A Good Friday for a Thief
A Good Friday Meditation
38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
32b Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him.
All four Gospels bear witness to this fact: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified between two thieves. About this the Gospel accounts are clear: Christ is in the center with a thief on his right and another on his left. This consistency makes the details more than incidental and elevates the two characters, previously unheard of and never named, to a central place in the story.
This did not surprise Jesus. No one, excepting his enemies, wanted to accept Jesus's own stated mission, but for Him this was his all consuming task: the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31). He knew well and believed the words of Isaiah the prophet: "and they made his grave with the wicked... and was numbered with the transgressors" (Is 53:9, 12).
But no one could have been more surprised on that day than the thieves, to be executed with a Messiah. At least one of the criminals mocked Jesus openly, "Are you not the Christ?" (Lk 23:39). But, perhaps, at first both of them according to Matthew and Mark.
Yet a change occured in one of them. Perhaps in response to the vitriol of the other but almost assuredely in awe of the qualities of Jesus in the face of such rejection, suffering, and God-forsakenness. An otherwordly in-breaking happened within his breast. A dawning realization that brought light to the soul. He recognized a King. He saw the Kingdom.
So he repented. He confessed. He fully accepted his condemnation: "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" (Lk 23:40-41).
And he believed the good news of the Kingdom. "This man between us", he says to his co-conspirator, "has done nothing wrong." Thus he rejected the scoffers, and accepted the testimony of Jesus about Himself. And this he makes explicit in his petition calling on Jesus by name: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Lk 23:42).
Jesus's response is stunning: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43). Truly: amen, or "verily, verily" in the King James. This is Jesus's way of saying it is certain. Jesus will remember the man today. And Jesus is not promising, "I will think about you later." For God to remember you is for God to know you, and when God knows you He brings you into saving relationship with Himself. To be known of God is to be loved by God as a Father his son.
And so this man began his day as the worst of men, sentenced to execution, his bones broken, and his body thrown into a common grave. He ended the day with a new heart and given everlasting life with Christ in paradise. Forgotten yet remembered.
O scandalous grace.
I come from a tradition that is very uncomfortable with the story of the thief on the Cross. No one ever preached on it. It was always and only ever qualified to explain how it could conform to our theological boxes. In the understanding of some, the thief did not actually receive eternal salvation, because paradise is the place of the dead, not heaven. How convenient! For others, the thief did experience eternal salvation but as an exception prior to Pentecost, after which the administrative paperwork for heaven got a version upgrade. He got in just in the nick of time!
But I would submit that the repentant thief on the Cross was saved, is saved, and will be saved in the same we are saved and shall be saved. And that is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yes, indeed. Justification by faith. The same way as our father Abraham and our dear brother thief on the Cross.
Do you not yet believe? Look, then, to that hill, at the cross in the middle.