Crucified With Christ

by Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: In order to draw attention to world peace, in 1973 Patrice Tamao of the Dominican Republic allowed himself to be crucified as thousands watched on TV. Tamao had three six-inch stainless steel nails driven through his hands and feet and intended to stay on the cross for 48 hours. However, after 20 hours he requested to be taken down because he had developed an infection.

Jesus told His disciples, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." Luke 9:23. Later the apostle Paul repeated this theme. "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." Galatians 2:20.

From the time of Christ's sacrifice to the present, many have sought to show their devotion to Jesus, secure their own forgiveness, or make some public statement by actually having themselves crucified. In 1965, Daniel Waswa in Kenya compelled his wife to crucify him "for the sins of all Kenyans." After reluctantly obeying, his wife collapsed and died-apparently from shock. Daniel was rescued by neighbors, but he later died from an infection. Does the Lord require this kind of literal fanaticism when He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him?

To better understand these profound passages regarding the cross, we need to turn to the only story in the Bible where we find an example of this dreaded method of execution. As we examine the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, we quickly notice that Jesus did not die alone. Two other men were "crucified with Christ" that day.

Countless lessons can be drawn from the experience of the thieves who died flanking the Saviour-and especially the one who accepted Jesus. All four Gospel accounts tell of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, but only the Gospel of Luke tells the story of the penitent thief who turned to Jesus in the final hours of his life. Let's begin by revisiting this popular passage: "There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. ... Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, 'If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.' But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.' Then he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.' And Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'" Luke 23:32, 33, 39-43, NKJV.

Only Two Choices
These two thieves represent the two great classes of people who have ever lived or ever will live-the saved and the lost, the righteous and the wicked. In His famous parable, Jesus compared them to sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The Son of Man set the sheep (the righteous) on His right hand, and the goats (the wicked) on His left. Since in the Bible the right hand represents favor (Matthew 26:64; Acts 2:32, 33), I would like to believe that the thief who was saved was to the right of Jesus.

Notice the ways these two doomed men represent all people:

  1. They were both guilty of rebellion, murder, and stealing.
    We too have "sinned, and come short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23. We have rebelled against our Maker's will, committed murder in our hearts, and robbed God of the time, means, and talents He has lent to us.
  2. They could do nothing to save themselves.
    Picture them hanging there naked, with their hands and feet spiked mercilessly to a cross. I cannot think of two individuals who were ever more utterly powerless to rescue themselves. We are just as helpless to save ourselves by our good works as were those two thieves to effect an escape from the cross.
  3. They both had an equal opportunity to be saved.
    Although helpless to save themselves, these two men were in the immediate presence of the greatest dynamo of love and power in the whole cosmos. But salvation is not obtained by osmosis. To be helped, they had to first reach out in faith and ask Him. We too are ever in the presence of the Saviour, and He is only a prayer away (Psalm 139:7). But many souls will be needlessly lost, while hoping and desiring to be saved, because they do not perform the simple act of asking.

Believing the Evidence
We are all saved by faith, and true faith is based on evidence; otherwise it is simply a blind, reckless presumption. On the day of the crucifixion, a mountain of evidence was given to show that Jesus was the Son of God.

After the three crosses were hoisted into position and the initial shock associated with crucifixion set in, the Bible tells that at first, both of the criminals joined the mob in mocking Him. "Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him." Matthew 27:44, NKJV. But as the agonizing hours dragged by, the thief on His right began to reflect on his wasted life and now-hopeless future. As he humbled himself, the Holy Spirit began to penetrate the man's contrite heart and urged him to consider the noble way Jesus bore His suffering. There was a growing conviction in the thief's mind that perhaps this was more than an ordinary man who was hanging a few feet away. Consider the following points:

 

  • This man had almost certainly heard of Jesus' many miracles. Nearly everyone living in Palestine during that time-from Herod on his throne to the lowly beggar on the street-had heard of the wonderful works of mercy wrought by this carpenter from Nazareth. Even the noted Jewish historian Flavius Josephus spoke of the incredible miracles Jesus performed.
  • When Pontius Pilate brought Barabbas and Jesus before the people, the thief likely noticed the marked contrast between their angry leader and the gentle Saviour. He probably heard Pilate ask, "What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?" Matthew 27:22. But even more important was Pilate's confession, "I find no fault in this man." Luke 23:4.
  • He probably overheard many believers in the crowd speak of Christ's miracles and great deeds.
  • The thief heard Jesus forgive His enemies. It was almost an involuntary reflex to fight, struggle, and curse as the spikes were being driven through the hands and feet. But the repentant thief clearly heard Jesus say, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34. Like a lamb before slaughter, the Messiah made no effort to resist (Isaiah 53:7).
  • He saw the Roman soldiers casting lots for Christ's garments at the foot of the cross, in direct fulfillment of King David's messianic prophecy: "They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture." Psalm 22:18.
  • He witnessed a supernatural darkness descend over the land in the middle of a spring day (Matthew 27:45).
  • He read the sign directly above the head of Jesus, which declared: "This is the King of the Jews." Luke 23:38.

    As the evidence of Jesus' divine nature continues to mount, the thief on His right hand feels the Holy Spirit press upon him. There is only one logical verdict. The long-awaited Messiah, the King of Israel, is hanging on the cross beside him. This is the One who came to fulfill the famous prophecy: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement for our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. ... And he made his grave with the wicked. ... And he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." Isaiah 53:5, 9, 12.

    Somehow this thief understands that Jesus is suffering for "the transgressors" and knows that he is in that category. In the classic book The Desire of Ages, we read: "Little by little the chain of evidence is joined together. In Jesus, bruised, mocked, and hanging upon the cross, he sees the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. Hope is mingled with anguish in his voice as the helpless, dying soul casts himself upon a dying Saviour."1

    The criminal on the left joins the taunting mob and shouts, "If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us." Luke 23:39. But the repentant thief, aware that he is dying and has nothing to fear, now speaks in Jesus' defense. Turning to his former partner, he asks, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." Luke 23:40, 41.

    I can almost see a temporary silence fall upon the mocking crowd as they listen to this unusual exchange. Then the repentant thief's final words pass through his parched, quivering lips. He calls out in clear, triumphant tones: "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." Verse 42. His famous plea begins with "Lord" and ends with "kingdom." He does not ask for justice, but mercy.

    The Deadly "If"
    Please don't miss the fact that both thieves wanted to be saved. However, the thief on the Lord's left did not have a saving faith. He said, "If thou be the Christ."

    "If" is a neutralizing word when praying to the Lord of the universe. When tempting Jesus in the wilderness, the devil revealed his identity when he said, "If thou be the Son of God." Matthew 4:3. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and the word "if" neutralizes a person's faith.

    Like much of the world, the thief on the left wanted salvation from the penalty of sin, but not from sin itself. He lacked a saving faith. Jesus says, "If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins." John 8:24.

    The story of the thief on the cross serves as a microcosm for the plan of salvation. In the space of a few short verses (Luke 23:40-43), we see the believing thief pass through all the basic steps to salvation and experience all the elements necessary for conversion.

    1. He saw Jesus lifted up. Jesus promises, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." John 12:32.
    2. He believed in Christ as the spotless Lamb of God-a perfect atoning sacrifice. "This Man has done nothing wrong." Luke 23:41, NKJV.
    3. He repented of his sins and confessed his guilt. "And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds." Verse 41.
    4. He testified publicly, in spite of the prevailing ridicule, that Jesus was his Lord and King. "Lord, ... thy kingdom." Verse 42.
    5. He asked for forgiveness. "Lord, remember me." Verse 42.
    6. He suffered with Jesus.
    7. He died with Christ, and in Christ.

    Hungry to Save
    Even though Jesus was suffering the most intense agony imaginable, He never failed to hear a sincere cry for help. In answer to the desperate plea "Lord, remember me," Jesus says: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands." Isaiah 49:15, 16, NKJV.

    In essence, Jesus was saying, "How could I forget you when I am hanging here for you?" The devil could nail His loving hands to a tree, but he could not prevent the Saviour from saving. This dying thief's earnest petition was the lone glimmer of light allowed to penetrate the darkness and suffering that enveloped Jesus. The Messiah answered with love, compassion, and power. "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." Luke 23:43.

    In Jesus' final moments alive on the cross, the Father gave His Son the gift of seeing this wretched criminal transformed into a soul redeemed for eternity. For Jesus, it was blessed assurance that His life and sacrifice would not be in vain.

    Hanging on Faith
    After Jesus said, "You will be with Me in paradise," a wonderful peace flooded the troubled soul of this repentant thief. I believe there was a marked change in his countenance. A great calm came over him as the terrible weight from all the sins of his life lifted from his heart and transferred to the Lamb of God beside him.

    A few moments later, Jesus called out: "It is finished!" "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." John 19:30; Luke 23:46. "And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God." Mark 15:39. The spontaneous testimony of this Roman soldier served as confirmation that the thief on the cross was not the only one who grasped the truth of Christ's divinity.

    The weight of evidence was compelling, yet God always allows some room for doubt. After Jesus died, the penitent thief was left to face the mocking crowd alone. Despite the fact that his body still hung by nails, this man's soul now hung by faith in his Redeemer's word. At times we too must trust our salvation to a silent Saviour.

    In Paradise Today?
    We can't rightfully study this story of the thief on the cross without taking a few lines to explain a common misunderstanding. Many have read Christ's promise to the thief in Luke 23:43 and concluded that the saved thief went to be with Jesus in Paradise that day. However, we know that isn't true because Jesus did not go to Paradise that day. After the resurrection, when He appeared to Mary and she clung to His feet in worship, Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father." John 20:17, NRSV.

    Then why did Jesus say, "Today you will be with me in Paradise"? The answer is that He didn't! The original Greek has no punctuation, which means that the translators of the King James Version put the comma in the wrong place.

    It should read, "Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise." The emphasis was on the word "today." In other words, He told the thief, "I am promising you today, even though I do not look like a victorious Lord and King, that there will be a place reserved for you in my kingdom."

    Dead to Sin
    As a prank, a friend sent me a gift certificate good for "one free visit to the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian," more commonly known as Dr. Death. Some people are so tired of hurting that they would rather commit suicide than continue living in pain.

    In one sense, suicide is exactly what it means to be "crucified with Christ." However, the solution to the sin problem is not physical suicide, but ego suicide. Paul says, "For he that is dead is freed from sin." Romans 6:7. Dead people do not get offended or lose their tempers. Dead people do not behave selfishly or harbor bitterness and grudges. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

    God's Word declares: "Those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." Galatians 5:24, NKJV. In Romans 6:11 we read, "Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

    A.W. Tozer said, "The man with a cross no longer controls his destiny; he lost control when he picked up his cross. That cross immediately became to him an all-absorbing interest, an overwhelming interference. No matter what he may desire to do, there is but one thing he can do; that is, move on toward the place of crucifixion."

    The Scars of Sin
    A few months ago, Karla Fay Tucker became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. While on death row for a gruesome murder, she experienced a complete conversion and became a model prisoner. She was even forgiven by her victim's family. Nevertheless, Karla Fay Tucker was still given her lethal injection on schedule.

    We must not miss the fact that accepting Jesus does not always remove the consequences of our sins nor erase the ugly scars. The result of our sins often linger long after we have received forgiveness. On this point, the repentant thief on the cross is again a fitting example. Christ's forgiveness did not spare him from an agonizing death on the cross. The salvation he received that day was salvation from the ultimate penalty for sin, not from all its temporal consequences.

    Deathbed Conversions
    Did you know that this is the only story in the Bible of a "deathbed conversion"? This one example is recorded so none need lose hope of salvation-even in the end; but there is only one example so none would recklessly presume it is safe to wait till the bitter end. I am convinced that one of two things happens to people who purposely plan on turning to Jesus in the last hours of their life. Either they never can, or they never will.

    To say, "I will give my life and strength and means to the devil and then, in the last fleeting moments of my earthly existence, I will turn to God" is the highest insult a mortal can offer God. It is something like offering an ugly, thorny rose stem to your spouse after all the beautiful, fragrant petals have fallen off.

    Repentance is a gift from God (Acts 5:31; 2 Timothy 2:24, 25). We cannot predict when we are going to repent. If we have spent our lives spurning the loving invitations of the Holy Spirit, it may be that when the end comes, we will find we have grieved away the Comforter and lost our capacity to repent. "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation"? Hebrews 2:3. Then, of course, there is the very real possibility that we could die suddenly with no prior warning, and thus be unable to repent.

    Starting at the Cross
    Officer Peter O'Hanlon was patrolling on night duty in northern England some years ago when he heard a quivering sob. Turning, he saw in the shadows a little boy sitting on a doorstep. With tears rolling down his cheeks, the child whimpered, "I'm lost. Please take me home."

    "Where do you live, child? What street?" the officer asked.

    "I don't know," the little boy whimpered.

    The policeman began naming street after street, trying to help him remember where he lived. When that failed, he repeated the names of the shops and hotels in the area, but all without success. Then he remembered that in the center of the city was a well-known church with a large white cross that towered high above the surrounding landscape. He pointed to it and asked, "Do you live anywhere near that?"

    The boy's face immediately brightened. "Yes sir, take me to the cross. I can find my way home from there!" We will never find the way to our heavenly home unless we begin our journey at the foot of the cross. Have you made your decision to take up your cross and follow Jesus?

    On a rocky hill outside Jerusalem long ago, three political prisoners were executed; but there was a vast difference between them. One died to sin, one died in sin, and One died for sin. Christ died for our sins. Now we must choose whether we will die in our sins or, by faith in Jesus, die to our sins.

    1E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 750.

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