Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Three crosses on a hill. Three men condemned to die.
If we’re to understand what was so good about ‘Good’ Friday, we need to be able to see something of ourselves represented in all three of those crosses.
On the first cross was a criminal, a sinner, a rebel in God’s world, rightfully condemned for his crimes, but who scorned and spurned the one man who could save him.
Many of us can remember well the years when we scorned Jesus and spurned his salvation — if not in our words, then in our thoughts and our behaviour. We were condemned criminals in God’s universe and we showed no remorse.
Others of us were fortunate to have come to Christ at a young age — before we could do too much damage. But we know the stain of sin that remains in our hearts and we can imagine what we would be today if God had not taken hold of us.
We have different stories to tell, but all of us have this in common: like the man on this first cross, we were born sinners, with hearts bent toward evil and rebellion against God. We deserved the sentence of death. So we must see something of ourselves on that first cross.
On the second cross was another criminal, another sinner, another rebel in God’s world, rightfully condemned for his crimes, but who was saved by grace as he acknowledged his sins and put his faith in the one man who could save him.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s the faith of the sinner.
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That’s the promise of the Saviour.
And the very same promise is extended to every penitent sinner. As the old hymn put it, “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
None is so good that the cross isn’t necessary to save him; but equally, none is so bad that the cross isn’t sufficient to save him.
So we must identify with the criminal on the first cross; but praise God that we can also identify with the criminal on the second cross. We are sinners, yes; but sinners saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone.
Two sinners on two crosses. And hanging between those two sinners on the third cross was the sinless Saviour who suffered in our place: the man who suffered not merely the physical agony of the cross, but the spiritual agonies of the wrath of God poured out in judgement on human sin.
John’s Gospel tells us that the chief priests objected to what was written on that notice above Jesus’ head. They were half right, for there’s a sense in which the notice was mistaken. It should have had my name on it. It should have had your name on it.
But that’s the wonder of the cross of Jesus. There was indeed something of us hanging on that third cross; not our bodies, but our guilt and our shame and our condemnation.
Three crosses on a hill. In very different ways, we need to see ourselves represented on each one of them.
We are the sinners rightly condemned to death.
We are the sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus; promised a Paradise we don’t deserve.
We are the sinners in whose place the sinless Saviour bore the guilt and the punishment and the undiluted wrath of God.
Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders.
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life — I know that it is finished.
(Stuart Townend, ‘How Deep the Father’s Love For Us’)