My pastor today said that the encounter between Jesus and the two thieves as they all hung on crosses crystallized everything he had been trying to say throughout the sermon. I’ve always loved this story as well, because it hits on so many crucial aspects of my views on redemption. So here is Luke 23: 32-43:
32 There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. 33 And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
And they divided His garments and cast lots. 35 And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.”
36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.”
38 And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew:
THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”
40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
So here are some quick observations:
==> Notice the theme of jeering. For me, that is the worst aspect of how “we” treated Jesus when He was physically present. It is one thing that the religious authorities whose prestige was threatened by His teachings, rationally decided to kill Him. That’s obviously reprehensible, but understandable. But yikes, while the Son of God is there, dying on our behalf, people went further and mocked Him? That still gives me the willies.
==> Even as He’s hanging there, dying an agonizing and slow death, Jesus asks for forgiveness for the people who have done this terrible deed. And why? Because He recognizes that they truly don’t realize they are murdering God. When I start getting snippy with some of the commentators on these Sunday posts, I need to (as always) look at how Jesus Himself handled people who, shall we say, weren’t fighting fair.
==> However, lest we conclude that nobody gets punished because Jesus just gives a blanket apology for all, there definitely seems to be the implication that only the repentant thief is spending that day in paradise with the Lord. This is interesting on several levels. First of all, it is crystal clear evidence that you don’t need to “live a good life” to get into heaven; what’s important is that you get yourself right with God before you die, and the way you do that is to humbly acknowledge your own guilt and Jesus’ innocence (and Lordship).
Secondly, notice what the cynical thief is doing. He’s not so much saying, “I don’t believe you are God.” Rather, he’s demanding that Jesus prove it. Now why is this interesting? Because–if we are going to analyze the gospel account at face value, which is the only sensible thing to do if we’re in the middle of analyzing a gospel account–Jesus has already been walking around, performing daily (?) miracles for years, including raising Lazarus from the dead. Indeed it was the latter miracle that made the religious authorities realize they needed to kill Jesus quickly, lest His fame become unstoppable.
I fully admit that when it comes to a legal code that “libertarian” judges would promulgate in a free society as I envision it, that offenses would be defined with respect to violations of property rights; somebody’s “attitude” would have very little to do with it, except to distinguish an accident from a crime. Yet when it comes to God’s criteria for which people should be “saved,” I think it makes perfect sense that a repentant thief would receive preference over someone who was jeering and yet hadn’t stolen anybody’s property during his life. Those are entirely different realms and it makes perfect sense to me that the human judge shouldn’t reward/punish somebody’s humility/willful arrogance, but that God would.
==> Last point: Undergirding my view of the infinite justice of God’s system, remember: I conceive Heaven as spending an eternity in the direct presence of God. In contrast, I define Hell as spending eternity in the absence of this personal communion. So it’s not that the mocking thief is being cast into fire because Jesus is spiteful, rather it’s that he himself chose to reject Jesus and so is getting the fate he picked.