By Hoyt H. Houchen
And when they came unto the place which is called the Skull, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand and the other on the left” (Lk. 23:33).
Picture this event which took place almost two thousand years ago. Many scenes of the crucifixion have been portrayed by artists. We can imagine ourselves just outside the gate of old Jerusalem. On the hill of “Calvary” (Latin), also known as The Skull, were three crosses. Jesus was hanging on the middle cross and on each side of him was a cross upon which a malefactor was hanging. While we usually focus our attention upon the middle cross, there are valuable lessons to be learned from all three. On the center cross we behold “the Lamb of God,” but on the other two were sinners who were being executed for the crimes which they had committed. As we view these three crosses we see three different characters; though all were dying by crucifixion as the means of Roman execution, the circumstances surrounding their deaths were different.
The Cross of Rejection
On one side of Jesus our Lord was a victim who was scoffing at him. “And one of the malefactors railed on him saying, Art not thou the Christ? Save thyself and us” (Lk. 23:39). Jesus had only done good throughout his sojourn upon this earth (Acts 10:38). He had done nothing to deserve the venom that was being spewed from the mouth of this hostile malefactor. The sarcasm in the words of this dying impenitent man depicts the enmity of many toward Jesus today. It reflects the impudence of infidelity. This ingrate did not plead for mercy, but rather he chose to blaspheme the precious Son of God in his dying breath. For one to die in this condition is a tragedy indescribable of human lips. It is difficult to imagine a creature of God Almighty denying deity at any time, but to express his rejection in the moments of death is incredible. It is on this cross that many others have perished and are perishing today.
The Cross of Repentance
On the other side of Jesus was another dying thief. In writhing pain he looks to the center cross, but with an entirely different attitude than that of his fellow malefactor. He did not scoff at Jesus, but rather he turned to him in penitence. He had a contrite spirit and a humble heart. This law violator rebuked the other criminal when he said, “Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?” (Lk. 23:40) Both men may have at first joined in with the rulers and the people in hurling reproaches at Jesus, but we see a different man now. He is penitent as he looks to Jesus. He gave his crime partner a scathing rebuke for not fearing God.
A very valuable lesson is learned from this dying man which is very needful today in a society in which criminals seek to blame others for their misdeeds. He realized that he and the other wrong doer deserved to die. We are sickened today by a society which seeks to exonerate every criminal on the basis of emotional frustrations, inhibitions, being misunderstood, and mental disturbances. As one faithful gospel preacher expressed it so well: “It is hard to find an old fashioned sinner anymore!” Sin is labeled by about everything but what is it – sin. The Bible does not “white wash” or cover up sin. It is the violation of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). It cannot be minimized by such labels as “a mistake,” “a slip,” and other identities which contribute to wiping out any consciousness of it. This thief did not try to side-step or excuse his crime. He said: “for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Lk. 23:41). He came to the defense of Jesus, declaring his innocence before those present in those crucial moments. He refused to blame anyone but himself for his punishment. He acknowledged that he and the other man were getting what they deserved, but the one on the middle cross did nothing to deserve such treatment. It is significant that men recognize sin for what it is and acknowledge it. This is a prerequisite in coming to Christ. When man realizes and acknowledges that he is a sinner, he has taken the first step to recovery.
One cannot refrain from being emotionally moved by this dying robber. Actually, he brings tears to the eyes of this writer upon hearing the words. After confessing that he was dying for his unlawful deeds, he then said to Jesus: “Remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). He had some knowledge, at least, of Christ’s kingdom. Now we hear him as he speaks to Christ, “Remember me.” He did not ask to be saved, but only to be remembered. “When you come into your kingdom, just have a thought for me; remember that thief who was crucified on one side of you.” These words may well have expressed the feeling of this penitent man. But Jesus did more than this for him. He said to him: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Paradise is a state of bliss where the righteous rest after death. It is separate from torments where the wicked are by a great gulf (Lk. 16:23,26). There is nothing to be gained by arguing that the thief was not saved.
Needless to say, the thief on the cross is frequently referred to as an example of one who was saved without baptism. It is amazing what people will do in their efforts to deny the essentiality of baptism in order to be saved. Whether or not the thief had been baptized, we do not know. But the issue is not whether or not he was baptized, nor whether or not he was saved. In the first place, it is a mystery why people always refer to the thief on the cross and not other similar examples. They exclaim: “What about the thief on the cross? He was saved and he was not baptized.” There are other instances in the ministry of Christ, of people whose sins Jesus forgave and without their being baptized. There is the case of the man who was sick of the palsy. Jesus spoke to him, “Son, thy sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5). Also, Jesus told the woman in Luke 7:48, “Thy sins are forgiven.
Much preaching has been done on the thief on the cross, but let us for a moment observe this summary. We cannot be saved today like the thief on the cross was saved. This is the issue. (1) He was not saved in the name of Christ. It was not until after the death of Christ that repentance and remission of sins in his name were preached (Lk. 24:46,47). This is one reason that those men at Ephesus who had been baptized into John’s baptism were “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). Apollos had continued to preach John’s baptism after baptism in the name of Christ because it had not yet been established. It came into existence on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) after Christ’s death. The new birth puts us into the kingdom (Jn. 3:5). (3) He did not obey the gospel of Christ. For the gospel was in preparation, but its facts were not yet proclaimed until after Jesus died (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The gospel is to be believed and obeyed (Mk. 16:16). (4) He was not saved under the covenant of Christ other side of Jesus was a penitent man. Here was a man (Heb. 8:7). His covenant became operative after his death (Heb. 9:16,17). Jesus exerted his power as he willed upon earth, but now we must submit to the conditions of salvation as prescribed in the New Testament (Rom 10:17; Heb. 11:6; Acts 17:30,31; Acts 8:37; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:27; etc.).
The Middle Cross
Here we see the cross of redemption. It was the cross of suffering upon which the redeemer of the world was dying. He was dying for the sins of the world, and while he had never committed a sin, he suffered the penalty for sin in all of its aspects – he paid the full price! “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (“or, as an offering for sin,” footnote in ASV; Rom. 8:4). Sin separates (Isa. 59:1,2) and Jesus even paid this penalty when with a dry throat and parched lips he broke the silence of the darkest hour and cried out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?””(Matt. 27:46) He was our lamb and perfect sacrifice. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him striken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:4,5). Thus we behold the vicarious suffering and death of our Lord. It is one thing for one to die for those he loves, but it is another matter for one to die for his enemies. This Jesus did. “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8) The middle cross was the cross of suffering but it represents redemption – it is the cross of hope. The Jewish leaders said in derision: “He saved others; himself he cannot save . . . let him now come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:41, 42). We can be thankful to God that he did not come down from the cross, else we would be groping about in darkness, hopeless and helpless sinners. The death of our Lord upon that cross was God’s plan from eternity. “. . . the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world” (Rev. 18:8).
“Upon the cross of Jesus mine can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess,
The wonders of His glorious love and my unworthiness.”
In this study we see a man on one side of Jesus who was rebellious and derogatory. Hence was a man dying in sin. On the other side of Jesus was a penitent man. Here was a man dying to sin. As we look to the middle cross we see our Redeemer who was dying for sin.
It has been well stated that the first malefactor was Jesus only as a man, while the other saw him as Lord. The first saw him as a mock king, but the second saw him as “King of Kings.” The first saw Jesus as a sinner, but the other saw him as a Savior.
The two men, one on each side of Jesus, represent the reactions of the world to our Savior’s life and teaching. Truth divides. Jesus said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). When Paul concluded h is eloquent address on Mars Hill in the city of Athens, the response was divided. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, We will hear thee concerning this yet again . . . But certain men clave unto him and believed” (Acts 17:32, 34). The testimony of Jesus today produces acceptance on one side and rejection on the other.
While we focus our eyes upon the middle cross and the significance of what it means to us, may we not forget the lessons which are also to be learned from the other two. There were three crosses on Calvary.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 20, pp. 618-619
October 15, 1987