One of the great historical details of the cross that often goes unnoticed is the fact that many of those who participated in the crucifixion were saved by Christ. Those whom we might expect to receive God’s fiercest wrath are those who most benefited from God’s grace. Specifically, the Scriptures give us at least five examples of God’s grace in the lives of those who participated in the crucifixion of Christ.
1. The rebel who shared in the crucifixion, shared in paradise (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” (Luke 23:39–43).
Jesus was not alone at Calvary. The biblical record reveals that his cross stood between two others. On each side of Jesus hung what many English translations describe as “robbers.” However, in this context, the word usually translated “robber” would be better translated “revolutionary,” “rebel,” or “insurrectionist.” The Romans did not waste time crucifying petty thieves, reserving this form of punishment instead for the greatest threats to their authority. The men crucified with Christ were violent extremist willing to resort to violence to undermine the political power of Rome. This is significant because Jesus was arrested as a rebel (Mark 14:48-49), condemned in the place of a rebel (Mark 15:6-11), crucified alongside rebels (Mark 15:27), and mocked by rebels (Matt 27:44). He endured these cosmic injustices so that he could save rebels just like those on either side of him. The insurrectionist on the cross that day was saved despite a life of rebellion and without adding any of his own righteousness. He shared in the crucifixion with Christ and also shared in paradise with him, which demonstrates that salvation is by grace alone.
2. The centurion who ran the crucifixion, recognized the Christ (Luke 23:47; Mk 15:39).
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. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:46–47)
The gospel is not just paradigm-shifting, it is heart-changing. The centurion who supervised the execution of Christ was a battle-hardened soldier who made a living crucifying people. If anyone’s heart was calcified by sin, surely it was his. And yet, the work of Christ penetrated his heart of stone, transforming it into a heart of flesh. Christ not only instituted the New Covenant with his own blood, he applies it to the hearts of his own people. The salvation Jesus accomplished was powerful enough to save the centurion who killed him, which demonstrates the personal power of the cross.
3. The crowds that cried for the crucifixion, cried over the crucifixion (Luke 23:18-25; Luke 23:48).
And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts (Luke 23:48).
The crowds clamored for the crucifixion of Christ when they were given the opportunity by Pilate to set him free. Additionally, the masses had mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross. Jesus was sent into the world so that all who confess his name will be saved but instead of confessing, the people were blaspheming the name of Christ. As Jesus lived out his final excruciating hours, he was publicly mocked and mercilessly scorned by pedestrians, priests, and prisoners. And yet, when it was all said and done, these same crowds were pierced with conviction after Jesus died. We don’t know how many of them were saved as a result of this conviction, but it does demonstrate that even after their extreme blasphemy, God had not completely handed them over to their sins. The conviction of the crowds demonstrates the patience of God toward blasphemous people.
4. The priests who orchestrated the crucifixion, obeyed in faith (Acts 6:7).
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).
The Jewish leaders, including the priest, were desperate to see Jesus killed, yet they did not have the authority to carry out an execution. So, when they went to the Roman prefect, they began to accuse Jesus, 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” (Luke 23:2). The religious leaders knew that, if convicted, these accusations would force Pilate to kill Jesus. They were right, and as a result they were able to orchestrate the death of Christ. These self-righteous rulers rejected the true Savior, and yet, for some of them, it was not a permanent rejection. There were many priests whom God rescued from self-righteousness and brought to obedient faith in the one whom they had crucified. The conversion of many priests demonstrates the power of the Gospel in the hearts of self-righteous men.
5. The enemies who required the crucifixion, received reconciliation (Romans 5:8-10).
In each of these examples we see the amazing grace of God in the fact that those who participated in the death of Christ were also the ones who benefitted from it. What makes this point so monumentally important is the fact that it includes us. We were complicit in the murder of Christ and yet we benefit directly from his death. In the words of the apostle Paul,
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Rom 5:8–10).
God demonstrated his love by allowing sinful men to kill Jesus so that sinful men would be saved by Jesus. From a spiritual perspective, our sin resulted in the death of Christ and the death of Christ resulted in the forgiveness of our sin. The guilt that necessitated an atoning sacrifice was also removed by the cross, and those whose enmity toward God required the crucifixion received reconciliation.
What, then, are the implications of God’s grace in the lives of those who participated in the crucifixion? Put simply, these examples remind us of:
- the weightiness of sin that requires the death of Christ (Rom 6:23)
- the graciousness of Christ who is willing to forgive his enemies (Luke 23:34)
- the power of God that is able to redeem the lost (Rom 1:16-17)
The power of the cross leaves nothing else to be done to accomplish salvation: “It is finished.” The only thing left to do is to trust what Christ has already done. The power of the gospel is salvation for all who will believe. This is the greatest accomplishment of the cross, that sinners whose rebellion killed Jesus were the very ones saved by his death. The words of the modern hymn, How deep the Father’s love for us, appropriately sum up the grace of God to save the murders of Christ:
Behold the man upon a cross, My sin upon His shoulders; Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice Call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held Him there Until it was accomplished; His dying breath has brought me life - I know that it is finished.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.