What I learned about the Gospel from the man on the 3rd cross

What I learned about the Gospel from the man on the 3rd crossThen he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:42,43).

Even the Romans didn’t subject common thieves to crucifixion. 

The fact that the 2 rebels crucified with Jesus were executed by this method strongly implies that they were guilty of much more serious crimes.

Or they were from among the zealots, Jewish freedom fighters engaged in guerrilla warfare – surprise raids and ambushes, theft of weapons, sabotage –against the Roman juggernaut, a constant gritty irritant in the eye of the foreign military occupiers.

What must have been unparalleled to those Roman soldiers is that on that cross, this man experienced a profound change of mind – a conversion.

The man on the 3rd cross was transformed. Earlier heaping insults on the Lord Jesus (Matthew 27:44), he was now humbly seeking a relationship with Him, demonstrating that regeneration – solely the domain of the Spirit of God – had undoubtedly occurred.

And the events surrounding that nameless – but well-known – biblical character teach me the essence of the Gospel

I need penal substitutionary atonement. That sounds like heavy theological lingo, but it really underscores the simplicity of the Cross in 4 words: Christ in my place.

I wonder if Barabbas ever considered the concept? He may have been the leader of the other two. That central cross was likely intended for him – until Jesus acted as his substitute. 

The Jewish crowd gathered for Passover called for the release of Barabbas because he at least was doing something to advance by violence, the cause of Jewish militant independence. Jesus on the other hand was advocating a kingdom the Jewish leadership didn’t want, advancing a righteousness that twisted their self-righteous legalism into knots.

So they demanded of Pilate the release of Barabbas.

As for Jesus, the angry mob uttered the words that haunt the Jewish race to this day: His blood be on us and on our children (Matthew 27:25).

If the events had unfolded differently, Barabbas might have hung on that second cross along with his 2 partners…and we would have never heard of any of them.

But GRACE isn’t fair! Have you ever wondered how a just God could accept the “11th hour” repentance, the “death-bed confession” of a convicted criminal as he was about to die? Was it sincere? 

Shouldn’t the man on the third cross have had to do something to prove that his repentance was genuine?...to demonstrate authentic faith? He never got baptized; he never taught Sunday School, or gave money to the church; he never even related his testimony to a single person!

But of course that’s not what grace is all about. It is totally unearned, unmerited, undeserved. And when we start to think we have somehow proven ourselves worthy, we have cheapened – and grossly misunderstood – God’s grace.

By definition, grace is receiving the good that we have not earned; that we emphatically do not deserve.

I sometimes illustrate it this way. If our friendly neighborhood police officer catches me speeding on our city streets, and she lets me off with a warning, that’s mercy. If in addition, she offers me a coupon for a free car wash, that’s grace – giving me something of value that I don’t deserve!

One is the withholding something negative that I’ve earned (mercy). The other is giving me something positive that I haven’t (grace). 

That the man on the third cross would come to faith in Christ on his final day of life – and within hours or minutes of his death – is an epic example of a new beginning, and a graphic demonstration of Christ’s immeasurable grace. 

So, who was responsible anyway? The thief on that third cross was a passive player in the process that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion, but his sin – together with mine – nailed Christ there.

In terms of responsibility, more significant players were leading the charge in this whole sordid mess – this blatant miscarriage of justice – that resulted in the most innocent of men being crucified. Pilate eternally bears blame: I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him” (John 19:4).

And yet the Roman designate with the authority to terminate this clear breach of jurisprudence lacked the courage to act on his findings.

The historical narrative is clear that there were others: Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee; Annas and Caiaphas of the high priest’s office; the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.

But think about this: the One sovereignly directing these affairs – without exonerating the human players – was Almighty God. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer (Isaiah 53:10).

Takeaway: The thief beautifully depicts the reality of all who have come to Christ: His hours hanging beside the Saviour resulted in a vivid transformation from ridiculer of the Messiah to one seeking His blessing.

We – you and me and the man on the third cross – who previously were enemies of God, benefit from this dramatic, redemptive, grace-ful act of cosmic proportions. 

But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).


~graphic from freeimages.com by dboggs 

-this post originally appeared in February 2016 

About Us

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:28 The community at Bethel includes a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Young and old, families and singles, English-speakers and those with a French mother-tongue, various ethnic and religious backgrounds. We reflect the make up of the city of North Bay. More importantly though, we are a group of people who Jesus has saved through his work on the cross. By God's plan of redemption we were all brought into one family as brothers and sisters in Christ, given a mission to reach into our world and make disciples for Him. We hope you will find at Bethel a friendly, loving group of people striving to live for Jesus Christ. Whether you are visiting for the day or trying to find a permanent church home, you are welcome to join us as we together seek out Him.