Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
For decades this passage was the only one in the Bible I was familiar with. I heard it for the first time sometime in the mid 1980s. It was the first time I can ever remember that a Bible passage stirred something inside of me. It brought tears to my eyes, I think, because of the hope it offers. A dying man, with just hours to live, acknowledged who he was – a sinner being punished justly for his crimes – and then He acknowledged who Jesus was and he recognized his need for salvation. And he was saved.
The reason this passage offers so much hope is because it tells us that as long as there is breath in the lungs, it is never too late to receive Jesus Christ. But even though he received God’s grace, the thief, who was not identified by name, did not come down from his cross. He still had to pay the civil penalty for his crimes. But the eternal penalty was paid in full the moment he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
As I thought about this passage this past week, I wondered if that was the moment the devil realized the true purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross. The Bible tells us in 1 Peter 5, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” He was all set to devour the two thieves, but one of them reached out to Jesus and was saved. I wonder if that was the moment Satan realized that our Lord and Savior, hanging on the center cross, was dying to pay the price for the sins of the thief who cried out, “Jesus, remember me……….”
And I wonder if Satan understood then that Jesus wasn’t just paying the penalty for the sins of that thief, but for my sins and your sins and all the sins of the world. The evil one had tried every deceitful trick in the book to derail the plan of God, to prevent our Savior from ever being born. He thought he could defeat God. He may have even thought he had beaten God as Jesus hung there, dying. But when the thief was saved, I think Satan realized in that moment that he was the one who had been defeated. Satan knows a lot of things. He knows enough to make him dangerous. But he does not know everything. He knew Jesus was the son of God, but I don’t think he knew until that moment exactly how God planned to bring salvation to the world; that it would come through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus’s death would not result in God’s defeat as Satan might have believed. It resulted in God’s ultimate victory!
The reason I wondered about all of this is because of what happened a short time later. It was not customary for the Romans to hasten the death of anyone who had been crucified. Death on the cross was intended to be slow and torturous. Sometimes it took days for a condemned man to die. But John’s gospel tells us in the 19th chapter what happened next: “Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.”
The Jewish leaders were not the least bit concerned about the pain that those men were suffering. They were only concerned about keeping their laws and traditions. The condemned men were already in agony, and even though their deaths were hastened along by breaking the bones in their legs, only someone who was totally cruel and heartless could have ever made such a request. Personally, and this is just my opinion, I think Satan was behind that particular act of cruelty. Sore loser that he is, he wanted the one who believed in Jesus to suffer, and I think he wanted the other man killed before HE cried out to Jesus. Satan does that. When you became a Christian, you popped up on Satan’s radar. And he goes after Christians with all the fury God will allow and yes, I said “all the fury God will allow.” It is written, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. God is in complete control. God does not tempt anyone but He does allow temptation. And while Satan is throwing temptation our way, he’s doing everything in his power to keep anyone else from becoming a Christian. I think that was what was behind that cruel request to have those men’s legs broken. Satan wanted them to suffer and I think the religious leaders were doing his bidding.
So the Roman soldiers proceeded to break the legs of the two thieves, but when they went to do the same to Jesus, He was already dead. Satan would not triumph over Him, not in this moment, not ever. Even at the moment of Jesus’ death, God was still in control. Jesus died at the moment of God’s choosing, not the religious leaders, not the Roman soldiers, and certainly not Satan’s. And for followers of Jesus, Satan will not triumph over us. He might come at us in a rage and throw every imaginable temptation our way through those in this world who are willing to do his bidding. But through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s ultimate victory is now our ultimate victory and through that victory, we will live in triumph, forever!