Cries from the Cross - The Cry of Salvation

Bible Book: Luke  23 : 39-43
Subject: Cross of Christ; Cross; Thief on the Cross

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman wrote a book entitled On Killing. It is a study of the psychological effects of killing in war. In one section he talks about the trauma of hearing men cry out as they die on the battlefield. He quotes a Major General who said, “…it is a touching fact that men, dying in battle, often call upon their mothers. I have heard them do so in five languages.”1

Through the pens of the gospel writers, we are allowed to stand close enough the crucifixion scene to hear what the men hanging there cried out as they died. Though normally it would be traumatic to listen to those cries of death, the presence of Jesus, and the words He spoke in His dying hours somehow transform what we hear.

In the case of His second cry from the cross, we hear a promise of salvation – a promise spoken to a man that prior to that moment had little hope of any thing but a just and earned condemnation.

William Cowper’s hymn has immortalized that man as “the dying thief”, and what would have otherwise simply been his violent death, Jesus graciously transformed into a story of hope and redemption that speaks to all the guilty sinners who read it.

“The dying thief rejoiced to see,
That fountain in his day,
And there may I though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away”

As we seek to consider the words of Jesus in this text, we need to start first with a broader view of the scene, then focus in a little closer, before we finally lean in to hear just what our Lord said that day. To do this, I want us to think about this text by the numbers 3, 2, and 1. I want us to see three crosses, two criminals, and one Christ.

I want you to notice with me firstly:

I. Three Crosses – Common Yet Significant

Once again we trod with Luke up to the top of Skull Hill. It is crowded up there on this day, more so than usual, though there are only three men being crucified.

Rome had certainly crucified many more there before, but this is not just another collection of crosses and crucifixions.

They are common in one sense, but they are very significant in another way. Think with me about:

A. What was happening on these crosses?

What is happening on this particular day in Luke 23 had happened before in Jerusalem since the Romans showed up. It will happen again after this day. Crucifixion was Rome’s must brutal and public form of capitol punishment. It was their means of both punishing in the worst way, and deterring the worst of crimes.

The cross was a usually slow and unusually painful death; one that lifted the condemned man up publicly so that he might be humiliated, even as he was eliminated from the society. Though I doubt anyone ever got used to the horrible sight of a naked man nailed to a piece of wood, this was not a particularly unusual spectacle. And yet, what the majority of the people that day could not see was that this crucifixion was different and significant – eternally significant.

This was not merely Rome dealing with three troublesome Jews. This was a Holy God dealing with the sins of the world. This was not a government publicly punishing its offenders. This was God in heaven pleased to bruise His Son for the offenses of Adam’s fallen race.

The crowd gathered round on Golgotha that day had seen a cross before, but they had never seen a crucifixion as cosmically important as this one. As we see these three crosses that were common and yet significant, we need to consider further:

B. Who was hanging on these crosses?

Luke tells us that alongside of Jesus they crucified two “malefactors”. Mark calls them “thieves” (Mk. 15:27).

One writer uses our modern word “thugs” to describe them.2 These were not petty, misdemeanor criminals. These were men who had violently robbed, and who had likely murdered in the process. Over their heads on their crosses would have hung a description of their criminal behavior – a sign to tell everyone why they were dying the way they were. Between them hung Jesus, and over His head, the plaque simply said: “This is the King of the Jews.”

It would have been a strange juxtaposition - two obvious scoundrels on the outside, and a man between them whose only crime appeared to be this claim to royalty. And yet, there was something spiritually important in the arrangement of these three men on these three crosses.

Long before that day, the Prophet Isaiah had predicted that the Messiah would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12), and in a sovereign work of God, that is exactly where Jesus ended up.

What is the significance of Jesus hanging there with those men? Is it not to show us where we belonged, and where He was willing to go for us? He, who should have been served by the greatest of men, was slain between two of the worst of men to show us that God in Christ condescended to where we are, and died where we should, so that we might be lifted up to where He is.

Ironically, His enemies hung Him there between those thieves as a way of trying to bring more shame upon Him. But when we as sinners who believe upon Him see Him hanging there between those two sinners, it only serves to bring Him more glory in our eyes!

When we see Him as one of the men hanging on one of these three crosses, we say:

“Was it for crimes that I had done,
He groaned upon the tree,
Amazing pity, grace unknown,
And love beyond degree”

As we look a little closer into this scene, I want us to see not only three crosses, but also then I want us to focus in on:

II. Two Criminals – Close Yet Separated

These two convicted criminals hung close together on the hill called Calvary, and yet they were separated. They were separated by Jesus, and it is by Jesus that they would ultimately be separated for eternity.

A.W. Pink says that these two criminals hanging on either side of the Savior represent to us “…the drama of salvation and man’s response [to it].”3

Though humanity is spread out in its locations, nations, and races, we are all actually more closely related than we realize. We are all a part of the human race.

These two dying thieves remind us that there is really only one, true dividing line between all of us as people. The dividing line is one person, Jesus.

As we focus in on these two criminals, close yet separated, we see that they were:

A. Separated by what they saw in Jesus

Both of these dying men had essentially the same view of Jesus on his cross. And yet, these two men saw the same Man in two very different ways.

Luke tells us that the one of the malefactors “railed” on Jesus. The word “railed” is translated from a word that gives us our English word “blaspheme”. That tells us how he viewed the crucified figure of Jesus. He was a sham. This criminal saw Jesus as being worse than he was, for though he was an obvious criminal, at least he wasn’t a religious fraud.

The other crucified criminal had originally shared this view of Jesus, for Matthew tells us that he had also joined in this mocking, at least at the first. But something had happened to his eyes and his heart as he looked upon Jesus. His perspective of Jesus had changed. So much so, that when the other criminal kept insulting Jesus, this man felt compelled to speak up for him. He said to his counterpart on the other side of our Lord, “Don’t you fear God? We are in the same awful place that He is, but unlike Him, we are getting what we deserve. This man has done nothing wrong!” This criminal knew his own guiltiness, and it had appeared all the more ugly in the light of what he now saw as the innocent, unjustly crucified Christ.

Is it not still true today that men are separated by what they see in Jesus? To some, He is nothing more than a religious martyr, a zealous preacher whose crazy preaching only got Him killed. And yet there are others who see Him on His cross and realize that He is the innocent Son of God – the Lamb of God dying, not for His own sins, but for the sins of His people.

The great preacher, T. De Witt Talmage tells of going to an art gallery in London years ago to see a famous painting called, “Christ Leaving the Praetorium”. Talmage sat down in front of the painting and stared at it. At first, he said, he was disappointed because he didn’t feel the face of Christ was majestic enough. But, the longer he looked at it, he said, “…the picture grew on me until I was overwhelmed…staggered with emotion… and said, “Oh, for that Christ I must live…!”4

To see in Jesus what this second dying man saw is to be overwhelmed, staggered, and convinced of who He is, in spite of where He is on the cross. These two criminals, so close and yet so far apart, were separated not only by what they saw in Jesus, but also they were:

B. Separated by what they said to Jesus

Look at verse 39. The unbelieving criminal said to Jesus, “…If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” The words are almost correct. He is the Christ! And He could have saved that man. And yet, his words were blasphemy. They were meant as a taunt, not as an expression of trust.

The other man also spoke to Jesus, and yet, listen to how different his words were. In verse 42, he said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a humble request! And yet, what hope and faith are in those words!

He looked to his side at a man who was as crucified as he was. Erwin Lutzer said, “When you need saving, you do not turn to someone who is in the same predicament as you.”5 And yet, this dying thief saw in the blood-spattered, nail-held body of Jesus, not a helpless, crucified criminal, but a King standing to inherit a kingdom. He spoke to a dying Savior as a King who need only remember him to rescue him.

What can account for what this man saw and said to Jesus? He’d never heard Jesus preach. He had never seen any of His miracles. All the testimony of Jesus he ever witnessed was Him hanging there on the cross. Yet He believed that Jesus was a King, and a King who could save a sinner like himself.

How did this happen? I quote A.W. Pink again who said the only way to account for this is divine intervention. He said, “His faith in Christ was a miracle of grace!”6

There is a reminder here that if any sinner ever comes to stand at the foot of the cross, and sees in that dying Christ the King that can save them, it is only because God has sovereignly and graciously opened their eyes to see it, and their mouths to confess it.

There really is no explanation for your salvation and mine apart from the grace of God. The world sees the cross as foolishness. It smells like death to those who are perishing. But to those who believe, the cross becomes a throne, the crucified becomes a King, and the place of death becomes the portal to eternal life!

That leads us then to see not just three crosses, and two criminals, but to see most importantly the Lord Jesus hanging between them. As we do, we see there:

III. One Christ – Crucified Yet Saving

Jesus did not respond to the crowd that jeered at Him. He gave no reply to the criminal who had called Him the Christ, but did so as a joke and a jab. But, when the dying thief spoke to Him as a king, as a King He answered him. He that did not open His mouth to His accusers opened it to answer this thief who had seen Him for who He really is.

Lean in and listen close. The crucified King speaks. He says, “Verily, I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

This is a cry of salvation for the ears of a sinner who had no hope of hearing it from anyone else.

As we look at and listen to this one Christ, crucified yet saving this dying thief, we need to recognize:

A. When He could save him

The dying thief’s request was that Jesus would remember him one day, when He finally came into His kingdom. That thief was thinking of the future – of a day and a kingdom that the cross of Jesus seemed to prove was not here yet.

But, when Jesus replied, He did not say, “On that day, you will be with me in Paradise.” No, He cried out, “Today, you will be with me…” At that moment, Jesus was nailed to a cross. He had been crowned, not with a royal diadem, but a gnarly crown of thorns. He wore no royal robe, and even at that moment, the soldiers were gambling for the few peasant garments He had worn in this world. And yet, even in that state, His power and lordship were such that He could confidently say, “Today is the day of salvation. Right now, I grant you grace from my throne of grace.”

Oh sinner, if He could save that dying criminal while nailed to the cross, how much more can He save you now that He is alive from the dead and seated at the right hand of God? It matters not how bad you’ve been, how long you lived in your sins, or how close you may be to your eternal judgment. He can save you today!

The hands of that dying thief were nailed to his own cross. He could do no good works for Jesus. His feet were nailed too. He could go nowhere for Jesus. The only things he could use were his heart and his voice, and with those he turned to Jesus in hopes of a salvation someday. But Jesus doesn’t need an eternity to save you for eternity. He can save you now. He can save you today!

As we look at this one Christ, crucified yet saving this dying thief, we see not only when He could save him, but also:

B. Why He could save him

Listen again to what this crucified King says to this repentant and hopeful criminal on his cross. He said, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

Paradise may be the most beautiful word in that sentence, but it is not the most important. The most important words are the words: “with me.” There could be no paradise for a scoundrel like this dying man, were it not for a Savior like Jesus. Were this dying thief to approach the gates alone, he would be turned away. He has nothing to get him into that place. And yet, He got in because of whom He was with. That paradise of glory belongs to the King with which He arrived, and he came in as that King’s last friend on earth, and first one under the New Covenant.

Preaching on this text, Charles Spurgeon said:

“Who is this that enters the pearly gate at the same moment as the King of Glory? Who is this favored companion of the Redeemer? Is it some honored martyr? Is it a faithful apostle? Is it a patriarch like Abraham? Or a prince like David? It is none of these.”

Spurgeon said, “Behold and be amazed at sovereign grace! He that goes in at the gate of Paradise with the King of Glory is a thief...”7

The truth is that whether you are a lowly criminal like this dying man, or the pastor of a Baptist church, Jesus said, “No man comes to the Father, but by me.”

The only way anyone ever enters into the paradise of heaven is if they go in with Jesus. Only by His grace, only through His merits, only with His hand upon us can anyone of us hope to see the lights of glory when we leave the darkness of this world.

Some folks have heard this story of the dying thief as an excuse to wait until their deathbed to turn to Christ and be saved.

One old puritan answered that thought by saying, “There is one case like this recorded in the Scripture, so that no one has to despair. But there is only one, so that no one will presume.”

When we read this cry from the cross that promised salvation to a dying thief, our response ought to be to run to the Jesus before our death, before our lives are wasted in sin, and before we may find ourselves with a heart hardened like the other thief instead of softened as this one’s was.

With that being said, this one Christ – crucified yet saving, still saves today all who come to Him by faith.

You may not be near death today, but you are dying just the same. If you see in Him, not just another crucified man, but the Christ crucified for you and in your place, you can say to Him as this man did, “O King Jesus, just remember me! Just look on me with mercy from your throne!’

What that dying thief found at the cross that day, you will find is true for you as well.

“There may you though vile as He,
Wash all your sins away.”


1 Grossman, Dave, On Killing, (Back Bay Books, New York, 2009), p. 116

2 Lutzer, Erwin, Cries from the Cross, (Moody Press, Chicago, 2002), p. 54

3 Pink, A.W., The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross, (Mt. Zion Publications, Pensacola, FL, 1997), p. 31

4 Talmage, T.  De Witt, New Tabernacle Sermons, (George Munro, New York, 1886), Amazon Kindle edition

5 Lutzer, Erwin, Cries from the Cross, (Moody Press, Chicago, 2002), p. 58

6 Pink, A.W., The Seven Saying of the Savior on the Cross, (Mt. Zion Publications, Pensacola, FL, 1997), p. 35

7 Spurgeon, Charles, “The Believing Thief”, 4/7/1889,, accessed 3/2/17,