On that first Good Friday, three crosses stood on Golgotha. Jesus hung on the middle cross, willing taking the punishment we deserved. On the other crosses, hung two thieves, condemned to die for their own crimes. Three crosses and three men. Two needed salvation. Only the third One could provide it.
We don’t often contemplate the thieves crucified with Jesus – the criminals on Jesus’ right and left. After all, their condemnation was just. And although the Bible doesn’t tell us much about them, we can learn from them.
What do we know about the thieves crucified with Jesus?
The words Scripture uses to describe these men give us some insight into who they were and why they were crucified. The two different Greek words used in the Gospels to describe them can be translated as thieves, robbers, criminals, malefactors, revolutionaries, and rebels. The Greek word used by Matthew and Mark includes the idea of “plundering by violence.” And Luke’s word choice suggests a person who is an “evil-doer.”
These two men were violent, hardened criminals whom Rome considered a threat to their control. Execution by crucifixion served as a sober deterrent for similar behavior from others. Roman citizens and the upper classes were usually spared this cruel and torturous form of judgment. But Rome used it freely with slaves, the lower classes, and especially those deemed a menace to Roman rule or the social order.
All four Gospels mention the thieves, but Matthew, Mark, and John only tell us they were crucified along with Jesus. Only Luke records the interaction between the criminals and Jesus. (See Luke 23:32-43.) Since we don’t know their names, we’ll call them “Arrogant” and “Humble” to keep them straight. By law, Arrogant and Humble deserved their fate. Their sin earned them both a brutal physical death and an eternal spiritual penalty.
Why was Jesus there with the thieves?
Jesus did not deserve the penalty they received, but He hung in their midst. Just as the prophet Isaiah foretold. Just as the Father purposed.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:12 ESV
Arrogant and Humble were violent men that lived to steal, kill, and destroy. Their lives furthered Satan’s purposes. In contrast, Jesus came to provide full and abundant life to those who would receive it.
I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. John 10:9-10 ESV
How did the thieves respond to Jesus?
Jesus offered abundant life to all – even to Arrogant and Humble. But, Arrogant flagrantly rejected it. His response reflected the crowd, the soldiers, and the Jewish leaders gathered around the foot of Jesus’ cross. Like them, he suffered from spiritual blindness. He failed to see the truth that hung before him.
But Humble gladly and graciously accepted the life Jesus offered. He acknowledged his sin, recognized the power and authority of Jesus, and asked Jesus to receive him as a citizen of His kingdom.
Jesus extended mercy and grace to this humble, repentant thief. Jesus promised Humble that with his physical death, he would be welcomed into “Paradise,” the eternal dwelling place of the righteous. This violent, evil criminal was made clean and new in Christ. (Want to be ready to tell others about Jesus? See “The Romans Road to Salvation” and “Top Ten Verses for Evangelism.”)
6 Lessons from Arrogant and Humble
- We all deserve eternal death – Like Arrogant and Humble, every person who has ever lived is a sinner. None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God (Romans 3:10-11 ESV). No matter how society judges the severity of our sin, compared to the holiness of God, we are all violent, hardened criminals. Our sin has earned the death penalty. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23a ESV).
- We can do nothing to save ourselves – The humble thief was securely nailed to a cross. He could do nothing. He could not walk down the aisle or be baptized or join the church or perform good works. All he could do was receive Jesus’ gift of eternal life. Humble came with empty hands and a repentant and believing heart. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)
- Jesus died for every sinner – The two criminals represent the worst of humanity. These evil men violently took what they wanted. No one, no matter how grievous their sin, is beyond the grace of Jesus. He willing suffered the most brutal of deaths so He could cover the most heinous of sins. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NIV)
- Only Jesus can save – The arrogant thief mockingly asked Jesus to prove His kingship by saving Himself and the two thieves (Luke 23:39). Jesus could have easily summoned angels to come to His aid (Matthew 26:53-54). But in saving Himself, humanity would have no hope for eternity. Only by staying on the cross could Jesus provide salvation. He was the perfect substitute sacrifice. His death paid our sin debt. That’s why Jesus is the only way of salvation. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12 ESV)
- Neutrality is not an option – There are only two eternal destinations – life with Jesus in heaven or eternal judgment in hell. We cannot sit on the fence. Failing to choose Jesus is choosing to reject Him. Everyone will choose. And that choice directs our eternity. The humble thief chose Jesus and life. The arrogant thief rejected Jesus, thus choosing eternal condemnation. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18 NIV)
- Jesus receives humble belief – The humble thief acknowledged his sin. He believed the testimony about Jesus. Jesus was “the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38), the long-expected Messiah. Humble knew that Jesus’ kingdom was spiritual and eternal, not of this world (John 18:36). And Humble trusted Jesus with his eternity. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 ESV). Jesus confirmed Humble’s hope. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 ESV).
The thieves crucified with Jesus lived similar lives on this earth, but their eternal lives are very different. Even now they are experiencing the results of their last choice. Arrogant rejected Jesus, thus choosing eternal condemnation. Humble believed Jesus and received eternal life. Their choice is every person’s choice. What will you do with Jesus? (For more on this eternal choice, see “How to Know Jesus.”)