It seems to me that the most important thing that Christ did for us was to die on the cross. However, two other men were crucified next to him that day. Knowing God could have chosen for Christ to be crucified alone, thereby putting more of a historical spotlight on the sacrifice of this Son, I wonder why God chose to allow two other men to be crucified with Jesus that day? I feel God gives meaning in even the smallest details and events. The forgiveness that Jesus gives to the one man before dying is yet another act of love even as he is dying himself. This has always touched my heart in a powerful, meaningful way. Is there more to this question, and were the two others needed in order to fulfill an ancient scripture regarding the death of Christ?
- Frank from Pittsburgh
Prophecies about Christ's death (Part 1)
I think I will answer the last part of your question first. Were the two thieves needed to fulfill prophecy? Yes, there is a prophecy that was fulfilled by the presence of the thieves at the cross of Christ.
Isaiah 53:12 says; "Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors."
There are scores of prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament. Some refer to his first coming and some refer to his second coming. Every one of them has either been fulfilled or will be when he comes again. Regarding his crucifixion, here are a couple more examples.
Betrayal by a close friend is spoken of in Psalm 41:9; "Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Judas, one of his intimate circle and called as an apostle, betrayed Jesus to the Jewish government. (See Luke 22:47-48)
Silence in the face of accusations was prophesied in Isaiah 53:7; "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth." Mark 15:4 says; "And Pilate was questioning Him again, saying, 'Do You make no answer? See how many charges they bring against You!' But Jesus made no further answer; so that Pilate was amazed."
One final example is that the Messiah would suffer no broken bones. "He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken." (Psalm 34:20) Listen to the fulfillment in John 19:32-33; "The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs."
Please remember prophecy from God's eternal perspective. He did not have the Old Testament writers set down a bunch of prophecies about Christ's life and then scramble to figure out a way to make that work so each requirement would be met. No, he continuously sees the whole span of time all the time; God is always in present tense.
The question to ask is why certain things were important to record - and fulfill. That is the other part of the question you asked. Let's delve into that tomorrow.
Next: What can the crucifixion scene tell us?
The crucifixion scene (Part 2)
You wonder why God chose to allow two other men to be crucified with Jesus that day. In your thinking, why wasn't the historical spotlight put on Christ alone? Actually, I think what is interesting is not that the two thieves were there but that God chose to record that particular detail.
Think about all the things we don't know. Lots of stuff was going on that day which was never mentioned in any of the New Testament accounts. If the thieves were not important, they could have hung there beside Jesus in anonymity. So I think you are on to something in trying to figure out their significance. They were written into scripture for a reason.
From a practical level, let's look at the crucifixion scene. This cruel, degrading death was used extensively by the Romans. Jews never used crucifixion, for them it was always stoning. Crucifixion was prescribed only to the lowest level of criminals and to slaves - rarely Roman citizens. Beyond being a slow and painful death, crucifixion was a humiliating death.
Because crucifixion was used so extensively, there were probably people on the cross in one phase of death or another nearly every day. It therefore becomes unlikely in the natural that Jesus would have been put on the cross when no one else was being crucified. I believe this tells us something important.
Jesus identified with the lowest stratum of society. He accepted (even embraced) the most degrading death. He allowed himself to be treated as a common low-life criminal. God didn't plan for special treatment for him; it was, in fact, exactly the opposite. The fact that there were two others with him proves the point. In death; "He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him." (Isaiah 53:3)
Next: What are the lessons from the two thieves?
The power and the lessons (Part 3)
You mention one of the great lessons regarding this incident in your question. Jesus extended love and forgiveness to the so called "good thief" even though he was dying himself. Actually, his love and forgiveness were there for the other thief also since Jesus died for the sins of the WHOLE world. The difference is that one chose not to receive it.
Yes, the tender love of God is one lesson but there are others. Jesus also gave us a key to understanding grace when he said to the good thief; "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) Scripture teaches us that we are saved by grace and not by works and this is a perfect example of that. There was no time left for the thief to do anything in the way of making up for his sins or turning his life around. Yet Jesus told him TODAY he would be with him in paradise. It was the thief's heart condition that gave him instant access to eternity in heaven.
There is one more powerful analogy I see as I look at the three crosses. Jesus is in the middle, at the very center of God's plan for redemption. Who is he? "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me." (John 14:6)
But what is speaking out from either side of him? On the one side is faith; the other side is unbelief. On the one side is humility; on the other is arrogance. Profanity speaks out of one side and reverence speaks out of the other side. These two voices continue to speak from either side of the cross today. The world has always been divided, and always will be divided, with Christ at the center. Maybe God placed a man on each side of Jesus for this reason: one is the voice of the kingdom of this world and the other is the voice of the kingdom of God.
I will end with a question of my own for each reader. Which of these two speaks for you?