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Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem on Golgotha or the hill of Calvary (Matthew 27:33; Luke 23:33). Two other men were led to that place of execution along with Jesus (Luke 23:32). All three were crucified, one thief on each side of our Lord (Luke 23:33).
One of the thieves and his cross represents rebellion and arrogance, and depicts impenitent, lost humanity. He scoffed at Jesus: "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." Remarkably, that thief's scorn for Christ was greater than his physical pain or the fear of his impending, dreadful death. Jesus, though, had done nothing to arouse this malicious attitude.
This thief crossed the threshold of eternity unprepared and unconcerned about meeting God. Likewise, millions of souls have entered eternity with little or no concern for their souls. Lamentably, they made no preparation to spend eternity in heaven! Many are the souls who even live outside the lowly standards of righteousness established by men; they rebel against civil authority and are often openly without either penitence or remorse when caught and punished. Some sinners claim they have no desire to go to heaven and equally disdain companionship with godly people in this life.
This thief was an unbeliever. If he were to have salvation, he demanded it on his own terms. Further, he wanted to test Jesus--requiring of him miraculous signs. This thief has many cousins possessing a similar inclination living today.
The second thief and his cross represent penitence and depict the only attitude that will lead a soul to be saved. He acknowledged Jesus as the Christ (Luke 23:40-43) and God (Luke 23:40). Even this thief was aware of the public ministry of our Lord. He believed that Jesus was the Messiah or Savior who was to establish the long prophesied about kingdom. This thief, therefore, attributed innocence to Christ (Luke 23:40). He entrusted his soul and eternity to the man on the middle cross.
The second thief not only was a believer, but he also repented. This thief acknowledged his sins versus the sinlessness of Jesus (Luke 23:40-41) and appealed for salvation to the sole Savior this world has ever known (Luke 23:42). Christ forgave him according to the terms of the religious law under which they both lived--dependent on and in prospect of the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord; likewise today, men and women can only be saved according to the terms of the religious law under which they live (now, the Gospel)--dependent on and with retrospect to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Though forgiven, as often is the case, the penitent thief still had to endure the consequence of his sins (in this instance--death).
The penitent thief also rebuked his sinful cohort and defended Jesus. Followers of the Lord today oppose unrighteousness, too (1 Peter 5:8-9; James 4:7). Further, we are to defend the Gospel (Philippians 1:17; Jude 3). His conduct demonstrates that it is imperative for penitent souls to turn from their former sins and evil associations.
The middle cross was viewed from contrasting perspectives. The impenitent thief saw a man, evil like himself and an impostor Savior. Whereas, the penitent thief saw on the middle cross the Son of God--the Savior (Messiah).
That middle cross is immensely important because on it Jesus Christ suffered vicariously (in our place for us). The thieves died for themselves, but Jesus died for the sins of others (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:21-24: 3:18).
That center cross was also the cross of fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 53:4-12). The precious, matchless blood shed thereon saves souls (1 Peter 1:18-20; Ephesians 1:7). (That blood is contacted when one is baptized into the death of Christ, Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12.) The redemption of souls was the mission for which Jesus left heaven and came to earth (Luke 19:10; Matthew 1:21-23).
Man's part of salvation (Philippians 2:12) includes faith (John 8:24; Mark 16:16), repentance (Luke 13:3), confessing Christ to be Lord (Romans 10:9-10), and obedience (Hebrews 5:8-9; Luke 6:46), which requires immersion in water (1 Peter 3:21). Then Jesus adds one to his Church (Acts 2:47).
In summary, impenitent sinners are lost until they repent. Penitent sinners need to obey the Gospel plan of salvation--the redemptive terms under which we now live. The road to salvation begins with the statement "I have sinned" (Nehemiah 1:6). Jesus Christ's blood is the propitiation for sins by which God saves men by grace (Romans 3:23-25).
"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God."