Three crosses. Three condemned men. One who would not save Himself and two who could not save themselves. At first, the two shouted insults at Jesus (Matt 27:44), but then one repented, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus graciously granted that this repentant criminal would join Him in paradise even that day. This criminal is inspirational to me in light of Galatians 2:20. This unnamed forgiven criminal encourages me to greater heights of pursuing a Christ-saturated life in three ways:
1. He is a literal picture of identifying with Christ’s death.
The Apostle Paul states famously in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ.” We understand that Paul is speaking of the believer’s complete identification with Christ (Col 2:12). We understand that this has implications for Jesus’ salvation requirement that: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
This criminal is inspiring to me in that he is the only believer in history to actually be crucified with Christ. He identified with the death of Christ by dying the exact same death. For this man, taking up his cross was not an abstract theological concept. He was only saved because in God’s providence he was literally on a cross next to Jesus.
2. He never lived a moment of his saved life without total dependence on Christ.
Paul continues in Galatians 2:20 that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” As Christians, we generally have to grow into a greater understanding of living in complete dependence upon Christ. But this man was already dying and from the moment he was promised salvation, every single instant was lived “by faith in the Son of God.” Just minutes or perhaps hours after the promise was given, the criminal was home in the arms of Jesus. He had no room for doubt and the object of His faith was literally right next to him. I imagine that as long as he was able, the criminal kept his eyes fixed on Christ, the author and finisher of his faith (Heb 12:2).
3. He had a vivid understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.
Paul concludes Galatians 2:20 that Jesus is the one “who loved me and gave himself for me.” How often do we long for a more vivid understanding of the sacrifice of Christ, of trying to further grasp the agony that was endured for our salvation? We research the nature of the beatings Jesus received and the gruesome particulars of crucifixion. But for this dying criminal, he had fuller knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice than any of us. He was witness to it and he was experiencing it.
In his brief Christian life that could be measured in minutes, this saved convict had a more stunning understanding of Galatians 2:20 than anyone—even though Galatians 2:20 would not be written until years later. May we strive to understand being crucified with Christ as intensely as did this man in his final moments on earth.