Summary: For that one thief on the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus changed everything. So for us.
What is the most common religious symbol in the world? In our part of the world, the most common religious symbol is the cross. You see the cross on churches. You see the cross in jewelry. Athletes cross themselves sometimes during sporting events. What does the cross mean to you?
It wasn’t always such a popular symbol. During the days of Jesus, the cross was a symbol of shame and embarrassment, a symbol of warning and terror. The Roman empire used the cross as a means of execution. A pole would be sunk into the ground, and if you were sentenced to crucifixion, you would be fastened to a crossbar and hung onto that pole. The cross was only reserved for slaves and robbers and assassins and rebels. As a general rule, Roman citizens wouldn’t be executed on a cross, because it was too shameful of a way to die.
The cross was a common site in the early first century. Caesar Augustus bragged about capturing 20,000 runaway slaves – whichever ones were not claimed were crucified. 6000 slaved involved in a rebellion were all crucified at once on the road leading to Rome. 2000 people in Palestine were crucified for their rebellion. For a Jew, the cross represented the worst way to die. To be crucified, in the eyes of a Jew, meant that you have been cursed by God. If you lived in the early first century, the cross would be a symbol of shame and terror for you.
Initially, the cross was not a symbol in the Christian church – it was forbidden by early church leaders to be pictured in religious art. Things changed when the Roman emperor Constantine took over. He wasn’t really interested in the person of Jesus Christ, and, in his opinion, the cross as an embarrassing symbol. But, for some reason, he adopted the symbol as a “good luck charm” and symbol of triumph, and placed the symbol of the cross on the shields of his soldiers.
The cross was not common in religious art until the fourth century, when everyone who had ever seen a live crucifixion had died. What does the cross symbolize to you? For one man in the early first century, the cross began as a symbol of death, but became a symbol of life and forgiveness and relief, as we will see this evening..
Jesus was led out to be crucified, and two criminals were led out with him. When they came to a place called “the Skull,” the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, with one criminal on his left, and one on his right. Here a prophecy is fulfilled: Isaiah had foretold that Jesus would be numbered with the transgressors. When Jesus was hung on the cross, he was lowered to the level of a criminal. He was brought down to the same level as those other two criminals, and everyone else who had ever been crucified.
Many people were mocking Christ, including these two criminals. Luke tells us what one of the criminals said: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” “If you’re the Messiah, the Son of God, like you say you are, why don’t you get out of this situation? And get us out of here too!” This criminal blasphemes Christ, mocking his claim to be the Son of God.
The way this criminal blasphemes the Messiah reminds us of how our world today blasphemes Christ. “Jesus is the Son of God?” people say. “I don’t think so. Why doesn’t he prove it? Why doesn’t he do something to prove that he is the Son of God, someone I should worship? Prove it!” People today mock the idea of Jesus being the Savior of the world, just like that criminal hanging next to Jesus.
Unfortunately, we see ourselves as we see this criminal mocking Christ. We have more in common with that criminal than we would like to admit. In the eyes of God, all of us, really are criminals. All of us have led lives of disobedience and rebellion against God. “Do things this way,” God says. And we say, “No, I’ll do things my way instead.” We live lives that violate God’s will, over and over again. You and I are criminals in the eyes of God. Sometimes we even blaspheme our Savior. When things don’t go our way, we say to Jesus, “I doubt that you are the Savior. I doubt that you are the Son of God. Prove it. Prove that you are who you say you are. Show me!” we say. And this is blasphemy – on the same level as that thief on the cross. We are sinners, and ultimately, it is because of our sin that Jesus is suffering. It wasn’t the Jews. It wasn’t the Romans. But it was us – our rebellion, our blasphemy, our sin – that’s what put Christ on the cross. That’s why he is suffering, taking the punishment that we deserve for our sin.