Yesterday we read about Jesus’ religious trial in Luke 22:66-71. That trial was for blasphemy (see Matt 26:64-66). Since Jesus claimed to be “the Son of God” (vv. 69-70 here in Luke 23) and that he would “be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” the religious leaders of his era concluded that he was speaking irreverently of God, which is what “blasphemy” means. This was worthy of death in Jewish law (again, Matt 26:66); the problem was that these religious leaders did not have the legal authority to perform capital punishment. If they killed Jesus themselves, they could have been charged with murder by the Roman government. So, here in Luke 23, Jesus was taken to Pilate, the Roman governor of their area, for trial (v. 1).
Their religious reasons for killing Jesus were insufficient for Roman law, so they charged Jesus with sedition (v. 2) before Pilate. Pilate found the charge unpersuasive since Jesus answered indirectly and didn’t seem like much of a threat (vv. 3), so Pilate ruled in Jesus’ favor in verse 4. The “chief priests and the crowd” in verse 5 tried to muster some evidence against Jesus so they talked about how many multitudes had been following him in Galilee. Galilee was under the political government of Herod Antipas who happened to be in town (vv. 6-7). Note that Pilate was governor of Judea, the southern part of Israel while Herod was in charge of Galilee, the northern part of Israel. Jerusalem is in Judea, the South, so they were in Pilate’s territory when Jesus was arrested, but as a Galilean, Herod could be responsible for dealing with Jesus (v. 7). Pilate tried to dodge responsibility by letting Herod deal with Jesus. Herod tried to talk to Jesus, but Jesus refused so, after mocking Jesus, Herod sent him back to Pilate (vv. 8-12).
Once again Pilate tried various ways to release Jesus, knowing that his death would be unjust (vv. 13-22), but he finally buckled to the pressure of the crowd and approved Jesus for the death penalty (vv. 23-26).
Jesus was not alone in his crucifixion. Two other men were crucified with Jesus (vv. 32-43) but they had very different reactions to him. One man joined the mocking of the crowd (v. 39) but the other man spoke up and rebuked the first criminal (v. 40). Notice the words of the criminal who spoke up for Jesus: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Here is someone who understood sin and punishment. In his own case, and apparently based on what he knew of the other man, he knew that he was guilty and deserved the death penalty. But how could he know that Jesus was innocent? Did he overhear the trial of Christ before Pilate? Had he heard Jesus teaching at some point earlier in his life? Maybe one or both of these things is true and maybe that’s what caused him to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But whatever he knew of Jesus and however he knew it, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that even though Jesus was dying, he would still be king! What a remarkable thing! Yet it is a testimony not to the man’s keen spiritual insight but to God’s saving grace. In the final hours of his life, this man turned to Jesus in faith and believed that his eternity would be safe in Jesus’ hands. Jesus comforted him with the promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). Despite all the sinful things he had done, sins so bad they got him executed, he found forgiveness in Christ at the end of his life.
Time seems to harden people to the gospel. It is very rare to see an elderly person--even someone who is dying--accept Christ as savior. Many prisoners who hear the gospel profess faith in Christ but certainly not all of them. Facts like these sometimes cause me to be pessimistic when giving the gospel to adults but my pessimism is wrong. God can save anyone he chooses to save. Hardened criminals who have done wicked crimes can be changed by the power of Jesus Christ. The conversion of this criminal should remind us and encourage us not to pre-judge whether someone will be saved or not. We shouldn’t decide in advance whether or not we think someone will turn to Christ in faith; we should understand that God is saving people all over the world at different points in life and, in some cases, with very little knowledge about Jesus. Let’s trust God, then, and be faithful to give the gospel when we can.