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THE THIEVES CRUCIFIED WITH JESUS

 

Those who are familiar with the Gospels know that when Jesus was crucified He was not put up on the hill Golgotha by Himself. Crucifixion was one of the cruelest means of torture and execution ever devised in mankind’s long, dark, sinful history. It was so horrible that in ancient Rome, condemned Roman citizens were only very rarely executed by crucifixion. The one to be killed in this manner was stripped naked for the purpose of humiliation. Long nails—spikes, really—were driven through the person’s wrists (considered part of the hands in ancient times) and another through both the ankles, which were crossed over one another. These spikes went right against or through important nerves, causing extreme pain. The arms were stretched to the point that they often came out of their sockets. Typically the person had already been scourged, the flesh torn, ripped, and raw. While hanging on the cross the person had to push upward on the spike driven through their ankles in order to breathe and keep from suffocating. The rough wood used for the cross exacerbated the pain from the scourging. A crucified person could hang on the cross for hours or even days. Those overseeing the execution would break the person’s legs in order to speed up the process of dying. With the legs broken, the condemned person could no longer push upward on the ankle spike to breathe. Death from suffocation, blood loss, dehydration, shock, and other injurious effects would occur.


Jesus was crucified along with two thieves, He being in the middle. There is an aspect of prophetic fulfillment in this and in His subsequent burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a  wealthy man who had become one of Christ’s disciples (Isaiah 53:9, 12; Matthew 27:57-61).However, that is not all there is to this account. Right in the middle of the news about one of the greatest and most important events in human history there are elements of the ensuing redemption  demonstrated for us in the pages of Holy Writ—the repentance and rewarding of one thief and the impenitence of the other. Apocryphal writings give names for the thieves, typically Gestas or Gesmas (the impenitent) [1] and Dismas (the repentant) [2], and a couple of other names in addition to these. Traditionally, Gestas was to the left of Jesus and Dismas to His right. We do not know this or their identities for certain. What information we can trust about these two men is found in the Gospels.

 

John’s Gospel only notes that two others were crucified with Jesus (John 19:18). In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark they are called thieves in the King James Version, robbers in the New King James, which is not a contradiction because robbers are basically thieves who use threats and/or force, and in any case there is stealing involved. What is clear from the following passages is, at least at first, both of these thieves were unrepentant and irreverent:

 

Matthew 27:38-44:  Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left. And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.

 

Mark 15:27, 32b:  With Him they also crucified two robbers, one on His right and the other on His left…Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him.

 

Jesus had done so much good in His ministry on earth, yet despite all those who believed in Him, most of the religious leaders of His day failed to recognize Him as the promised Messiah of prophecy, and many other people had a negative opinion of Him. The Lord’s very own creation turned against Him! With His power it would have been simple for Christ to both come off the cross and utterly wipe out all those opposed to Him, but His eagerness to do the Father’s will and His love for the lost compelled Him to stay there and be sacrificed for the sins of the world (Matthew 26:36-56; John 3:16-17; Hebrews 12:1-2).

 

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the spiritual eyes of one of the thieves were opened. When the Holy Spirit dealt with his heart he did not resist, but listened. We can only speculate what specifically went through his mind and through his heart as he hung up on that cross in agony, seeing the angry crowds and hearing their vicious words, seeing Jesus’s grief-stricken loved ones, and noting the noble dignity of the Savior as He hung up there alongside him. It was a great change of heart and a blessing for him, a sealing of the doom of his unrepentant companion:

 

Luke 23:32-33, 39-43:  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 one 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.”

 

Jesus died first, then the men who were crucified with him once their legs were broken to hasten their deaths (John 19:30-37). The repentant thief would receive his glorious reward. But where is—or was—Paradise? Before Christ’s atonement there were two separate chambers under the earth. One was Hell for those who died in their sins and the other was Paradise for the righteous dead. All the Old Testament saints, such as Samuel, David, Isaiah, Noah, et cetera, would have been there. When His atonement was accomplished, Paradise was emptied and the OT saints taken to heaven, many first rising out of their graves after His resurrection (Matthew 27:50-54; Hebrews 11:39-40). The repentant thief is in heaven today while the impenitent one is in Hell where he will remain until the great white throne judgment, after which he will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).

 

Having covered the factual, historical, and theological aspects of this account, I now turn to the practical, the part where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. How many Christians talk of the love of God and yet rejoice when a convicted criminal is executed? Whether you believe in the death penalty or not, an execution is not something to rejoice over. There but for the grace of God go any of us (Jeremiah 17:9), and besides that, a soul is going out into eternity, and if the person is unrepentant, damnation is on the other side of death’s door. Also, Jesus made mention of visiting those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). When you read that passage you will note that the Lord did not put any specifications on what those to be visited were in prison for. There are believers who think He must have only been talking about the persecuted who are jailed, as Paul and others were. The problem is that this “only” scenario cannot be found in the Scriptures. Let’s face it: There are professing Christians who think many or even all convicted criminals should rot in prison. Some of the people—not many, but some—are innocent, wrongfully convicted, so where does that attitude leave them? As for the rest who are guilty, suppose some of them repent and get saved? Are you going to say they have “jailhouse religion”? Who are you to judge? Are you God? And what if a convicted felon wants to come to your church, especially if that person is a convicted sex offender or a former prostitute? Is your church going to allow them to even join at all? If so, is he or she going to have to sign legal documents and be watched by an armed security team? Are you going to accept convicted felons to their face and talk about them behind their back? Or are you just going to tell them you don’t want “their kind” at your church?

 

Let me tell all you modern Pharisees out there: All Christians are a part of the body of Christ, even those of us with ugly pasts! We may still have records on this earth and consequences to deal with, but in heaven our records have been wiped clean. It is particularly significant that Jesus saved the soul of a convicted criminal and that is recorded in the Bible. Makes it hard to sweep us under the rug, doesn’t it? And this “jailhouse religion” you claim that all of us felons have—well, let me tell you. Yes, there are those who fake it till they make it, but that’s no different than the pretenders who come to church out here every week. Many of us had a real change because Jesus saved us. Some of the liveliest, most Spirit-filled church services I have ever experienced were in prison. No, I would not want to be locked up again in order to experience that. Rather, I would like to see that kind of power and moving of the Holy Spirit a lot more often out here!

 

Jesus died for us all whether we have a criminal record or not. All lost people have a criminal record in heaven: Not just guilty as sin but guilty of sin. Hell is the jail, the lake of fire is the prison, and the sentence is eternity without parole. Furthermore, those places are escape-proof. Now, are all Christians called to jail or prison ministry? No. Can all visit? No. But if you do nothing else, at least pray for those behind bars. For those like us who have been there, give back if you can. That is one of the reasons why It Ain’t Over Ministries exists. If you are judging, stop. It will come back on you in a very bad way (Matthew 7:1-2). Remember, Jesus Christ saved one of the thieves crucified with Him. The other would have been saved also if he had repented, but he did not. Jesus Christ is the only One who can save you from your sins, and if you are genuinely repentant He will save you no matter what you have done. Do not let folks convince you otherwise. We all need Jesus. In God’s economy all souls are of equal value. Look at the price He paid for us. Who are we to set a value on others, or to say whether or not someone can be accepted by God and the Church?

 

 

 

[1]  Wikipedia article, “Impenitent thief.” Retrieved 11/13/2021.

[2]  Wikipedia article, “Penitent thief.” Retrieved 11/13/2021.

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