There were three crosses on Calvary that day. Three men were doomed to die, and then Jesus was thrust into their midst.
We know little about these men other than that they were robbers and violent men. There’s a good chance that these men who were condemned to die side by side also had fought side by side as partners in crime.
Barabbas is the only name we know of the three. He was a leader in an insurrection against Rome. You might assume that the other two men sentenced to die on his right and left were his deputies.
Perhaps they had similar stories. They grew up hating Rome and the oppression of their people. They fought back violently against this injustice, hiding in caves to waylay travelers. Maybe they had a religious hope when they got started, but eventually they robbed and killed even their own people to finance their rebellion. God would not free them, so they would do it themselves.
The day of the insurrection came, and they took the lives of a few Romans, but it was all futile, and they were captured and sentenced to death by crucifixion.
As the sun set that Thursday night, they knew their doom had come. How did they react? Maybe they went through many stages: sorrow over what they had done, fear of the pain of the cross and death itself, rage against Rome and their brother Jews who did not join them in the fight. As the sun began to rise, something unexpected was about to happen. How would they react to Jesus?
Barabbas was pulled from his cell to hear people shouting his name, but he didn’t know why. Before he knew it, he was set free, his cross given to someone else. Now Barabbas had a choice. What would he do with his freedom?
Everyone faces the choice of Barabbas. Jesus has taken the cross for us all. Do we continue in rebellion and sin and end up back on death row? Or do we live in thanksgiving to God? Do we forget about who took the cross or do we seek to know him?
The two other thieves were not so fortunate. Like Jesus, the cross-beam was tied to their backs and they made the long trek up the Hill of the Skull to the place of their death.
Along the way, they learned who it was who took Barabbas’s cross. It was the prophet-rabbi Jesus, the one many had said was the Messiah they had been waiting for.
They had tried to be their own messiah, and it had brought them to a cross, and now this other so-called Christ was fairing no better than they were. Then the nails went in their hands and their crosses were lifted up, blinding pain shooting throughout their bodies.
That’s when the Gospels of Matthew and Mark testify that these thieves turned on the man between them, insulting and mocking him, telling him to rescue them and himself, if he was the great king they had been waiting for.
And that’s as far as one thief got. He could not see through his pain enough to feel anything but anger, raging at God and this man of God next to him.
The world around us is in pain, and the tragedy is that many will die mocking and hating without recognizing that salvation is right there beside them.
The Gospel of Luke finishes the story. Luke had the eyewitness account of Mary, who stood at the foot of the cross, and through her testimony or by some other means, we learn that at some point, the Spirit of God opened the eyes of one of these violent criminals.
He looked at the One who was beaten and bleeding and saw not a defeated messiah but an innocent and triumphant King. He saw a truth in that moment that was hidden even from Jesus’ own disciples! He turned to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
It didn’t matter what the man had done. It didn’t matter that he was a thief and a murderer or that he had just been insulting Jesus moments before. It didn’t matter that he had no life left to do any good to make up for the evil in his life. It didn’t matter that he was never coming down off that cross. He found forgiveness and salvation in Jesus.
Even the worst of sinners can find salvation in Jesus. It’s never too late for anyone; keep praying. No sin is too great; reach out to everyone. No one is ever too far gone; keep encouraging people. Salvation is still simple; repent and believe.
Sometimes people miss the point here, pointing to this man and saying that we don’t have to do this or that to be saved. But what would this man have given to come down off that cross and live a life for Jesus?
Instead, he watched Jesus die. Later, his legs were crushed by a Roman soldier and he suffocated there as he bled out, shivering on a cross.
But the next thing this man’s conscious mind would realize is the Presence of the Lord, his broken body healed, the filth of his violence washed away, now fully adopted, fully restored. He was in Paradise with Jesus.