Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Dying Thief Finds Life

Just another quick reflection on the Passion Narratives, arising from their dramatic reading in College Chapel this week. This morning Tom's group presented Luke's Passion, with the innovative feature of getting the congregation to say the crowd scenes... thus adding to the intensity of the 'Crucify him' at the appropriate moment.

Anyway, as the Passion was read, we heard of the two thieves crucified with Jesus. So what, you might be thinking - they're mentioned in all four gospels. But it is Luke who records the salvation of the dying thief. In the place of horror and death, the repentant thief finds life and the promise of peace. Amazing grace, indeed!

As I say, all four Gospels mention the thieves crucified, one on the left and the other on the right. But the other gospels only pick up on the insults they heaped on Jesus. One, however seems to have a change of opinion. But we're going to think about both of them for a moment.

'One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are underthe same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."' (Luke 23:39-43).

The first thief latches onto the idea that Jesus is the Christ, but then gets it horribly wrong. Yes, Jesus is the Christ. Yes, Jesus is bringing salvation, he is the one who saves. But not in the manner the first thief imagines. "Save yourself and us" was his cry. In following the insults and mocking of the chief priests and elders, the thief is asking Jesus to save himself and them by coming down off the cross. Salvation for him was about the temporary relief from the pain of crucifixion. Salvation was saving his life.

And yet, there we have the catch of the cross. Yes, Jesus is the Saviour. But to be the Saviour, Jesus must die the horrible death of the cross. If he came down off the cross (which he could have done), he would not have saved anyone! Salvation wasn't putting off death until another day - salvation was about paying for the sins of his people, and that needed the full completion of his suffering.

The second thief, though, is different. What was it that led to the change in him? He had seen how Jesus bore the pains of the cross - praying for the people who nailed him to the cross (Luke 23:34). He had perhaps been a witness to the mistrial and miscarriage of justice as Pilate sentenced Jesus. He had seen the intense hatred the Jewish leaders had for Jesus. He had maybe even seen the sign bearing the 'charge' against Jesus which was nailed over his head - 'This is the King of the Jews' (Luke 23:38).

First, he takes the other thief to task. He asks him does he not fear God - has he no sense of justice or of the judgement to come? After all, the thieves were getting their just desserts for their crimes. Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. Here, he recognises the sinlessness of Jesus - that moral perfection of a life perfectly lived in submission to God. He knows that Jesus doesn't deserve the death of the cross. And in this, he also acknowledges his own sins and failings. Jesus doesn't deserve the cross and the punishment for sin, but the dying thief did!

He then makes an amazing plea. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (Luke 23:42). Commentators have noted that this is the only direct request made to Jesus using his own name - other approaches are to 'Teacher' or 'Master' or 'Lord'. Yet the dying thief cries out the name of Jesus. What boldness! What desperation! What confidence!

Perhaps having seen the sign above Jesus' head, which tells of his kingship, the thief then asks that he be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. This shows the faith of the dying man - that Jesus was indeed a king, and would come in power.

And Jesus, even on the cross, racked with pain and bearing our sin - and that of the dying thief - gives him the promise of life and peace. "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43). Note the timeliness. Yes, they both are dying in extreme pain. Yet the dying thief will be with Jesus in Paradise 'today'! He'll not die and float around the ether waiting for the Last Day and the judgement before he goes to heaven. He'll not die and wait on the resurrection of his body. No, 'today' he will be in Paradise. And what is paradise? Being with Jesus is Paradise. How can he go to Paradise? Because Jesus has died for his sins!

The dying thief was not baptised, but he will be in Paradise. He had no future, earthly speaking. Once on the cross, the end was in sight, and a painful end at that. The Romans made sure they had a 100% kill rate on the cross. Yet the dying thief receives the hope of eternity with Christ, and the full salvation from his sins. He even engages in some apologetics!

Someone once said that the example of the dying thief is included in the Bible to give us hope that we can be saved at the very end of our life; but that only one of the thieves finds salvation, to show that we must not be presumptuous. Here, at the cross of Christ we find division. Like the parable of Matthew 25, the King is the great divider - with the sheep on one hand, and the goats on the other.

I'll close with an old hymn by William Cowper.

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
Have you found the promise of life, the promise of Paradise with the Saviour? Come to King Jesus, and confess your sins!

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