You see the image often this time of year – three crosses in silhouette standing atop a small hill. It’s a common image representing a most uncommon event and a critical truth.
Three men were crucified that day, two rebels or thieves and Jesus of Nazareth. The rebels were lawbreakers. They were convicted and being crucified for their crimes. They had sinned too many times to count.
Jesus was sinless. He was being crucified for claiming to be the Messiah and the son of God.
Religious leaders, people in authority, and countless others couldn’t believe it. They thought the claim was blasphemy. Ignoring the miracles he had performed and despite fervently looking for and impatiently waiting for the promised Messiah who would redeem the Jewish people, most couldn’t or wouldn’t believe Jesus was the one. If what he claimed couldn’t be true, it had to be blasphemy and he had to be crucified. So, they nailed him to a cross and crucified him with the two thieves, one on his left, one on his right – a detail important enough to be described by all four writers of the Gospels.
Many in the crowd of onlookers shouted insults at Jesus and mocked him. Even the two thieves taunted him. In the midst of their own dying, they belittled the only one who could save them.
Then something happened. One of the thieves noticed something. There was something different about this Jesus dying next to him. He didn’t “take it like a man.” He took it differently than the two thieves, differently from how you’d expect a normal human to take it. He took it differently than the others who had been crucified — the soldiers noticed this. One of them even said so. Despite being savagely flogged, torturously nailed to a cross, and struggling just to breathe – he still didn’t lash out. He didn’t curse the soldiers or the crowd that mocked him. He didn’t respond insult for insult. He did something no one else did. He prayed for them — for their forgiveness. And he asked a friend standing nearby to take care of his mother. At a time when others being crucified would weep in sorrow or call out in defiance to the end, Jesus looked to the needs of others.
And it finally clicked – at least for one of the two thieves and one of the soldiers. Maybe this Jesus really was different. Maybe he was the Messiah. Maybe he was who he claimed to be.
When the one thief sarcastically taunted Jesus again saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”
The thief who now recognized something unique in Jesus rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Calling him by name he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Then Jesus, through all the pain and anguish he was suffering for the sins of others chose to look out for the needs of one more. He saved the thief also, saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
With that, Jesus forgave that thief of his sins, all his crimes, all his past as well.
The thief had finally recognized and acknowledged that Jesus was who he claimed — that he was Lord and God.
Jesus saved the thief.
Dying on a cross beside Jesus, legs and hands nailed to the tree, this thief couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t run to the temple, couldn’t sacrifice a lamb or a dove, couldn’t help care for the sick or the poor, couldn’t help little old ladies across the street. Literally and figuratively, he couldn’t lift a single finger to save himself or earn his salvation. Jesus saved him all the same. Mercifully saved him by grace.
The other thief – bitter, defiant and spiritually blind — died a thief and a sinner.
Three crosses on a hill. The sinner thief on one side, the saved thief on the other, and Jesus in between separating the two. Fitting and profound. As clear an image as you can imagine. Jesus is the great divide. Graphically and spiritually, Jesus separates the saved from the lost. His grace is sufficient.
“And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15: 39).
“He then brought them [Paul and Silas] out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.’” (Acts 16: 30-31).
(This post was written by Dr. Larry Hembroff, a fellow member of our Blue Water Writers’ Group as well as a lifelong friend. Thank you, Larry!)