This is what living within a big historical event looks like
One cross saves. But there were three on the hill, and whenever the One is depicted at Golgotha, artists’ renderings show three. For 2,000 years of Christian art, it is put in our faces: two brigands crucified with Christ, one on the left and another on the right.
You might not like it that way, you might feel it robs glory from the Savior to have His arms stretched taut on a wooden beam undistinguished from other naked criminals. But God arranged for the scene to be just as it is, from before the foundation of the world, and so it shall remain in iconography and in our mind’s eye whenever we think upon Good Friday. As Pilate said to the second-guessers about his own part in the stagecrafting, “What I have writ I have writ.”
Why would God do this—predestine that Jesus, in His finest hour, be flanked by unworthies, rather than have a special set-apart day in Jerusalem when the Romans would execute Him alone? That could have been done. And the fact that it could have, and wasn’t, makes me think it is important that holy Friday unfolded as it did. The best way to approach this may be to try to imagine what would lack in our Christian experience if things had been otherwise.
To wit, never would we have been privy to a conversation among three condemned men just before they all expired. Never would we have seen the little drama at the end of their lives, with each man’s final choices as they wrestled in their agonies. We are told in Luke 23:32, “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.” Another Gospel account adds that “those who were crucified with him also reviled him” (Mark 15:32).
So both reviled Him.
Why would God do this—predestine that Jesus, in His finest hour, be flanked by unworthies?
It took six hours for Jesus to die, we learn from Mark. At “the third hour” (9 a.m.) the ignominious trio arrive, Jesus is offered wine mingled with myrrh, refuses it. Next the soldiers make sport with his garments, casting lots for dead men’s spoils. Enter now the passersby who file before the tripod trees of torture, each mocking Christ in turn, the chief priests and the scribes now chiming in: You boasted you could raise a temple, and you cannot even save yourself.
One brigand on the cross is taking all this in.
At the sixth hour (noon) darkness falls over the land for three hours. One of the criminals scoffs on. The other, no longer. He has noted the unnatural night at high noon. He has noted the response of the Man to the mockers, how rather than reviling in return He calls out to someone unseen, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps he has even heard on the road what the Man said to wailing women, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but for yourselves. … For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
The brigand has a change of heart. He rebukes his former partner in mockery and asks the Man whose face is marred beyond all recognition, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
That is all. No other words from him have been recorded. No confession of sins. No promise that he will live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (He will die in minutes.)
There will be no baptism. No long sanctification years. No further testing to prove his faith genuine. Not a single good deed.
This eternally ordained encounter of three men on crosses on a skull-shaped hill in Jerusalem, was it not for a testimony—for the sakes of all the men and women who will ever live, who have wrecked their lives beyond all human help? Eleventh-hour rescues, these, who when all hope was lost, yet asked of Christ, and were received, just for the asking.