Luke’s portrayal of religious people in the 23rd chapter of his Gospel is not flattering.
The chapter records Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and burial. And through that whole fiasco only four people mentioned properly identify Jesus. And they are:
The Chief Priests
Just kidding. It was not the religious leaders.
Rather, Luke identifies
- A thief
- Two gentiles
- A cowardly disciple
These four correctly identify Jesus for who He is. It’s not exactly the list I would have guessed. But historically speaking, it’s the list God chose for Himself.
Let’s examine them one by one and see how God uses them anyway.
First the thief on the cross makes a beautiful confession as his dying act. “And we indeed justly [die]; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man [Jesus] hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (Luke 23:41-42 KJV)
Consequently Jesus rewards and affirms him, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43b KJV) He promised paradise to the thief on the cross. It’s a beautiful confession of faith. And personally one of the most poignant gestures in the Gospels. Nevertheless the thief on the cross is an unlikely candidate for paradise. Don’t you think?
Second and third, Luke mentions two gentiles who properly identify Jesus. One is Pilate – the Roman governor of the region. The other is the centurion responsible (think supervising) for carrying out Jesus’ death sentence.
The centurion is a gentile who likely heard of Jesus, and possibly heard some of Jesus’ teaching. However being a gentile he has zero vested interest in Jesus Messiah-hood. That issue concerns only Jews. And he is not Jewish. There’s also no prior indication he’s a disciple. But after Jesus gives up the ghost, the centurion makes a profession glorifying God that Jesus was a righteous man. (Luke 23:47) Some believe this centurion came to saving faith. I sympathize with that view. In any case it’s clear he believed Jesus was righteous.
Pilate comes across as fair and reasonable in his trial of Jesus even though he’s a gentile. (cf. John 18:28-40) Jesus’ accusers lay their case before Pilate in verse two. Pilate responds by asking Jesus if the accusations are true. He displays sound wisdom by going directly to the source. There’s no mockery, no beatings, no interrogations, just simple inquiry. It comes up empty and Pilate stands by the findings of his own investigation – at least initially. All speak to Pilate’s sound reasoning and good judgment.
Pilate’s examination contrasts sharply the manner in which his accusers conducted their own investigation. The Jewish religious authorities effort to try Jesus come off resembling a witch hunt more than a fair trial. And ironically Jesus’ accusers were his own people. They show no love for their own when it comes to Jesus; No understanding for someone with their common heritage; No ownership to take care this issue “in house” or on their own terms; No.
Straight to the cross with you, Jesus. This was a lynching. Make no mistake.
The fourth proper identification of Jesus’ identity was made by a cowardly disciple – Joseph of Arimathea.
In fairness, my attributing the term “cowardly” to Joseph’s discipleship comes directly from Larry Osborne’s Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith.¹ The term is attributed from insights about Joseph derived from the few facts Scripture records about him.
Verse fifty-one makes clear he was a disciple. He believed Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Osborne attributes cowardice to Joseph because he was a member of the very council who railroaded Jesus without sticking up for Him. There’s no record in any Gospel of conflict among the council, dissent, or even discussion. The council spoke as one. From that we can infer Joseph did not speak up, or speak out to defend Jesus. (I’m not saying I blame him. I’m just observing.)
Joseph may have believed in Jesus, but that was certainly not his finest moment.
To Joseph’s credit he did step up after Jesus’ death. He took responsibility for Jesus body, burying Him in his own personal tomb. He acted on faith here and rightly identified Jesus – even if he denied him before. (sound familiar?)
The only four people Luke mentions in the 23rd chapter of his Gospel who properly identify Jesus as Lord, Messiah, and righteous, include:
- A thief – the broken
- Two gentiles – the outsider
- A cowardly disciple – the unwilling
Do you see the irony?
Who rightly identifies Jesus?
Was it His best friends, perhaps? Peter? James? John?
None of them.
How about any of the other nine of His twelve closest disciples?
Not them either.
How about his religious leadership?
Most decidedly against Him.
Ok. How about Jesus other followers? Mary Magdalene? The other Mary?
None of those who were closest to Jesus during his earthly incarnate ministry stood up for Him in His darkest hour. None of the folks you might suspect to show up did. They all scattered.
Jesus stood condemned, and alone.
It wasn’t for naught though, because God accomplished amazing things through the faithful actions of these second-rate followers.
The thief on the cross leaves a legacy recorded eternally in Scripture that justification comes by faith alone. His deeds brought him to the cross – the cross he deserved. His faith brought him into paradise for eternity.
The centurion–an unlikely candidate for a Jesus-follower–left a legacy testifying to Jesus’ righteousness. And this from a man with orders to fulfill a death sentence. He changed his assessment from guilty to not guilty. What a transformation! This guy had seen his share of criminals. I’m sure. That’s a powerful testimony.
Pilate’s properly identifying Jesus being recorded in the Scriptures functions (literarilly, at least in part) to foil the assessment made by Jewish religious leadership. The contrast between his investigation and the Jews’ underscores the absurdity of Jesus’ Jewish trial. Pilate’s legacy clarifies the absurdity, the inadequacy, and the abject injustice of Jesus’ ultimate death sentence, even though it came by his own doing. He makes the foolish look like the fools they really were.
Joseph’s legacy might arguably be the greatest. His faithful actions made possible the resurrection. At the time, bodies of executed criminals were cast into the garbage heap outside the city. Usually then eaten by wild animals. Instead Joseph stepped up to assume responsibility for Jesus’ body postmortem, bury him in his own personal tomb, and preserve His body. Mind you none of the twelve did that. How different, then, would Easter be without the faithful actions of Joseph?²
These four people demonstrate how God uses faith. They point to the tremendous good God can work together using vessels that are broken, misshapen, and ugly — not the put-together, attractive, educated, or wealthy.
This is how God uses the broken, the outsider, and the unwilling.
If I were choosing followers for my movement, I wouldn’t have chosen the half-hearted, the criminal, or the outsider.
But God did.
So take heart. He can use even you.
Walk by faith. Trust your Father.
He is good. And He knows what He’s doing.
¹Osborne, Larry. Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith. Zondervan. 2012. p.29-37