The Gospel is beautiful. The night of Christ’s mock-trial, Jesus agonized over the decision to carry his cross to the hill of Golgotha. The pain and agony he would feel as the Romans watched his mangled body hang would be gruesome…and he knew it. In reality there were three men who would die together on crosses that day. Only one of them was sinless. Only one of them was God.
God as man.
Christ would give himself up to the absolute cruelty of man in order to save man. His sacrifice would create a revolution against sin and establish himself as king over earth as well as heaven. His coronation was the greatest act of humility. While great kings of the past have reveled in the moment of their crowning, Christ bled as he was crowned with thorns. He carried His cross in an act of love to save mankind. His coronation was synonymous with his work on the cross and his resurrection soon to follow.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” -John 12:32 ESV
On his left and right were two thieves. Instead of standing in the midst of royalty, Christ was coronated king between two criminals. The Bible doesn’t go into extreme detail about their crimes, but we can imagine the severity of the charges by their punishment. The cross. Three crosses. One for a stubborn thief, one for a repentant sinner, and one for the God of the universe, come as man.
All three had to carry their crosses. All three were nailed through their hands and feet. All three suffered for hours as a painful spectacle. And all three died in bloody agony. Christianity is a bloody religion. Christianity is a religion of self-sacrifice. Christ sought the rescue of mankind even if it meant his own death. He didn’t seek pain, but he would embrace it if it meant the salvation of others. Even for those criminals who were on either side of him.
A stubborn thief.
He was the obvious sinner. The guy you didn’t want your kids around. Dirty and foul-mouthed, the only thing he was good for was entertainment on execution day. He lived a life of pain, sorrow, and sin. He carried the same type of cross Christ did, and died the same sort of death.
On the cross, Christ was mocked by four groups (specifically in Luke 23):
- The religious rulers. “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One! (Luke 23:35 ESV)”
- The Roman soldiers. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! (Luke 23:37 ESV)”
- The political leadership. “This is the King of the Jews. (Luke 23:38 ESV)”
- The stubborn thief. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! (Luke 23:39 ESV)”
Christ’s mission was confused by so many until the very end. While the thief was crying out “save me and save yourself” Christ was dying for the stubborn thief. While he was crying, “Are you not the Christ,” Jesus was proving he was Messiah. Like so many, the stubborn thief never learned that Christ’s first priority wasn’t to destroy pain, but sin.
A repentant sinner.
There wasn’t much of a difference between the repentant sinner and the stubborn thief. Both were convicted for criminal activities. Both deserved their punishment. Both had to carry their crosses and endure the mockery associated with ancient executions. But the repentant sinner had two significant differences from his fellow thief.
These distinct attributes of the repentant sinner appeared for a brief moment in the Bible, but changed an eternity of pain into an eternity spent in the presence of God. These two distinct attributes were his repentance and his dependency.
Immediately after Christ was slighted by the first thief, the other thief said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. (Luke 23:40-41 ESV)” He realized his sin could be blamed on no one but himself, saw Christ as a completely innocent man, and believed Christ to be the King of heaven, God himself.
Hanging on the cross, the thief lacked any plan of his own for salvation. He understood that his own independence meant little in the face of a deserved death. His heart submitted to the rule of a dying king, and the sinner’s words expressed his belief and obeisance. Turning to his sovereign, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Luke 23:43 ESV)”
The fourth cross.
We often hear sermons and read books about Calvary. We read about its meaning and purpose. But it can only have a truly miraculous impact on our lives when we see ourselves in the story. When reading through the Gospel account, we can clearly notice three crosses. It can be harder to see the fourth, but it is there. It waits for you to pick it up. And while the pain of the cross is bitter, it is not without its joy (Heb. 12:2).
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” –Luke 9:23
To follow Christ means to launch out on a boat with Him so that thousands can hear his teaching. It means helping in the feeding of the multitudes. Following Christ means telling the possessed man of Gadera the good news of healing and forgiveness. But it also means that you must follow Christ beyond the miracles and into the pain. You must take up your cross and follow him.
The fourth cross is your cross. It is my cross. Every Christian has the responsibility to deny their own desires and needs. We are required to embrace the daily pain that is laid on our back and rejoice with the apostles that we are counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41). The truly ordinary Christian life is not a comfortable life. It is a life filled with thorny crowns and sharp whips.
Yet many believers shun ordinary Christianity with all of its messiness and pains. Instead, they embrace a hybrid Christianity. A Christianity mixed with materialism. A Christianity mixed with laziness. A Christianity mixed with apathy or a Christianity mixed with lust. So many times, we gaze at the cross Christ commanded us to carry and we choose the chains of our old comfortable sin.
We deny Christ and choose ourself rather than denying ourself and choosing Christ.
What does the fourth cross look like? It looks just like the cross of Christ. It is filled with splintery people, and overwhelming personalities. It means carrying the pain of others as well as your own pain. Taking up your cross means loving toxic people even when they mock you.
Christ’s whole life was a long walk to Calvary. He carried his cross for years before his death. He carried it when he made midnight prayers for the multitude. Christ left mourning his friend’s death to meet the needs of people. And Christ carried the load of my pain and sin, of your pain and sin.
The fourth cross is modeled after the first. It means making his desires yours. It means being a Christian, not merely a believer. It means being like Christ, so much so that others can’t tell the difference. That’s what the fourth cross represents.
Take up your cross and follow Christ.