Isaiah 53:5-6, Luke 23:39-46, John 14:6, Acts 4:12, Romans 5:6-11, Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-9, Isaiah 64:6
Summary: When we preach about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins upon the cross, we forget that there were also two men crucified on crosses next to Him. Each man had the opportunity to look to Jesus for grace and mercy. Their response determined their eternal destiny.
The agony of the crucifixion and the final hours of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels, each written with their own unique perspective of what happened that dark day (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). Each one tells of the jeering, mockery, contempt, and seething hatred toward the LORD coming from the spectators, the Roman soldiers, the hypocritical Pharisees whom He had openly condemned just a couple of days before (Matthew 23), and the two thieves that had been crucified along with Him, one to His left and one to His right. The dark forces of evil were on full display, both from the human and the hidden presence of the demons and Satan himself. They all reveled in the sight of watching their mortal enemy put to death and hopefully out of mind, forever shattering the plan of God to redeem His fallen creation, or so they believed.
The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 that these same forces were totally ignorant of the fact that what they saw as the convenient murder of Jesus was, in fact, the preordained plan of God all along (Genesis 3:15; Romans 8:29; Ephesians 1:4-5; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; 1 Peter 1:2; Revelation 13:8). Jesus told His captors that “their hour had come” in order that “the Scriptures might be fulfilled” (Luke 22:53), referring to everything that had been predicted and the events leading up to it (Matthew 26:55-56; Mark 14:48-49; John 18:1-9). The crucifixion of Jesus was no accident or something that caught God Almighty off guard. Nothing does, period.
Jesus’ act of sacrifice was not only the foreordained plan of redemption for our sins (John 19:30) but is itself the entire reason for evangelism. Jesus’ own work in personal and public evangelism was taught to His disciples as the example to follow, and they did so when assigned to go tell everyone in the nearby towns and villages about Him (Luke 9:1-6). Jesus was a continuous “soul-winner,” even while He was in both physical and spiritual agony upon the cross. Scripture tells us that at no time did the Lord Jesus ever cry out in anger or rage against those who had taken part in putting Him to death (Luke 6:11, 19:14; John 7:7, 15:18, 25, 19:6). Instead, He asked God the Father to forgive the people for their ignorance in the midst of their contempt for Him (Luke 23:34).
Take a moment to stop and think about this. The Lord Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, allowed His creation to put Him to death. The sheer hatred that fallen humanity has for the Creator is reason enough for Him to have refused to go to the cross and instead obliterate the entirety of creation out of existence and begin again if He had so desired (Romans 1:18-22, 5:6-11), yet He did not. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 32), and while He has and will punish both individuals and nations for their rebellion and sin, He also shows incredible mercy and grace to this world, even though we do not deserve it. The composure and attitude Jesus showed were noticed by these two thieves that had been sentenced to die along with Him.
Each one’s reaction showed the influence Jesus had upon them as they stared off into eternity. The thief on the left had the chance to make peace with God, while the thief on the right took the chance to get right with God in the few moments he had left in this world. The Gospels describe these men as “thieves,” but the severity of their crimes was far worse. They had not been merely caught with someone else’s possessions but more than likely were members of the zealot movement that was prominent throughout Judea. For years, the zealots had fought for an independent nation of Israel and the revival of the Davidic kingdom, free from all foreign influences and governments. Their hatred of the pagan Romans was such that they conspired to murder Roman soldiers, citizens, and anyone who aided Rome.
One of the twelve apostles had been a member of this faction until called by Jesus to follow Him. The fact that Matthew, a former tax collector for Rome, and Simon, who had been one of these zealots against Rome, were both now apostles of Jesus instead of adversaries at each other’s throats was a testimony to His power and ability to transform minds and hearts of all who followed Him. The two thieves had a companion named Barabbas who had been sentenced to die with them but at the last moment had been set free by the decree of Pontius Pilate and the cry of the people for Jesus to be crucified instead (Matthew 27:16-17, 20, 26; Mark 15:7; Luke 23:18; John 18:40). Barabbas faded from the story and became a part of oblivion, never aware of or caring about the One who had taken his place for death that day.
Death by crucifixion was reserved for anyone or any group who dared to rebel against Caesar and was a visible reminder of the price one paid for crimes against the Empire. It was one of the most barbaric and horrendous methods of capital punishment in the ancient world, and medical experts have examined and described the slow and painful death that its victims faced. These two criminals had been sentenced for theft, murder, and rebellion against Caesar and received their due punishment.
One thief had been crucified on the left of Jesus, and one on the right. They mocked and ridiculed the Lord even while they writhed in their own agonies. The thief on the left sarcastically called out for Jesus to save Himself and then get them off of their crosses. If He was the Promised Messiah, He had the Divine power to not only free them but lead their fellow Zealots to overthrow Rome and free Israel from foreign rule forever. If He were the Messiah, He could bring wounded and dead soldiers back to health and life, providing them with everything needed to achieve their goals. To this unrepentant and unbelieving thief, Jesus was nothing more than a means to an end, much like the attitude of the crowds whom He had fed and now saw Him not as the Living Bread from heaven but as a perpetual meal ticket from God, sent to fulfill their desires by force if necessary (John 6:22-40).
The Sovereign LORD bows to no one’s demands or decrees of splendor. We are to obey Him, period (Deuteronomy 26:16, 32:46; 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 119:166; Isaiah 50:10; Jeremiah 7:23; Matthew 7:21-23; Acts 5:29; 2 John 1:6). There is no room for our opinion, feelings, discussion, or dissension on the subject.
This unbelieving criminal, instead of embracing Christ as his only hope, rejected Him. In doing so, he went to a real, literal, horrid hell, where there is no hope, love, concern, peace, care, or repentance, but only remorse and bitterness (Mark 9:43-43; Luke 16:19-31; Revelation 20:11-15). He was close to Jesus in proximity but chose to walk away from Him eternally.
This thief’s rejection of salvation through Jesus Christ is a lesson in the necessity of evangelism. The Bible says that we are sinners heading to hell for our rebellion and wickedness, and before any transformation of a heart takes place, that hard truth has to hit people squarely in their soul, and too few take the hint. When a follower of Christ tells another person that they need to get “saved,” they had better be prepared to give the right answer if that person asks, “Saved from what?”
Jesus offered this thief freedom from an eternity not only “separated from Him” but freedom from a very real hell that few preachers and, I dare say, few believers will stand up and boldly proclaim. Gospel preaching and the work of evangelism are out of balance if we do not present the reality of hell as well as the promise of heaven. Not everyone will listen, like the thief on the left, but he and everyone throughout history are without excuse before God for what they do with His offer of grace and mercy (Romans 1:18-20).
What of the thief on the right? Jesus’ example of evangelism in the midst of agony had an effect on him as well, but instead of dying in his sin, he chose to die to his sin. He knew that his crimes and other sins had placed him on that cross. He possessed no excuses nor any claim of self-righteousness that would free him (Isaiah 53:5-6, 64:6; Romans 3:23). He rebuked the other thief for his contemptuous remarks against the LORD, asking if the man even feared God. He declared that they were both getting what they deserved but that Jesus was innocent of any crimes or wrongdoing and did not deserve to be put to death.
It is here where this repentant thief turns to Jesus and asks, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” No long prayer came from his lips, but the words he said liberated his soul from the edge of hell. Jesus turned to him and said, “Truly I tell you, this day you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). The thief had seen Jesus for Who He claimed to be and put his faith In Him as a result. Here is an example of the child-like faith He asks of anyone who would come to Him (Matthew 11:28-30). We see Him as not just a man on a cross as the unbelieving thief did, but as the One whose death on the cross made it possible for the repentant thief and everyone else to enter the kingdom of heaven.
This scene was part of an Easter message presented by the noted Scottish pastor Alister Begg. In his sermon, the repentant thief had just died and appeared in the portals of heaven. An angel approached him and asked him his name, which he gave. Another angel asked the man how he got there. He replied, “I don’t know. One moment I closed my eyes, and the next, I’m here!” He was then asked by what means did he enter heaven. Was he familiar with the Law of Moses? Was he aware of substitutionary atonement? Was he familiar with the doctrines of grace or had any knowledge of Scripture? Did he know anything about God at all? This former thief said, “Look, I can’t answer all of your questions. The only thing I’m sure of is that the Man on the middle cross said I could come in.”
Here is where they rejoiced. The evangelism displayed by the Lord Jesus on the cross brought another lost lamb into the fold that day (Luke 15:7, 10).
We are all condemned to the cross of death. Like these thieves who were at His side all those ages ago, you have the same choice, either to turn away and reject His mercy or turn to Him just as you are and embrace His mercy. Lost lamb, no matter what, the Great Shepherd will take you as you are and bring you into that same Paradise that so many others have entered. How awesome is that? Just ask the former thief when you meet him.