• Jesus Loves Criminals

According to one estimate, there are roughly 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States.1

Jesus' interaction with the thief on the cross next to Him shows us His compassion for the criminal, but it also demonstrates the path that any sinner must take.

Furthermore, the NAACP reports that there has been a jump in the numbers of people in prison: "From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled—from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the U.S. [makes up] 5% of the world population and has 25% of [the world's] prisoners."2

Prisoners. Criminals.

These are strong words, usually conjuring up images of murders, drugs, and theft. And rightfully so—many people are in prison for these very things. Just look at these facts from a recent FBI report:

  • "During 2013, law enforcement made an estimated 11,302,102 arrests (including 480,360 for violent crimes and 1,559,284 for property crimes). The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,501,043), larceny-theft (estimated at 1,231,580), and driving under the influence (estimated at 1,166,824)….
  • "Aggravated assaults (an estimated 724,149 last year) accounted for the largest percentage of violent crimes reported to law enforcement—62.3 percent.
  • "Firearms were used in 69 percent of the nation's murders, 40 percent of robberies, and 21.6 percent of aggravated assaults (weapons data is not collected on rape incidents).
  • "There were an estimated 79,770 rapes (legacy definition3) reported to law enforcement.
  • "Victims of burglary offenses suffered an estimated $4.5 billion in property losses, and burglaries of residential properties accounted for 74 percent of the total reported.
  • "Larceny-thefts accounted for the largest percentage of property crimes reported to law enforcement—69.6 percent. (The average value of property taken during larceny-thefts was $1,259.)
  • "During 2013, an estimated 699,594 motor vehicles were reported stolen, and 73.9 percent of those were cars. (Other types of stolen vehicles included trucks, sport utility vehicles, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles.)"4

These statistics are jarring, but no less than we might expect when it comes to crime. When thinking of the words criminal and prisoner, however, our minds don't usually wander to Jesus or the apostle Paul. But the fact is that both were tried as criminals and spent time in prison. That's not to suggest that the vast majority of the incarcerated don't belong there; rather, the point is that Jesus can identify with those who have been arrested, charged, and punished—regardless of the justness of the accusations. And, more than that, Jesus loves criminals. He paid the ultimate price for rapists, arsonists, burglars, frauds, and murderers.

Jesus' interaction with the thief on the cross next to Him shows us His compassion for the criminal, but it also demonstrates the path that any sinner must take. While both robbers who were crucified next to Jesus initially mocked Him, one of them had a change of heart.5 He rebuked the other man, 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."6 He asked Jesus to remember him (and not a moment too soon), and Jesus rewarded his newfound faith by promising him paradise. Jesus, of course, died for all people, but it's telling that, at the moment of His greatest suffering and heartbreak, separated for the first time from God by our sin and dying a criminal's death, Jesus redeemed the heart of a criminal.

Define

An Old Testament word for crime (Hebrew: chamac) is also translated cruelty and refers to violence, a wrong, or an injustice. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the adjective criminal describes something "morally wrong," and the noun's root comes from the Latin word crimen, meaning crime.

When used as a legal term, crime is a category created by law—in other words, an act is only a crime if a law says it is. However, most definitions give it a moral component, implicitly recognizing that it comes from a higher source. Biblically, there was crime before there was law (think of Cain and Abel), so law would seem to be a response to immoral behavior.

Discover

Some of God's top ten laws—the Ten Commandments—address criminal behavior, including prohibitions against murder, theft, and slander. However, the Bible contains not only warnings against crime, but principles to deal with it and, most importantly, hope to be forgiven and begin again in Christ. Here are a few verses:

  • "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:1-4).
  • "Anyone who steals from his father and mother and says, 'What's wrong with that?' is no better than a murderer" (Proverbs 28:24, NLT).
  • "His own iniquities entrap the wicked man, and he is caught in the cords of his sin" (Proverbs 5:22).
  • "The violence of the wicked will destroy them, because they refuse to do justice. The way of a guilty man is perverse; but as for the pure, his work is right" (Proverbs 21:7-8).
  • "A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech…[and] with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing" (Proverbs 6:12, 14-15, ESV).
  • "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
  • "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15).

Develop

Your understanding of both the nature and consequences of crime, as well as God's mercy and forgiveness, should form the basis of a plan to reach a person with the love of God, whether it is someone you know or someone you have yet to meet. Use the acronym LOVE as a guide:

L—Listen to people. Make a sincere effort to get to know them and their situation. Whether they are a victim of crime or a former criminal, listen to their stories.
O—Observe their life. Where are they coming from—emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually? Find the root of the issue. Ask yourself, How can I assist them?
V—Voice God's truth. What does the Bible teach concerning crime, punishment, forgiveness, and restoration?
E—Embrace them with the love of God in Christ. If possible, empathize based on shared experiences, but keep Jesus the focus of your conversation and outreach.

Jesus loves criminals. Will you?

 

 

 

1 The Economist, "Who, what, where and why," March 13, 2014, accessed 1/12/15.

2 NAACP, "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet," 2015, 1/12/15.

3 More recent legal definitions of rape have expanded what constitutes rape; most law enforcement agencies call the old definition the "legacy" definition.

4 FBI, "Crime Statistics for 2013 Released," November 10, 2014, accessed 1/12/15.

5 See Matthew 27:44. Something about the way Jesus handled His suffering must have struck the robber who repented. Whether it was that, or that he finally saw through the bloodied and bruised face next to him and recognized his Savior, one thing is clear: he encountered Jesus and responded to Him in the right way.

6 Luke 23:40-41.