“When they came to a place called The Skull [Calvary], they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left … One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, ‘So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!’ But the other criminal protested, ‘Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” Luke 23:33,39-43 (NLT).
On the middle cross hung Jesus, the Son of God. Of his own free will He came to earth in a body like ours with a human nature that had sinful tendencies and desires just like us. He had a human will like us, but He never did His own will, He always denied it and did the Father’s will, and in this way He never sinned. He loved us so much and wanted to save everyone, but the people did not like the truth that He had to say to them. There He hung, an innocent man who never sinned and only did the will of His Father from the day He was old enough to understand it.
On the other two crosses hung criminals, men who had always done their own will and had never done the will of God. Both had always lived in sin. But there was a great and very important difference between these two criminals. One was hard and unbelieving, while the other had a soft heart, open to hear the truth and believing. One did not feel shame or regret about his actions and therefore remained outside, while the other one entered into Paradise with Jesus.
Not one of these two men had followed Jesus in His steps (1 Peter 2:21) during their life, and now they had no more time to do so. That is how it is with every sinner who is converted only at the very end of his life.
We must all begin like the one criminal, with an urgent prayer for mercy and forgiveness for our sins. We all start as “criminals”. But just because this criminal is an example of how to begin on the way of salvation, that does not mean that he is to be our example as we continue. Many are called and given the opportunity to follow the One who was crucified on the middle cross and to walk in the steps which He left behind—He who never did His own will but overcame all sin that lived in his human nature during his life on earth.
The truth is that all people, whether they know it or not, fit into one of these three groups and follow one of these three crucified ones. Those who, by the grace of God, overcome sin belong to the middle group. Those who do not overcome but confess their sins and ask for forgiveness belong to the second group; those who do not repent and do not ask for forgiveness belong to the third group.
Unfortunately, many believers look to the criminal that repented as their example and find comfort in him; they comfort themselves with the prayer of the tax collector for the same reason (Luke 18:13). It is very true that we must begin like this. But it is not true, as so many think, that we have to continue like this until the end.