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O Come All Ye Faithful

The Thief on the Cross

Today's Reading

Luke 23:32-43

We begin our week living in the light of the cross with an unusual character—the thief.

The scene is a difficult one to bear. Here is our Lord, whom we have seen from birth, bringing life and hope to the world, being beaten and forced to march to his own execution through the streets of Jerusalem, like a lamb going to slaughter. The creator of the universe was going to experience death at the hands of His creation.

And then there are two criminals. We know nothing about their crimes, and we really don’t have to know. All we know is that it was heinous enough to necessitate execution.

Thankfully, Luke provides us some additional insights into the hearts of these men.

After a group of Roman soldiers mock Jesus, one of the criminals decides to join them: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Can you hear the hardness of heart in this man? He was on the cross, dying, and still his lips were dripping with anger. He is almost deriding Jesus while at the same time blaming him.

Maybe this criminal had heard of Jesus and knew about his miracles. Maybe he had seen firsthand some of the people who had been lame and now walk, or the blind who now see. Maybe he even knew of folks who claimed Jesus raised the dead. We don’t know, but it is likely he knew of Jesus; after all, he mocks Jesus by calling Him the Christ who should save Himself.

In contrast, we have the other thief. Like the first thief, this man knew something about Jesus. He knew the stories, and he probably had been aware of the trial of Jesus—how He was brought before the priests and Pilate with trumped up charges. Maybe he remembered how Jesus entered the city only a week prior in triumph, surrounded by crowds, only now to see those crowds turn on Him.

So much must have been going through this man’s mind, and when the first thief mocked him, he mustered up as much strength as he could to respond.

Remember how Crucifixion worked. Those executed by this method basically suffocated to death, as they grasped at air before they could no longer breathe. But this man didn’t care. While the first thief was compelled by anger to speak, this man was motivated by something else entirely.

Taking some of his last breaths, he shot back at the first thief. “Don’t you have any sense about you? Don’t you fear God? We knew the law, and we broke the law. We deserve this, but He doesn’t.”

Do you see the confession? What an amazing moment. This man, with no hope whatsoever, admits to deserving the death he is facing. He doesn’t blame others or blame God for it. No. He admits that he got himself into this mess that he absolutely deserves.

The man meets Jesus for the first time, and he sees immediately the depth of his own sin and the innocence of Jesus.

And then, he does something even more extraordinary—“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Of course, we all know that the tomb doesn’t hold Jesus. We are aware of the resurrection that is coming, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the return of Jesus some day. But this man couldn’t have known of any of it.

Why would he pray that prayer? If I were in that spot, I hope that I might have defended Jesus and confessed my sin, but I certainly wouldn’t have followed it up with asking this man who is dying to remember me in His kingdom. That’s just ridiculous. Jesus was about to die. What kingdom could He possible have?

But the man met Jesus and knew something extraordinary—Jesus was a King regardless of the circumstances or what the future held. And as such, He worshiped the King of Kings.

What about you? As we approach the time to celebrate the birth of the King, do you come with the bitterness of the first thief? Do you seek to blame others for your circumstances or blame God for His lack of care or concern?

Or do you own your mistakes and your problems? Does looking at this innocent man on the cross, or the innocent baby in the manger, demonstrate all the more your total sinfulness and His total holiness? Do you see the gap between your righteousness and the righteousness of the Lamb of God?

If so, confess the sin and call out to Jesus. The second thief did, and the answer he received was life changing.

“I tell you the truth (don’t we love it when Jesus starts this way), today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The second thief only expected death that morning as he marched to his crucifixion. What he found was life.

May we all cherish the life given through our Savior.

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