Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 23.33-43
Christ the King Sunday - Year C

Other texts:


Christ the King is a difficult topic for Americans. We don't have a king. In fact, our country was founded by rebelling against a king. We live in a democracy, not under a monarchy. We elect our leaders. We aren't ruled by people simply because they were born into the right family or right social class -- they still have to be elected. We stress our individual rights -- sometimes to the expense of corporate responsibility. We don't have the "gut" feelings about a king that believers in many other countries may have. So how do we talk about Christ as King to Americans?

In addition to this, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (hē basileia tou theou) = the kingdom of God, is a difficult phrase to understand. How should it be translated?

βασιλεία (basileia) can refer to the area ruled by a king. So phrases such as "entering the kingdom" (Lu 18:17, 24, 25) may be understood as coming to the region controlled by the king -- or entering the heavenly realm as the "kingdom of God".

βασιλεία (basileia) can refer to the power or authority to rule as king. With this understanding, "entering the kingdom of God" might be better understood as "accepting God's rule (over me/us)."

It is clear in Luke that "the βασιλεία (basileia) of God" refers to the second meaning. It is not something that can be seen (17:20). It is something within us (17:21). It is something proclaimed or preached (4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 60; 16:16). It contains secrets (8:10), but it can be sought (12:31) and given as a gift (12:32) and received (18:17). The kingdom comes near (10:9, 11; 21:31). All of these references make better sense if the kingdom is defined as "God's power to rule over us" rather than "a place where God rules". The Contemporary English Version translates Luke 23:42 with: "Remember me when you come into power!" (It uses "kingdom" to translate βασιλεία (basileia) in other verses.)

Did Jesus understand himself to be a king? We might assume that he did. When Pilate asked: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answered: "Yes, it is as you say" (23:3) Usually, when Jesus is called "king" it is by his enemies who are mocking him (23:2, 37, 38). Culpepper (Luke NIB) notes this in his comments on vv. 35-38: "The irony and pathos of Jesus' death are that those who mock him declare his messianic identity and the salvific significance of his death but do not grasp the truth they speak" [p. 456].

The "Palm Sunday" crowd calls Jesus king by quoting Psalm 118:26 (Luke 19:38).

One of the aspects of "kingship" is that a king is usually able to convey this power and authority to a successor. Jesus indicates this in 22:29. His father has conferred on him the kingdom, which he confers on his disciples. It is not a place that is passed on, but the right to rule (and judge) as v. 30 indicates.


Among the accusation against Jesus in 23:2 is that he said that he "is the Messiah, a king." He is questioned by Pilate in the next verse, "Are you the king of the Jews?" This is the first time the phrase "king of the Jews" is used in Luke. It will appear twice more in our text, vv. 37, 38.

Danker suggests that v. 33 presents the first mockery of the king of the Jews as he is pictured like a king between two cabinet members (cf. Mk 10:37).

In Luke the people (λαός - laos) don't mock Jesus, but simply stand and watch (v. 35). The leaders scoff (v. 35) and the soldiers mock (v. 36) and one criminal blasphemes (v. 39). They all say the same thing: "Save yourself" -- essentially the same temptations of the devil in ch. 4 -- avoid the pain and suffering of the cross.

In contrast to these three "temptations," we also have the confession of the other criminal. He admits his guilt. We don't know what he did, but crucifixion is the "just" punishment for his crime(s) and he confesses a truth about Jesus: "THIS ONE has done nothing improper" (v. 41). The Greek grammar of his "confession" is in contrast to the contemptuous sign: "The King of the Jews is THIS ONE!!"

Perhaps the greatest act of faith in all of scriptures is his request: "Jesus, remember me when you would come into your βασιλεία (basileia - kingdom/reign/power)." Jesus is dying on the cross. The apparent reality is that this king and his kingdom and his power will come to an end. That was the purpose of the execution. It is precisely while Jesus is dying, that this criminal has the faith to see and believe that Jesus can remember him. He has the faith to see and believe that Jesus is the one who will rule as king. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the theology of the cross than the criminal's request. God's power to rule the universe is seen as Jesus is dying on a cross. Remember that from the viewpoint of this criminal there wasn't a resurrection. Yet he sees something more than the obvious: this dying Jesus will rule as king! This dying king can remember him.

The word, μιμνῄσκομαι (mimnēiskomai) = "remember" occurs six times in Luke; only three times in Matthew (none are parallels with Luke) and three in John and not at all in Mark. It occurs in both Maryís Song (1:54) and Zechariahís Song (1:72) where God remembers his promises to Abraham Ė and acts on that remembering.

Abraham tells the rich man to remember how he had acted during his lifetime on earth Ė in contrast to Lazarusís life (16:25).

Two men in dazzling clothes tell the women at the empty to "Remember" (24:6) and they do remember (24:8) and go and tell the disciples.

Using a closely related word, μνημονεύω (mnēmoneuō), only Luke tells us, "Remember Lotís wife" (17:32).

Neither Mark nor Matthew has Jesus telling the disciples, "Do this in remembrance (ἀνάμνησις - anamnēsis) of me" in the upper room; but Luke does (22:19, following the tradition used by Paul in 1 Cor 11:24, 25).

"Remembering" is more than just having something pop into our heads, it also carries with it the implication of then responding in an appropriate manner. The criminal isnít asking Jesus just to think about him, but as he thinks about him, to respond with action to those thoughts.

What would be the appropriate response to thinking about this criminal? He has already admitted his crime. We don't know what he did, but he declares that crucifixion is the just punishment for whatever it was -- so it must have been some horrible deed to deserve such a painful death. He also has confessed that Jesus had done nothing wrong. Why would perfect Jesus have anything to do with such a wicked criminal? It takes a great act of faith to confess our sinfulness, our crimes, our guilt, to the sinless, guiltless Jesus, and then trust that the appropriate response would be something good for us.

Luther's shortest -- if not the clearest -- statements about the theology of the cross are in the Heidelberg Disputation. I quote some of them.

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Romans 1:20].

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

The following is the "proof the theses" for 21.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostles calls "enemies of the cross of Christ" [Philippians 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God's.

I think the criminal's statements reflect well Luther's understanding of the theology of the cross. We see in the dying Jesus the means of entering his βασιλεία (basileia) = power.

Jesus and this criminal, illustrate the truth of divine salvation. Salvation does not mean avoiding the cross -- they were not saved from their suffering and death, but it means having faith, even when dying on the cross. It means having faith to proclaim that Jesus is the powerful King, precisely when he's on the cross -- and when we are dying or just "deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil".

As I suggested with another text, I think our Lutheran theology has more difficulty speaking to "successful" and relatively "good" people than it does to "tax collectors" and "sinners," and Jesus seemed to have some of the same difficulty.

The promise is that the criminal would be "with Jesus" in paradise. Jesus' close association with sinners and tax collectors that was part of his life, is also part of his death and his life beyond death. The word "paradise" (originally from Persia) meant "garden," "park" or "forest". The Greek παράδεισος (paradeisos) was used in the LXX for the "garden" in Eden -- the idyllic place in the beginning where the humans walked and talked with God. Isaiah presents the "garden/paradise" of Eden as part of the future salvation (51:3). Later, some groups within Judaism considered paradise to be the place where the righteous went after death. Paul considered paradise to be in the "third heaven" (2C 12:4). Revelation has the tree of life in the "paradise of God" (2:7). In later chapters the tree of life seems to be located in the new Jerusalem that has come down from heaven (22:2, 14, 19).

I wonder if, like with βασιλεία (basileia), we should think of παράδεισος (paradeisos) as something other than just a place -- perhaps as a restored relationship with God. "Today" is an important word in Luke referring to the moment of salvation, which is created by Jesus' presence and his word. Some of the significant verses:

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (2:11)

Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (4:21)

I must stay at your house today. (19:5)

Today salvation has come to this house (19:9)

I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (23:43)

In most of these cases, what happened "today" was seeing and hearing Jesus. He is the savior. He is the salvation that came to Zacchaeusís house. However, Jesus is not the kind of Savior we want. Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox presents a wonderful picture of our typical American Messiah -- and it doesn't look much like Jesus on the cross.

. . . almost nobody resists the temptation to jazz up the humanity of Christ. The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus -- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides -- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It's got it all -- including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.

You think that's funny? Don't laugh. The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying." [pp. 90-91; this book has been reprinted, along with two other books under the title The Romance of the Word: One Man's Love Affair with Theology]

Are we willing to believe in Jesus our savior and king when he stays on the cross until he is dead? And that he will remember us and do what is good for us?


Did Luke originally record Jesus' words from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing"?

Based solely on ancient manuscript evidence, where these words are missing in a number of early and diverse writings, scholars conclude that these words were probably a later addition.

Yet, the internal evidence of Luke's writings would support this forgiving prayer of Jesus. As Culpepper (Luke NIB) notes:

The prayer is consistent with both Luke's characterization of Jesus and Luke's style. Jesus has prayed to God as "Father" repeatedly in Luke (10:21; 11:2; 22:42; 23:46), and Jesus has taught his followers to forgive (5:20-24; 6:27-29; 7:47-49; 17:3-4). Indeed, Jesus' prayer here echoes the petition for forgiveness in the model prayer (11:4). It is more likely that Jesus died a model death, praying for those who were killing him -- and this motif was repeated in the death of Stephen (Acts 7:60), the first Christian martyr -- than that a scribe later composed the prayer for Jesus imitating Luke's style and theme. [p. 455]

After a detailed study of this verse, Raymond Brown (The Death of the Messiah, pp. 971-981) concludes:

Overall, after surveying the pros and cons, I would deem it easier to posit that the passage was written by Luke and excised for theological reasons by a later copyist than that it was added to Luke by such a copyist who took the trouble to cast it in Lucan style and thought. [p. 980]

I've included these brief comments about this verse, because, as these commentators conclude, the arguments for taking "forgiveness" out of the passage seems more plausible than for adding it. For instance, the destruction of the temple might have convinced Gentile Christians that God had not forgiven the Jews who were involved with Jesus' crucifixion. (Although it is unclear exactly whom Jesus is forgiving in this verse.) As the Romans were persecuting and killing the Christians, it's understandable why a copyist might want to delete forgiveness for the Romans who crucified Jesus. It could also be quite understandable why Luke would include such forgiveness for the Romans if "Most Excellent Theophilus," to whom this writing is addressed (1:3) were a Roman official.

It also makes sense that Luke was presenting a model for the persecuted -- pray that the persecutors be forgiven. Note also that the imperfect "was saying" implies (not translated that way in NRSV) continuous or repeated actions in the past. Jesus may have been repeating this prayer over and over again.

As Jesus does for the guilty criminal -- declares that he will be him in paradise, and thus restores the idyllic relationship with God, so Jesus offers it to all who are guilty of his death. Jesus, as King, has the power and authority to "pardon" such offenses -- perhaps like the power of a governor or president to pardon. The pardon doesn't remove the crime or its effects; but removes the deserved punishment for the illegal actions. Such a pardon that releases one from prison, also serves to restore one to society.

Do people "remove" this verse from their Bibles today? I think so. It is much easier -- perhaps not easier, but more natural -- to hold grudges against those who have wronged us, to judge and condemn our enemies, rather than to follow Jesus' example of forgiving them.

Perhaps related to Capon's quote above, many would be happier with a powerful King who got even with his enemies, rather than forgive them -- because that's what we want to do -- and we want Jesus to help us do it. However, celebrating Christ as king, means believing in his kingly power when he is on the cross and unwilling to save himself. It is letting this belief make a difference in our lives, especially when it comes to how we relate to "enemies" even when the enemy is us.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364