A Criminal’s Cross

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“Two other criminals were also led away to be executed with him.” (Luke 23:32)

Crucifixion by the Roman government was the common method by which criminals were executed for their crimes. It is worth noting that all four gospel writers make it a point to allude, at least through the eyes of the Roman justice system, that Jesus was a criminal. Here are the accounts as recorded in the gospels:

“Two other criminals were also led away to be executed with him.” (Luke 23:32)

In Luke’s account he mentions the fact that Jesus was placed as the central malefactor between two other condemned men. Luke was careful, by his wording, to use the same description for Jesus as he did for the other two condemned men—a criminal.

The NetBible brings further insight and clarity to this reference in scripture. Regarding Luke’s text it says, “The text reads either “two other criminals” or “others, two criminals.” The first reading could be read as describing Jesus as a criminal, while the second looks like an attempt to prevent this identification. The first reading, more difficult to explain from the other, is likely the original.”[1]

In the first rendering Jesus is said to be a criminal just like the other two. Some translations, as noted by the NetBible, downplay this egregious insult for the Savior by making it sound like Jesus was crucified with two other men who were criminals. It is a small nuance but it has a significant impact on how a person interprets and understands the meaning of the text. The better rendering as the NetBible points out presents Jesus as a criminal on par with the other two. The softer rendering seems to shield Jesus from being described as a criminal like the other two men. But there are more reasons to believe, from scripture, that what is being communicated is that Jesus was designated as a criminal, sentenced to be crucified just like the other two lawbreakers. This is the position that I find to be true to the text, and once we put an investigative eye to the evidence we may find that there was an important reason for naming Jesus as a criminal.

The question we may ask is why was it important and what significance is there in naming Jesus as a criminal? Isn’t it somewhat harsh to describe the Savior as a criminal? After all, we know he wasn’t. So why make this designation so plain? So plain—that all four gospel writers used the term ‘criminal’ to describe Jesus.

Maybe you remember the TV series Crime Scene Investigation? Years ago I enjoyed watching the lead investigator, whose name was Grissom, apply forensic analysis which led to clear irrefutable evidence in catching the criminal. In similar fashion, as we move forward in this case, I find that this scene at Golgotha supplies many important undertones regarding the forensic aspects of the cross. And as we gather the evidence I trust that we may have a better understanding of why Jesus was designated as a criminal, and see its importance as it relates to us, while also having a greater appreciation for what Christ did for us on the day of his execution. Once we are finished with this case study I hope that as we have focused the lens of our heart’s eye, what we will see with sharpened clarity is something about our own personal standing before God.

Now let’s read the statements from our remaining three witnesses.

St. Mark’s deposition states: “And they crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left.” (Mark 15:27).

St. Matthew’s statement is similar: “Then two outlaws were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left”. (Matthew 27:38).

And St. John, the beloved disciple seems more gracious in his telling, “There they crucified him along with two others, one on each side, with Jesus in the middle.” (John 19:18)

It is apparent that the crucifixion of Jesus was important to the gospel message for all four writers. And that special attention was given to identify the Savior as serving the same sentence as the other criminals, making Him guilty of crimes against the state.

A.B. Simpson adds this perspective, “And what shame was suffered as he hung there, crucified between two thieves. He was looked upon by men and even treated by His own Father as if He were the worst and vilest criminal that ever lived or died.”[2]

This recognition, as a criminal, had previously been revealed by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. His prophetic identification of the coming Redeemer as a criminal is made clear in these Messianic pronouncements, “He was led away after an unjust trial…They intended to bury him with criminals…and was numbered with the transgressors(Isaiah 53:8,9,12).

It behooves me, in light of God’s redemptive plan, to know why it was not enough to simply know that Jesus died for our sins? Why did His plan include the necessity to assign incriminating charges that would view Jesus as a criminal? Could not God have arranged the foretelling of the Messiah’s death differently? Couldn’t he have made it so that Jesus died as a martyr, thereby accomplishing the sacrificial redemption needed for those who would believe in Him? Why a criminals death? Could he not have suffered death at the hands of a mob or have been assassinated by the plunge of a knife or beaten senseless and tossed into a river? It seems that there could have been many ways that Jesus could have died, then buried and rise again, and still fulfill the requirements of a sacrificial death. This may all sound strange to us because we now know by what means God chose to redeem the world, but again, why a criminal’s death?

If Jesus was to fulfill the shadows of sacrificial death in the Old Testament, one would be hard pressed to find both a cogent analogy and theology equating his death with that of a sacrificial animal. Why? Because  sacrificial animals committed no crimes. But this may be the clue we need. By comparing the old temple system of sacrifice with Jesus’ sacrifice we may be getting closer to understanding the reason for why he was numbered with the transgressors. In the Old Covenant the sins of the people were transferred upon an innocent animal and in a similar way our sins were transferred upon the innocent Christ. There is something in this transference of sins that speak of someone (or an animal as in the Old Covenant system) bearing the guilt for transgressions against the Righteous Judge.

This is where the forensic aspects of his death can help in our understanding of he being counted and numbered with the transgressors, as Isaiah has stated and the gospel writers have testified.

A Criminal’s Death

There are two vantage points by which to view the sentencing and execution of Jesus. One is from the viewpoint of earth, the other is from the viewpoint of heaven. In effect the Lord faced two trials, one from the Roman/Jewish authorities and the other from his Heavenly Father. I believe that the judgement he faced before God the Father far outweighed the pain and torture he suffered by the hands of men. The request to remove the cup at Gethsemane was one in which Jesus looked for another way to escape the in-flooding sin into his body (1 Peter 2:24), the inner pangs of a sin drenched soul (Isaiah 53:11,12), and the hammer of Divine justice pounding him into the the hell of a God-ordained wrath (Isaiah 53:10). It was terrifying enough to face the tortures of a cross on the extremities of his body, but more devastating and horrific was to be ripped apart from the side of the One whom he had loved from all eternity, and to become the heinous bearer who willingly consumed the culmination of every person’s sin of all time into his being. And yet, through the gruesome trial of the cross it was natural for him to reach deep into his divine nature, and offer to the mocking crowds that hated him—forgiveness. But to his Father he cried out into the now dark and foreboding courts of heaven, and in essence yelled, Where are You?! (Matthew 27:46)

No answer came.

It was a horror of horrors on the Hill of the Skull. From an earthly view the Romans had written the charge and nailed it to the stipes[3], “And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”(Matthew 27:37)

But the primary executioner, was God the Father. He too nailed the sentence of death to the Savior’s cross. And though no one could physically see it, yet from a heavenly perspective God nailed to the beam the real charges, “…the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he [God] set aside, nailing it to the cross.(Colossians 2:14). The criminal elect, Jesus of Nazareth, was being sentenced for crimes he never committed and yet took the punishment as if he did.

The portrayal of Jesus Christ as a criminal in both the Old and New Testaments is an unjust designation for one who never committed one sin against man or God. And yet, I believe that no other designation could better picture the way in which God sees all humanity and thus holds all the world under the sentence of punishment by legal means. Jesus died as a criminal because he represented every person’s stance before a just God. In the eyes of God, we are all lawbreakers of the vilest sort, criminals with the verdict of condemnation already hanging over our heads. Just as John the baptizer said; “The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36). And the apostle Paul reckons us as “enemies of God”. (Romans 5:10).

Now, we don’t like to be compared to criminals. In our modern day, everyone’s a winner, politically-correct culture, this is the kind of religion we’d rather stay away from hearing about. Many have a shallow view of the cross, thinking how sad it was that a good man suffered unjustly instead of realizing the magnitude of our own evil and sinfulness that He came to die for. Yet the legal aspects of soteriology (the study of salvation) make man just that-criminals. We would rather like to think of ourselves in more generous terms. Maybe a bit misguided, imperfect, or religiously ignorant perhaps, but never criminals!

In an address to a campus crusade student body, Pastor Reidhead in a sermon called “Ten Shekels and a Shirt” recalls the words of George Whitefield, who during the Great Awakening preached to huge crowds of spiritually apathetic people. Whitefield bellowed, “You’re monsters, monsters of iniquity! You deserve hell! And the worst of your crimes is that criminals though you’ve been, you haven’t had the good grace to see it! If you will not weep for your sins and your crimes against a Holy God, George Whitefield will weep for you.”[4]

In order for Jesus to fully stand in the sinners stead he had to become like the most vile of lawbreakers. If he was to make his appeal in the courts of heaven, he had to do it as one like ourselves—criminals who have transgressed the law of God. While his life had seen the warmest affirmation of the Father’s unswerving affection for him, his death incurred the wrath, rejection and hatred for what his Son had become. Paul the apostle understood the enormity and consequences of the cross. You can almost see his lips quiver as he speaks the unthinkable, “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5:21). His earthly life may have marked him as the holiest, sinless and most honorable of men. But in his death Jesus was the basest, most repulsive and damned human being to ever have died.

In effect, Jesus faced his final moments on earth as a sinner…a transgressor…a violator of God’s righteousness, deserving of the deepest confinements of a devil’s hell. And it was all planned in advance. The Father predetermined by his own counsel and wisdom to send his own son to die a sinner’s death[5], not a holy man’s death. He was to be condemned to bear the grievous death penalty for all the crimes (sins) of humanity. The law of God had given sin its power and the resulting sting of death calls all mankind to the grave.[6] So when God chose us as sinners and predestined us to be his elect, he chose his son to be the sin-eater[7] so that we may be given his righteousness.

Perhaps, in some small way, we can comprehend how Jesus “tasted death” (Hebrews 2:9) for everyone [8]. He first must step all the way down the rung of sinful humanity to that of a death-row criminal. Then at the place of execution he would suffer the torments of the Father’s total rejection and be cut off from that tri-union where he had never been separated from Him. The sin-eater would then be consumed with humanity’s total transgressions only to became the object of God’s fury and repudiation. The words of F. Leahy are most applicable, “On the cross Christ bore the full penal sanction of the law of God which was our due. Our punishment was transferred to him. The curse, which he endured, consisted especially in his experience of being forsaken by God. There was an awareness in his human nature of a complete withdrawal of God, and that is the essential element of damnation and eternal death: that is hell.”[9]

All this we would suffer unless our sin bearer had gone in our place. Like the Old Testament transference of Israel’s sin on the head of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21,22), all our sins, which were crimes against the justice of God and the demands of the law were placed upon Jesus. Our crimes were imputed to Him, and he became the criminal that God saw us to be.

The New Adam

Because God’s justice is perfect in righteousness and holiness he could not just arbitrarily forgive the sinner of his sins. He could not just wave a magic wand and say ‘voila!’ your sins are forgiven and gone. Why? Because, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (Romans 3:19).

The sentence for crimes done against the holiness of God had to be meted out. Forgiveness had to be based on satisfying the demands of restitution for wrongs done. God’s sinless nature demands that the laws of holiness must remain completely adhered to 100% of the time. Anything less than that is to fall short of what his holy law requires. Thus, only a person who keeps the laws of holiness and remains without sin 100% of the time qualifies as a substitute for the person who is unable to keep these requirements. The apostle Paul teaches that by one man [Adam] and by one sin death has come into the world (Romans 5:12). This is where a legal substitute, who embodies human nature in every way, must be found. The bible calls this man, the second Adam. A.W. Pink adds this understanding from a legal standpoint, “First, it was requisite that one of the Divine persons should be made under that very law which was originally given to man, and which man transgressed. “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Galatians. 4:4).[10]

Adam was the covenantal head of the human race. He was the father of all humanity in the natural sense. And as our representative, it was his responsibility to uphold the covenant that God had made with him; that being, his privilege to eat of any tree, except one, as an act of subservience to his Creator. The warning to Adam that in the day he disobeys he would die (Genesis 2:16,17), became a universal, governing moral law established by the Supreme law giver. It represented a loyalty of relationship out of love while enforcing transparency and establishing God’s requirement for holy living. Adam’s failing to do so, resulted in a contract breach which became mankind’s death warrant. In order to legally acquit this charge against humanity a death had to be carried out, one way or the other. God put into effect the legislative means whereby sinful man could be redeemed. Thus, the sacrificial system was developed and the Atonement, via an innocent animal, provided the legal requirement whereby God released the sentence of death upon the sinner and transferred that charge to the slain sacrifice that was innocent of a death sentence. On a side note, the sacrifice of an innocent animal for sin first appears in Genesis soon after Adam and Eve sinned. It is just like human nature to cover up our own sin, that is what Adam and Eve tried to do.

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3:7)

But the Lord required a death to show just how serious sin is in the eyes of God. Loincloths made of leaves would not do; it may hide their outward shame but it could not portray the consequences of a sinful heart. The Lord made skins, meaning an animal had to be slain, in order to cover their sin. 

“And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21)

Therefore, a substitute chosen by God who could perfectly fulfill the law’s requirements was met in the person of Jesus Christ; who became human, outside the curse of Adam’s fallen nature through a miraculous conception. He was the new Adam, fully human, but with a divine nature as well. The Adamic nature was flawed forever. It could not be salvaged on the basis of its own merit. It was permanently damaged goods. A second Adam from sullied human clay had to come into being, and somehow maintain the Divine image of the original. Jesus was this new being. He established the way in which a flawed human being could be reconstituted to its original Divine image by regeneration and “become[ing] partakers of the divine nature…” (2 Peter 1:4).

The Rescuer

Here we stand as guilty sinners awaiting a criminal’s sentence before the Almighty who is the “judge of the whole earth.”(Genesis 18:25). Until, at last, our Substitute pleads our case. He is our stand-in and is willing to impart to us his righteousness in exchange for our sins. On this matter, St. Paul says, “But to the one who does not work [for his salvation], but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.”(Romans 4:5). The atoning death of the Son provided the necessary payment to free us from our eternal death sentence. Therefore, the payment for our  crimes by the work of the righteous One on the cross has been credited to our account. His atoning sacrifice results in reversing the guilt charges that were against us and removing the penalty of death. In reality, we have been rescued from the law’s indictment and Satan’s accusations (Revelation 12:10) which  transgressions and charges against us would have kept us incarcerated forever.

Professor Graesser points out that, “In an Israelite court the judge who righteously gave the verdict to the oppressed  [unjustly accused] litigant in effect rescued that person. The righteous judge was a rescuer.”[11]

The New Testament tells us, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”(Romans 5:1). The Judge of all the earth declares us righteous. We are not made righteous but declared righteous. The “difference is important” according to Daniel Wallace. He goes on to say, “If imparted, then God makes us righteous. If imputed, then God declares us to be righteous. If imparted, then there is no assurance of salvation since God does not make us righteous immediately. If imputed, there is indeed assurance of salvation since the legal declaration of our righteousness is the divine statement about our status, not about our practice.”[12]

This declaration of imputed righteousness results in placing us on firm legal ground by the courts of heaven. By God’s declaration we are now justified, not because we are less the criminal than we were before, but because an innocent man became the  criminal that we are and obediently fulfilled the righteousness of God’s holy law for us. While righteousness changes the status of the sinner to a restorative relationship to the Judge, justification changes the status of the sinner in respect to the Law. C.H. Spurgeon offers this observation from a legal viewpoint, “The term justification is forensic, referring to the proceedings in a court of judicature, and signifies the declaring a person righteous according to law… [it is] the act of a judge pronouncing the party acquitted from all judicial charges. A criminal when pardoned is freed from an obligation to suffer for his crimes; but he that is justified is declared worthy of life as an innocent person.”[13]

In summary Christ was designated as a criminal because it best mirrors the way God sees all mankind. There is nothing in ourselves that we can point to and say ‘Look God, I am really a good person.’ The scriptures make it woefully clear that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

As Christians we are fascinated with the idea that we are seated with him in heavenly places according to Ephesians 2:6. But to fully catch the grandeur of that spiritual picture, it is vital to first capture the image of us nailed to a criminal’s cross and being crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6), as one’s deserving nothing more than the holy indictment of a just God.

Yes, Jesus was numbered among criminals because in the eyes of God he took to himself the sins of the world and became the embodiment of the sins of every person. He took to himself the billions and billions of life sentences that hung over the heads of those to be redeemed. And finally as he breathed his last on earth, he relinquished his spirit to the hands of his Father and gave up the ghost.

But that is only half the story.

In three days something else had been previously planned—a prison break.

You may also like the sermon: Crosses and Criminals


1- Net Bible. 2005. Luke 23:32. Commentary notes. Biblical Studies Press. Richardson, Texas.
2- Simpson, A.B. The Cross of Christ. American Gospel Missions Inc. Internet.
3- Rickard, Dr. Edgar. 2007. The Crucifixion of Christ. Bible Studies at the Moorings. Internet. The stipes
    is the upright beam that was permanently fixed to the ground.
4- Reidhead, Paris. Ten Shekels and a Shirt (Message Transcript 2006). American Gospel Missions, Inc.
    Athens, Georgia. Internet. Available http://www.gospeljohn.com/pr_tenshekels.htm;accessed 20,March
5- Acts 2:23. “…this man [Jesus[, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of
    God, you executed by nailing him to a cross…”
6- 1 Corinthians 15:56. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
7- Wikipedia. 2008.  Sin-eater. Internet. “Traditionally, it is performed by a beggar. They would be brought to the dying person’s bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying, he would drink and remove the bread and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself.” I use this term only to show how this legend has survived in symbolically enacting Christ’s sin bearing work on the cross.
8- NetBible. 2005. Commentary notes. Biblical Studies Press. Richardson, Texas. “Not a small sampling
    but experiencing cognitively or emotionally”.
9- Leahy, Fredrick S. 2007. The Wrath of God in Relation to the Atonement. Reformed Perspectives  
    Magazine. Vol 9, Number 6. From the Banner of Truth Magazine. 1995. Issue 379, pp 23-25.
10- Pink, Arthur W. 2007. Mediatorial Union. Reformed Perspectives Magazine. Vol 9, Number23. From
      Spiritual Union and Communion. Baker: Grand Rapids, MI 1971
11- Graesser, Carl. Je 1983. Righteousness, human and divine. Currents in Theology and Mission. 10, no.3:
12- Wallace, Daniel B. What does it mean to be Justified? 2007. Internet.
13- Spurgeon, C.H. 2007. Justification. Reformed Perspectives Magazine. Vol. 9, number 33.

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