Eyes on the Cross: The Criminal Hanging Next to Jesus

Then they crucified Him and divided His clothes, casting lots for them to decide what each would get. Now it was nine in the morning when they crucified Him. The inscription of the charge written against Him was:  THE KING OF THE JEWS.

They crucified two criminals with Him, one on His right and one on His left. [So the Scripture was fulfilled that says: And He was counted among outlaws.]  Those who passed by were yelling insults at Him, shaking their heads,and saying, “Ha! The One who would demolish the sanctuary and build it in three days, save Yourself by coming down from the cross!” In the same way, the chief priests with the scribes were mocking Him to one another and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself! Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, so that we may see and believe.” Even those who were crucified with Him were taunting Him.

– Mark 15:24-32

Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

– Luke 23:39-43

As Jesus is crucified and now hanging on the cross between two criminals, everyone begins to mock Him. Everyone joins in cursing Him. They throw Jesus’ words in His face. Even one of the criminals crucified beside Jesus taunts Him.

Only one person is recorded close by the cross who speaks up for Jesus, one of the people hanging beside Him. Through his own excruciating pain, he sees Jesus suffering, too. From his vantage point, he views the hate surrounding them, zeroed in on Jesus. The sign above Jesus declares His royalty, yet He is now exposed and rejected by the world. Then the criminal also hears Jesus call out to God, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” While struggling to breathe on the cross, the man sees hope.

All of the people around Jesus were guilty (whether they were on a cross or not), but it was the one crucified and actively paying for his sins who realizes that he ultimately needs God’s forgiveness. This criminal turns to God’s Son and admits that he deserves what is happening to him, but Jesus does not. This dying man admits his guilt, and asks Jesus to remember him.

1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This criminal facing death is made new, right there. Jesus forgives this broken man as He pays for his sin. Jesus assures him that very day he will be with Jesus in heaven.

The criminal’s salvation doesn’t stop his pain or crucifixion, the earthly consequences of his sin. He still has to suffer and die. But, he will go through his darkest hours, and into eternity, with Jesus literally by his side.

Eyes on the Cross: Simon of Cyrene

Simon carries the cross of Jesus

Then the soldiers led Him away into the courtyard (that is, headquarters) and called the whole company together. They dressed Him in a purple robe, twisted together a crown of thorns, and put it on Him. And they began to salute Him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They kept hitting Him on the head with a reed and spitting on Him. Getting down on their knees, they were paying Him homage. When they had mocked Him, they stripped Him of the purple robe, put His clothes on Him, and led Him out to crucify Him.

They forced a man coming in from the country, who was passing by, to carry Jesus’ cross. He was Simon, a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus. And they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means Skull Place).

– Mark 15:15-22

As they led Him away, they seized Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, and laid the cross on him to carry behind Jesus.

– Luke 23:26

Simon has traveled quite a distance to be in Jerusalem this day. Tradition tells us that he is Jew, and in the City for the Passover celebration. Though we don’t know if his family came along, we know Simon to be a dad, with sons named Alexander and Rufus.

Simon is just coming into the city from the countryside, and his vacation takes a very unexpected turn when he is grabbed by Roman soldiers. He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I’m sure fear and adrenaline were pumping through his body as the soldiers lay the heavy wooden cross on his back.

Simon was trying to follow the Jewish law to be there to commemorate Passover, and now he is being treated like he is a criminal. Not only is he likely frightened he may bear the brunt of more Roman cruelty and accusation, he is shamed as he is forced to drag this rough cross through the crowded streets of Jerusalem, out of the city and up the hill to Golgotha. Even more, Simon has touched the blood of the man who was too weak to carry this cross, which means he has been made unclean and won’t even be able to take part in the activities he traveled all this way to attend.

Through the sweat and struggle to carry this cross, Simon also sees the man Jesus before him, struggling to walk towards His death place. Has he heard of Jesus before? In the caravan he may have traveled with was there talk of this Jesus, the miracle worker who claimed He was God’s son? As he neared Jerusalem and stopped to rest, were the crowds buzzing with how Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and how he preached with authority and rendered the Pharisees and Sadducees silent? And, now here is this Jesus. Simon sees a man bloodied, bruised, wearing a crown of thorns. He hears women along the path wailing for Him, men shouting jeers and insults.

Somewhere along that cursed path, Simon also must have seen Jesus’s determination, His love in each strained step.

Because of this experience, it is thought that Simon believed and became a follower of Jesus. He saw Jesus in a way that no other man did. He literally carried the cross that Jesus would die on. When Mark records that Simon’s sons were Alexander and Rufus, he includes those details because the believers would have known who they were. In fact, the Apostle Paul mentions Rufus and his mother as believers, chosen in the Lord, in Romans 16:13. The cross changed Simon’s life and his entire family.

The words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 16:24-25 speak to us through Simon’s experience on Good Friday:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it.”