~ The Two Missing Crosses ~
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV). Indeed the Cross is one of Christianity’s foci. However, the big picture of redemption and its story is incomplete without the other two crosses. So much so that the Scriptures not only included them but recorded the words of the men who hung on them. Profound words, historical but also contemporary, uttered today millions of times all over this world. In God’s providence, crucified men on Jesus’ right and left were no accident. The Father needed them there to teach us more fully about the Cross in the middle.
The two men were both being executed as criminals. In their extreme suffering, they still had the energy to join in the mocking of the Son of God who hung between them. But all three must have been placed very close together. Crucified men can yell only with extreme effort and pain. The way they could even talk was to push up against the block to which their feet were nailed to release some pressure on their lungs so they could breathe in some air.
One of the men simmered into a reflective silence. His suffering was transforming into the redemptive kind and he must have been paying attention to that metanoia within him. The other man’s suffering was wasted as he stayed focused on himself and not Jesus.
At some point that morning, the rapid transformation of the one man took on the form of a few words addressed to the other. “Will you stop! We are both guilty of crimes. This man is innocent. Don’t you fear God at all?” (Luke 23:40). The man to which he was talking had been challenging Jesus to save all three of them: “So you’re really the Messiah, are you?” Jesus said nothing to either man so far. He was proclaiming the Gospel with His body and blood in the powerful eloquence of silence.
Every day Christ hears the same words over and over. “Christ, if you are really who you say you are, then you’ll do this for me.” “God, if you want me to believe in you, prove yourself.” The response to that self-centeredness is usually silence. The Christ-challengers then say, “See, what kind of God would let this happen?” What is most often meant is, “What kind of God is that who doesn’t cater to my demands?”
The crucified man next to Jesus then spoke what were probably the most honoring, humble and selfless words ever uttered since. He didn’t say, “Jesus, I know you are God and can save me from hell and make me live forever in heavenly bliss. Take me with you.” But Christ hears those words every day too. They even sound right. That man had just one request: “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
What incredible words! They honor Christ as Lord of the kingdom of God. They reflect profound unworthiness and humility. They ask for nothing except to be remembered. They are the holy words of a perfected saint. This criminal is our teacher and mentor. He surpasses the example of the publican standing in the back shadows of the temple, beating his chest in a repentive gesture while meekly praying, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
We know this because Jesus had a tender response for this saint whose heart must have exploded with unbelief, joy and gratitude upon hearing it: “In all truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paradise! Today! No ritual prayer. No water baptism. No promises to do anything. No self-serving expectations. Just a repentant, contrite heart and a longing to be remembered in his suffering, a suffering he accepts without complaint or self-pity. Jesus’ response is paradise.
The Scriptures always talk about the need to be crucified with Christ, not beside Him. One criminal was crucified beside Jesus, the other with Him. The difference is profound and crucial. In that sense, the image of a single cross doesn’t tell the complete Gospel of redemption. At least in our minds and hearts, we need to keep the other two, one on each side and close to the one of the Messiah. Then we need to choose from which side we will look upon Him.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © June 22, 2002
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