three crosses at sunset

On Good Friday, three crosses stood at Golgotha. Jesus was on the middle cross, willing to take our deserved punishment. On the other crosses were two thieves, sentenced to die for their crimes. Three crosses and three men. Two needed salvation that only one could provide.

We don’t typically think about the men crucified with Jesus, the convicts on Jesus’ left and right. After all, their punishment was just. The Bible doesn’t say much about them, but we can learn from them. The words the Bible uses to describe these men give insight into why there were crucified and who they were.

The Greek words used in the Gospels to describe them can be interpreted as robbers, criminals, thieves, rebels, revolutionaries, and malefactors. The Greek word used by Mark and Matthew includes the idea of “looting by violence,” and Luke’s word choice suggests someone who is an “evil-doer.” These two men were hardened, violent criminals whom Rome considered a threat to their control.

Execution by crucifixion was a sober restriction from similar behavior from others. Roman citizens and the upper classes were typically spared from this torturous and cruel form of judgment. Still, Rome used it with the lower classes, enslaved people, and those deemed a menace to the social order or Roman rule.

Who were these thieves?

All four gospels mention these two thieves, but Mark, Matthew, and John only say they were crucified with Jesus. Luke 23:32-43 is the only verse that mentions the interaction between Jesus and the criminals. We don’t know their names, but they deserved their punishment by law. Their sins earned them an eternal spiritual penalty and a brutal physical death. Jesus didn’t deserve the sentence, but He hung amongst them, as the prophet Isaiah foretold in Isaiah 53:12 and as the Father purposed.

The two thieves were aggressive men that lived to kill, destroy and steal. Their lives furthered Satan’s purposes; in contrast, as described in John 10:9-10, Jesus came to provide abundant and whole life to those who would receive it.

What happened to the two thieves crucified with Jesus?

Jesus offered abundant life to all, even the two thieves crucified with Him. However, one thief rejected it, and his response reflected the soldiers, crowds, and Jewish leaders gathered at Jesus’ cross. Like them, he had spiritual blindness and failed to see the truth before him. On the other hand, the second thief graciously and gladly accepted the life Jesus offered. He acknowledged his wrongdoings, recognized the authority and power of Jesus, and asked to be received as a citizen of His kingdom.

Jesus extended grace and mercy to the repentant, humble thief. He promised the thief that he would be welcomed into “Paradise,” the perpetual dwelling place of the righteous after his physical death. This evil, violent criminal was made anew in Christ.

What can we learn from these two thieves?

Like these two thieves, everyone has lived as a sinner, as detailed in Romans 3:10-11. No matter how much society judges our sins’ severity, we are all hardened, violent criminals compared to the holiness of God. Our sins have earned the death penalty. The thief who chose salvation was securely nailed to a cross, where he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t join the church, be baptized, walk down the aisle, or do good works. All he could do was accept Jesus’ gift of eternal life. He came with a believing and repentant heart and empty hands.

These two criminals represent the worst of humanity. These mean men violently took what they wanted. However, no matter how igregious their sin, no one is beyond Jesus’ grace. He willingly suffered the most brutal death to cover the most heinous sins. The thief who chose not to accept Jesus’ salvation mockingly asked Him to prove Himself by saving the two thieves and Himself, as detailed in Luke 23:39.

Jesus could’ve quickly summoned angels to help Him, but in saving Himself, humanity wouldn’t have hope for eternity. Staying on the cross was His only way to provide salvation. He was the perfect substitute sacrifice, and His death paid for our sins. That’s the reason why He is the only way to salvation. There are only two destinations, eternal judgment in hell or life in heaven with Jesus. We can’t sit on the fence, and failing to choose Jesus is choosing to reject Him. Everyone will make a choice, and that choice directs our eternity. One thief chose life and Jesus, while the other rejected Him, thus choosing eternal damnation.

The one thief acknowledged his sin and believed the testimony about Jesus. He was the long-expected Messiah and the King of the Jews. This thief knew that heaven was eternal and spiritual, not of the world, as described in John 18:36, and the thief trusted Jesus with his eternity. These thieves lived parallel lives on earth, but their eternal lives are stark contrasts. Even now, they’re experiencing the results of their choices.

One thief rejected Jesus, choosing eternal damnation, while the other believed in Jesus and received eternal life. Their choice is the same one we’ll all face one day. What will you do with Jesus? Which will you choose? We don’t know the names of these two thieves or their stories before they get to the cross. However, we know that they committed a crime and received their punishment. While one rejected Jesus, the other chose eternal life and lived in Paradise with Jesus.

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