When we come to this time of year– thinking about the cross, the empty tomb, and the other events leading up to that fateful weekend– the story of the thief on the cross is often just another stop along the historical and spiritual tour. But this isn’t just a heartwarming second chance anecdote or even just a convincing case that baptism isn’t required for salvation. It’s the snapshot of a dying man being brought to life. A glimpse of what Jesus was going to enable with his death and resurrection merely moments and then hours later.
Luke 23:32-43 lays out the scene. It’s horrifying, chill-inducing, heartbreaking. And that’s how it is to us– thousands of years and miles away. My imagination can’t even begin to step into this setting accurately. I know the important facts; I know what happened there, at the place called The Skull. But I wasn’t there.
He was there. This criminal. We don’t know what he’d done. We don’t even know his name. He felt the nails and took the shallow breaths and burned with pain and longed for death to come quickly.
In those moments, suffering unbearably and teetering on the edge of consciousness, when he should have been consumed by the limits and outcries of his own body and the end of his own mortality, this man considered the man who hung beside him. Through tear-, sweat-, and blood-blurred eyes, he saw in his periphery someone he realized was not like him– he didn’t deserve to be there.
Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: ‘Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!’
But the other answered, rebuking him: ‘Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!’
From just three sentences he spoke, we know this criminal got it, through searing pain and cloudy mind and final breaths. Got what?
1) Death was the fitting punishment for sin. It wasn’t a side effect of getting caught. It was the just response to their crimes.
2) Jesus didn’t deserve this punishment, but he was taking it. He wasn’t a criminal, yet he was beaten, mocked, and crucified– treated with even more disdain than those who hung beside him. He responded to his persecutors not with spite or grovelling, but with love and peace.
3) Jesus was the Messiah. As others were taunting him, the thief realized the overwhelming irony of their mockery in light of who this man beside him had proven and was proving himself to be. Perhaps even he had hurled bitter sarcasm at first (Matthew 27:44), but the last words we hear from him reveal his change of heart. He believed Jesus was, indeed, who he claimed to be. Perhaps at this moment, the criminal understood better than anyone else in history what it meant for God to be like us and to die as one of us. I don’t know, but I imagine he saw a clearer view of what the Messiah really was than what his culture had taught him. This Messiah wasn’t a militant, unapproachable leader. He was right there beside him, on the cross. He was so close he could even ask him one final question.
And the answer proved exactly what kind of Messiah he was– one who cares about his people to the most personal, intimate, excruciating details. One who changes everything with a word:
And He said to him, ‘I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.’
We don’t know how long the thief survived after hearing those words, but I’d like to think they were still ringing in his ears when that promise became reality.
While his cameo in the Bible is short, it’s incredibly powerful. A nugget of the gospel’s transforming power right in the midst of the transforming hours that fulfilled the gospel. I think we can take a few notes from the thief on the cross. Confession– yes. Repentance– of course. Focusing on the One beside us when pain and confusion the needs of self are overwhelming– certainly. Not letting our past indiscretions (no matter how recent) keep us from standing for what’s right and communing with God– definitely. Being better known for God’s response to us than for our question to him– always.
COMMENT: What do you think it was going through the criminal’s mind that day? What do you think changed him?