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“Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” John 19:18

Jesus’ crucifixion in the midst of two sinners reveals Him as the Savior of His people. Two notorious sinners hung condemned on either side of the Savior. Both saw and heard enough so that they could know that Jesus was the promised Messiah. By virtue of their close proximity to Jesus, each was forced to face the question, “What will you do with the crucified Christ?”

The contrast between Jesus and these two sinners could hardly have been greater. In the middle was Jesus, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, God the Son come in the flesh, perfectly holy, devoted to God, and separate from sin. On either side of Jesus were two corrupt creatures of the dust, rebels against the Creator and against the authority God had put over them, two who had devoted their lives to wickedness. How amazing that Jesus was crucified with such criminals, the Righteous One with such notorious sinners!

More amazing, Jesus was placed in the midst of them. If a band of robbers was crucified, the ringleader, the most guilty one, would be put in the middle. If anyone should have been in the middle of the two robbers, it was Barabbas. But, Jesus was put in the middle, implying He was the worst offender among them. In fact, as He bore the sins of His people, we could say He was indeed the most notorious sinner.

Jesus hanging in the midst of these notorious sinners is all the more astounding when we consider that the people knew Jesus was perfectly innocent. Pilate said on three different occasions, “I find no fault in Him” (John 18:38; 19:4; 19:6). Pilate’s wife knew it too and told Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus (Matt. 27:19). Herod could find nothing worthy of death in Jesus (Luke 23:15). Judas Iscariot even proclaimed, “I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). The centurion in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion would add this conclusion: “Certainly this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47).

Still, they crucified Him. Pilate passed the sentence as a representative of the world power of the day and, therefore, of all the nations. The Jewish rulers seeking His death, represented Israel. The soldiers willingly followed orders, taking Jesus to Golgotha and cruelly fastening Him to the cross. But in reality, the entire world was behind His condemnation. By nature, we are all part of that same fallen world. The world faced the question, “What will you do with Jesus?” And, they answered, “Crucify Him!” If we had been there, apart from God’s grace working in our hearts, we would have said the same: “Crucify Him!”

Very few punishments match the horror of crucifixion. But, having spikes driven through one’s hands and feet, having one’s tendons stretched and torn, having to labor for every breath, and burning with thirst, was not the worst. The true horror of Jesus’ suffering came as Jesus experienced God’s cursing wrath poured out upon Him. The cross was a symbol of that curse: “…he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deut. 21:23). We can understand something of the physical pain Jesus endured. But, how could we ever understand the curse of God upon Him? How can we understand what it means to be forsaken by God? How can we understand the torments of hell, that place of everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth and darkness, where the worm never dies and the fires are never extinguished?

Sinless Jesus, crucified in the midst of sinners, experiencing God’s horrible curse as the worst of them—this can only mean that He suffered the curse in the place of sinners. The two thieves would have done everything in their power to avoid the death of the cross; but Jesus went willingly. That is the glorious message of the gospel for sinners who deserve the curse of God.

But, now we must face the same question as those sinners crucified on either side of Jesus: “What will you do with Christ crucified?”

These sinners came into closest proximity to the good news of Christ crucified. They became acquainted with His message. They heard Him pray, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” They knew that He hung on the cross as the Messiah. Two sinners came face to face with the truth.

Those two sinners represent the entire race of mankind who have rebelled against God. They illustrate the fact that among the mass of sinners in the world are only two kinds of people, the elect and the reprobate. The elect God calls out of darkness. He causes them to hear the Shepherd’s voice, so that they repent and follow Him. The reprobate, on the other hand, continue in their sins, desiring only to escape the consequences of sin. The question is, which sinner represents each of us? We have all been exposed to the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, but how do we respond to that message?

The Gospel according to John only says “two others” were crucified with Jesus. Matthew and Mark both tell us that these men were thieves. Not just the kind that sneak into empty houses and steal, but bandits who violently rob people. Likely, they were accomplices to Barabbas who was guilty of murder and insurrection against the Roman government. Mark makes mention that Barabbas was not the only insurrectionist captured and bound at the time (Mark 15:7). Whatever their crime, they were clearly the worst of sinners. We need to see that if we had grown up in the same circumstances, apart from God’s grace, we would commit the same sort of crimes. If we were oppressed by a wicked government as they were, we would be tempted to commit insurrection too. That very thing is condoned by many in the church world today.

How did these men react when they were exposed to the gospel as it was proclaimed in the person and work of Jesus Christ that day? How did they respond to Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them…”? How did they respond to the jeers of the Jewish rulers?

The first thief spoke reproachfully: “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us” (Luke 23:39). He despised Jesus along with the wicked crowd. Not the guilt of sin troubled him, but the consequences of sin. If Jesus had such mighty power as many claimed, this thief wanted Jesus to come down and deliver him from his punishment. But he had a completely wrong view of the Christ and His kingdom: he envisioned a Christ who would set up an earthly, physical kingdom. This likely accomplice of Barabbas had been fighting to gain freedom from the Roman Empire and was looking for a kingdom that would satisfy his lust for earthly pleasures and treasures. If Christ would not establish that kind of kingdom, he wanted nothing to do with Him. This man came into closest proximity with the gospel, and rejected it.

Many today come to know the gospel message; they know the doctrine of Christ and His suffering of God’s curse in the place of sinners. They may have attended catechism classes and gone to a Christian school. But the Christ of the Bible is not the kind of Christ they want. They think, “If Thou be the Christ…help me get out of these problems.” When they see that Christ is not like that, they reject Him.

The second thief, however, looked to Christ for salvation.

Not because he was any different by nature. Like the first thief, he too had pursued a life of wicked violence in the service of his lusts. But the same grace that put Jesus on the cross to save sinners opened the eyes of this second thief. He heard Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them…” and saw Jesus as a merciful Savior. He heard the railing Jews and saw the injustice of it. By God’s grace, his eyes were opened to behold his Savior.

With spiritual eyes, he saw his sins and sinfulness and confessed that he deserved the punishment he was getting: “we receive the due reward for our deeds” (Luke 23:41). Smitten with the guilt of his own sin, the second thief was willing to sign his own death sentence, confessing that he himself deserved the punishment of the cross. True repentance is willing to accept the consequences of sin as fair recompense.

At the same time, he knew he deserved to fall under God’s cursing wrath, the very thing that the cross symbolized. That is why he said to the other thief, “Dost not thou fear God?” (Luke 23:40). The righteous God who comes to judge is more to be feared than all human authorities who might execute judgment on earth but who can only kill the body.

More than that, the second thief knew that Jesus was perfectly innocent: “This man hath done nothing amiss.” Maybe he was able to witness Jesus’ trial and hear Pilate’s multiple declarations of innocence. Whatever the case may be, God had graciously opened his eyes to see Jesus Christ as perfectly righteous.

And then, he did one more thing: he called upon Jesus for salvation: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He was no longer concerned about an earthly kingdom, but the perfect kingdom of heaven that every child of God looks forward to. He wanted Jesus to remember him on the Judgment Day. He did not claim that his works merited anything from Jesus. Instead, he cast himself completely upon Jesus for mercy.

To this sinner’s earnest plea, Jesus responded, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus Himself promised it would be so. That second thief died knowing the comfort of belonging to his faithful Savior.

God’s Word in our text is both a warning and a comfort to everyone who faces the question concerning their response to Christ.

It is a warning to those who want a Christ and a religion according to which they can pursue their own lusts. Both sinners came face to face with Jesus and with death. They had time enough to repent. We might think to ourselves, “I can always repent when I’m older.” But the first thief never repented. God gives us the example of this thief as a warning to everyone who pretends they will repent on their deathbeds.

On the other hand, Jesus in the midst of these two sinners is also an encouragement, because it shows that Jesus forgives even the greatest of sinners. Though he had lived a life of violence and wickedness, the second thief found forgiveness at the cross. We must never think to ourselves, “My sins are too many or too great.” That would be to reproach Jesus and imply that His blood was not precious enough. In fact, it cleanses even the foulest of sinners. All who go to Christ and humble themselves before Him—even in the final hour of their lives—He will in no wise cast out.

Jesus Christ suffered the curse of God for all His elect. He suffered to satisfy the justice of a holy and righteous God whose anger burns against sinners.

What will you do with the crucified Christ?