Glorious Thief

Luke 23:39-43

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

It has been a busy three years since Jesus was baptized by John, affirmed by God the Father and tempted by Satan in the wilderness. He has gone about teaching and preaching the Kingdom of God; performing great signs and wonders to authenticate who he is, and preparing his disciples to take the gospel message into the whole world.

Satan has been busy during this time also; lining up the apostate religious leaders in opposition to Jesus and the Roman authorities with their cruel methods of torture and death. And at this moment, it would appear that Satan is winning this contest. For now, in Jesus’ moment of greatest weakness, we hear the familiar challenge, “If you are the Christ, …” We’ve heard it before.

In the wilderness it was a challenge to Jesus’ planning: how was he going to carry out the commission that God the Father had given him? And the answer was a simple quote from scripture. Surely, Jesus had witnessed crucifixions and knew vicariously the horror that he faced. So in the Garden of Gethsemane it was anticipation and the answer was courageous submission to the will of God the Father. BUT THIS IS REALITY!! Within the last few hours Jesus has had a crown of thorns crushed down into his scalp; had hairs plucked out of his beard; has been spit on and slapped; and been beaten to a bloody pulp. He is so weak that he cannot carry his cross. Now he has been nailed to that cross, stripped naked in total humiliation, and left to suffer unrelenting, excruciating pain with the only relief to be inevitable death. And in this moment of total human weakness and agony, Satan is gloating as his challenge comes from the mouth of a thief, “If you are the Messiah save yourself and us.” I think this is the most diabolical, evil, Satanic moment in the entire Bible!

But there is another voice.

“Don’t you fear God?” What do you think? Does this thief fear God? I think we can reasonably assume that he does, else why would he pose the question. He seems to be drawing a contrast between the other thief and himself. The scriptures say “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It would be virtually impossible to grow up in the Jewish tradition and not be aware of this fundamental tenet of Jewish faith. His rebuke of his fellow thief is testimony to his own belief. So this thief has passed the first critical test, he fears God.

“We receive the due reward of our deeds”. He knows that he and his fellow thief are thieves. They have broken Roman law and are being punished appropriately according to the standards of the day. But there is also a higher law: there is God’s law. It says, “Thou shalt not steal.” And these two have broken God‘s law – they have sinned. Scripture also says, “The wages of sin is death.” We tend to spiritualize that concept and say that what it means is that sin separates us from God, which is certainly true. But these thieves are experiencing the real thing: a horrible, painful, physical death for having committed sin. And they had to experience it for themselves because the atoning death of Jesus was not yet available; it was taking place simultaneously with their own death. We need to look directly and closely at these two thieves and realize that what they are receiving is what we deserve. For we have sinned and we deserve the punishment of death. And it is only through the grace of God and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus that we are spared this fate.

The other element of this statement is that it constitutes a confession of sin. This man was a thief. He knew that he was a thief. He admits that he is a thief and that his punishment is just. So he passes the second critical test: confession of sin.

“This man has done nothing wrong.” Apparently he knew something about Jesus and his ministry and perhaps was aware of the controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders. Whatever the extent of this familiarity, he has concluded, rightly, that Jesus is innocent. He knew that Jesus did not deserve to die. Now he acknowledges that Jesus is innocent of sin and that his death is not a just punishment for anything that he has done.

We have no way of knowing whether this thief understood the deep theological significance of the innocent lamb sacrificed for the sins of the people, or how this theological principle could apply to Jesus. And really, it makes no difference whether he understood it or not. There is no requirement for intellectual excellence in theology, only for the conviction that Jesus was innocent.

Now the thief addresses Jesus as “Lord”. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom, but he that does the will of my Father.” (Mt.7) So, what could this thief do? Actually about all he could do was to die. There was no opportunity for “good works” or long prayers, or soaring sermons, or any of the churchy things that we hold so dear. So the question comes: What constitutes a “disciple”? All the men who had followed Jesus for three long years had abandoned him. Even Peter had denied Jesus three times with an oath. But this thief is sharing Jesus’ suffering. And in his agony he surrenders his will to the lordship of Jesus. As it turns out, that is all he has to “do”. And, friend, that is all you have to do. All the other stuff is good and noble if you have the opportunity, but it matters not one whit in relation to salvation.

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Note that the key word here is “when” not “if”. I think this thief had heard Jesus talking about the kingdom. He apparently had some concept about it. In any case, this was a statement of faith that Jesus would, in fact, rule a kingdom in whatever form that might take. There is no claim of any privilege: he claimed nothing deserving of Jesus’ consideration. His only request was to be remembered. Nothing about sitting at the right hand or the left hand as the Sons of Thunder had asked. Nothing about meting out justice or ruling forever. Just remember me. Acknowledge me. Accept me. Just let me be where you are.

And the thief’s request was immediately granted. “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus didn’t make any great promises: no great rewards; nothing about gates of pearl or streets of gold or seventeen room mansions with heated indoor-outdoor pools. But by the same token, there were no demands: no need for water baptism, or creeds, or rituals, or membership rolls; no tithes, no good works. Just that today I’m going to die and today you are going to die and we will be together in God’s paradise. Jesus’ presence was his prayer and Jesus’ presence was his reward. The essence of salvation is eternity in God’s presence.

So here is our mountain top moment and all the elements of salvation stripped to their bare essentials as exemplified by this glorious thief;

  •   Fear God
  •   Confess your sin
  •   Confess the Lordship of Jesus
  •   Cast yourself wholly on his grace
  •   Receive Jesus’ promise of his abiding presence

Psalm 1 tells us of two men with two lifestyles and two very different fates based on the Law of the Old Testament. This brief episode in Luke tells us of two thieves with two very different fates based on the principles of the New Testament: faith in Jesus Christ alone. Some twenty years later, the Apostle Paul would condense these elements into a simple formula, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9) And for over two millennia this has been the basic tenet of the Christian church: sola fide, faith alone.

An eternal message first revealed to us by a dying thief.

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