ONE ON HIS RIGHT AND ONE ON HIS LEFT
1. If the image most commonly associated with Christianity is the cross, the next most recognizable is three crosses.
a. Instead of offering a detailed account of the physical suffering, Luke lets us know what Jesus went through by describing what the people around did or said.
b. In three different statements he makes reference to the two criminals who were put to death with the Lord, one on his right and one on his left.
c. Obviously, something about this detail is meant to stick in our minds.
2. Why? There are at least a couple of possible answers.
a. “They,” as Luke unspecifically identifies those who crucified him, may have placed him this way on purpose, meaning to further belittle and humiliate him.
b. In the purpose of God, though, their lifting Christ up between two criminals only served to fulfill the Scripture which said, “And he was numbered with the transgressors” (Lk. 22:37; Isa. 53:12).
c. The scene reminds us just how far God was willing to go to let his Son be identified with those he was seeking to save.
3. What do these three crosses mean to us? One thing is that we will have to understand ourselves in connection with the one on the right, or the one on the left, or the one in the middle.
1. On one cross there is a rebellious scoffer.
a. As if to bottom out his picture of the reproaches Jesus suffered, Luke tells us that even one of his fellow-sufferers hurled insults at him too (v. 39).
i. Think of it. He is a “criminal,” a robber, one who is willing to resort to violence in his thievery.
ii. He is “hanged,” which is another way of referring to crucifixion, the terrible method of execution being imposed on him.
iii. But in this awful moment all he can do is “rail at” someone else!
b. We forget that this fellow is just as important a part of the lesson as the one on the cross at the other side.
i. No one appeals to his example like so many do to the example of the other thief, but we all ought to take a good look at him.
ii. He is as vivid an illustration as can be found of what sin ultimately does to a human being.
iii. He is under condemnation, justly, and without any hope, but he still has no reverence for God nor respect for people, and he cannot help but continue in the same conduct that brought him where he is! What a tragedy!
c. What kind of a person is this fellow? What has sin done to him? Listen to him saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
i. He is the kind of person who will join the crowd in the name calling, even when he doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.
ii. He has a scornful, hateful, irreverent attitude which issues forth insults that are more about himself than about Jesus.
iii. You can hear the bitterness and resentment and sarcasm in his voice. He takes pleasure in putting someone else down.
d. This is the kind of character the wisdom literature of the Old Testament attributes to a “scoffer.”
i. Those passages describe such an individual as arrogant, stubborn, ridiculing what God says, contentious, and feeling secure in his own wickedness.
ii. A scoffer is not especially intelligent or strong or self-sufficient; he just has a spirit that is so base and vulgar that it cannot be thoughtful or serious, even about the most personal or holy matters.
iii. An attitude like this will let a man die in his sins.
e. The crushing thing is that the Christ was right next to him!
i. He evidently assumed that since Jesus did not act supernaturally to save himself, he could not have been the Christ.
ii. That man next to him recognized his ignorance, and prayed for his forgiveness, and forgiveness is what would have saved him in the way he needed most.
iii. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the kind of man who could be interested in that kind of saving or in that kind of a Savior.
2. On the cross on the other side there is a repentant sinner.
a. He is under the same sentence of condemnation as the other fellow.
i. He is being crucified because he is a criminal, a robber.
ii. The Romans did not execute Roman citizens this way, so we may assume he is a Jewish man who has fallen into wrongdoing.
iii. Matthew and Mark both indicate that he has been mocking Jesus in the same ways the Jewish leaders were (Matt. 27:44; Mk. 15:32).
b. Sometime during these first three hours on the cross, though, this man changes his mind and his conduct. He repents. You can see it from what Luke says he does.
i. He rebukes his partner: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence...? (v. 40).
ii. Then, he takes responsibility for his own guilt: “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds...” (v. 41).
iii. Next, he defends Jesus: “but this man has done nothing wrong” (v. 41).
iv. Finally, he casts himself entirely upon the Lord’s grace: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42).
c. Why does he do it? Well, because of what he has come to believe.
i. Listen to him: he acknowledges that God is to be feared; he believes there is a standard of right and wrong, and confesses that he has done wrong; he asserts that Jesus is a king and that the cross does not change that fact; and he thinks Jesus can bless him and associate with him even after both of them have died.
ii. Where did those convictions come from? Had he been a disciple of John? Had he heard Jesus teach at some point? Was he aware of what people said about him? Did he know of sinners the Lord had forgiven?
iii. Maybe serious thought about his own plight, realistic assessment of the behavior of the mockers, and observation of the behavior of Jesus and hearing his prayer all had a part in driving the truth home to him.
d. It is a shame that his repentance and faith is sometimes used as if to excuse us from responding to the call of the gospel.
i. J. B. Coffman wrote that “all efforts to disassociate oneself from the commandments and obligations of the Christian gospel on the basis of the robber’s salvation arise from a total disregard of the truly remarkable exhibition of faith on his part.”
ii. Remember, he believes on the Lord at a time when even his staunchest disciples have forsaken him and fled. He believes on him and confesses his righteousness at a time when others are reviling him. He makes that confession when he himself is in agony. He calls on Christ in the presence of the Lord’s bitterest enemies in the exact moment of their triumph. He submits to Christ in the moment of the Lord’s deepest humiliation.
iii. This isn’t the kind of easy, cheap “belief” that can be used to excuse ourselves from anything the Lord has asked us to do in response to what he has done for us! Anyone who has come to think like this will be glad to do whatever the Lord says!
e. The repentant sinner on this cross is more of a lesson on what kind of person Christ can save than on how any person is to be saved.
3. On the cross in the middle there is a righteous Servant.
a. He is lifted up between the criminals, but he is not one.
i. This is his work as God’s righteous servant who, numbered with the transgressors, bears the sins of many, pours out his soul to death, and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isa. 53:11-12).
ii. What is happening to him is because of grace, not guilt.
iii. The first comment made upon his death confirms his righteousness (v. 47).
b. That is why the point of this whole scene is Jesus. He is at the center of what this picture means. As he dies bearing the sin of many, we can see:
i. His ability to inspire people to seek life, to draw them to himself.
ii. His grace, forgiving the one who lived wrongly and insulted his person.
iii. His right to promise life, to speak “truly” and with authority.
c. All of these are in his reply to the penitent robber (v. 43). He gives the man more than he asked.
i. Not “when,” but “today...”
ii. Not “remember you,” but “you will be with me.”
iii. Not “when I come,” but “in Paradise.” (cf. Acts 2:31; Lk. 16:22)
1. The three crosses: one belonging to a rebellious scoffer, another to a repentant sinner, and the middle one to the righteous Servant of God who was wounded for our transgressions.
2. One died in sin. One died to sin. One die for sin.
3. With which one do you identify?