Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome to Holy Week. The texts today highlight the reactions people have when they see Jesus. The King makes His grand entrance riding atop a borrowed donkey, and the people greet their Messiah with joy. Yet, a bloodthirsty crowd will cry for his brutal torture and death before the week is out. From palms to passion, from shouts of Hosanna to cries for crucifixion, everything that happened to Jesus pointed out that he is the true King, the Christ, the Chosen One. This morning I want us to pause and look at the scene atop Calvary.
The people on the road to Golgotha, the place of the skull, mocked Jesus. No more Hosannas! No longer “save us” only “save yourself, if you are the Christ.” Where our Lord was crucified, there were three crosses. Two thieves, two sinners, separated by the crucified Sinless One, one on his right, the other on his left. It’s a picture of judgment day. The two thieves separated by Jesus are the sheep and the goats, the wise and foolish, the believing and the unbelieving. They represent the world for whom Jesus died. They are you and me in our sin and unbelief. This morning we’re going to look at the reaction of these two criminals, who both see the crucified king.
One Criminal Denies Him
The sun scorched down on the three as they hung atop the hill. It smelled of sweat, blood and dirt, sour wine and urine. This was the stench of death. The first thief had heard great tales of the man to his left, this man who was said to perform miracles. Named Jesus of Nazareth, He has even called Himself the Son of God. The thief watched and heard the crowd gathered around the crosses. They wanted their messiah to free them from the Romans and establish a kingdom on earth. But Jesus never gave them that hope. Instead of leading the people to Jesus as their King, the leaders led them away from Jesus. They used Jesus’ kingly titles to make fun of him as he was dying. They were confident that messiahs were not crucified.
On the contrary, Jesus’ suffering proved that God had cursed him. He was dying. How could he then save anyone else or give them everlasting life? Because Jesus continued to suffer and would not come down from the cross, the rulers felt that he had proven that he was not “the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The thief joined his voice with those who stood at the foot of Jesus’ cross. What an embarrassment to die next to this lunatic. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” the man shouts at Jesus. Not even a condemned criminal had any respect for Christ the King. This thief was an unbeliever. He refused the salvation that was next to him. He mocked the only Savior that there is. Even in the despair of death, he’s full of hatred and mockery. His salvation is next to him, but he refuses to see it. In that Jesus, he could have found pardon for his sins, acquittal before God, the promise of Paradise. But he would not have it. Instead, he mocks Jesus even in death.
But the other thief rebukes his partner. “Don’t you fear God? You’re under the same sentence. You’re damned as much as anyone.” The thief preaches the Law to his partner in crime. A word of truth. “We are receiving the due reward for our deeds. We deserve this. We are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Yet not even then did this thief repent. His heart remained hard until it gave out. The life of a criminal ends with rejecting the pardon offered to him in death.
One Criminal Trusts Him
The fear of impending death overcomes the other thief. And amid his pain and the shouting of the crowds, the weight of his sin envelops him. Looking at Jesus on the cross to his right, he sees a man who has done no wrong. He believes the stories he’s heard about the man from Nazareth. This Jesus had raised the dead to life, walked on water, and was not a lunatic but was who He claimed to be: the Son of God incarnate, the Messiah.
He trusts that this man can save him—perhaps not in this life, nor from this death, but that He has the power to do what He says He will. “This man has done nothing wrong,” yet Jesus dies as if he had done everything wrong, forsaken by God, condemned, persecuted, mocked, ridiculed, damned. Jesus did not look like any king, much less the King God promised to Israel. He looked like a defeated man laughed at by his enemies. Jesus looked like a criminal who was being put to death. Yet the penitent thief believed that he was the Messiah, the Savior, the King. The thief did not believe what his eyes and human reason told him. He believed and clung to the word of God alone. He believed in the prophecies of the Old Testament, which said that the Messiah would suffer (Isa 53; Ps 22). He believed that Jesus was the Son of God when he heard him speak the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And then comes the prayer of faith. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man whispers. This is how faith prays. The thief asks for nothing but to be remembered by Jesus. He doesn’t ask to be saved from the cross, spared his suffering. He asks Jesus, “Remember me.” “Remember” does not simply mean “think about me again”. Instead, it is a cry for mercy. “O heavenly King, do not exclude me because of my sins and crimes!”
Because he believed, he prayed, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He did not know precisely when. But he knew that there would come a time when Jesus would not be the hidden, suffering King that he now saw. At that time, the criminal knew that all men would see that Jesus was the King of the whole universe. The thief wanted Jesus mercifully to remember him on that day, the day of judgment.
And from the lips of dying Jesus, the repentant criminal heard these words that promised the man something much more significant: “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise is not necessarily our final resting place. Paradise is the place of rest and refreshment before the gift of new life in the resurrection.
The guilty one is pardoned before God and justified for Jesus’ sake. Though the world has found him guilty and sentenced him to die for his deeds, and justly so, the Son of God has declared him righteous, fit for life in Paradise. Though he dies for his crimes, he is pardoned for his sins by the Sinless One. The man dying next to him has promised him eternal life. His death sentence becomes a life sentence, thanks to Jesus.
The truth is we are all robbers who deserve death for our sins. We are all liars, murderers, thieves, power-mongers, abusers, and adulterers, every one of us. There is no distinction. All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God, and the Law of God condemns all. We try to excuse ourselves, saying we are not that bad. We try to make up for our sins by our good deeds. But the wages of sin is death. We deserve it. We all do. No one escapes it either since we all must face death one day.
Jesus didn’t say anything to the other thief. Jesus said that every blasphemy uttered against Him would be forgiven. Jesus prayed for those who mocked Him, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” Did this prayer also extend to the thief who mocked Him? Did His blood and His death atone for that one too? Yes, of course. And yet Jesus’ silence over the other thief offers no comfort. He stands condemned by his own words. The same goes for us if we refuse to repent. The gifts of salvation will not reassure us on our last day if we reject them. How can Jesus remember you in His Kingdom if you refuse His Baptism, His word, His Body and Blood, and refuse to live a Christian life?
Follow the example of the penitent thief. Turn to the cross—to the suffering of Jesus for us—and the weight of your sins is lifted. We have a Crucified King. We have a King who forgives sinners. We have a King who Promises eternal life to the repentant. So, let us repent while there is time. If we repent like the penitent thief, we have the promise that Paradise is ours! Where Jesus is, that’s where you can find the Kingdom. Where Jesus is, that’s where you can find your King. Christ is our King, and he will be our King forever. Never cease turning to your King and praying: “Jesus, remember me.” Hear and hold His promise: “You will be with me in paradise.” Then you too will be able to die with Your King in peace, whispering: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And you will enjoy a blessed rest until the day of resurrection, the Final Easter dawns, the Easter day that will have no end.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.