Who Were the Two Criminals Hanging Next to Jesus?
“Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
When we think of Easter, probably the foremost (and perhaps only) thing we think about is Jesus. And rightfully so! His atoning sacrifice and resurrection on our behalf is undoubtedly the most essential part of our celebrations.
But how many of us remember Jesus was not alone? Two other people were crucified next to Jesus that day. The Bible only tells us they were both criminals. And they’re mentioned so briefly, we take their inclusion in Jesus’ death as an interesting footnote and put our minds back on Jesus. It is very understandable.
But who were they? Why were they there, and why should we care?
We know that God’s word will not come back void (Isaiah 55:11). That means there is a special reason why the Bible mentions these two men hanging next to Jesus.
A Tale of Two Brothers
Several years ago, a popular Christian media group produced a short film about the two criminals crucified with Jesus. It was all fictional, of course, but it was so compelling, I can’t forget it to this day.
In the story, the two criminals were brothers. One was the good brother, and the other was (you guessed it) the bad brother. They were total opposites.
The bad brother had issues with alcohol and gambling while the good brother trained under a rabbi to become a synagogue teacher. The bad brother was continually getting himself into trouble, even thrown into jail. But the good brother would always come to his rescue, all the while admonishing his foolish brother to clean up his act.
Eventually, the gambling issues got to be too much, and the bad brother accrued huge debts. To relieve his worry, he would drink. One night, after a long night of drinking, he got into a fight with someone and landed again in jail. His brother bailed him out again and promised it would be the last time.
But that didn’t stop the bad brother. He hatched up a wild plan to rob a local villager so he could pay off his debts. He asked his brother to help him, but the good brother didn’t want to have any part of it. Yet, he somehow found himself entangled in his brother’s plot, and the Romans arrested them both.
The Romans said enough was enough, and they sentenced the two brothers to crucifixion.
Going back to the Bible, it’s at this point we pick up the story of the two criminals hanging next to Jesus.
The Criminals Encounter Jesus
In Luke 23:39–43, the criminals’ encounter with Jesus begins after the crowd taunts the Lord as He and the two men hang on their crosses.
Mark 15:29–32 records it this way.
“And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying ‘Aha! You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!’
“Likewise, the chief priests also, mocking among themselves with the scribes, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.’”
The gospel of Matthew has a similar recount of the scene in chapter 27, verse 43, though Matthew adds in a little more of the Pharisees’ and scribes’ taunts.
“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him. For He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Both the gospels of Mark and Matthew also record the two criminals mocking Jesus.
“Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him.” Mark 15:32
“Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.” Matthew 27:44
Perhaps the two criminals were simply swept up in the crowd’s emotions. Or, if we continue with the good brother/bad brother scenario from the film, perhaps the good brother was simply emulating the Pharisees since he too wanted to be a teacher someday. And the bad brother, maybe he was just, well, being himself. Who knows the reasons why they behaved the way they did?
Whatever the reason, criminals or brothers, a short time later, one of them has a change of heart.
Asking for Forgiveness
As the crowd jeered Jesus, it appears one of the criminals decided that perhaps Jesus was who He truly said He was.
“Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’
“But the other, answering rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds. But this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:43)
In these verses, we see that one of the criminals has accepted that Jesus is the Messiah, and he wants to be with the Lord when death finally comes. And, of course, we see the other man does not believe.
Whether the two men are brothers or not is entirely irrelevant. They may not have ever met before that fateful day. One could have been the worst of all criminals, and the other simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
None of it actually matters.
But there is one thing about these men that does matter.
The Criminals and the World
We have no real idea of who the two criminals are. All we know is they were robbers. In the original Hebrew, the word for “robber” in this Scripture (“lestes”) indicates they were rebels of some sort or perhaps members of a gang who were known for violently ambushing unsuspecting people. The Romans commonly crucified such violent men. Regular thieves were not.
Regardless, what we are supposed to notice is how opposite the two are. One is contrite, and the other is not. One softens his heart and becomes defensive of Jesus, but the other man continues to mock Jesus and remains hard-hearted.
Why are their opposite attitudes so important? What does that have to do with Jesus?
It’s because they reflect who we are.
The two criminals represent us all.
We Must Make a Choice
Through whatever circumstances that led them to the cross that day, it’s noteworthy they were crucified on the same day as Jesus. It was no odd coincidence. Our sovereign God set it up that way. They were supposed to be there to meet the Messiah.
Isn’t that just like God? We’re not aware of it happening, yet He is always working our circumstances until we encounter Him. He’ll do whatever it takes. And when we do, it’s then we have to make a choice.
Do we join the crowd and revile the Lord, laughing and mocking Him? Do we continue to reject Him because others are doing it? Or maybe we simply don’t feel a need for Him.
Or do we take God at His word that He is the Messiah, the Savior of the world? Do we humble ourselves, acknowledge our sinful behavior, and ask for forgiveness?
We can see that’s how the two criminals responded to Jesus. One mocked him because others did, and the other asked for forgiveness. One thought his fate was sealed with no means of escape. But the other saw hope for eternal life. Though both men encountered Jesus, only one accepted Him.
Their story precisely reflects the world. We all encounter Jesus in some way at some point in time, but eventually, we all must make a choice.
The criminal who asked Jesus for mercy realized he had no hope except divine grace, and he believed Jesus was the only one who could give it. He also believed that by accepting Jesus as the Son of God, he would enter heaven. It’s in his belief he clearly demonstrates true faith. Though his death is imminent, he believes he still has a chance at salvation.
My friends, we all have that same chance.
No matter what we’ve done, no matter what choices we’ve made in the past, the future is all based on the most important decision we can make today.
We can mock God and pretend we don’t need Him, or we can be truly honest. We can acknowledge our sin and ask Jesus for His divine forgiveness.
Ephesians 1:7 says, “In Him, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”
How rich is God’s grace? How much does He have? A LOT. God has A LOT of grace. He is absolutely abounding in it (1 Timothy 1:14; Psalm 145:8)! And it does not matter what’s happened in your life. He is anxious to give it to you.
You may be at your final hour of life. You may be standing on death’s doorstep after a lifetime of shunning God, just like the criminals who hung next to Jesus. But it’s not too late to lean over and ask, “Lord, will You remember me when You come into Your kingdom?”
With His dying breath, Jesus forgave the criminal of everything he had ever done. And He assured the man he would be with Him in Paradise. How much more will Jesus forgive you?
He stands at the door of your heart, knocking. What will you do?
Let this be the moment you choose to ask Jesus for His abundant gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). Let this be the happiest moment you’ll ever know — the moment you knew you were assured of Paradise.