January 2024 | Conversion: Persecutor Turns Promoter

Meaning of the Cross: Through the Eyes of the Dying Thief

Meaning of the Cross: Through the Eyes of the Dying Thief

Dr. Kris A. Jackson

There were three crosses on Calvary Hill that Passover. One felon died “in” sin, I too was nailed on a cross where I died “to” sin, and the Man in the middle, the innocent One, died “for” sin. Paul had three crosses in mind when he penned – “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). All are crucified, “the good, the bad and the ugly”, to use the western idiom. I’ll get to the Good soon, but first let’s address the malefactor at Jesus’ side. Then I’ll talk humbly of my own cross because I was there, on Skull Hill, the afternoon when the sun went dark for three hours.

The court called him a thief, liar and robber. He had no defense. The gavel struck the judge’s desk and in short order a hammer drove nails through his wrists. Law did its work. A price was paid. The sentence must be carried out. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Justice was served. And every honest heart will admit that Pilate’s order was fair and deserved for conscience is able to accurately weigh guilt, so Calvary took another eye, and another tooth. More bones were left behind at the Place of the Skull, Golgotha. Please don’t think I don’t feel badly for the man, for I do, but I was helpless to intervene. ForI don’t see how a criminal can pay for the crimes of a fellow-criminal.Plus, my own case was pending. Soon I was hoisted on the opposite side of where the Nazarene was executed.

This is the world’s cross. It is emblemized by vertical and horizontal beams, rusty spikes and Adamic blood dripping down splintery wood. I know because that day “the world was crucified to me, and I unto the world”. When theologians mention “the cross” it is often used as a metaphor. The real cross is made of burdens, fears and torments. The hammer that drove the nails is a forging of stress, disease, inflicted pain, toil, sweat and every other scourge that was absent Adam’s original garden. Humanity has been paid. What happened on the three crosses was microcosmic of all ages of man. I was there but so were you, in type. The wage according to the New Testament epistles is death.

Scan now to the center of the hill. This man died “for” sin. He was different. No other could serve as Substitute, Mediator or Sacrifice. Remember, my hands were nailed to the other cross. I couldn’t reach my wallet, naked and helpless, suspended on the post. Truth is, silver and gold wouldn’t help anyway because of the severity of the fine. I saw something in the Middleman, He had done nothing amiss. And I overheard that Pilate found no fault in Him. He was stripped bare, pinned and unable to move, cursed at, mocked, bleeding and slowly dying, and for what? Healing someone on the Sabbath as was alleged. Seriously? I remembered what the rabbis taught, for my mother shared these things when I was young, before I turned to a life of rebellion and selfishness, running from God.

This is what I was taught, the sins of the whole nation would be transferred to the atoning victim. God would see the blood on the wooden door and judgment would be passed over. Isaiah said he would be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. David added that they would pierce his hands and feet. The priests were slaughtering Passover lambs on yonder hill. I began to wonder if there was any correlation. The rabbis said the flesh of the sin offering would be taken outside the camp. I asked myself, “Is this what they meant?” Sacrificial hides covered Adam and Eve, our first parents. Under the Law goats and bullocks were slain for various degrees of sins. “Am I hanging on the very hill where a ram was sacrificed in the stead of Isaac?” If it was not, I knew my own dilemma, for nothing else mattered as I hung there nearing my own death. I desperately needed a Savior. I needed Jehovah-jireh, a God who would “provide Himself a lamb”.

“Is there any hope for such a worm as I?” The temple altar was so far away. And I couldn’t free my nailed feet to travel there. I had no go-between, no priest, no last rites were spoken. But somehow, I felt that this man was everything my mother had told me she looked for in the coming Messiah. I asked again, “Who is He? Everyone in town had heard of His miracles and mighty deeds. He can be no sinner, for he prays as we scoff. And He intercedes for His accusers and murderers”. Suddenly I sensed that God Himself had drawn near my side. I couldn’t reach this man, my head pained to even face his direction, but I gathered what little breath that remained and pleaded, “Remember me”.  

From my current vantage I know that what was kindled in my heart that day was what we call faith. I saw it, clear as day. “Here is the Passover door. Here is my way of escape. This man is Lord”. It all added up for me. The doctors of the law called the story that he was virgin-born a hoax. And there were many other accusations. But every rumor I had heard faded as I looked His way. It dawned on me, He wasn’t dying in sin, as I so feared that I soon would. He was dying for sin. “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world…" (Galatians 1:4) “For sins” meant my sins! The moment I asked, He replied – “Today you will be with Me in Paradise”. In an instant, a wave of peace came over me. Panic vanished. I was no longer afraid to die. And being rescued from the cross was no longer my chief desire. My own cross beam now seemed a pillow of peace.

I was asked to explain the meaning of the cross. Hmm, if anyone could I guess it would be me, having witnessed the whole gruesome scene, but can one drop of water explain the whole ocean? Let me just say that it was unfathomable that He would die for the likes of me. He also died for my former accomplice – how I wish he would have only softened his heart. 

This much I can say, the cross points two directions, toward heaven in worship and toward earth in work. It reaches upward to God and outward to man, wood with brass nails like the altar of burnt offering with its horns and rings of brass. It was the judgment seat where the unmitigated wrath of God was poured out on sin, but it became our mercy seat, for Jesus stretched out his hands wide enough to receive even me. For twenty centuries, because of the middle cross, I have been in the bliss of His paradise, and in all that time no better sacrifice has been needed, because Jesus died once and for all, for all men. And along with the wrath of God and love of God, I see the wisdom of God in the cross, for when Jesus died it served as a boomerang against the devil. The very device schemed to kill God in the flesh became the weapon that defeated sin and Satan, like Haman hung from the very gallows he built for Mordecai. Someone said the cross was a minus turned into a plus. 

In my case it was life’s dividing line, because two of us, one no better than the other, determined our destinies by how we responded to the Man in the middle. The cross is where I crossed over. Mercy built a bridge, its beams sawn from an earthen tree, with nails forged from metals dug from a cursed earth. The cross is a curse turned into a blessing, a doorway opened by a death. You know, I cherish the old rugged cross! My only regret is that I didn’t have time to bear my own into all the world. One thing I have discovered, there are no crown-wearers in heaven that were not cross-bearers on earth. 

Finally, the cross not only displays the wrath of God, love of God and wisdom of God, I found in it the power of God, for it gave this dying thief a living hope. Jesus Christ saved me from a cross, with the power of His cross. I was lucky enough to be within voice-range of the Middleman. Your calling is to voice what He did on the cross to end of the earth –“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Now release that power! 

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