The Case For Christ: His Companions

Luke 23:32-43

April 13, 2001 | Brian Bill

I came across a phrase this week that sums up what happened on Good Friday: “Under an eastern sky, amid the rabble’s cry, a Man went forth to die.”  Turn in your Bibles to Luke 23:32-33: “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed.  When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left.”

Calvary, the place of the three crosses.  To us, 2,000 years removed from that awful day, one cross stands out, but it wouldn’t have looked like that to the casual spectator on that first Good Friday.  There wasn’t just one but three crosses on that ugly skyline.  

Crucifixion was the Roman form of execution.  It was meant to be a public spectacle, to serve as a deterrent to other lawbreakers.  It was a horrible death, with the broken bodies of the victims sagging on pierced hands and feet, the raging thirst that tortured them in the dust and heat, under the gaze of those walking by.  Have you ever wondered why Jesus was crucified with two companions?  I can think of at least four reasons.

  1. It was less work for the soldiers if they could execute several convicts at once.  
  2. It was a very public way to humiliate Jesus and his followers.  The priests and rulers wanted Jesus crucified on the middle cross because in their minds He was the greatest criminal of the three.  They wanted to stage a theatrical event in order to maximize the humiliation of Jesus in front of the crowds by placing Him between two robbers.
  3. It was also an honor because this is the way Jesus led His life.  Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of man came to seek and save what was lost.”  What a great picture – even in His death, He was surrounded by lost people.
  4. It fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12: “…because He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors…”

Jesus didn’t die alone – He had two companions with Him.  There were three crosses on the hill of Calvary.  The crosses were the same and the methods were the same, and yet the three men were very different from each other.  

There was a cross of Rebellion.  There was a cross of Repentance.  And there was a cross of Redemption.   Jesus was crucified between two thieves, both of whom had equal access to the Savior.  Let’s look at each of them in turn.

The Cross of Rebellion

On the cross of rebellion was a shameless and hardened man.  Look at verse 39: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”  The word “insult” can be translated as “defamation or blasphemy.”   He was doing much more than just teasing Jesus.  He was bitter and sarcastic, spurning the good even on the day of his dying, cursing his way to hell in the most solemn hour of all history. 

His was a cross of Rebellion.  He threw away his chance at forgiveness.  Because of his hard heart, He missed out on heaven.  Even in the valley of the shadow of death, he was too proud to surrender His life to Christ.  He just didn’t get it.

I had a conversation with someone yesterday when I was working out.  We commented on how good it feels to exercise when he said, “This is all there is to life.  We’ve just got to stay in shape and keep healthy.”  I slowly nodded and then said, “We need to work on the inside as well because this outside stuff is just going to turn to dust eventually.  We’re just prolonging the process – it’s going to catch up with us sooner or later.”  He just kind of looked at me and said, “Yeah.”

This guy on the cross was about to be toast but he still wouldn’t focus on what really mattered.  He remained in a state of rebellion.  And it was final and irrevocable.  

The Cross of Repentance

The other criminal hung on the cross of repentance.  Both he and his buddy were being punished for their crimes, and yet he was different because he recognized that Jesus didn’t deserve to die.  Actually, when you compare the accounts in Matthew 27:4 and Mark 15:32, both of these guys were insulting Jesus when the day began.  

But then something happened.  One thief opened his eyes, his ears, and his heart.  As he watched and listened, his heart was convicted of his own wickedness when contrasted with the righteousness of Jesus.  He recognized his need to work on the inside before it was too late.

Instead of curses from the lips of Jesus as the soldiers hammered in the nails, Jesus prayed a prayer of forgiveness for his torturers: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”   Perhaps this expression of grace is what softened the thief’s hard heart.

Look at verses 40-41: “But the other criminal rebuked him.  ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Can you imagine the courage that this took to defy the influence of his friend and the mocking crowd?

This man demonstrated saving faith in 4 key ways:

  1. He respected God.  We need to revere God as holy and all-powerful.  He was beginning to honor God, while his cohort in crime continued to spout blasphemy.
  2. He admitted his guilt.  His deeds were evil and he knew that he deserved to be punished.  Likewise, Romans 6:23 says: “For the wages of sin is death.”
  3. He confessed Christ.  He knew that Jesus was sinless and righteous. This man was beginning to see that Jesus had done nothing wrong at all and that He could ultimately save him from the ravages of eternal punishment. 
  4. He asked for salvation.  As he thought about the fundamental issues of life and death, of right and wrong, belief rose in his soul and he blurted out the fourth key element of faith in verse 42, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”   This is a very important part of saving faith.  He did more than just respect God, own his guilt, and see Jesus as sinless.  He also reached out in faith by asking Jesus to remember him.  He was doing what John 1:12 says to do: “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”  He had more faith than the rest of Jesus’ followers put together.

The response was immediate in verse 43: “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  Notice that He was given much more than he asked for.  Instead of just “remembering” him, Jesus said, “You will be with me.”  And, instead of this taking place sometime in the future, Jesus said, Today, as soon as you take your last breath, you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus saved a man even while He was on the cross!  Beth found a note in her Bible from a sermon some time ago.  Here’s what it said, “A man not fit to live on earth, God made fit to live in heaven.”  

The word “paradise” is a Persian word that referred to a beautiful walled garden used by a king.  When a Persian monarch wished to honor one of his subjects he would invite him to take a walk with him in the garden.  Jesus was promising the repentant rebel not only immortality, but also an honored place as a companion in God’s garden.  I’m reminded of John 14:3 where Jesus said, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

The cross of Repentance teaches us some valuable lessons.  

1. Salvation is simple.

The devil has blinded the eyes of men and women into thinking that it is hard to be saved.  But this clearly isn’t true.  The man on the cross was saved simply by asking the Lord to save him.  In the words of his request, there is surely an attitude of repentance as he threw himself on the mercy of Jesus.  That’s all that is necessary to salvation – repentance and faith.  He didn’t have to join a church, be baptized, or even walk an aisle.

2. The very worst can be saved. 

Friends, no one is too bad to be saved

There can be no doubt that this guy was a lawbreaker.  He had broken the laws of the land and he was being crucified for that reason, but the extent of his sin didn’t alter his chance of being saved one bit.  Friends, no one is too bad to be saved, for as the hymn writer put it so well, “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

3.  It’s never too late to come to Christ. 

While it’s dangerous to wait until you’re on your deathbed, a person can turn to Christ in faith right before they take their last breath, and be with Jesus for all eternity.   Having said that, don’t wait too long to accept Christ. The thief on the cross had one final chance and he took it.  Your final chance might be right now!

The cross of Repentance speaks of hope and assurance, but it was only made possible by the third cross.

The Cross of Redemption

Here we tread on holy ground.  “This man has done nothing wrong.”  These words of the penitent criminal are a remarkable testimony to the character of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have scrutinized his life and yet no flaw has ever been found.  In John 8:46 Jesus asked a question that no one has ever been able to answer: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”  At his trial no grounds had been established on which He could justly be condemned.

Why then did Jesus die?  Was it all a ghastly miscarriage of justice?  From the human point of view there’s no greater blot on human history than the story of Calvary.  It is history’s darkest atrocity, but to be understood, it has to be seen as the climax of God’s glorious plan of redemption. 

That’s how Paul saw it in 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself … God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 

The middle cross was the cross of Redemption.  The death of Christ was quite different from that of the other two victims.  They died without any choice in the matter; their lives were taken away.  But it was quite different with Jesus.  In advance of the crucifixion he had told his disciples in John 10:17:  “I lay down my life that I may take it again.”

The last act of the Son of God was to save a sinner!

The death of Jesus was inevitable only because he willed it so.  His death was a voluntary sacrifice, “the just for the unjust” as 1 Peter 3:18 says.  The basis for our redemption is the shedding of His blood, as He became our sin substitute.  Evil did its worst on Calvary.  Wicked hands took and crucified the Lord of life, but where man’s rebellion against God reached its limit, the grace of God shines through in all its splendor.  Remember this: The last act of the Son of God was to save a sinner!

The question becomes, what cross most describes you today?  Everyone in the world is on one of these two crosses today.  We’re all guilty and deserve to die.   We’re all criminals who have committed cosmic crimes against a Holy God.  Only those who repent will be redeemed.  Those who rebel are lost!  

Which cross are you on tonight?  The Cross of Rebellion or the Cross of Repentance?   The Cross of Repentance helps us see that no one need despair but the Cross of Rebellion teaches us that no one should put off a decision to follow Christ. 

Because of the cross of Redemption, you have to choose between Rebellion and Repentance.  To not choose is to choose rebellion.

Look at the Cross of Redemption.  See Him there with arms outstretched waiting to grant forgiveness to all who come to him in repentance and faith. “Under an eastern sky, amid a rabble’s cry, a man went forth to die FOR ME”.

There were many people who were instrumental in crucifying Jesus.  There were the teachers who hated him, the traitor who sold him, the priests who bought him, the people who said, “crucify Him, crucify Him,” and even the disciples who deserted Him.  But the story remains academic unless we each admit, “I was there, too and my sins nailed Him to the Cross.”  Christianity is nothing at all if it’s not personal.   In a very real sense you and I were at Calvary.

I close with a question: Who nailed Jesus to the Cross?  

I looked and saw that the hammer [pick up hammer] was in my hand.  

Explanation of Nailing Sins to Cross and Communion

Isn’t it interesting that we’re never called to commemorate the birth of Jesus in the Bible?  Not once did He request that any of His wonderful deeds be immortalized.  But we are told to remember His death.  The cross is to be a memorial to remind us where the center of His work lies.  We’re to remember His death.

We’re going to do that tonight by picking up a nail and a hammer and nailing our sins to the cross.  As you come up, just grab a nail, take the index card and pound it into the cross.  Then, move over to the Communion Table and take a piece of bread and the cup to remember what He’s done for you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?