The Crucifixion of the King | Luke 23:27-46
Brian Hedges | April 7, 2023
We worship a crucified King, but how could a King be crucified? Crucifixion in the ancient world was for criminals and slaves, not for Messiahs, not for kings. So down through the centuries people have asked, “How could someone who died such a shameful, violent death be the King of the world?”
The cross dials us into the central paradox of Christ’s kingdom, that Jesus is a King, but he is a different kind of King.
In this short little series during Holy Week from the Gospel of Luke, which we began last Sunday with Brad’s message on the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we are thinking about Christ as our King and what we learn about him as the true King and his kingdom.
Tonight, as we look at Luke 23, I want you to see that this is a passage that carries strongly the motifs of the kingdom and of kingship. You can see this in a number of places, not all of which I will read, but I just want you to see it so you get the context. Beginning with the accusation in Luke 23:2, when the people brought charges against Jesus. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”
Their charges were only half true. He certainly never forbade paying taxes to Caesar, but he did ultimately claim to be the Messiah.
We see it in Pilate’s question, when he directly asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus answered him, “You have said so.” We see it in the soldiers’ mockery, as Jesus there is decked out with scoffing regalia—a crown of thorns, a scepter in his hand, a purple robe, as we learn from the other gospel records. They mock him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
We see it in the titulus, the sign on the cross, the inscription that said, “This is the king of the Jews.” And we see it in the prayer of the dying thief, the penitent criminal, who said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
So, make no mistake, Luke wants us to see Jesus as the King, but he is presenting to us Jesus as a different kind of King who is bringing a different kind of kingdom; a King who is unique and set apart from all the kings of the world.
As we work through Luke 23:27-46 tonight, I want us to just learn what kind of King Jesus is.
1. The King Who Warns That He Might Save
There are four things that I want you to see, and here’s the first, in verses 27-31: that this is the King who warns that he might save.
Look at Luke 23:27-31. These are not words that we hear often in church. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sermon on this. But unique to Luke’s Gospel, these words bear our investigation. Verse 27 says,
“And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’”
These are mysterious words, words that Jesus spoke not when he was on the cross but as he was on the way to the cross. These women, no doubt touched with real sympathy and compassion for Jesus, seeing him bloodied from the scourging that had preceded these moments, seeing him as he is too weak to carry his own cross and Simon is accosted and carries the crossbeam for Jesus—the women, seeing all of this, are weeping. They are weeping for Jesus, and Jesus says, “Don’t weep for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children.”
This connects, of course, to Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem in Luke 19, as we saw in the message last Sunday. “When Jesus drew near to the city he saw it and wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’”
In both of these passages, Jesus is speaking of an event that will take place just less than forty years in the future. We see Jesus here as a prophet. He is a King, but he also functions as a prophet, and he prophesies the destruction of the city of Jerusalem.
This was described by the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus described how this city was under siege, and food became so scarce that people even resorted to cannibalism. So Jesus, knowing that these dark days will fall on Jerusalem, says, “Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves.”
Jesus both wept for Jerusalem and he warned the people that because of their rejection of his kingship and their rejection of their own Messiah judgment would come upon them.
But to what end? Why did Jesus say these words?
Pastor and preacher Dale Ralph Davis, in his exposition of this passage, tells us how, during the war in 1943, morale in the German troops was very low, as these young troops were headed to Crimea to face a Russian opposition. It was essentially a death sentence, and quite a number of these young men would inflict themselves with a gunshot wound in order hopefully to escape being shipped off to the front.
Of course, when they did that the wound would always leave powder burns, and the soldiers would inevitably be caught, court-martialed, and then shot.
There was a doctor named Peter Baum who was the head medical officer, and he examined the wound one day in a young soldier’s hand. The soldier was a peasant who was barely eighteen; he had not even begun to shave, and he had wounded himself. Sure enough, the powder burn was there.
Dr. Baum, having no desire to send this terrified boy to the firing squad, took his scalpel and made the wound larger, cutting away the powder burn, but he did it to save his life, because he destroyed the evidence that the wound was self-inflicted.
It was, says Davis, “severity in the service of mercy.”
So it is with Christ our King. He warns that he might save; he wounds that he might heal. He warned the people of Jerusalem, and he warns us as well. Unless we repent, we will likewise perish (Luke 13).
This is the kind of King—maybe not what you expected, but right here in the passage, as Jesus warns those who weep for him. He says if they do this when the wood is green (“if they crucify me when the wood is green”), what will happen when it is dry? Something much worse is coming.
I want to ask you tonight, is this the Jesus that you know, the Jesus who warns of judgment? One way to tell whether we really worship the true Jesus and not just a figment of our imagination, not just a Jesus who is constructed in our image, is if we can take the words of Jesus as they are found in the New Testament and we can receive those words even when they are somewhat different than what we ourselves would prefer him to say; even when what he says is uncomfortable to us.
If Jesus warned people with tears—here’s a second application—should not we have a similar urgency in our own hearts and lives?
Do you remember Keith Green?
My eyes are dry, my faith is old,
My heart is hard, my prayers are cold,
And I know how I ought to be:
Alive to you and dead to me.
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine?
Soften it up with oil and wine;
The oil is you,
Your spirit of love;
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood.
This is the King who warns that he might save, who wounds that he might heal, and who wept over the perishing. To follow in the footsteps of this King is to adopt a similar burden for those who are lost.
2. The King Who Prays for His Enemies
The second thing we learn is that this the King who prays for his enemies. Look at Luke 23:32-34.
“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”
J.C. Ryle observes that these words were probably spoken while our Lord was being nailed to the cross, or as soon as the cross was reared up on end. He says, “It is worthy of remark that as soon as the blood of the great sacrifice began to flow, the great high priest began to intercede.”
What an amazing King! He prays for the very people who are nailing him to the cross.
This was a fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.” And here Jesus is, interceding—praying—for his tormenters.
More than anything, this prayer demonstrates the self-substitution of Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of those who sin against him. It shows the price of forgiveness. J. Oswald Sanders said, “What Jesus’ prayer really meant was, ‘Father, forgive them and condemn me,’ for nothing less than that could secure forgiveness.” There is no forgiveness, no remission of sins, without the shedding of blood.
Did you know that this prayer was answered? In fact, by the end of this passage in Luke 23, the centurion who oversaw the crucifixion praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And just a few weeks later, on the Day of Pentecost, some three thousand people in Jerusalem became Christians. Shortly after that, a number of priests were brought into the church, Acts 6:7 says. A great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Some of the priests, some of the soldiers, the very people who condemned him, Jesus prayed for them, and his prayer was heard. Jesus’ own murderers, executioners, become his followers.
I think this also has a very practical thing to teach us. In the same way as Jesus’ warning and his burden for the city of Jerusalem should give us an urgency and a burden for those who are lost, in the same way, Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors shows us the radical ethic of forgiveness that lies right at the heart of this kingdom.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He said in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love our enemies, that we are to pray for those who persecute us, that we may be the sons of our Father, who is in heaven.
You remember what the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4. He said, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Forgive others as God forgave you.
Tim Keller has said, “At the heart of Christianity is a man who dies for his enemies while at the same time praying for their forgiveness.” Part of following Jesus means that we do the same; that we love our enemies, that we pray for those who persecute us, and that we forgive those who hurt us, who wrong us, who sin against us, and who wound us. Every person who ever sins against a Christian, according to Jesus, should be forgiven by that Christian.
Do you remember the story of Corrie ten Boom? Maybe some of you have read that remarkable book The Hiding Place. She tells of how she and her family hid Jews from the Nazis before they themselves were captured, and then eventually they were imprisoned in the Nazi death camps during World War II. She was in Ravensbruck. Her sister was imprisoned there with her, and sadly, her sister died before the end of the war.
After the war was over, Corrie ten Boom went on to have a wide speaking ministry, speaking about her experiences. There came a day when she saw a face that she could never forget; it was the face of one of the officers from Ravensbruck that was there in the crowd. She saw the face and immediately felt all the emotions coming back, all the memories of the humiliation, of the evil that had been done to her and to her sister. Let me read her words.
“That’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat, the next a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush. The place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard, one of the most cruel guards, and now he was in front of me, hand thrust out. ‘A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea.’ And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course; how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him.
“I was face to face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze. ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying. ‘I was a guard in there.’ No, he did not remember me. ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein—’ again the hand came out ‘—will you forgive me?’
“I stood there; I, whose sins had again and again been forgiven, and could not forgive. Betsy [that was her sister] had died in that place. Could he erase her slow, terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours, as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it; I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’”
You might wonder how she got through this. What did she do? Listen carefully. She said,
“But forgiveness is not an emotion; I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me,’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand; I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ So woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands, and then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother,’ I cried with all my heart. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
This is the kind of King that we serve. This is the kind of kingdom that he brings us into, a kingdom where forgiveness is right at the core.
3. The King Who Welcomes Sinners into His Kingdom
Jesus is the King who warns that he might save, he is the King who prays for the forgiveness of his enemies, and number three, he is the King who welcomes sinners into his kingdom.
Luke 23:39-43: “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
What a wonderful moment, as this thief, having nothing to commend him, having no righteousness, no morality, and no future—nothing that he could do for Jesus, nothing to bring at all—simply prays and asks Jesus to remember him. It’s an amazing illustration for us of the great doctrine of justification by faith alone, because that’s all there is. That’s all he has, is faith.
Davis says, “Here is one who believes in a kingdom he cannot see, in a King wearing a crown of thorns, whose throne is a cross, whose robe is nakedness, whose glory is a body shredded by Romans whips, whose court consists of caustic blasphemers, and whose enemies have apparently conquered him. Such faith must be a miracle worked by God.”
John 6:44 is where Jesus says, “No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draws him,” and here is this man, drawn to the Savior, and who asks for mercy. And Jesus welcomes him.
I really think here the penitent thief is a model of saving faith. There’s a lot packed in here. Notice this.
He recognized his sin. In Luke 23:40-41 he says, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” speaking to the other thief. “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” He recognized that he was a sinner.
But he also recognized Jesus’ innocence. “This man has done nothing wrong!” Not only that, he recognized Jesus’ kingship. He says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Not only that, he prays to Jesus. He asks Jesus for something, as he calls upon Jesus to remember him, and he is heard, because Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Friends, this gives assurance to every person who calls on the name of the Lord for salvation. If this dying thief, with no goodness to commend him, no opportunity to make right his wrongs or to live a good life in the future, if he could be assured of full pardon and immediate entrance into the very presence of the Lord in paradise, then surely you and I can take comfort in this mercy as well.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
What kind of King do we serve? He is a King who’s full of mercy, a King full of love, a King whose heart reaches out and whose arms are open wide to receive sinners. The kingdom of God is not made up of good people, it’s only made up of forgiven people.
Let me ask you, have you come to this king, and have you prayed that prayer? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Have mercy on me. Receive and welcome me.”
4. The King Who Lays Down His Life for His Subjects
There’s one more thing for us to learn about this King. Number four, this is the King who lays down his life for his subjects. He dies in their place. Luke 23:44-46:
“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 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.”
You have in verses 44-45 these signs—darkness over the land for three hours. This probably was a symbol of God’s judgment, as darkness in the Old Testament often is a symbol of God’s judgment. You remember in the exodus and the plagues of Egypt, one of the plagues was darkness over the whole land of Egypt, and it was God judging the Egyptians. But now there is darkness over the land as Jesus hangs on the cross, bearing our judgment, bearing our sins.
Then the curtain of the temple is torn in two, I think showing the end of the whole old covenant temple system with its sacrifices. It’s certainly previewing the fact that in less than forty years this temple will be destroyed and that whole sacrificial system will be done away with once and for all. But it was also showing that the way was open into the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God.
Then in verse 46 is this final word from the cross, sometimes called the “word of confidence,” as Jesus prays a prayer from Psalm 31 and says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
What’s the significance of that? Some of the scholars have noted that Jesus here is quoting from Psalm 31 but does so with two slight changes. In Psalm 31 you do not have the word Father. David prays, and he prays, “Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” But Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
It shows that even though while on the cross he had cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when Jesus dies, when he utters his last breath, he does so in complete confidence in God his Father, trusting him to the very end, and fully assured that his sacrifice will be received, that his spirit will be received back into the Father’s presence, and victory is assured.
David had also prayed, “You have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God,” and Jesus does not use those words. Perhaps that’s because he needed no redemption for himself, but he himself was the ransom. He himself was the redeemer. He was winning redemption for those for whom he died.
There’s one other detail you need to notice here, that Jesus in verse 46 calls out with a loud voice. With a loud voice he cries out to God, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Why a loud voice? It shows that, as weak as he must have been from the cross, there was still strength in him. Oftentimes people who were crucified would linger for several days before they finally expired. But not Jesus. There’s still strength in his body, and in this moment he cries out, still with strength, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And then he breathed his last.
I think it’s an indicator here that Jesus voluntarily lay down his life. Do you remember what he said in John 10:17-18? “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
So here’s Jesus, having finished the work the Father had given him to do, as we read in the Gospel of John. He said before this, “It is finished,” and now, having completed that work, he yields his spirit to the Lord.
Why did he lay down his life? He lay down his life for us. He lay down his life for his subjects. This is what we sang, isn’t it?
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain.
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior;
’Tis I deserve thy place!
“I should be there, not you!”
Look on me with thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me thy grace.
It’s showing us that Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, that he is the priest who offers himself as the sacrifice, that he is the husband who sacrifices himself for the bride, that he is the King who dies for his people and rescues them by giving himself up for them.
Who is he on yonder tree,
Dies in grief and agony?
’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story;
’Tis the Lord, the King of glory!
At his feet we humbly fall;
Crown him, crown him Lord of all.
Let me ask you tonight, do you know this King? Do you worship this King? Do you love this King? Do you trust this King? If you’ve never trusted him, I want you to do that tonight; I hope you will. He’s the greatest King of all. His kingdom is a kingdom of love, a kingdom of grace, a kingdom of peace; and this King will receive you with open arms. So come to Jesus, confess yourself a sinner, receive his mercy.
If you are a believer tonight and you worship and you love, you trust this King, then let us hear this exhortation to follow this King, to imitate him and his love for sinners; to follow his example in forgiveness and compassion and self-denial, and especially in his love. Let’s pray together.
Lord Jesus, we thank you tonight for your mercy and your grace. We thank you for your love for us, love that we do not deserve. We are so grateful. We thank you for the cross and for all that you accomplished at the cross. We ask you to work now in our hearts by your Spirit, to help us mourn for our sins that required such sacrifice, and to turn from those sins in genuine repentance, and especially to embrace from our very hearts the grace that is offered to us through your cross.
As we come now to the Lord’s table to receive the emblems of your death, may we come with deep faith and love for your, our Savior. We’re not just going through motions here; we’re coming confessing our absolute dependence on you, your cross, and our desire to follow you, to honor you, and to feed ourselves on you, the Bread of life. So receive us now as we come, we pray in your most holy name, amen.