“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:16-18
Three prisoners sat chained in a gloomy dank dungeon, waiting, waiting to die. I was there with them. So were you. Everyone ever born in this fallen world shared their shackles. One’s experience on his execution day would become our experience. The other two death-row inmates made choices on their execution day that would become our choices as well. Many centuries separate us from that dark jail cell, but not from those three convicts.
We know the name of one prisoner: Barabbas. The Bible says Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.” He was a murderer, an insurrectionist, and a robber. Barabbas. Those words seem to fit him perfectly. He was notorious indeed. A Roman cross eagerly awaited him. The nails lay ready. The scourging whip was coiled. Barabbas was a dead man.
At dawn, Roman guards came and wordlessly led Barabbas from his cell. He felt little fear. So full of hatred and rebellion, he had scarce room for any other emotions. Suddenly, Barabbas was thrust before a mob. They screamed his name, “Barabbas! Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!” His chains were removed and cast aside. The Roman guards shoved him from the courtyard into the street. They left him there. He was free and unchained. Barabbas was alive.
How did this incredible thing happen? Someone else took Barabbas’ place. Someone else endured the scourging whip. Someone else screamed in pain as the spikes pierced his flesh. Someone else died a horrible death on that Roman cross. Barabbas lived. Jesus of Nazareth died: The righteous for the unrighteous. The holy for the unholy. The perfect for the flawed. The sinless for the sinful. For God so loved Barabbas, me, you, the world, that He gave His only begotten Son. That “notorious prisoner” represents all of mankind whom the Son came to save and set free by taking our penalty upon Himself.
God wove many fulfilled prophecies and word pictures into Calvary’s tapestry. Barabbas was painted into the picture of Christ dying a substitutionary death for mankind. The other two condemned men became illustrations of the world’s response to God’s offer of redemption and pardon. We meet them at Golgotha. “Then were two thieves crucified with Him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.” Matt 27:28
The gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us both of these criminals verbally abused Jesus along with the crowd. The Apostle Paul’s words ring so true: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” 1 Cor 1:18 The Cross, foolish to the perishing, then, just as it is now. Even nailed to a cross, the rebelliousness of man railed in the face of God.
The gospel of Luke, however, reveals a very significant event that took place on that horrific hill. Luke tells us one of the criminals continued to insult Jesus, “If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” Luke 23:39 (KJV) Save him from what? If Christ supernaturally released this man from his cross, how would he react? How long would it be until Rome was nailing him to another cross? This fellow knew he had a problem, but he didn’t understand it was a problem far greater than his impending death. His real trouble was “…the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.” 1 Cor 6:9
Luke continued, “But the other [criminal] answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And indeed we justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss.” Luke 23: 40-41 (KJV) As death fast approaches; this criminal came to realize the real problem. “I am a sinner. I am condemned and dead in my sinful state. My punishment of death is just. I have but one hope and only one hope.”
“And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy Kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Vs. 42-43
We are called to make the same decision as these two men. It is the decision that decides our eternal destiny. We are hanging on His right, and His left and God is waiting. Do we want to be reconciled to God or remain apart from Him? The first thief did not accept God’s pardon. It was foolishness to him. He did not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God. His condemnation remained.
Then, “The Jews…besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers and brake the legs of the first…” (John 19:31-32), and the unrepentant criminal snarled and cursed as the soldiers smashed his legs. He could no longer push himself up to breathe. Darkness, even darker than that in which he lived his life swallowed him and stilled his growling curses.
Then the soldiers came to the other criminal. He turned his head and fixed his eyes on the Lamb of God. His legs snapped from the heavy blows, and he gasped for air but found none. His mouth moved silently and formed his last words, “Remember me… remember me…remember…me…..” And he slipped away from that hellish hill into the Kingdom of God.