The Thief on the Cross

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There are few more pathetic lives we see a glimpse of in the Bible than that of the thief on the cross, yet it has fascinated me recently.  Luke mentions relatively little about him, though there are some things that can be gleaned from the passage.  Unfortunately, the center of the story is often overlooked as the passage is usually used to draw implications about the necessity of baptism.  As is so often the case, the debate surrounding the verse completely misses the point.  The setting is the narrative of Christ's crucifixion.  It is obvious that the story is there because it furthers our understanding of who Christ is and what He has done for us all.  The issue of the necessity of baptism an important one, but it is not the crux of this scene.  I digress.

While he has been given the title, "the thief on the cross," we do not actually know what his crime is.  Thievery does seem likely.  We only know it was enough for the Romans to see fit to put him to death.  Before his crime, he must have known the severity of the Roman laws, yet he committed the crime anyway.  It may have been out of desperation, out of stupidity, or both. I have trouble believing this was an isolated incident.  It seems likely - though not certain - that this was the last and greatest of the many misfortunes of his life.  A life that was likely filled with failure, and that was certainly ending in failure.  And ending too soon.

Here is the scene.  This criminal knows he committed the crime, and he knows he faces judgment before God for his life.  Seemingly, he has put two and two together about the man hanging next to him.  He knows the man has committed no crime, and he sees the sign above this man: "This is the King of the Jews," written more out of irony than anything else.  Yet he believes it.  He remembers the prophecies he has heard about many times, and he believes they refer to the this man.  So he offers up a simple request.  It's clear that as his life is running out, so is his hope.  His only request to the innocent man hanging next to him is, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."  His body is giving out, and he sees no reason he should see the kingdom.  Especially after the life that he has lived.  His sins have finally caught up with him, and he knows he faces righteous judgment.

Yet here we come to the center of the story, and the reason it is in the narrative in the first place.  Yes, this man next to him is innocent, and yes, He is king of the Jews.  But this Savior has not come simply to rescue the nation of Israel as a people, or simply to establish His righteous rule.  He came not to heal those who are well but to heal the sick.  He came not to call the righteous but the unrighteous.  He has come not to emancipate a nation, but to emancipate souls.

This unnamed criminal has no chance to redeem the time, no chance to help the poor or widows, or do anything good.  He is hanging on a cross, with no opportunity to do anything that would be considered righteous.  That, however, is not the point.  It is not his own righteous works that can save him, even if he did many.  The basis of his salvation is this man called Jesus.  He is not simply a man, but God's very son.  It is on the basis of His righteousness that this man can be saved, not the man's. 
A couple years ago before Easter I heard a song with a refrain something like "we're the reason He came."  Put simply like that, it is false.  He is the reason He came.  It does not say, "For God so loved the world because everyone is so wonderful" or "because we are worth dying for."  It says, "For God so loved the world that..."  The central point, the reason He came, is His own love.  It is on the basis of His character that He came, and it is on the basis of His character that this criminal can be saved.  If I may quote C.S. Lewis, "No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable."1  But this criminal hanging there suffers no such delusion.  His time is up, and he knows he is an unrighteous sinner.  He may not be aware of the love the Savior has for him, but he soon will.

So, here is a life likely filled with sin and sadness, coming to a bitter end.  He knows he faces judgment, he knows he deserves the punishment, and he fears it.  As a last ditch effort, he asks only that he would be remembered by Jesus.  But as the curtain begins to fall on this sad life, the last words he hears are: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."  And the curtain hits the stage.  A tragedy turned to triumph.

1.  C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 130.
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