Throughout his life Jesus mingled with sinners. At his death he was crucified between two criminals. Jesus’ history on earth was occupied with the welfare of lawbreakers. He socialized with those who breached the divine will and suffered for them. From the outset of his ministry he announced the kingdom to those in revolt against heaven. At the onset of death he admitted a felon to paradise. From start to finish Jesus was concerned for transgressors. The three crosses and their agonized victims sum up the divine purpose of human salvation. Their portrayal in Holy Scripture exemplifies the poignancy and importance of the issue of human destiny and as to how it may fail or find the favour of God. The focus on Calvary confronts us with the reality of our condition and the conclusion of each life on earth. We are faced with the only alternatives presented to man – to be citizens of the kingdom or outcasts for ever. The tale of the two thieves on either side of the dying Saviour forewarns us as to the possibilities for each immortal soul at the point of death and on the Day of Judgment. The question of greatest importance is posed to our minds: Shall we be on the right side of the Redeemer and with him everlastingly, or will we be on the wrong side and consigned to eternal banishment.
These few verses address a matter of infinite consequence. We are all advancing to paradise or peril. Our estimate of Jesus is vital to the outcome. Our understanding of his cross brings us to the borderline of life and death. If it is just the death of someone we regard with contempt, or even intend to ignore as of no account, we must look carefully at the attitude of the robber who hurled insults at Jesus and tremble at our identification with him. If the crucifixion of Jesus is the sinner’s entrance to the kingdom then we may die in the peace of the repentant and believing criminal who amazingly grasped the essence of the gospel in his last moments.
Two miserable men typify the sifting of all people into two groups Jesus described as the sheep and the goats. At the centre of the great divide hangs the Lord Jesus. We may ridicule his sacrifice or rely upon it. We may refuse the Saviour of the world or find our refuge in him. Three crosses silhouetted against the backdrop of history suggest alternative endings to our personal histories in this fast fading world. Eternity looms near.
Jesus is at the centre of our sober consideration. On the cross to which he was nailed he fulfilled the reason for his coming. “A body you prepared for me” acknowledges the Christ (Hebrews 10:5). In his flesh he came to weather the storms of divine wrath against human sin. He erases the guilt of penitent believers and averts the punishment due to them as Propitiator who removes all offence and establishes an atonement that affords peace with God for every sinner who rests in his obedience and death on their behalf (1 John 2: 1-2). The innocent One takes the place of those righteously condemned: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). As Paul remarks concerning all persons of gospel faith: “So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2: 16). The criminals Christ came to represent and substitute for cannot put themselves right with God for they are hopelessly on the wrong side of the law and must bear the alienation and penalty due to disobedience. Christ’s cross and bloodshedding is the only means of pardon and acceptance with God. This cross placed conspicuously in the midst of sinners is the only place to which we can look for deliverance. To be cleared of blame and restored to perfect rectitude we must look trustingly to that cross and place our confidence in the crucified. “Look”, says John the Baptist, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This was Jesus’ work whilst affixed to an instrument of deadly wood. All through his life and at the hour of death he avowed to his Father, “Here I am, I have come to do your will” (Hebrews 10: 9). The consequence follows in Hebrews 10:10: “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”. That is the accomplishment of the man on the cross in the middle of all our disobedience and defilement. He lives and dies and lives again for the rescue of sinners, and his effort and sacrifice are in complete harmony with the will of his Father. God sent his Son that we may be reconciled through the Son to him. The cross is planted firmly at the solid base beneath the mire in which we wallow in corruption and misery so that we may cling to it’s victim for our escape: “There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares, there suck at his woundes, and lye downe in peace in his grave, till hee vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that Kingdome, which he hath purchas’d for you, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood” (John Donne).
One of the criminals beside Jesus knew nothing of the meaning of the cross of the “middle man”. He apprehended nothing of the go-between who would rejoin mankind to God. He insulted and reviled the intermediary seeing only futility and helplessness in the death of the Lord Jesus. Rather than confess and trust Jesus he spoke contemptuously and tauntingly, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us”. His eyes had not been opened to recognize the Messiah (cf Luke 24:31). He didn’t fully appreciate the fact of his guilt and his appointment with justice according to the law of Rome. He sneered at Jesus without any concept of the Saviour’s innocence. Jesus was just an enthusiast who fell foul of the authorities because of outrageous speech, claims, and actions. Bound to his deserved cross the felon may as well have been blindfolded to the most exceptional execution in history. By his rash refusal and impenitence the first mentioned of the robbers was excluded from the kingdom ushered in by the torments of the Saviour.
The second thief, perhaps a bandit like Barabbas, viewed Jesus differently. Perhaps, as George Caird has suggested, the inscription above Jesus was meditated upon and its unintended truth wrought its saving miracle, for an impulse of the Holy Spirit determined that Pilate should insist upon the words, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38). In a wondrous way, contrary to all expectations, one thief on a cross came to comprehend something of the meaning of Jesus’ cross. “This man has done nothing wrong”. Here was not a thief or a criminal of any kind. He took nothing but came to give everything. Great faith is compacted in the request of the penitent robber. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is a prayer for all souls who know and admit their criminality. It parallels the exhortation of Donne. It is a simple, sweet prayer of a sufferer on the verge of death. On the cross, his own and that of Jesus, he glimpsed an opening to heaven created by the King of Glory himself. As his physical life ebbed away he heard the assurance of eternal life from Life himself: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”. Dying next to Jesus he went to live with him forever, having been in this world an anonymous, disreputable individual wholly unworthy of such an honour.