The Three Crosses – Matthew 27:33-38

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Have you ever wondered why there were 3 crosses on Golgatha that Spring morning so many years ago? We are aware that the Jewish priests hated and feared Christ Jesus, demanding His crucifixion. But do we hear them demanding that Jesus die that very day? Not that I recall. They might have been satisfied if Pilate had jailed Jesus with the promise of executing him in a few days. So why was He crucified between two thieves on the very day of His “trials” before the priests? It was probably because that particular crucifixion was already on the Romans’ calendar. The only change in their original plans was that Barabbas had been released with Jesus taking his place.

Why were there three crosses that day? Very likely, it was because these two men were co-conspirators with Barabbas. Let’s remember that Matthew calls the man “a notable prisoner.” John calls Barabbas a “robber” – he was a plunderer – a thief. Luke tells us that he was guilty of sedition and murder. And Mark says, “There was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.” Barabbas was in jail awaiting execution with others – with co-conspirators in insurrection, theft and murder. I have no proof, but I am reasonably sure that these two men who were crucified with Christ, had earlier sinned beside their friend Barabbas. Let’s consider a few more things about these two who were crucified on either side of Christ.

Beginning with the SIMILARITIES between them.

The most obvious similarity is that they were dying. The first to die that day was Christ Jesus, who of His own volition, yielded up His spirit to God. But what of the other two? Crucifixion was generally, a painfully slow death – and I use the word “painfully” in two separate ways. Crucifixion generally took days, and the eventual autopsy report could list several causes of death. Exposure would certainly be there – exposure to the sun and 90 or 100 degree heat for several days. And thus, dehydration would be a part of the equation – the man would sweat profusely. Sunburn would take its toll; his lips would crack and split open; and who knows what would become of his eyes. A person with a weak heart might have died rather quickly – with the intensifying pain contributing to an increasing amount of hormones and other factors in his blood. Then as the victim grew weaker and weaker – as the ligaments holding his skeleton together pulled apart, his internal organs would fall in upon themselves – breathing would become more difficult and the heart would have to work harder. Yet, as I say, this all would take several days, depending on the strength of the individual and the conditions surrounding him. But on this occasion the soldiers were ordered to break the legs of these men, not to kill them, but to accelerate their demise. Without the ability to hold themselves up with their nail-pierced feet, their organs would be crushed even faster, and then of course there would have been that new and excruciating pain. For some reason I used to picture the soldiers taking some thick weapon, like the staff of a spear, and breaking the men’s thigh bones – their femurs, but that was wrong. Most likely they attacked the lower leg where the bones were smaller. And I wouldn’t be surprised if those were not compound fractures – with bone protruding from the skin. As I said, these two men were dying – but admittedly, their’s was not a common death.

I am constantly reminded me that I have lived at least two-thirds of my eventual life – perhaps even more. There are parts of me that don’t function as well as they did forty, twenty or even ten years ago. I don’t need the Bible to tell me that – just like these men – I am in the process of dying. BUT the Bible DOES tell me, and it reminds us all. “Steve, you are dying; Micah, you are dying; Erik you are dying.” The Ethan, the Ezrahite, in Psalm 89 asks an hypothetical question – “What man is he that liveth and shall not see death?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, because the answer is obvious – we all die. Job says, “For I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living.” Solomon has a lot to say on the subject – things like – “The living know that they shall die:” I could multiply scriptures like these, but what is the point – why beat a dead horse – or a dying one? But there is one often misquoted verse which shouldn’t be ignored – Hebrews 9:27 – “It is appointed unto men once to die.” Both these thieves were dying – dying in close proximity to Christ who miraculously saved others from death.

So WHY are they dying? That misquoted verse in Hebrews clearly tells us. It doesn’t simply say, “It is appointed unto men once to die.” It says, “And AS IT IS APPOINTED unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” As one of those crucified men confessed, they were dying because they DESERVED death. As one of them cursed Christ, “the other answering rebuked him, saying, 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:”

I realize that the majority of people don’t like to admit it, but there is a government which is higher than Rome – higher than the State of Idaho; higher than the government of the United States. Those 2 murderous thieves were dying under the laws of Rome, as well as the laws of common sense. But when Paul wrote Hebrews 9:27 he was not referring to Rome, Jerusalem or Washington. Prior to that verse and then following it as well, Paul was preaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He said, now Christ hath “appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many, and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”

In the midst of a great many differences between these men – things like age, height, hobbies, mothers and birthdays – there were important similarities. They were dying under the judgment of Rome and the judgment of God. You and I may not die under the laws of corrupt Rome, but we shall all die under the righteous judgment of Jehovah. “The wages of sin is death”Romans 6:23. Ezekiel 18:20 “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” James 1:13 – “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath convciieved, it britheth for sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringthe forth death.” “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned” – Romans 5:12.

Amongst these similarities and others, there were DIFFERENCES between these two men.

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion we read – “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified (Christ), and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.” There are two kinds of people in this world – those who are on Christ’s good side and those who are on His bad side. Jesus tells us that at some point the King shall “say … unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”

There was only ONE important difference between these two men. It was not that one was baptized and the other wasn’t. It wasn’t that one had gone to the synagogue or church more often than the other. It wasn’t that one had a better education than the other, or he had invested his wealth more wisely. “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, 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. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

One of the two RAILED upon Christ. “Railed” is an interesting Bible word, one of which is more familiar to you than you might first think. In one place it is translated “slanderously reported,” and ten times it is rendered “to speak evil.” But in the other 30 verses, the word “blasphemeo” (blas-fay-meh’-o) is transliterated not translated. One of the malefactors, dying beside Christ Jesus, blasphemedHim. Just like the priests and many of the onlookers, the man ridiculed the idea that Jesus was the Messiah IF thou be the Christ” “but obviously you are not.” He and the priests sneered at the thought that He was the Son of God. He pointed to Jesus’ miracles and demanded that Jesus miraculously remove THEM from their plight. The priests were chagrined that Pilate had written that Christ was to be their king. If given the same chance that modern man has today, they would have declared that what is preached in this church about the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour – is all a myth. This social and spiritual criminal, along with the religious leaders of his day, blasphemed God and Christ.

Do we have any of their children among us today – blaspheming Christ and what the Bible teaches about him? That man might have defended himself by pointing to the Greek philosophers or Roman politicians. But a PhD does not give a person any significant spiritual insight – it does not make him wise. “The FEAR of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” – Proverbs 9:10. This man might have quoted a few of the notable rabbis or members of the elite Sanhedrin. But such a defense was somewhat ridiculous under the circumstances – He was dying. Yes, I know that Christ was as well, but He was there willingly, and He could have done something about it. Mark it down mister blasphemer – “As it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”

What was Jesus’ reply to the man who railed on Him – how did Christ respond to this blasphemy? There was no response at all – none was needed. Christ certainly didn’t reply in kind – cursing the man, or any of the men, who cursed Him. Nor did fire erupt from Jesus mouth to devour the blasphemer, and there was no lightning from Heaven. The blasphemer was just continuing down the path that he began on the day that he was born. He didn’t need any MORE death than what was already on the way. On the day of his birth – not the first celebration of his birth, but on his birthday – an appointment was made that he would die, and as it happened, it was just a few hours away. Christ didn’t kill the man, and God the Father didn’t kill him – sin killed the man. And please remember – All (of us) have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

ON THE OTHER HAND, quite literally on Jesus’ other hand, there was the other malefactor. “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, 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. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” What made this man different from his brother in crime? I was that the grace of God stepped into the path before him, changing him, and sparing him a death worse than the death of the cross. “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The sovereign grace of God wrought several miracles within that man. And they were as contrary to what the man was, as was Jesus’ miracle of changing water into wine. The difference in him was as radical as when Christ returned life to the lifeless body of coming out of Nain.

Notice two things in particular – one in regard to himself, and the other in regard to the Saviour. “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.” I see one of the initial signs of repentance in this man, and of course the omniscient Son of God saw more. One of the essential points in properly coming to the Saviour is a recognition of who we are. And who exactly are we? We are children of the first sinner – Adam. We are rebels against God, whether or not we are rebels against Rome, as these men were. “There is not a just man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” You, me and all our neighbors are under the same condemnation, and we indeed justly. “The wages of our sin is eternal death.” The King shall “say … unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” – and this man admitted that he deserved this divine sentence.

A second thing which he confessed related to Christ Jesus. It started with the fact that Jesus was not a criminal and did not deserve to die – but it was more than this. It doesn’t take sainthood to see that the crucifixion of Christ was a legal travesty – an observant Muslim or Hindu can see that. But there was much more in this man’s new theology – “but this man hath done nothing amiss.” He has done nothing amiss – that He is not guilty of any crime is obvious, but He has done nothing amiss. He has not made any false claim, even in saying that He is the Son of God. This dying man really is the Messiah – He is the Christ. When He said that He is “the Lamb of God,” He said nothing amiss. When He said “Hereafter shell ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of Heaven,” He did nothing amiss. When He challenged the Pharisees to prove that He had committed sin, He essentially testified that He was without sin, and in this He had done nothing amiss. This dying man’s faith may have been new, and it may have been small, but it was genuine Christian faith.

And the exclamation point of his faith was in his words, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Under the circumstances, the title “Lord” was about as high as it could have been. Christ too was dying, so this was a declaration of faith – far beyond logic. And I believe it to be equivalent to “Jehovah God.” The man looked beyond the obvious – they were both facing an undeniable death. And still he humbly asked to be remembered by Christ on the other side of that death. He didn’t point to his faith; He couldn’t point to any good works; He didn’t mention any earthly relationships. He didn’t make any demands, and there was no pride or boldness in his request. As someone totally unworthy of even a simple thought – a remembrance – in faith he asked to be remembered. And in reply to his repentant heart and humble faith he heard, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt though be with me in paradise.”

There is not a person in this building who deserves to be remembered by God or by a single angel in Heaven. We all deserve to be locked within the walls of Hell and within the shores of the Lake of Fire for eternity. Our crimes may not have been as grievous as these men’s, but before the eyes of a holy God, OUR blasphemy has been despicable. But every once in a while the Lord reaches down to touch a wretched soul like this second malefactor. Every once in while He miraculously places spiritual life into a heart which has been spiritually dead. Every once in a while God grants to some sinner the gift of repentance and a modicum of faith. And that formerly deaf soul can hear the words of Christ – “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt though be with me in paradise.” It is my prayer that you might hear those words today. Prove to yourself that the Lord has saved you, repent, confessing your sin and your unworthiness before God. And put your hope and trust in Christ Jesus, loving Him as this man was beginning to do.