Soldiers: Hey, if You’re the King of the Jews why don’t You free Yourself!
Even the inscription they placed over Him was intended to mock Him–“This is the King of the Jews!” [This was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.]
One of the criminals joined the cruel talk
Cynical Criminal: You’re supposed to be the Anointed One, right? Well-do it! Rescue Yourself and us!
But the other criminal told him to be quiet.
Believing Criminal: Don’t you have any fear of God at all? You’re getting the same sentence He is! We’re getting what we deserve since we have committed crimes, but this man has done nothing wrong at all! (turning to Jesus) Jesus, when You come into your kingdom, please remember me.
Jesus: I promise you that this very day you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:37-43, the Voice)
Most Christians say that Jesus went to the cross in our stead, but that would have sounded nonsensical to those who were crucified with Christ. Two men hung beside him and joined in with derisive remarks, poking fun at the failed Messiah. This was Jesus’ great moment of victory, but that is not how it seemed. The man who would be king, was lifted up on a cross, the instrument of execution used by Rome to shame failed revolutionaries. The cross was a symbol of the the supremacy of Rome. Fight Rome and hang naked on a cross and die.
But Jesus wasn’t like these other ‘criminals.’ He didn’t lead a band of marauders on raids, or slyly look for ways to subvert Roman rule. He was King and Messiah, but not in the way that anyone thought. His Kingship was different.
But one of the condemned criminals actually gets it. Where disciples, religious and political leaders, soldiers and friends all missed it, a condemned man understood and saw Jesus for who he is. Perhaps he thought, “Jesus is innocent and did nothing deserving of death. Surely God will vindicate him.” But his words tell us something more. To Jesus he says, “When you come into your Kingdom, please remember me.”
How is it that Rome kills a man thinking that they are squelching all claims to kingship, but one suffering the same fate saw that Jesus’ death was but the means that he would enter into his kingdom? The weeping women and deserting disciples carried no such hope, though Jesus told them many times all that would occur. This nameless thief (tradition calls him Dysmas) is the first to understand.
I wonder if he ever met Jesus before. He is the only one in the gospels to call Jesus by name without adding any sort of honorific. Perhaps he had been in the hill country above Galilee (where zealots and outlaws hid) and heard Jesus’ revolutionary Sermon on the Mount. He probably thought it was quaint, idealistic and unable to deal with the injustice of Roman rule. But clearly Rome felt threatened enough by this man to have him killed. Maybe he saw Jesus heal others and even had a friend of a friend who was blind but now could see. Somehow, he put it all together and knew that this man’s death somehow fit into God’s overall plan.
I promise you that this very day you will be with me in paradise.
I marvel at this man’s faith, but I marvel much more at Jesus’ words. Do you ‘get saved’ from saying a few kind words to a dying man? Evidently it does if that man is Jesus. The cross opened up for us the way of salvation and this man was first. This is scandalous! Yes, this man understands something about the Kingdom of God that others before him had missed, but let’s be honest here, he was no saint. Jesus aside, you don’t find yourself on a cross for being the best person you could be. I imagine that this man was wicked enough and had enough crimes to his name to make even the most libertine among us shutter. Murder, Robbery, Rape. Who knows what this man did, but it clearly wasn’t good.
This condemned man died free with the offer of eternal life extended to him. The grace of God poured out to this sinner at the cross of Christ. As for him, this is the only hope we got.