Crucifixion was probably the most horrible form of capital punishment ever devised by man. The ancient Persians practiced it (ca. 522 B.C.); for example, when Darius, a Persian ruler, conquered Babylon (the second conquest), he had three thousand leading citizens crucified (Herodotus, The Histories 3.159). Later crucifixion became a mode of Greek execution. Following the destruction of Tyre, Alexander the Great crucified two thousand men of military age (Rollin 1857, 526).
On occasion, the Jews resorted to crucifixion. In the inter-biblical period, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) crucified eight hundred Pharisees who had been involved in a revolt. The Romans, however, were most noted for the practice. In 71 B.C., following a slave revolt in Rome, six thousand recaptured slaves were crucified on the Appian Way leading to the city (Vos 1999, 439).
The verb “crucify” (forty-six times in the New Testament) was used by the inspired writers of the New Testament to depict the mode of Jesus’ death. But not his only—two other men were crucified at the same time as Christ. All four Gospel writers are emphatic that two criminals were crucified—one on either side of the Savior (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:32; John 19:18). These two additional victims are identified as “robbers” or “malefactors” (kakourgos—an “evil worker,” cf. 2 Timothy 2:9). This fourfold testimony emphasizes the importance of understanding the full picture of this historical situation.
Several prophets indicated the manner of Christ’s death. David spoke of the Messiah’s “hands and feet” being “pierced” (Psalm 22:16). Isaiah announced that he would be “wounded” for our transgressions (53:5). Zechariah told of a day of grace when many within the Hebrew family would mourn over him whom they had “pierced.” He further added that in “that day” a “fountain” would be opened for “sin and uncleanness” (12:11ff; 13:1).
In addition, there were subtle prophetic hints that Jesus’ death would be cast into the mold of a criminal. This thought is implied when the prophet foretold that the “grave” of Jehovah’s “servant” would be “with the wicked,” and that he would be “numbered with transgressors” (Isaiah 53:9,12). Jesus specifically declared this latter prophecy was to be “fulfilled” ultimately in him (Luke 22:37).
It is important, therefore, for the Bible student to not only look at the circumstances pertaining to the Lord’s death, but likewise to the details of the two crucified men that died on the same occasion. There are valuable lessons to be learned from all three deaths.
The Cross of a Savior
Three times in the New Testament reference is made to the “cross of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 6:12; Philippians 3:18). In this brief article, we will address several theological ideas associated with that “cross,” as that term is used metaphorically to represent the death of Christ portrayed in the gospel message (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18; Galatians 5:11).
A Cross of Love
The cross of Christ was a cross of love. Early in his ministry Jesus declared: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14; cf. 12:32-33). He then affirmed: “For [an explanation to follow] God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Clearly, the conclusion to be drawn is that the “cross” was a manifestation of God’s love for lost humanity.
Similarly, John later would record these words: “Unto him who loves us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5). The cross was an emblem of the unfathomable love of God, and likewise that of his beloved Son.
A Cross of Sacrifice
The cross of Christ was a cross of sacrifice. Paul reminded the saints in Ephesus that Christ loved them, and the expression of that love was that he “gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor and a sweet smell” (Ephesians 5:2).
Reflect upon the fact that Jesus, by virtue of the incarnation (John 1:18), which ultimately was in view of his destined appointment with the cross, sacrificed:
- his heavenly relationship with God for a third of a century (John 6:38);
- his “equality” with the Father in terms of their respective roles, which involved “the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6,8);
- his immunity to temptation (cf. James 1:13; Hebrews 4:15);
- his biological life as an atoning offering for sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).
A Cross of Peace
The cross of Christ was a cross of peace. Jesus was able to implement a plan of reconciliation by which sinful humanity could be at peace with the holy God, from whom sin had demanded a separation (Isaiah 59:1-2; Romans 5:1ff; Ephesians 2:1ff). This he accomplished “through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). Also, by his death the Lord was able to break down the “middle wall of partition” that had kept Jew and Gentile estranged. Peace was provided for both segments of humanity, so that “in Christ” no longer is there Jew or Greek; Christians become “one” in him (Ephesians 2:13-18; Galatians 3:28).
A Cross of Joy
The cross of Christ was a cross of joy. The writer of the book of Hebrews sought to encourage his Christian Jewish kinsmen to remain faithful to the Lord, and to “run with patience” the race before them. The prime incentive for such persistence is to look to Jesus as the perfect model of fidelity. In considering the Savior’s determination to implement the plan of salvation, the writer states that the “author and perfecter of faith,” for “the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). It is very difficult to think of “joy,” and the “cross,” at the same time, but there it is—in all its majesty. The Savior’s joy over the potential salvation of the human family eclipsed the shame of the cross!
The Cross of a Hardened Villain
As noted earlier, two robbers were crucified in the company of Jesus. Initially, both men “railed on” (blasphemeo) the Lord (Matthew 27:39,44). Joining the chorus of passersby, together with the chief priests, scribes, and elders, the robbers endorsed the vicious chant:
He saved others; himself he cannot save. He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on him. He trusts God; let him deliver him how, if he desires him: for he said, “I am the Son of God” (Matthew 27:42-43).
The apostle adds: “And the robbers also that were crucified with him cast upon him the same reproach” (v. 44).
As we presently learn, one of these evil men later would reverse his blasphemous disposition; for now, however, we will focus upon the one who did not. There are several conclusions one may reasonably draw regarding this heinous specimen of self-endowed depravity.
- He had no fear of God (cf. Romans 3:10-18), no respect for divine law, no sense of sacred justice, and no consciousness of the eternal state into which he was poised to enter. He appears to have been void of moral and religious sensitivity. What a fool he was. He was possessed of a blighted, hardened soul that not even the discipline of a horrible crucifixion could awaken.
- Since he endorsed the sentiments expressed in Matthew 27:42-43 (see above), one can only surmise, therefore, that he had at least some threshold knowledge regarding Christ—his marvelous deeds, and his teaching. For example, when the Lord’s adversaries exclaimed, “he saved others,” it was an inadvertent concession (even though sarcastic) that he had “delivered” others (i.e., by his miracles; cf. John 11:47), but now he could do nothing for himself. It seems almost certain that this rogue, like so many others, had hardened his own heart in disbelief (cf. John 12:37-40).
- He unequivocally rejected Christ as “King,” and apparently despised him since he endorsed the taunts hurled at the Savior at the height of his agony. Too, he repudiated Jesus’ claim of being the “Son of God.” He was willing to step into the horrible darkness of eternal condemnation with a heart of skeptical hate. Legions follow him with like animosity as the generations come and go.
Many share the same hostility, and no level of conscience-pain or danger can awaken a sense of need in their blighted souls. Pity such wretched creatures!
The Cross of a Penitent Soul
The story of the penitent robber is well known, and elsewhere we have dealt with it in considerable detail (see What About the Thief on the Cross?). We would encourage the reader to review that material rather than rehearsing it here. We will, however, capsulate it ever so briefly. The significant text is found in Luke 23:40-43.
But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing amiss.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” And he said unto him, “Truly I say unto you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
The adversative particle “but” (de) emphasizes a contrast between this man and the criminal just discussed (cf. Thayer 1958, 125). Additionally, the word “other,” in describing the penitent robber, is heteros. This is a term that frequently makes a distinction, not just in individuals, but also in “kind” (cf. 23:32; see Thayer 1958, 29; Trench 1890, 359). It may contrast the callousness in the villain, with that of a residual honesty extant in the heart of the “other,” i.e., the contrite robber.
As to what precipitated the radical change in the sorrowful robber, the record is silent. One can only speculate, and we do so with restraint. Surely the character observed in Jesus contributed to the shift in temperament—for instance the Lord’s prayer for his enemies (23:34). This robber may have had some lingering knowledge of Christ from previous associations, which now was ignited into faith (or perhaps even a renewed faith). A careful examination of his statements reveals a number of inferences that hint of previous knowledge. As one scholar carefully observes, the grieving robber “exercises astounding insight into the status and identity of Jesus” (Green 1997, 822).
The reaction of Christ to this sincere man was a vivid commentary on him who knows the hearts of people (cf. Acts 1:24). That the man was pardoned is scarcely open to dispute (v. 43).
This case may never be employed legitimately in an effort to negate the New Covenant obligation to obey the full complement of gospel conditions for salvation (including baptism for the remission of sins).
Until the New Will was probated, men could not be held accountable for its conditions. While the Testator, Christ, still lived among men, He could grant salvation as he would [cf. Mark 2:5]. After his death for our sins, it is granted according to the terms of the will (Foster 1971, 1278; cf. Hebrews 9:15-17). That new “will” mandates: “He who believes and is immersed shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Three crosses—and riveting data connected with each. One victim was God incarnate, the Savior; the others—ordinary men. One of these was a resolute renegade; the other, a confessed sinner who surrendered as a disciple. Of these latter two, with which do we identify more closely in disposition?