The Sayings from the Cross, 2
Tony Renshaw, Heald Green, Cheshire
The Promise to the Thief. "And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shall thou be with me in paradise. And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness . . . ", Luke 23. 42-44. The fact that immediately after recording the Lord's words to the repentant thief, Luke adds, "And it was about the sixth hour", implies that the brief and touching conversation occurred just before twelve noon. As Mark records that the crucifixions took place at the "third hour", Mark 15. 25, the three victims had been on their crosses for nearly three hours. During that time the soldiers had divided and cast lots over die Lord's garments, the rulers and the soldiers had mocked the Lord, the crowds had stood gazing, and a superscription had been written over the Lord in letters of Greek and Latin and Hebrew declaring: "This is Jesus the King of the Jews". The Lord had spoken to His mother and to the beloved disciple (see John 19. 26-27, where we read that "Jesus . . . saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved", indicating that darkness had not yet fallen).
Matthew records that "The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth", 27. 44. Both thieves had begun abusing the Lord in terms similar to those of the chief priests, scribes and elders. But one of them had a change of heart. It is not clear what caused this. The Lord's calm refusal to revile His mockers may have impressed the man. He probably knew something of the Lord from earlier days, for he finally said to his criminal partner, "this man hath done nothing amiss'*, Luke 23. 41. There can have been few people in Israel at that time who knew nothing of the Lord's public activities and of the widespread blessings which had flowed out to the communities that He had visited. At all events, the man repented and rebuked his partner. Then (still racked with torturing pain) he turned to the Lord with his plaintive appeal, "Jesus, (not "Lord, R.V. This need not disappoint us, for we would not expect a new convert to know much about the lordship of Christ) remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom".
Perhaps his reference to the kingdom was prompted by the superscription over the centre cross, or by the mockery of the soldiers, "If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself, v. 37. Perhaps he had glimpsed something of regal nobility in the calm, uncomplaining Man at his side. But how remarkable was the thief s request! He clearly believed in life after death. He discerned that the Saviour was a King who was destined to take up His reign eventually and to establish a great kingdom. There is evidence in the gospels of a widely-held belief in Israel that the promised Messiah was going to establish a kingdom which would restore the nation's former glories. Mark describes how the crowds which had welcomed Him on His entry into Jerusalem had cried, "Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord", Mark 11. 9-10. John 6. 15 records an attempt to make the Lord a King by force.
The thief believed that the world had not seen the last of the Lord, who would emerge from death and eventually establish His earthly kingdom. And he asks for a place in that kingdom. He wants to be among the King's subjects. Perhaps his plea amounted to this: "Remember that I ceased reviling Thee and rebuked my fellow criminal. Remember that, however late I left it, I did finally give Thee my allegiance. I reversed my nation's verdict. I ask simply for a corner in the kingdom somewhere". For he had no thought of eminence in the kingdom. His record prevented his aspiring to anything of that kind. He simply wanted to be remembered. He did not want to be swept away in judgment by this coming King. He sensed that such a fate must await those whose hatred and rejection had been unremitting. So he wanted to be treated as a follower, an adherent of the Lord.
Does his plea look a little suspicious? Does it smack of opportunism? He had left it rather late, in all conscience. What would the Lord want with such a very late recruit? How little he had to offer! At least the twelve disciples had abandoned homes, families and possessions to follow the Master. They had given Him three years of fairly loyal service.
How thankful we should all be that the Lord does not recruit men for what they have to offer Him! He would rather convince them of what He can offer them! The best indication of the thief s sincerity is the Lord's response to it. For no one ever deceived the Saviour. He knew that here was a contrite heart. From the midst of His own intense pain, the Lord responded in a manner exceeding abundantly above all that the thief asked or thought. "Verily I say unto thee", He begins, and in doing so seems to be preparing the thief for something which will sound incredible and unlikely, but which he must nevertheless grasp and believe. And the words which followed were indeed amazing. They contain a sublime promise, having three components:
(a) Prompt Deliverance, "To day shall thou be with me in paradise". The thief had sought blessing in the unknown future, whenever the Lord might return to reign. But in effect the Saviour is saying, "You need not wait until I come into my kingdom. I shall secure your blessing today. From this grim and desolate execution ground you will be translated instantly to paradise, and you will join Me there". None of us could hope to measure the comfort and relief that these matchless words would bring to the heart of the thief. But this is the Lord's way. He makes His blessings available immediately. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick", Prov. 13. 12, and the Lord was not prepared to grant this thief a vague hope for the future. He had said to Zachaeus, "make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house", Luke 19. 5. His outlook is summed up in Paul's words to the Corinthians, "behold, now is the accepted time, behold, now is the day of salvation", 2 Cor. 6.2. The Lord Jesus had depicted the prodigal's father running to welcome home his destitute boy, in a passage which breathes something of the divine impatience to begin heaping undeserved blessings upon men in the instant when they show some indication of repentance.
(b) Personal Companionship, "To day shall thou be with me". This also surpassed the thief s wildest hopes. He had merely asked to be remembered as a candidate for citizenship in the king dom. He never dreamed of becoming the King's personal companion. But the Lord bestows nothing less, and does so with evident satisfaction. It would have been wonderful to the thief if the Lord had merely said, "Today shall thou be in paradise". But to be with Jesus there! To tread the golden streets bearing a passport signed by the King would have been wonderful, but what of walking by the King's side? And the Lord Jesus intended nothing
less than this. Indeed this is His purpose for all His own, as He made clear in the upper room, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also", John 14. 3. "Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world", 17. 24. However in explicable it may seem to us, it is beyond question that the Saviour covets the companionship of His people for all eternity.
(c) Perfect Surroundings, "To day shall thou be with me in paradise". The thief had sought a place in the Lord's coming kingdom on earth. But the Lord directs his thoughts away from earth altogether, and points him heavenwards. The original word for paradise denoted the parks of Persian kings and nobles, gardens which were full of everything beautiful and good that the earth could produce. The Septuagint translators used it of the garden of Eden. Paul used it in 2 Corinthians 12. 4 in reference to the "third heaven" to which he had been caught up; and the word appears again in Revelation 2. 7 at the close of the Lord's message to the church at Ephesus, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God". W. E. Vine comments that "the Lord's mention of the place as paradise must have been a great comfort to the malefactor; to the oriental mind it expressed the sum total of blessedness".