"When they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left" (Luke 23:33).
What profound depths there are in the mystery of the cross! We can gaze on that One who hung there between two thieves, a spectacle to Heaven, earth and hell, and see the perfect measure of every person in the whole universe of God.
First of all, we must gaze at the center cross, or rather at Him who was nailed thereon—Jesus of Nazareth—that blessed One who had spent His life in labors of love, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, opening the eyes of the blind, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, ever ready to drop the tear of true sympathy with every child of sorrow. When we come to inquire what it was that placed Him there, we learn two profound truths.
In the first place, we are taught what man's heart is toward God. When the people cried out "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" that voice was the utterance of the human heart, declaring—as nothing else could—its true condition in the sight of God. But now look at the cross as the ultimate expression of God's heart toward man: "But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Those who have accepted the judgment of God against themselves—who truly own that the cross is the measure of their guilt—can appreciate the cross as the expression of God's heart toward them.
The Penitent Thief
We shall now turn to the other two crosses, and the men who hung on them. It is of the utmost importance to see that there was no essential difference between those two men. In nature, in recorded history, and in their circumstances, they were the same. In Matthew 27:44, we read that "The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth." So also in Mark 15:32, "They that were crucified with Him reviled Him." Now this divinely proves that there was no difference between them until the moment in which the arrow of conviction entered the soul of him whom we call "the penitent thief." The more clearly this is seen, the more the sovereign grace of God shines out in all its brightness.
Note the change in this sinner's heart; listen to the words of the penitent thief: "Dost not thou fear God … for we receive the due reward of our deeds" (Luke 23:40,41). Here are the accents of genuine repentance—a sense of personal vileness, guilt, and danger. By the Spirit's work in his soul, he felt and owned that he was justly condemned. This change of mind and heart is repentance. Let the reader ponder it deeply; it is an essential element in salvation. "Repent ye therefore, and be converted" (Acts 3:19). "God … commandeth all men every where to repent" (Acts 17:30).
But we have further lessons to learn from the lips of the dying malefactor. "He said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom" (Luke 23:42). Think of this! Think of one who had been railing on the dying Saviour, now owning Him as Lord and King! Truly this was a divine work. Surely this was real conversion—a true turning to God.
Note the divine response to the appeal of the penitent thief: "To day shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Consider how brightly grace shines in the salvation of the thief on the cross. Clearly he had no good works to trust in. The rites, ceremonies, and ordinances of religion could do nothing for him. He no longer had the use of his hands and his feet—so indispensable in man's religions of works. But his heart and his tongue were free; and these are the very things that are called into exercise in God's path of faith: "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:10).
The Unbelieving Thief
Let us now fix the eye, for a brief moment, upon the third cross. What do we behold? A guilty sinner? Not merely that: we behold an unbelieving sinner. This is the solemn point. Who can fully estimate the contrast between those two men? They had been so similar, but now the grand and all-important difference lay in this fact: one believed in Jesus, and the other did not. One was enabled to say "Lord, remember me," and the other said, "If thou be the Christ."
On which side of this line are you standing at this moment? Are you, like the penitent thief, linked with Christ by a simple faith? Or do you speak of Christ and His saving power with an "if"? Do not put this question away. Take it up and look it solemnly in the face. Turn to Jesus now! Come just as you are to Jesus, who hung on that center cross for you and me.
—Condensed from "The Three Crosses," by C.H. Mackintosh.