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A Crucified King

Christ's kingship

In a time like ours, where monarchies no longer hold sway because of the prevailing "sovereignty of the people" [1] (or at least the illusion of such sovereignty), the attribution to Jesus of Nazareth of the title of King, for many Christians today is equally largely insignificant, and often no more than an inconsequential honorific title, such as “Lord”. The inscription: "This is the King of the Jews" was also put above the cross on which Jesus was nailed and died. His enemies [2], in fact, put it there to revile Him, thinking to have overpowered and eradicated of Him, serving their own selfish ends.

In the Bible and in Christian tradition, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, is proclaimed King. This title is equivalent to "Lord", i.e one who holds the power or rules. You may also possibly call Him "Governor" or "President", but the idea behind this concept is clear. Jesus is the One who governs the life of people who belong to Him as they trust and follow Him as their Leader, submitting themselves gladly to Him. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” [3].

Moreover, in the words of Scripture, He is "the King of Kings and Lord of lords [4]", King and Lord above anyone else. His universal and divine sovereignty shall be revealed one day, and in an incontrovertible way. The Book of Revelation says: "Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen" (Revelation 1:7). Recognizing Him on that day, however, will be too late for all those who had ignored, despised, misunderstood and rejected Him unscrupulously and without repenting from it. "They will mourn because of him” means “on themselves”, dismayed and blushing with shame.

The "folly" of the Christian faith, however, is that the kingship of Jesus, hidden to most people, manifests itself exactly there where no one ever will seek it: on the cross, where Jesus died nailed to the wood as the worst of criminals in terrible suffering. He was the King "thrown on the landfill", the waste of the world. Above that cross where Jesus died, they had put up a sign that said, mockingly: "King of the Jews." It proclaimed, in spite of themselves, the truth.

The Biblical Text

The proposed text for our meditation today presents us with the crucifixion of Jesus in the account of the Evangelist Luke. It directs our attention precisely to the inscription that was placed above of His head and declares Him King of His people. It 's there that Jesus behaves like an authentic King How many have understood this?

Luke, in this text, presents Jesus as the Savior who forgives, even during and in spite of his suffering on the cross. Parts of this section of the Gospel, according to Luke, that we will examine today are unique compared to the other evangelists. There we can find a particular emphasis on the dialogue, the last of the earthly life of Jesus, with two criminals, those who had been crucified beside Him. See the way they relate with Jesus in those dire circumstances and the differing result that they receive: this could be regarded as representative of two ways of relating to Jesus. We read first the text of Luke 23:33-43. Then we will examine its parts.

“So when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Then they threw dice to divide his clothes. The people also stood there watching, but the rulers ridiculed him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the king of the Jews.” One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" (Luke 23:33-43).


1. The reversal of the meaning of the cross. "So when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left" (33).

This story about the suffering and death of Jesus is told by Luke in completely bald terms. It does not linger on those details that often modern film versions linger on, as if to satisfy the tastes of certain public or morbid pietism. The Evangelist comes right to the points he wants to emphasize for the purpose of his message.

He speaks first of all of the place where the event takes place: the horrible place of execution of those condemned to death outside Jerusalem. Probably it was a place where a perforated rock resembled a skull, Calvary. If so, it seemed to be the most suitable symbolic place to perform sentences to death by crucifixion of those who, rebelling against the established authorities or attempting to drive armed revolts, threatened, if only potentially the “powers that be”. In any case, that was the site of executions.

The extreme cruelty of the method used to suppress the condemned was intended to be a deterrent, even a greater deterrent than the "simple" death sentence. It did not, however, dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem directly "into the jaws of the wolf." Even some of his disciples and family members had wanted to discourage Him from doing so, but He was determined, He "had to." The cross, the greatest deterrent, would become, with Jesus who died on it, the highest affirmation of His universal kingship,a challenge to the unjust powers of this world, so as to become the very emblem itself of the Christian movement through the centuries.

Jesus was crucified between two criminals: this providentially allowed Him to relate to both, even in the moment of greatest agony, as these criminals, in a way, represented the sinners He had come to save.

2. Luke then emphasizes the regality of Jesus’ behaviour in extremis. The kingship of Jesus proves true, even from His the last words recorded by Luke before He died: "But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Then they threw dice to divide his clothes "(34). No grace had been granted to Him, but Jesus sovereignly extends His grace to the immediate perpetrators of His condemnation, the Roman soldiers.

The lords of this world defend their own unjust power with threats, cruelty and death to their enemies real or imagined, making them submit by force. By contrast, Jesus manifests His lordship and kingship offering His forgiveness to unjust people, a forgiveness that aims to transform and cleanse them from the sin that blinds their minds and their hearts. He served them, even though they did not deserve it. This becomes clear in the text about the same centurion who commanded the troop in charge of the execution: "Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” "(Luke 23:47).

That “they don’t know what they are doing”" does not mean: “Poor ones, it is not their fault that they are so cruel!” No, they were fully responsible for the evil deeds. Their moral and spiritual blindness does not justify them, but Jesus, in His royal mercy, offers even His immediate tormentors a forgiveness that frees them from servitude to sin. His forgiveness is meant, in fact, to transform them radically. It is the same for the forgiveness that offers us the gospel. Forgiveness is not a "ignoring" our sins,as if we were not completely responsible for them, but aimed at destroying it, at the root, gradually to transform us completely.

At a time like this, His crucifixion, where anyone could curse his tormentors, or even God, could be resigned or silently confessing sins, asking forgiveness from God, Jesus, the Just, is interested in the salvation of His persecutors! It proves His further royalty and mercy. But the day will also come, no doubt about it, where, by the same royalty Jesus will demonstrate the righteous judgment of God toward His enemies, His wrath, called in The Apocalypse, "the wrath of the Lamb [5]".

It is also interesting that the perpetrators of Jesus’ death, totally devoid of compassion towards him, also profit from it even to the point of carving up the last earthly possessions that Jesus had left. Unknowingly, however, that demonstrates how Jesus, the King, gives up His entire life and His all. They, these people, who are like us, take advantage also of his garments. How can we not see in this His "robes of righteousness", those that we need in order to to cover our moral and spiritual nakedness are also given by Him!

3. Luke emphasizes also how the elect sacrifices Himself. "The people also stood there watching, but the rulers ridiculed him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” (35-37).

The people stood there watching helpless and resigned, perhaps even indifferent because they were"accustomed" to these "shows” of cruelty. The magistrates flout the apparent impotence of Jesus, as if they said, "You see he's a fake with all its pretensions." Jesus, however, was and is, undoubtedly, the "elect of God", the chosen and anointed one. Anointed is the meaning of “messiah”. Only by virtue of His being chosen and as united to Him only, may those to whom God has granted the grace of salvation be called the elect. His, in fact, are the merits that ensure their eternal salvation. As such, in fact, they only deserve their condemnation as much as others.

Jesus' mission was and remains exactly that, to save us through His perdition, His sacrifice on our behalf. The kings of this world send their subjects to war and save themselves. Jesus, the King divine, sacrificed Himself to save His people. The world mocks, scoffs at something it does not understand. In the world, in fact, those who are valued are those who gain power by cunning and force, exploiting others ... and who compensate those who favour them complacently. The true King who truly loves his people, though, is the One who personally sacrifices himself. He does not save Himself in order to save others. True authority serves and is not served."...just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28.). He was not given even a drop of water to relieve his pain, but sour vinegar.

4. The identity of Jesus affirmed in spite of them. “There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the king of the Jews’ (38). Above the cross of a convicted person was an inscription normally indicating the the reason for the sentence. The charge of making himself king of the Jews (true or false as it was) could have been placed as a warning to anyone who dared to defy the power of Rome, warning of its consequences. But it also showed cracks in the authorities, because Pilate would not change the wording to “He claimed he was the King of the Jews” at the request of the Jewish leaders.

This statement certainly proclaimed the truth, but not in the sense that these people understood it Jesus said to Pilate as he questioned Him, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."(John18:36). The execution of Jesus was still be convenient for the career, image and influence of Pilate.

They did not recognized it as such, but Jesus really was the Messiah, the Savior foretold by the prophecies and prophests of God to Israel. The was the descendant of David, the King of Israel par excellence and tens of these these prophecies about Him are repeated by the New Testament writers. Israelite and Roman authorities had thought that that was the best way to get rid of Him. However, they would not achieve this for more than three days, and that too was under His control, and aimed at His purposes. After that, he would become the King of His people in every age and country, the Lord, to whom obedience is due, honour, and glory, so that every true Christian would confess even at the risk of his own life: "Jesus Christ is Lord." They would effecively say “Our Lord is not the Roman Emperor or the dictators of this world and as such we refuse to acknowledge them”.

5. A dialogue even nailed to crosses. Now, according to the account of Luke, Jesus was so much an object of debate that even on a cross, among untold suffering, he continued to provoke discussion and to be consulted. "One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” (39-42).

This incident is reported only by Luke. It reflects his interest in people in need who receive salvation from Jesus: it is at the very heart of his story of the crucifixion. The attitude of the two criminals crucified with Jesus represents two ways of relating to Him: unbelief that leads to the condemnation and faith that leads to salvation. This is also further evidence of the innocence of Jesus as Saviour and shown it even when He dies.

The first criminal [6] joins the company of mockers of Jesus even as he was suffering the same sentence: "Hey you! Deliver us, if you really are what they say! " His expressions are considered by our text, in the original, as a blasphemy. Blasphemy is essentially impious irreverence and defamation. Obviously he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke here severely admonishes his readers if they were ever to do something similar. Blasphemy is tantamount to refusing to take Jesus and His words seriously.

The second criminal criticizes the first criminal for his words. The second, however, had not lived a better life than the first. He too was a criminal deserving death and only by the grace of God in the cross of Christ can a wicked sinner can be instantly transformed by the sovereign grace of God, until the latter assumes an attitude of saving faith and confession.

Notice how the repentant criminal acknowledges (1) the justice of their punishment, (2) the sinless character of Christ, (3) the deity of Christ (v. 42) (4) a living Christ beyond the grave (v. 42), and (5) a kingdom that goes beyond the cross with Jesus as its king (v. 42). This is the essence of the Gospel and these are the same things recognized by those who come to saving faith in Christ.

The second criminal expresses the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, then he considers the blasphemy of his fellow criminal as worthy of divine judgment, not only human one. He admits his own guilt and does not try to justify his actions. Indeed, he goes further and even defends the innocence of Jesus.

6. Destination Paradise. "And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. "(42-43). The request of the second criminal for Jesus to remember him is undoubtedly a response to a call to salvation. He did not claim to have any title to the mercy of Jesus He simply asks for the grace despite his guilt. His gaze reaches into the future when Jesus will return, when He will resurrect the dead and establish His kingdom, on earth. He correctly sees the divinity of the Messiah and not just as a political liberator, in the present.

Evidently this man had earlier heard the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom. The second criminal is a perceptive person, in stark contrast to those there who call Jesus at that moment to save Himself. The criminal was the last person to turn to Jesus during His earthly ministry for help. He even understands and accepts the narrow and difficult path that Jesus had to follow to fulfill the purposes of God through the death to His enthronement on the right handside of God.

This evildoer receives from Jesus more than he bargained for, as is always true in salvation. the reply of Jesus "I tell you the truth," confirms his promise with a guarantee of its validity, is a kind of oath. The second criminal would not have to wait for the Kingdom in order to be with Jesus. He would reach Jesus, in the place of departed spirits that same day on which they both die. "Paradise" and "Abraham's bosom" [7] in the Scriptures are the same place. The word "paradise" comes from the Greek, but originally from Persian. It describes a magnificent garden similar to that of Eden (Genesis 2:8). Symbolically it represents the future bliss [8], the paradise where the believer will be in communion with Christ and with God [9].The better part of salvation is communion with Him Jesus acts as the Messiah who has the royal right of opening the gates of heaven to those who come to be in communion with Him.

Notice how Jesus's promise to the thief, that he would go to heaven, is simply by faith in Him, not through any good deeds. This is one of the clearest examples in Scripture that salvation is not a reward for any meritorious work, but a gift of God, "For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9it is not from works, so that no one can boast "(Ephesians 2:8-9). The evildoer had no other qualifications for paradise than that. Some say that this is only "exception to the rule" of salvation by meritorious or good works, but it is consistent with all the teaching of the New Testament in this regard. The proclamation of the Gospel, in fact, declares that salvation comes to a person as a result of his or her relying totally on Jesus, giving up completely supposed meritorious works. A crucified criminal is saved so that no one should ever despair of himself. But only one of two criminals is saved, so that no one supposes that there are other ways of gaining that.


The attribution to Jesus of Nazareth, of the title of King, may not be significant for most of our contemporaries and some do mock at it. It is nevertheless central to God's faithful people. This attribution of kingship to Jesus is for His people, a confession of faith. Indeed, it means the right and the authority of Jesus, the Christ, to rule over every aspect of their lives.

The kingship and authority of Jesus, the Christ , the Lord, is very different from that of those who in this world will conquer by force. The kingly authority of Jesus is manifested in His crucifixion so much that the cross becomes its symbol. This is the "folly" of the Christian faith. Jesus will overthrow the meaning of the Cross: He will turn the horror and death to service and life. The cross is the instrument for which the "evil-doers" who rely on Him, receive the grace of forgiveness and moral and spiritual regeneration to live their lives. Each of us is a criminal in the eyes of God until we put on the “robes of righteousness” that are His own.

The cross reveals the authority of Christ and the whole sacrifice His life to redeem mankind. He is "the Chosen One of God" in whom only God sovereignly imparts the grace of life and salvation.

Jesus, the Christ, is the One before whom humanity, willingly or unwillingly is forced to take a stand and make a decision, as even the suffering criminals did on that day, next to Jesus. They cannot but confront themselves by confronting Him. One of these criminals stands out from the other who insults, mocks and ignores Jesus. He acknowledge Him as the Saviour on whom depends his ultimate destiny. It 's there on the cross that Jesus seals the promise of salvation for the repentant malefactor who believes in Him. In communion with Him, he alone will pass over the horrors of condemnation to the glory of Christ's kingdom.

Let us remember what it occurred during the interrogation of Jesus: "Then Pilate said, "So you are a king!" Jesus replied, "You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world--to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (John 18:37). This authority has been conferred to Him by God Himself as His right, in fact, "but of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. So God, your God, has anointed you over your companions with the oil of rejoicing" (Hebrews 1:8-9).

This authority of Kingship has not been conferred by the people. "The cry of humanity, in fact, that claims its sovereignty and independence, is:"We do not want this man to be king over us!" (Luke19:14). It matters very little what the people do as He will prevail, "But when this priest had offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right hand of God, where he is now waiting until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet" (Hebrews 10:12-13)

The kingship of Christ has a universal jurisdiction and determines that all things fall out according to His purposes, even "in spite of" His opponents or, at least those who believe they can do whatever they want with impunity. Christ is the King of Kings and the Lord of lords and He will prevail in the end over those who would like to replace Him. "They will make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, because he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those accompanying the Lamb are the called, chosen, and faithful." (Revelation 17:14). The question is, will you be like that man on the cross, to whom Jesus promised:" You will be with me in paradise”?

Paolo Castellina, 22.11.2013


  • [1]
  • [2] The Jewish people had attempted to make Jesus their King by force, but did not understand that His Kingdom was not of this world, or would not accept his view of His Messiahship. Their will had not been forgotten during His trial and Crucifixion by their leaders. Pontius Pilate ordered this notice for the cross, as a way of getting his own back on the Chief Priest and leaders of the people for forcing the death of Jesus. They tried to have it altered to say “He claimed to be King of the Jews”, but Pilate refused. The implication is that the sign signals that the Jewish state rejected the Messiah which led to God opening up The Kingdom to the Gentiles.
  • [3]
  • [4] 1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 17:14.
  • [5] Revelation 6:16.
  • [6] Or” thief " see Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27
  • [7] Luke 16:22-26.
  • [8] Isaiah 51:3, Revelation 2:7.
  • [9] 2 Corinthians 12:4.