Crucifixion: The Thief on the Cross
4/18/2017 2:06:40 AM
“Crucifixion: The Thief on the Cross”
April 14, 2017
I want you to imagine something you’ve done in your life that was wrong. Imagine the worst, or one of the worst things you’ve ever done. Imagine something that still, to this day, causes feelings of guilt and shame. Imagine when you did this thing. Imagine where you were. Imagine the people who were there, if any. Imagine yourself back in that moment.
Now, imagine that just as you are doing this bad thing, just as you are completing the action, everything freezes. Time stops. The people around you freeze. There are no sounds. Everything is perfectly still. Then, in front of you, you see Jesus. He is there looking at you. He holds his hands out towards you. You see the holes in his hands caused by the nails of his crucifixion. He turns his head slightly as he looks at you and says, “I forgive you.” He says, “I forgive you for what you are doing right now.” That thing, that worst thing you’ve done. That thing which still causes you feelings of guilt or shame. Jesus forgives you for it in the middle of actually committing the act! Imagine!
How would you have felt in that moment? How do you feel now imagining it? How does it make you feel about yourself? How does it make you feel about God?
People react to Jesus in a variety of ways. There is a whole range of responses people have to Jesus. Some watch Jesus. They enjoy the spectacle of Jesus. They think he is a good teacher, or a wise prophet. Perhaps even a good example to follow in terms of life style. But
that’s all he is. They keep him at arm’s length as they observe him.
Others have stronger reactions to Jesus. Some hate Jesus. This is particularly true of good people, of religious people. It’s surprising to hear that “good people” hate Jesus, but it’s true. Good people hate Jesus because Jesus tells them they are not actually good. He tells them they are not actually good enough to please God. They may be good in human terms, but not heavenly terms. They are not good enough to go to Heaven, Jesus tells them, and they hate him for it.
Still others hate Jesus because he represents everything they don’t want. These people hate Jesus and make fun of Jesus as they go about their regular lives, doing whatever it is they choose to do. They are not particularly religious people, and their lack of religious conviction causes them to dismiss Jesus as foolish. They mock Jesus and make fun of his followers and then go about their everyday lives ignoring what Jesus says, what he represents and who he is.
Yet others hate Jesus for a different reason. Some reject Jesus because he allows them to suffer the consequences of their actions. They want Jesus to save them from the results of their bad decisions and Jesus rarely does that. They wonder if Jesus is God, and if Jesus is good, why does he allow bad things to happen to people? Some people reject Jesus and mock him because he has “allowed” bad things to happen to them. They act as if God owes them something, that God should protect them from harm, even harm that they have brought upon themselves. And because Jesus rarely does that, because he treats us as big girls and boys, responsible people, allowing us to experience the consequences of our actions, people reject him, resent him and push him away.
But there are a few, a chosen few, who respond to Jesus appropriately. There are some, just some, who, when confronted with Jesus, recognize their own sin. They recognize their own
depravity. They understand that they deserve to be punished for their sins. They see the corruption in their own hearts, minds and actions. And they know that Jesus had none of these things. They know Jesus is innocent of all wrong doing. And they know that the punishment he received on the cross was not deserved in any way. These people look to Jesus in his innocence and, somehow, recognize his lordship. And they ask Jesus to remember them, to keep them in mind, when he comes to power. They don’t try to impress Jesus with how good they are. They don’t try to make promises to Jesus about what they will do for him. Instead, they acknowledge who Jesus is and put their hope in that.
Bearing this in mind, please turn with me to our text for today, taken from Luke 23:32-46.
Responses to Jesus
Luke tells us that Jesus was crucified along with 2 criminals. Traditionally, we refer to them as thieves. Matthew uses that term, but theft wasn’t a capital crime in the Roman Empire. The word for thief was also associated with revolutionaries, with terrorists. You can think of these two men crucified with Jesus as gangsters, or mobsters.
As Jesus is crucified, he prays one of the most amazing prayers in all of history, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He includes all the people there who are involved in the crucifixion in some way.
There is the crowd that watches. They do not take part, but they are there for the spectacle. Some, certainly, were followers of Jesus, they had appreciated his teaching, maybe even been healed by Jesus. But most of the crowd was there to watch the latest executions. They watched for entertainment, for something to do.
Jesus’s prayer of forgiveness included them, but more significantly it also included the rulers, the Jewish authorities, who had orchestrated this event. Unable to carry out the death penalty themselves, they convinced the Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus needed execution. They lied. They hated Jesus because he told them and the people that their rules for being good were not good enough! They, as people, as religious leaders, were not good enough to earn God’s reward. They were good people, but not good enough for God, not good enough for Heaven. And they hated Jesus for that. So as they watched Jesus being crucified, they mocked him. And he forgave them.
Jesus also forgave the Roman soldiers. They were just following orders. Their duty was to obey their master. They were told to crucify someone so they did. But these soldiers did more than that. They, too, mocked Jesus. They didn’t care about who Jesus was. All they cared about was that they were far from home in a hostile place filled with religious zealots who wanted them dead or at least gone. They just went about their business of soldiering, not caring for Jesus but taking the opportunity to make fun of one of the leaders of the people they hated. And Jesus forgave them.
Alongside Jesus, one of the criminals joined in the mocking. He sarcastically told Jesus to save himself, but also to save him, the criminal, too! Why someone who was being killed would bother to make fun of another person being killed the same way is beyond me, but this was likely a hardened criminal. He was a brigand, a mobster, a gangster, a terrorist. Even as he heaped insults on Jesus, Jesus forgave him.
But there was one, just one, who recognized his own sinfulness next to Jesus. The other criminal, also on a cross, recognized that he was getting what he deserved. He recognized his own
sinfulness and that of the other criminal being executed. He silenced the other criminal, confessed his own wrongdoing, and acknowledged that Jesus was an innocent man. Then, in faith, from I don’t know where, he asked the crucified, broken Jesus to remember him when he came into his power, his authority, his kingdom, some day in the future.
Jesus not only forgave this criminal, but he saved him too. He told this second criminal that he need not way for “some day” when Jesus came into his kingdom, but that very day he would be with Jesus in paradise! Paradise is the word used for gardens, like the Garden of Eden or other splendid places of refuge. The word came to mean the happy state a person experienced with God after death but before the resurrection. [NIV Study Bible, p. 1614] Remember, in Revelation when John describes the New Jerusalem coming down to earth, the central focus of his description is the garden in the middle of the city!
And Jesus promises this thief, this hardened criminal, who had earned the death penalty, that he would be saved. He would find salvation from the eternal consequences of his significant sins! He would join Jesus with the righteous after death.
And at noon, the sky darkened and the temple curtain was torn in two. Jesus, as he died, cried out a line from Psalm 31, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” This was the prayer all observant Jews prayed at the end of the day before going to sleep at night. It was a prayer for protection through the darkness of the night. Psalm 31 is a Psalm about crying out to God for safety even in the midst of trouble. Like all Psalms of lament, Psalm 31 begins with the speaker in trouble, but moves on to God’s faithfulness and a promise to trust in God for deliverance. So here, on the cross, Jesus is committing himself to the Father, trusting in God for deliverance. And then he died.
On that day, the day of the crucifixion, God’s nature is revealed. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:8] In Jesus, we see God. The nature of God is most fully demonstrated in the character of Jesus. He is the “image of the invisible God.” [Col 1:15] And what do we see? We see that divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the well-being of others, in particular their spiritual well-being. We see Jesus, in a self-giving way, being more concerned with the well-being of those executing him than his own well-being! We see God giving of himself, allowing the Son to hang and die on the cross for the sake of others. God could have rescued Jesus from the cross. Jesus could have called down legions of angels to save him from the cross if he had so chosen. But instead, he endured the cross for the joy set before him- the redemption of his people to be reconciled to God and his own glory sitting at the right hand of the Father. [Heb 12:2b]
The irony on that day was that those who mocked Jesus mocked him for his claims to be the Saviour. They mocked him that he saved others but could not save himself. They mocked him says, “If you are the Christ, save yourself.” The irony is that he was, in fact, saving people by dying on the cross. He was fulfilling the necessary role of the Saviour by dying in our place. And even as they mocked him, he saved the second thief on the cross. He reached out in love, pressing through the pain, to offer salvation to the thief who was repentant. The thief acknowledged his own sin. He acknowledged Jesus’ lack of sin, which, when taken with Jesus’ claims to be God, means that Jesus was in fact who he said he was! The thief confessed his own guilt and then relied on Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his power. I don’t know how, other than an act of the Holy Spirit, that the thief had the faith to recognize Jesus, dying on
the cross, would come into any kind of kingdom, any kind of authority, but he did! And he put his hope in that, and Jesus rewarded him with the truth that they would be together in the blissful state of the righteous dead.
This is the love of God. This is the power of God! Jesus, even in his most vulnerable, powerless state, on the cross, was still exercising his divine power to save. He was still exercising his divine power to choose and draw to himself those whom he chose to reconcile to the Father. The thief on the cross was not a good man. He was not a religious man. He was not a Christian, at least for long. He was not a disciple of Jesus. He was a sinner who acknowledged his sin and repented, turning to God. And Jesus, in his divine sovereignty, chose to save him.
The power of God is to choose. The power of God is to save. The character of God is to love and out of that love he shows us grace. He sent his son to die in our place and even as he died he chose. Even as he was mocked for not being able to save himself, he saved another man. Even as it appeared he was losing, he was winning! He overcame sin, he overcame the law, he pardoned a sinner and paid his price so that he could be saved.
Jesus died for the thief on the cross. He died for you and me. As we approach Easter, as we remember Jesus death before his resurrection, let us all consider our own sin, just as the thief on the cross considered his. He admitted he deserved to die. He admitted Jesus did not deserve it. The thief didn’t have the benefit of centuries of theological study to try to understand what Jesus was doing. He didn’t understand the Atonement. He just understood that he was guilty, Jesus was not and that somehow Jesus would come into power and authority and when he did, the thief hoped Jesus would remember him.
Think of your sin. Acknowledge it. Acknowledge your sin to Jesus. Confess it. Repent of
it. Turn away from it as you turn to Jesus. Know that your sin was paid for on that cross at the place of the skull. Know that Jesus’s words “forgive them” can apply to you too. Align your life with Jesus. Apply your life to what God did on the cross that day. Line up your goals, your priorities, your thoughts, hopes and dreams with the love and glory God showed on that day. Apply your life to the truth of Jesus’ innocence and his death for your sins.
This is the response of gratitude Jesus desires for his generosity. This is why we can call that day “Good Friday,” when nothing was very good about it. We killed God’s boy that day. But the good didn’t come from us. It came from God. And we call it Good Friday because it was done for our good. And know that “if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 Jn 1:9] Amen.
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