. That Jesus was to be numbered among the transgressors had been clearly predicted of Him.
The prophet Isaiah, in describing His suffering, death, and burial, declared, “Therefore will I divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong; because He hath poured out His soul unto death: and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). Not only would He make His grave with the wicked and with the rich in His death, but on the cross He would be numbered with the transgressors.
And Jesus Himself made the prediction. He, Who in His passion and death followed the prophetic Word to the letter, declared to His disciples, “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in Me, ‘And He was reckoned among the transgressors,’ for the things concerning Me have an end” (Luke 22:37). The last part of this utterance clearly indicated that the first part, namely, that He must be reckoned among the transgressors, was to be fulfilled in Him.
This prediction is now literally fulfilled at Calvary. Not only was Jesus formally tried and condemned as a criminal, first by the Sanhedrin and then before Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge, but also the form of death imposed upon Him, stressed the fact—He was reckoned an evil-doer. John says (19:18), “Jesus in the midst,” i.e., Jesus in the center of the malefactors, while our text puts it this way: “malefactors, one on the right, the other on the left” of Jesus. All this accentuated the fact that Christ was reckoned the lowest of criminals, and was numbered among them.
When we consider Christ reckoned among the transgressors, it is well to note first of all the extremity of His rejection.
And we observe, first of all, His utter rejection by man.
Always He is contradicted of sinners (Hebrews 12:3). When He came to His own, He was not received (John 1:11). Always He is hated without cause (John 15:25). And this becomes evident to us now when we look at Him on the cross as He hangs there between the malefactors.
It must become evident that when God becomes manifest in the flesh, all the hatred of sinful man will be railed against Him. There is no hatred that is deeper and more radical than the hatred of the flesh against Christ. For Christ is the revelation of the living God, Who is light, and there is no darkness in Him. He represents the righteousness of God over against a world that lies in darkness. In that world He uncompromisingly condemns its evils, demanding repentance—not in part, but completely; not outwardly, but from the heart; not of certain sins, but of sin itself. He is radical! He exposes the very intents of the heart. He opens the whitewashed sepulchers, and exposes the dead-men’s bones within. He saves, but from sin. He promises life and glory, but only in the way of the righteousness of God. He offers no hope to the sinner who does not repent. He has no program of salvation for a world that loves darkness rather than light. He condemns the very goodness and religiousness of man. He was the most radical, uncompromising, intolerant Preacher that ever spoke to man.
That Christ of God evokes the wrath of man, who censors Him to the realm of transgressors. That flesh that loves darkness is moved to hatred that could never be quenched. Always the rejection of Christ must end in seeking to destroy Him.
And, mind you, sinful flesh always seeks at the same time to justify itself—at least in the eyes of men. The very day after they crucify Christ they will be still pious and religious. See them in the temple, performing religious rites connected to the Passover. They try to make it appear as if it is in the name of man’s goodness and religiousness that Christ must be killed. They will not admit that they kill Him because they are evil and He is good. On the contrary, He must be the transgressor. Such is the deep hypocrisy of the flesh.
So men, all men by nature, reckoned Him among the transgressors—because He is light, and they are darkness; because He is the revelation of the living God, and they are the enemies of God.
But an utter mistake it would be to conclude that man’s rejection is the final word of the cross. Though it be true that the utter rejection by the world plays a great part in the drama of redemption; and though it be true also that the coming of the Son of God in the flesh is intended to evoke this universal antipathy, yet, behind all this rejection, and using it with sovereign determination, is God.
God also reckons Him among the transgressors! Not, you understand, because of any evil within Him or done by Him. For He is the holy Child Jesus, holy and without blame. He is the Servant of Jehovah, par excellence, Who always did the will of the Father perfectly, Who could say to God as He did to man, “Who convicteth Me of sin?”
But it was because He must be the representative sinner, Who will save His people from their sin. Accordingly He must not only be condemned by men, but also by God. God reckoned Him among the transgressors. This is one of the awful antinomies of the cross. He Who knew no sin, is made sin; and He Who was superbly righteous, is made the sinner.
Thus, while the world utterly rejects Him, God fulfills His good pleasure. God had ordained Him to be the Head of the church, which by nature and in time belongs to the race of transgressors. In order to redeem them whom the Father had given to Him, He must take their place in judgment, the righteous judgment of God. All their iniquities He must bear. In God’s own judgment He must be numbered among the transgressors, and treated as the chief of them all. Such is the good pleasure of God. Thus He is forsaken of God. This is the extremity of rejection!
Observe however that, while Jesus is numbered among the transgressors, He also clearly makes division between them.
Always throughout His earthly ministry Christ appears as the divider. And no more emphatically is this revealed than when He hangs on the cross. He is hanged between the malefactors, with one on His right hand, and the other on the left. When the apostle John in his gospel reflects on this fact (John 19:18), he says: “Where they crucified Him and two others with Him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.” These last words, “And Jesus in the midst,” were evidently not intended only to accentuate the fact that on either side of Jesus was a malefactor, but that Jesus made division between them. When the Holy Spirit moved him to write these words, the Spirit points to the fact that, according to God’s intention, Christ is the divider.
When we survey the cross according to the Scriptures and ask the question, “Who was responsible for the arrangement of the crosses and for the particular setting of the cross of Christ between those of the malefactors?” it becomes quite apparent that the immediate cause for this arrangement rested with the soldiers who crucified them, and with Pilate who gave the order, and with the leaders of the Jews who cried for Christ’s death. And their intention evidently was to demonstrate how they conceived of Christ as numbered with the transgressors. Christ then, as we have seen, was, in the intention of men, a common criminal, and He was reckoned as chief among them. But if this were all that could be said, we would fail to see all the Word of God in the particular arrangement. The truth is that God arranges the crosses, and in such a way that Christ evokes the division between the malefactors.
Both of the malefactors were in the same condemnation with Christ, and as one of them also declared, “we indeed justly.” But it soon becomes apparent that there was a marked difference between them. Luke tells us of this difference (Luke 23:39-43). One of them mocked and railed on Christ, saying, “If thou be Christ, save Thyself and us.” It was a prayer of unbelief. He would be saved, but not from his sin and guilt. The other assumes an entirely different attitude with respect to Christ. Not only does he rebuke his fellow in crime, but he declares Christ’s innocence and his own guilt. And he prays that Christ will remember him when He comes into His kingdom.
How can you explain this difference? You cannot explain it from the viewpoint of the malefactors. Would you say that while both had the same opportunity, the one by an act of his free will accepted Christ, and the other rejected Him? But how could this be, in the light of all the circumstances? Also the penitent thief had everything against him. Even the Christ Whom he addresses as Lord, if He were a King, was in the power of His enemies. And remember, remember, there was no preaching here, no altar call, and Christ had not addressed one word to this malefactor. He did not beg him to repent. He did not offer him a place in His kingdom if he would only believe. All that the malefactor saw and heard was the crucified Christ and the mocking of those who milled about the cross.
There is but one answer.
Sovereign, elective grace!
Indeed, Christ is the divider, and evidently here it is between election and reprobation. In the midst of the transgressors He is making separation between them. And He is giving grace to the one in distinction from the other, according to the eternal purpose of God.
Consider what this means. The dying thief had a vision of the kingdom of Christ in a moment when the cause of His kingdom to all appearances was lost. It means that he had light, which even the apostles to this point in time apparently did not have. And what is more, he connected the kingdom of Christ to His cross.
O, yes, God also reckoned Christ among the transgressors, only to make division between them-only to bring out in the death of the Saviour the hope of salvation. A hope was expressed by the dying thief: “When Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” He had assurance that Christ had a kingdom—while all the mockers scoffed at the whole idea of it; while Pilate mocks with His kingship in setting the motto above His head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The thief is assured in his heart that the Lord has a kingdom. Also he was assured that Christ would enter His kingdom. Amazing hope of the penitent thief! And amazing also is his longing to enter it with Christ.
“Remember me, Lord!” Not, remember how I defended Thee this day when all reproached Thee, but remember me, a dying sinner, who is in need of salvation. Thou art my Lord, and I am Thy unworthy servant. And all this with the assurance that his Lord would comply.
The basis of that hope?
The revelation of the Spirit. Was Pilate’s epithet perhaps his Bible? Whatever was revealed to him was made known by the Spirit of Christ to him. Christ, he saw, was entering through death into His kingdom, and he would enter with Him.
It was all of the grace of God Who will be merciful to whom He will be merciful. It is the grace of election subjectively perceived in hope. Through the way of atonement, he had a place in Christ’s kingdom.
Certified by the Word of God in the dying Saviour!
Indeed, the cross and the kingdom belong together. The Lord intimates that the thief had seen correctly. Christ’s crown is attained only through the way of His suffering and death.
“Today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise!”
Blessed answer to the hoping penitent! Not realized in some future time, but this very day.
And so Christ sees His seed. Isaiah made sure to include also this in his prophecy: “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him: He hath put Him to grief, when Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed.” So, while He is rejected by all, He is comforted in beholding the first fruits of a veritable harvest. The Lord of God’s everlasting kingdom marches triumphantly to His glorious throne. And His seed follows in His train.