Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 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.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
At noon on Friday, darkness fell over Jerusalem.
The city was a blur that day. Pilgrims from across the world had packed into the capital for Passover. Inns were overbooked, vendors were out of inventory, police were on edge.
The gates in and out of the city, engineered for security more than efficiency, were bottlenecked with people and animals. The air was thick with sweat and the sound of a hundred dialects.
One of the gates – this one on the northern side of the city – was especially overwhelmed. Just outside of its walls, the Romans were staging another crucifixion. This gate was stirred with the spectacle of death.
We know that there were three crucified that day. But our traditional impressions of the scene are probably wrong. Because, with apologies to George Bennard’s 1913 hymn, the old rugged cross was neither on a hill nor was it far away.
The cross would have been at eye-level, immediate and stark. By design, it was too close for comfort.
Golgotha may well have been the hill of the skull, but crucifixions wouldn’t have taken place at the summit – they would have been carried out at the base, near the gate, or at least near the road. The Romans didn’t want their master craft to be viewed at a distance – they wanted the grotesquery to be appreciated up close. Crucifixion, after all, was more than an execution. It was a public service announcement. It was propoganda. Death on the cross was a tormenting commercial for what not to do.
One reason for bringing the cross down to the level of the passers-by was so that everybody could hear the last words of the criminals; in ancient times (as today) people were fascinated by the final syllables of dying people.
But more than this, by crucifying offenders by the roadside, the Romans were encouraging passers-by to join in insulting the convicts. They liked it when the innocent heaped contempt on the guilty.
On that Friday, people had to get even closer. Due to the harrowing shroud of noontime darkness, citizens wanting to identify the dying men had to approach more nearly to read the placards posted above their heads. But the close contact didn’t mitigate any of the intensity of their sneer.
In particular, the man in the middle, Jesus of Nazareth, received scorn upon scorn. And not just from the commoners; the city’s elites also came out to Jesus. Scribes, Sadducees, and members of the Sanhedrin risked getting Golgotha’s gore on their robes for the chance to verbally assault the man from Galilee.
And then, almost inconceivably, another of the dying criminals began to assail Jesus. From the cross on the left came the strongest derision of all: “Oh look, it’s Jesus, another bleeping Messiah! How bleeping convenient for me, to be killed on the very day the bleeping Messiah is crucified, too! Well, alright then, Mr. Messiah! Why don’t you bleeping come down from that cross and we’ll all go get some lunch. You lousy fool!”
In the eclipse of his life, this criminal figured, Why not? Why not join in the crowd? This Jesus talked big but he couldn’t back it up. It’s schadenfreude.
And in the darkness of noonday, the blackness of his heart poured out hatred on Jesus.
This is the cross of rebellion.
For a while, the man on the third cross – equally violent and equally guilty – remained quiet. But then, in the inky blackness of that afternoon, something changed. Something hit him.
Maybe it was the way that Jesus was handling it all, praying for forgiveness for those who were spitting on him, piercing him, and nailing him. Maybe it was the absurdity of the other criminal’s taunts. Maybe he just came to realize that Jesus different. And in his desperation, scripture says, his heart began to change.
Don’t you realize, he said to the vile thief across from him, that we’re all going to die here? What’s the point? Especially when this man is innocent and we’re guilty? Looking to Jesus, he gasped: “Lord – remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This criminal didn’t know much – but he recognized his guilt in the light of Jesus’ innocence. He made out the Lordship of the man in the middle. And he asked Christ to take him into his heart forever.
This is the cross of repentance.
Jesus turned to the man on the right cross and said – “Here is the word of truth: today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Two men – both guilty, both knowing that life was departing, had to make a decision about Jesus. One raged to the end. The other, in the darkness, was pierced by a shaft of light and oathed his allegiance to Jesus. One cursed Jesus, the other crowned him king.
This dark noonday in Jerusalem wasn’t a one-off. It was just the first instance of the fundamental decision that every person who encounters Jesus has to make. With the eyes of the world trained on us, we all must appraise the man on the middle cross.
Most choose to go with the crowds; they curse Jesus and die. For those on his left, Jesus symbolizes what is wrong, old-fashioned, and naive. He must be pushed aside, scorned, spat on.
Others, though, are able to see through the darkness. They identify something redemptive above the howling crowd. They sense hope in the eleventh hour – they see a loving Lord, a sacrificing Savior, and look for a kingdom beyond this world. They believe that in that moment, he is carrying their sorrows and healing them with his wounds. With all the breath that remains, they throw ourselves on the mercy of the man on the center cross.
To the desperate and decided, Jesus returns the same words: Remember me! Remember what I’ve done for you!
Stuart Townend’s marvellous modern hymn How Deep the Father’s Love For Us locates us among the ruthless hecklers. It also comforts us with the reminder that Jesus sees us in the blackness. Jesus identifies us in the din of the crowd. And the man on the middle cross has mercy for all those who seek him:
Behold the Man upon a cross; my sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life; I know that it is finished
This Holy Week, sense the weight of your sin. Feel the splinters of guilt. Awaken to the darkness you deserve.
Then take your place among the repentant. Cry out to Jesus and live.