Luke has provided posterity with a detailed account of the crucifixion. Notably the fact that there were three crosses with three men is keenly accentuated, and Luke describes how the two rebels rightly accused of their misdeeds died on each side of Jesus.
Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, has said that this text, if understood properly, contains the whole history of the world, and of all God’s dealings with humanity.
Typifying the entire human race those two rebels died with Christ. Paul tells us that the sting of sin is death. On those crosses we died on account of our sin. Cary Stockett writes: “Jesus and the two criminals hang there together as three men all exposed to the same abuse, the same agonizing pain, and the same slow, but irreversible death throes.”
The two rebels were guilty, but the third person that day was innocent. Christ identifying with our sin died in our stead on what seemed like one of the grimmest days in history. The broader meaning of what took place on those three crosses is easily lost when we attempt to commemorate what transpired that day through only one cross.
The two rebels are often omitted when artists or others try to visualize the crucifixion scene. “Whenever this is done, a crucial and all-important element of the story is missing, not only historically, but spiritually and theologically. Because the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus the Lord—precisely because he was and is Lord—did not die alone.”, Stockett points out.
Paul makes it clear in his second letter to the Corinthians that “we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead.” (5:14) The three crosses signify our inclusion in Christ’s death. What happened to Jesus happened to us. That day when we died together with Him our sins were forever blotted out. Dead people are free from sin.
After the crucifixion there is a resurrection. Paul writes that the last Adam was a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:22) and that His life has abounded to many (Rom 5:15). Paul elaborates in verse 18: “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Through Christ all is raised to a new standing before God. We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, Paul explains to the Corinthians.
This is the shocking and “too good to be true” news of which God has made us ministers. Yet this universal crucifixion of the entire human race does not leave those who are presented God’s dealings with mankind without a choice to be made.
The crucifixion scene offers us two rebels and two destinies. One of them chose Christ and was immediately granted access to paradise. The simplicity of salvation is vividly demonstrated through this man. He called on Jesus and that was all. Contemporary Christendom has turned salvation upside down. You have to straighten up your act before you are incorporated in the church. You have to repent and confess your sins before you are accepted by Christ. On the cross Jesus cries out a resounding No! to this cursed lie.
The other rebel for various reasons rejected Christ. So, even though I firmly believe in this universal crucifixion of the whole human race I am not saying that everyone goes to heaven. The two rebels demonstrate this sad fact very lucidly. Every man is left with a choice when presented the astonishing good news about their inclusion in Christ; that they are reconciled to God and forgiven, but they are free to reject or accept the good gift of grace.
Jesus never condemned the man who rejected Him. Despite the excruciating pain and the death throes He refrained from manipulation and a call for pity. It was like He said: “This is the deal. You can either accept it or reject it, but you cannot remain untouched from it.” The cross will always provoke a reaction in man, it confronts us, bothers us, pursues us and it compels us to make a choice.
John plainly states that the choice we make has eternal repercussions: “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (1 John 5:12) Paul explains that the one who accepts Christ has become one Spirit with God (1 Cor 6:17). God makes it plainly clear that in Christ His life is our life. The Father said to the son in Luke 15 “all that I have is yours.” From God we derive our new identity and confidently and boldly we say with Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)