Good Friday Service
When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left (Luke 23:33)
Behold a hill with three crosses! Usually we fix our attention to only one, but we ought to remember that there were three crosses. In our recollection, as in the history of the world, the central Cross stands out alone. But a passerby on that day would have carried away a different picture of the crucifixion scene. After walking by the Place of the Skull on that never to be forgotten day, a visitor to Jerusalem would have reported: Today I witnessed the crucifixion of three men.
Three lonely crosses on a lonely hill! What a sight to stir the hearts of men. In the center the Lord Jesus died because He was the Son of God. On either hand died a man because he was a thief. In some respects they all seemed much alike; three men with agonized bodies sagging on pierced hands; three men with raging thirst torment them amid heat and dust; three men as a naked spectacle for scorn to point her slow, unmoving finger at. Those three wooden crosses were much the same, and so were the methods of torture. But while there were striking similarities between the three men, there were also distinct differences between them.
A hill with three crosses! On the central Cross hung the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. He died lonely, but not alone. Close beside hung the two thieves, neither of whom yet shared His fellowship with the Father, or His vision of a world redeemed. Both of them could share the anguish of the Lord’s body, but only one dying thief was ever to know the joy that was set before him.
Three crosses on a lonely hill. On each a man was dying. Each of them has a distinctive lesson for us to learn today. On the central Cross the Son of God died for sin. On the other the rebellious thief died in sin. On the other hand a repentant thief died unto sin.
Cross of Redemption:
First let us look at the central Cross, the Cross of Redemption, on which our Savior died for sin. When we gaze at this cross we feel almost ashamed that we belong to the human race, for we had a share in nailing Him to the Cross. In a sense, we too spat in His face and thrust the crown of thorns on His brow. By our sins we also led Him to Calvary and left Him there to die for us men and our salvation.
When we gaze on the central Cross we should look beyond it and up to God. On Calvary we behold so much of his self-revelation that we can only receive a portion of its meaning. As for its total mess, that lies far beyond the mental capacity of man. Nevertheless, we out to live beneath the shadow of the Cross, and thus enter more and more into its meaning.
On that central Cross God showed once and for all that He takes sin seriously. As Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:21,
God made him who had no sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Without a strong view of sin, the Atonement would be emptied of nearly all its meaning. When Jesus prayed, Father, forgive them, by His death He was making possible the way by which prayer could be answered. If Christ Jesus had not died on that central Cross, all the penitence in the world could not have brought that sinner to paradise. Our redemption consists in reconciliation with God, not merely renunciation of the world.
On that hill of crucifixion everything had to do with that Central Cross. So it ought to be in our hearts and lives. In the Cross of Redemption we find the power to shake our lives to their very roots, and then to bring repentance. Here we can find God, not angry or hurt so much as grieved because of our separation from Him. Remember too that Christ died, not that God might begin loving you, but because He has always loved you. Behold in that Cross of Redemption the act of divine love to compensate for the penalty of our sin was made known to us and manifested to the world.
John Griffith lived through the Great Depression. He got a job on the edge of the Mississippi caring for one of those great, huge railroad bridges that cross that mighty river.
John brought his 8-year-old son, Greg, to work with him to see what Daddy did all day. The little boy was wide-eyed with excitement, and he clapped his hands with glee when the huge bridge went up at the beck and call of his mighty father. He watched with wonderment as the huge boats steamed down the Mississippi.
Twelve o’clock came, and his father put up the bridge. There were no trains due for a good while, and they went out a couple of hundred feet on a catwalk out over the river to an observation deck. They sat down, opened their brown bag, and began to eat their lunch.
The time whirled by, and suddenly they were drawn instantly back to reality by the shrieking of a distant train whistle. John Griffith quickly looked at his watch. He saw that it was time for the 1:07, the Memphis Express, with 400 passengers, which would be rushing across that bridge in just a couple of minutes.
He knew he had just enough time, so without panic but with alacrity he told his son to stay where he was. He leaped to his feet, jumped to the catwalk, ran back, climbed the ladder to the control room, went in, put his hand on the huge lever that controlled the bridge, looked up the river and down to see if any boats were coming, as was his custom, and then looked down to see if there were any beneath the bridge.
And suddenly he saw a sight that froze his blood and caused his heart to leap into his throat. His boy! His boy had tried to follow him to the control room and had fallen into the great, huge gear box that had the monstrous gears that operated this massive bridge. His left leg was caught between the two main gears, and the father knew that as sure as the sun came up in the morning, if he pushed that lever his son would be ground in the midst of eight tons of whining, grinding steel.
His eyes filled with tears of panic. His mind whirled. What could he do? He saw a rope there in the control room. He could rush down the ladder and out the catwalk, tie off the rope, lower himself down, extricate his son, climb back up the rope, run back into the control room, and lower the bridge.
No sooner had his mind done that exercise than he knew–he knew there wasn’t time. He’d never make it, and there were 400 people on that train.
Suddenly he heard the whistle again, this time startlingly closer. And he could hear the clicking of the locomotive wheels on the track, and he could hear the rapid puffing of the train. What could he do? What could he do! There were 400 people, but this was … this was his son, his only son. He was a father! He knew what he had to do, so he buried his head in his arm and he pushed the gear forward.
The great bridge slowly lowered into place just as the express train roared across. He lifted up his tear-smeared face and looked straight into the flashing windows of that train as they flashed by one after another. He saw men reading the afternoon paper, a conductor in uniform looking at a large vest-pocket watch, ladies sipping tea out of teacups, and little children pushing long spoons into plates of ice cream. Nobody looked in the control room. Nobody looked at his tears. Nobody, nobody looked down to the great gear box.
In heart-wrenching agony, he beat against the window of the control room, and he said, “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you care? I sacrificed my son for you. Don’t any of you care?” Nobody looked. Nobody heard. Nobody heeded. And the train disappeared across the river….
Cross of Rebellion:
On another cross, we must consider the one who died to sin. This was the cross of rebellion. As a thief he lived, and as a thief he died. He had spent his life in taking for himself what others had earned by their toil. At death would end his days still in rebellion against the laws of God and of men.
We may wonder by what pathway this man had come to his cross. About such things we cannot tell. The sacred record has to do with his sin, his sentence, and his sarcasm toward the Savior. So much was he steeped in sin, coarsened by crime, and hardened by hatred that he persisted in his rebellion toward God.
On a wooden cross this man was suffering the penalty for his crimes. He was dying in sin, because of his sin. To the very end he remained rebellious. On the Cross of Christ the impenitent thief could see the Lord Jesus and hear His prayer for pardon for those who stood amongst the crowd chanting, Crucify Him! The poor wretch could look on the women and hear them weeping, and hear the mournful cry of a bereaving mother. He could see a man charged, convicted, and condemned for a crime He had not committed. Yet even in the hour of death, he offered neither compassion nor care; his heart knew no softening; his lips uttered no word of regret; and his cheek felt no tears of regret or remorse.
Among the objects of his scorn, the chief one was Jesus Himself. In Luke 23:39, we read that : One of the criminals who hung there hurled insult at him; If you are the Christ? Save yourself and us. Evidently he knew something about Jesus, but at two points he was sadly mistaken.
First, he addressed Jesus with an If. To approach Christ with an if means not to come in faith. With an if the rebellious thief was joining in the chorus of enemies who led Christ to the Cross. If you are King of the Jews save yourself (Luke 23:35).
The second mistake of the thief was in trying to dictate the terms of salvation. Save yourself and us. He had vague ideas about the sort of salvation he wanted, and about the way it should be attained. He wanted to be saved from death so that he may continue his thievery. Such a mistaken attitude is prevalent today. Often the best of us forget that Christ has not promised to save us from our crosses. In our prays of desperation we plead with Christ to succumb our sufferings, our anguish, only to return to the same behavior pattern that we sought to overcome. Through the Cross, by His Cross, and in His Cross, but not from our crosses!
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).
The Cross of Repentance:
First and foremost, in the presence of the dying Redeemer this other thief admitted the justice of his sufferings and death. Speaking to the other thief, this one asked,
Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man had done no wrong (Luke 23:40-41).
How difficult it is for the stubborn heart to acknowledge its own sin! And I am not just talking about the thief. I am referring to each and every one of us. For we let pride rule over our lives and when it comes time to confess our sins, our wrongdoings, we deny them.
This dying thief called on Jesus but he made no demands. He did, however, humbly request a gift of mercy.
Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42).
This man dying to sin must have seen in the Lord Jesus something not of this world. He had watched Jesus being nailed to the Cross, and as he heard the strokes of the hammer, he seen the blood stream forth. But from those lips the dying thief did not hear any such curses as were customary on Calvary. Rather, he heard a prayer for pardon—Father, forgive them for they no not what they do.
In response to his humble cry of faith the penitent thief received a promise so infinitely precious—he found Paradise. He found that in Christ there was hope for any man, no matter what he had done, if only he truly repented. He discovered that while Roman power had done all it could do, having nailed him to the cross, there was a far greater power than that of Caesar—it was Christ. Through Cross of Christ, the repentant thief found access to the Heavenly Father who extends mercy to the weakest and the worst of people.
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