It was just like Jesus, who was born in poverty in a filthy stable, who hung out with fishermen, tax collectors and women of ill repute, to die in the company of the lowest of the low – common thieves. Surely a king should be born in a palace and die on a royal bed. But He was not that sort of king – He was a ruler from another Place, and He chose to denigrate Himself that He might raise up the lowly.
There is a beautiful picture of that very act recorded in Luke’s gospel, in the account of the crucifixion. All four of the gospel writers note the presence of two others with Jesus when He was crucified. They were thieves – most likely “career criminals” to be put to death for their crimes. Jesus was the “Man in the middle.” Matthew tells us that these thieves joined in the crowd’s mocking and jeering against Jesus; they “heaped insults on him” (Matthew 27:44). But at some point, something changed for one of the men.
Luke reports that “one of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” (23:39). But we see that the other criminal had a change of heart saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41). This enlightened criminal realized that Jesus was an innocent man, falsely accused and wrongly crucified. That in itself would be an amazing turn around, but he understood even greater things than that.
He tells the Lord, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (23:42). There is so much revelation packed into that sentence, and none of it came from this man’s own understanding. He recognized, by a divine knowledge, that Jesus was, in fact, a King and he knew – only through the Spirit – that there was life – eternal life – after death through Jesus. What an amazing revelation! And it wasn’t given to the wise and learned religious leaders – it was bestowed on a lowly, wretched thief!
He also knew that he had nothing to offer Jesus in return for this gift of eternal life – but he asked anyway. Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ teaching on the mountainside where the Lord had said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). If anyone was “poor in spirit” it was a dying thief. And Jesus made good on His promise.
“Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43). All that was required was understanding who Jesus was and believing on Him for eternal life.
We don’t know what was happening in the mind and heart of this man, but I believe, as he turned his head to gaze upon Jesus, his eyes were opened to the Truth. I believe he witnessed the intensity of Jesus suffering under the weight of mankind’s condemnation – including his own. I believe he heard Jesus’ plea to His Father for forgiveness for the ones who nailed Him to the cross. I believe he saw past the blood-matted hair and bruises and looked beyond the skin shredded to ribbons and saw a glimpse of who this Man in the middle truly was. And a divine glimpse is all he needed.
On this “Good Friday” may I encourage you to put yourself on the thief’s cross? As you envision yourself hanging there, will you turn your head and look at the Man in the middle? Witness the bloody, battered figure beside you and see Him suffering under the weight of all your sin. Now, look closer – do you see the King who rules over an eternal kingdom? Look at His hand, held fast to the cross by a nail, as it reaches out to you, offering you what you cannot earn for yourself – forgiveness, redemption, salvation, eternal life. Beloved one – He died for you. He suffered for your freedom. He was forsaken by His Father so you would not be.
The thief on the cross went from sinner to saint because of the Man in the middle. He can do the same for you. Will you let Him today?
Lord Jesus, when I think of what you endured for me, I am awed and grateful. I am no less of a sinner than the thief on the cross, and You offer me the same eternal life you promised to him. I can never thank you enough, but I’ll spend the rest of my earthly days trying. I love You – my Savior and my King.