What the Criminal Understood

The story of the criminal crucified next to Jesus testifies of God’s grace—and compels us to carry his message of forgiveness throughout the world.

The crucifixion of Christ is the central pivot point of world history.

It reminds us of the love of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made for us. When we think about Jesus’ death, we often forget that there were three men crucified that day. Two criminals received the same sentence as Jesus, and the story of the one on Jesus’ right is a powerful testimony to the grace and forgiveness of our Lord.

Each of the three men crucified that day had his own unique experience. Let us consider the criminal who had his heart changed and learned some crucial things about Jesus.

Matthew 27:39-44 describes the scene at the crucifixion. All three men had already been whipped 39 times with the cat of nine tails. Their flesh would have looked more like raw meat than human skin. The only way you would have been able to recognize Jesus was that he was the only one who had a crown of thorns crammed onto his skull with an inscription at the top of his cross declaring him to be the “King of the Jews.” The mocking was brutal, and most of the crowd jeered at Jesus as they went by.

Shockingly, the two men on either side of Jesus also joined in on the mocking. As they endured hours of excruciating pain, however, Jesus looked at the crowd with compassion and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This only increased the soldiers’ mocking, but the criminal on Jesus’ right had a change of heart. He went from mocking Jesus to rebuking the other criminal.

This scene illustrates the criminal’s understanding of Christ in three ways.

1. The Criminal Understood That Jesus Was the Gracious King (Luke 23:39-43)

At first, the criminal participated in the mocking of Jesus, but as time passed, his posture changed. He began to rebuke the other criminal and asked Jesus to remember him when he entered his kingdom. Jesus’ gracious response showed the criminal that he was indeed the king he claimed to be.

2. The Criminal Understood That He Deserved to Die (Luke 23:40-41)

When this criminal rebuked the other criminal for his continued mocking of Jesus, he showed that he was keenly aware of his own sinfulness. He recognized that he deserved to die and that Jesus was an innocent man.

3. The Criminal Understood That Forgiveness Was Available (Luke 23:42-43)

When the criminal asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus promised that he would be with him in paradise. This showed the criminal that forgiveness was available, even to a sinner like himself. It was not too late to turn to Jesus and be saved.

The criminal on the cross was a prime example of someone whose heart was changed and who recognized Jesus as the Savior he claimed to be. As Christians, it’s our obligation to take this good news of forgiveness to the world. Just as the criminal had a second chance, people from all over the world can also be forgiven and brought into the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us be faithful to share this message with all those who have not yet heard.

Multiply Your Impact

It’s never been easier for you to help a missionary.

Every missionary needs biblical training, accountability, leadership, encouragement, help communicating with their supporters, and guidance when something goes wrong.

The Global Gospel Fund helps missionaries every day by providing these crucial services.

Paul L. Davis

Paul Davis is president of ABWE. Prior to his appointment in 2017, Paul served as senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Holland, MI. He attended Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary and holds a master’s degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Paul and his wife, Martha, have been married for 28 years, and have both served in numerous roles in Christian ministry and education. They have four adult children. Follow Paul on Facebook.