clean up his life or look for different solutions. So he throws it all on Jesus. Robert with kidney disease had one shot. He couldn’t make himself better. He needed someone else to step in. That was his only hope.
Jesus says he’s the one we need to step in so let’s answer the big question: how can Jesus save others? This passage gives three answers.
First, Jesus saves because he lovingly chooses to save. Jesus saves because he lovingly chooses to save. Robert with kidney failure needed to find someone willing to give him a kidney. He needed to find someone that would give him what he desperately needed.
Throughout these last four weeks, we have seen how Jesus lovingly choose to go to his death to save us. He said that his death was for us. He submitted to God’s will. And as he does so, he shows his love and compassion for people who are far from God. Jesus oozes nothing but love as he goes to his death.
Second, Jesus saves because he is perfectly able to save. Jesus saves because he is perfectly able to save. There were several people who were totally willing to give Robert a kidney. Three people even flew to New York for testing. But their willingness does no good if they aren’t a perfect match for his body. His body would reject the kidney. Those three people were denied because they weren’t a perfect match. But eventually Robert found someone who was both willing and a perfect match.
Even if Jesus is full of love and willing to die in order to save others, it does no good if he isn’t actually qualified to do so. He says his death will save others, but he is just a crazy, deluded person if it isn’t true.
Throughout this passage, those ridiculing him and mocking him actually state his qualifications: he is the Christ of God, he is God’s Chosen One, he’s the king. Jesus is the one God has sent to take care of our sin problem and his life proves it! After his death, the centurion states his other qualification: “Certainly, this man was innocent!” Jesus can take the penalty of our sin because he has no sin of his own. He is the spotless lamb from the Passover who can save others from death. These makes Jesus perfectly able to save. People are rejecting Jesus because he doesn’t save himself, but if he saved himself he could not save others.
Third, Jesus saves when we trust him to save. Jesus saves when we trust him to save. Robert with kidney failure had no options left. He was at the end of the line. The only way he was going to live was if he found someone else who was willing and able to save him.
What saves the criminal on the cross? What gets him into Jesus’ kingdom? What gets him into paradise with Jesus? What gets him into God’s presence when he dies? He sure doesn’t. He doesn’t even pretend like he has anything to offer. He fully owns that the only thing he contributes to his salvation is the need for it. His record does nothing but condemn him. He doesn’t try to convince Jesus he deserves salvation because his good deeds make up for his bad and he can’t promise Jesus that he’ll do better in the future. He has to fully rely on Jesus.
We are all in the same situation as this criminal. Our diagnosis is bad. If God gave us the due reward for our deeds, we would be justly condemned to eternity apart from him. We have one hope: trust in Jesus to save us.
Know that Jesus is the only way to God. Without him, a great curtain separates us from God. But because Jesus took the penalty for our sin, he ripped that curtain in two, giving us access to God. But it only comes through Jesus. He is the only one who can take us through that curtain. Without him, we remain outside of it. The clear message of the bible is that Jesus is the only way. You can’t do enough good deeds, you can’t hide your bad deeds, you can’t clean yourself up, you can’t convince God that you are better than other people. Jesus is the sole solution to our problem. He is the only one who can save us from our fatal diagnosis.
And yet, we so often keep searching for a Savior after we’ve already found him. We hear of Jesus’ loving desire to save us, we are assured that he is perfectly able to save, and yet we keep searching. It would be like Robert receiving his kidney transplant then heading back to Disney World with his white t-shirt and continuing to search. We’ve found our Savior but keep acting like we need saving.
We act like our bible reading and church attendance get us points with God. We labor to do everything right like our worth and value depend on it. We compare ourselves like we need to compete for salvation. We pretend and hide our sin like God hasn’t already taken care of it. We strive to behave like God will love us less if we don’t. We present our best selves to others like their opinions matter more than his. We beef up our resume with good deeds like those are what buy our access to God. We work to get close to God again after a bad week like we can save ourselves from our sin and tear through the curtain.
And we will always fall short because our sin problem is a problem we made but one that we cannot fix. We need someone else to step in and save us. We resist this solution because don’t like to admit that we need help. We want to feel like we are in control and can take care of ourselves. So even if we are exhausted and scared and overwhelmed and feel like we are drowning, we’d rather try to fix it ourselves, pretend we are ok, and die trying rather than admit we need someone else’s help.
But like the criminal on the cross, we need to fully own we have a big problem beyond our fixing and that Jesus is the only solution. We need to surrender to him. Our mission is to surrender all of life to Jesus and invite others to do the same. Surrender means “I will do whatever you say” but it also means “I’m fully relying on you.” Surrender is saying, “I need Jesus.”
Take a moment and grab a song book. Flip to the very back page (the same graphic is one our What Are We All About? page). In the middle of the page, you’ll see our Community Practices which answer how we surrender to Jesus. Admitting our neediness is hard for us to do but if you want to experience the power and presence of God in your life, you need to get good at saying, “I need Jesus and other people.” If we are going to be a church that experiences the power and presence of God in our community, we need to get good at saying, “We need Jesus and each other.” Each of our Community Practices in the middle of this page state a need.
Believing the Gospel is saying, “I need Jesus.” Living as Family is saying, “I need others.” Loving as Servants is saying, “Others need me.” Going as Messengers is saying, “Others need Jesus.” Relying on the Spirit once again says, “I need Jesus.”
This week is called Holy Week because today is Palm Sunday, remembering how Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly, and next Sunday is Easter, remembering how Jesus was raised from the dead. During the week, try confess your need to God once a day by saying to him: “I need Jesus. Please help me.” It’s basic yet powerful. And it’s a great way to celebrate Easter when Jesus came to meet our need.
When someone receives a kidney transplant, their body can reject the kidney even if the person is a perfect match. Only time will tell if it worked and they were saved. Jesus is a perfect match to be our Savior and he gave himself in love for our salvation. His resurrection three days after his death is the final proof that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that his death was accepted as payment for our sins. It shows that his death was not rejected but that he really did provide a way to God. That’s what we will celebrate next week.