Between Two Thieves
I'm going to do a series on some of the seven sayings of Jesus as he die on the cross. This is the first one from Like 23:43
"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
This saying of Jesus carries with it extreme significance. This post will look at this utterance of salvation from the savior and examine its meaning by, focusing not just on these words but stepping back to see the larger context that they are spoken in.
We will back up to the beginning of Luke chapter 23, highlighting some very relevant yet striking irony, and in doing so we will make our way back to the cross where these words of Jesus will hopefully carry more meaning. The first two points I will make come more from the verses leading up to 23:43 they will function more as context and the third will focus directly on those words. We are going to make three observations about salvation.
1. Salvation Misunderstood (32-39)
2. Salvation Understood (40-42)
3. Salvation Granted (43)
Background context 23:1-31
For time’s sake I will not highlight every aspect of this chapter, but I will reference a few things that I believe will be relevant to Jesus' words.
1Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2And they began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king." 3And Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" And he answered him, "You have said so." 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, "I find no guilt in this man." 5But they were urgent, saying, "He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place."
It is important to notice the way the stage is being set here for the scene at the cross. God is allowing us to see the divine reality of penal substitution. The Trinitarian covenant for the souls of many must be sealed by the blood of the innocent Son of God. For no guilty man can ever take the guilt away from another guilty man. A bankrupt man cannot pay the debt for someone else for he himself is in the same state of ineligibility.
Only the one who has never sinned against God can stand before God and receive from God the wrath of God and Luke is making sure that before we get to that moment when both the love and wrath of God converge, we must be confident that the substitutionary atonement is in fact worthy of substitution.
Luke shows us in graphic repetition the validity of one such atonement by recording for us the response of a very influential gentile named Pontius Pilate. He is a governor in this province and has major jurisdiction over the Jews evidenced by their going to him. Here is a man who spends part of his time observing and condemning men to die on a crucifixion. He makes the first startling claim on the worthiness of Jesus being an appropriate substitute able to withstand the wrath of God found in verse 4 and he doesn’t even know it. Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, "I find no guilt in this man."
Notice the irony here. Jews reading this account of Jesus would not have missed the reality that the man proclaiming Jesus’ innocence is himself guilty as charged before God. what is wild here is Pilate gives validity to the Son’s impending judgment on the cross. Whoever would take the full wrath of God on someone else’s behalf must not deserve it and Pilate is making clear that Jesus has no guilt in him that is worthy of such punishment. This is huge!
And yet it wouldn’t be enough for Luke to leave it at one declaration of innocence as he records yet another bold claim for Jesus’ innocence. Pilate sends Jesus to one of his own, Herod a Jew, the king who beheaded his cousin John the Baptist. Here is his take on Jesus.
13Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.
Herod could find no fault in Him either. Though the chief priests hurl vehement/intense accusations at the savior, not one would be attributed to Him. No sin could be credited to him because it was not the appointed time for Jesus to be seen as guilty of sin. Nor was it by the authority of these men that the pronouncement of sin could be given. For that authority belonged to God and God alone. For the time being he must remain a man of no sin until it was time to be the man of sin (2Corinthians 5:21) Up to this moment his innocence must be clearly displayed so that our guilt could be clearly received.
18But they all cried out together, "Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas"— 19a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21but they kept shouting, "Crucify, crucify him!" 22A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him." 23But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.
So it begins. After Pilate again for the third time highlights that there is no evil that Jesus has done deserving death, we see recorded for us the first literal act of substitutionary atonement found in verse 25. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.
Can you see the atonement from where you sit? Do you see the guilty for the innocent. The writer of this gospel wants us to see this tragedy. In verse 19 and 25 he highlights the crimes of Barabbas as both insurrectionist (violent rebeller) and murderer. Set free. I wonder what he must’ve been thinking. This probably wasn’t how he thought things would end up upon being imprisoned.
It has begun. The object of the penal substitution has arrived and it is now the appointed time for Jesus who knew no sin to be identified with sin. Barabbas a vicious murderer walks free and Jesus the Lord of Glory, whom is responsible for the creation of all things including the men accusing him, is taken in his place to receive the punishment that Barabbas and we deserve. This inaugural exchange is meant to visibly illustrate the exchange that we do not see. Punishment removed from the guilty to punishment of the innocent. Salvation is at hand and is at first misunderstood.
1. Salvation Misunderstood (35)
What is revealed in these 7 verses is a clear misunderstanding of salvation. On three different levels we see insults hurled at Jesus meant to antagonize him but clearly display a severe ignorance of the actual possibility of their request.
We see in verse 35 that rulers were the first recorded to reveal the reality that salvation by them is sorely misunderstood. 35And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!"
The rulers were the religious leaders of the day. Among them would’ve been men from the Sanhedrin, the high court of Godliness and piety. These were supposed to be dignified religious folks. These were men who supposedly knew the Word of God and should’ve been connecting the dots as to what was going on. These were men who should’ve had a proper view of salvation and yet ironically, they are the ones, humanly speaking, responsible for the means of proper salvation by their constant pursuit that Jesus should die by way of crucifixion.
These men did not understand God’s plan of redemption. Some historians and scholars inform us that they may have been expecting a political-military king like David. For the Christ was to come through the Davidic lineage. This may be why they preferred Barabbas. He fought and would even kill for the Jews.
The charge they rose against Jesus to Pilate was that he was saying he is the Christ, the Son of God, one equal with God. Surely if he was the Christ, he should be able to get down from a mere cross like this. They insult him. But their insult will return upon them. For had they understood salvation theologically they would’ve known that God’s chosen one was never meant to save himself. The Christ as described in the prophets of the OT was one who was to suffer. Isaiah 53 we shows us the requirements of the divine covenant between the Father and the son. He was to redeem his people not himself. Their insults revealed their lack of understanding as it pertained to salvation.
36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" 38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
These were gentile men who had no care at all for who Jesus did or didn’t claim to be. Their insults were mockery not in defiance of Jesus’ claim but in joyful unbelief. These men had crucified many men and had never seen one “save himself.” Their insults carried no confidence in that reality that he may save himself. In fact they offer him wine as a way of numbing the pain, intending to prolong the physical suffering. Not only did they not understand salvation but they also had no desire to understand salvation. Crucifying men was all in a days work to them.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
What’s clear here is that again this thief does not have an accurate theological understanding of salvation. Look at the selfish arrogance in his insult to the savior. Here is a man getting the penalty for what he deserves for his sin and his insulting selfish request to Jesus is this “get me down from here if you’re really the Christ!”
This man has no sense of justice. He has no concept of theological salvation. For if he had he would’ve known that true salvation can only come at the expense of judgment. Penal justice must be present if salvation is to be granted. Sin must be penalized and apart from that there is no way for biblical salvation to take place. If it were even possible for this circumstantial salvation that he was hoping for, what would’ve been his hope the moment he died passing from the temporal to the eternal? This man’s salvation was cheap. It was hypocritical. It required no justice, no punishment. It was merely an escape from the present circumstances. His view of salvation was simply a removal of the consequences for sin; Specifically the removal of his consequences.
In each case it is clear that salvation was misunderstood. If Jesus had taken their suggestions to free himself, no other salvation would’ve been granted. Who then would be able to stand and withstand God’s Holiness? If their inaccurate, selfish view of salvation were to take place the effects would be redemptive chaos. Salvation is incomplete without justice. And what we see here in this moment at Calvary is in fact the justice of God making way for the salvation from God.
Salvation is no mere change of circumstance. It is not cheap. It comes at costly price. It cost God His life. God himself purchases it in blood.
2. Salvation Understood (40-42)
Verse 27 tells us that a great multitude of people were following Jesus as he makes his way to the cross. Imagine the thousands of people are crammed together witnessing the spectacle of this crucifixion. There were loud shouts of numbers of voices all clamoring for superior attention. One group of people consisting of women are mourning and lamenting. There is a loud outward demonstration of intense inward grief surrounding Jesus as he hangs there on a bloody tree. Rivaled only by the laughter and mockery. This was not a quiet scene. Many voices are raised to potential, all wanting some recognition from Jesus that they are heard. Save yourself, drink this wine; prove you are the king of the Jews. Yet the savior lay there quiet, responding to none of them. None of these voices are in defense of Jesus. He is a criminal, a blasphemer.
All the voices we have recorded here are all in loud mockery challenging, taunting the Lord to save himself. Where are the disciples when their savior lay hanging between two thieves?
Yet in the midst of all this chaos and yelling, crying and screaming there is one voice that speaks and it is this voice that grabs Jesus’ attention. It is not the voice of a mere criminal hanging in agony beside him. The voice that catches the Lord’s attention is the voice of faith. It is the voice of a man who understands salvation. Out of everyone present, the most unlikely man proves to be the most humble.
But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
He begins by rebuking the other thief that is mocking Jesus. But it is the content of his rebuke that is startling. He rebukes the other thief firmly revealing that he has some fear of God. He understands that condemnation is rightly given to those who deserve it and that an understanding of that is an expression of fearing God. He then turns from a just rebuke of his fellow criminal to an accurate critique himself as well. The pronoun changes from you to we.
And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong."
He acknowledges his part in his current fatal circumstances. He places no one at blame except himself. He, unlike the other thief, does not insist on a removal of judgment for sin. He accepts its just reality. It is only when he comes to Jesus that he speaks in a manner of defense. Amidst the volume of numerous scoffers below raising their voices in disgust of Jesus here hangs a criminal raising his voice in defense of Jesus.
After an ironic display of quietly humility triumphing over the loud proclamation of pride, he then turns his attention from addressing his fellow criminal and addresses Jesus directly.
Notice that up to this point the mockers all speak around Jesus or at Jesus. They speak in third person to one another is his presence. Let him save himself, speaking around him. Save yourself yell the soldiers speaking at him. But here we see the thief speaking to him. He calls him by name. The only one who would see Jesus for who he truly is the only one that in this moment would have the savior’s full attention. The Lord is always listens to the voice of faith.
Jesus, he says, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Notice his request. It begins with the request to remember him. He’s not asking for leniency or escape like the other criminal. He’s not speaking as if somehow Jesus owes him something. His request is humble. It is not presumptuous. It is the request of a peasant in the humble position of standing before the king. It’s not asking to sit at the table and feast. It’s asking to be remembered in case there is left over food to spare. He not only identifies with Jesus’ physical suffering. He also identifies Jesus as the one whose innocence displayed as guilt is worthy of a kingdom. We see the difference between a demand, by the first thief, and a request by this thief.
An acknowledgment that Jesus will come into possession of a kingdom is no small matter either. The only kingdom that was associated with reality upon one's death is the kingdom of God. It wasn’t like everyone thought they were inheriting a kingdom. The fact that this criminal would ascribe to Jesus an impending kingdom is further evidence that he seemed to believe that Jesus was in fact who he said he was. That he was not a king but the king. His request isn't general like when you come into a kingdom don’t forget me. It’s specific. It’s when you come into your kingdom that is rightfully yours remember me. What faith. This man understands salvation.
It is this voice of faith that the savior hears and responds to. We see that in our third and final observation of salvation in the response of Jesus as we see salvation granted.
Salvation Granted (43)
Finally we arrive at the climax of this scene at the cross. The weight of all that we have just seen now shifts to the answer of the request of the thief. It shifts toward Jesus.
What do we see in Jesus’ response that we should take note of? First thing is the first word. Truly is spoken before the pronouncement of forgiveness. We know Jesus made it clear that the Father always hears him and he does what he sees the Father doing. We see on many occasions in the life of Jesus that his relationship with the Father is unique in every respect. There is no question that everything Jesus says is true and will come to pass. So it is interesting that Jesus says truly. Its kind of like the triple dog dare in A Christmas Story.
The word truly is unnecessary in that everything Jesus says is guaranteed but by adding the word truly Jesus is giving an even greater level of security and guaranteeing that this thief will indeed receive whatever words follow after. It is an emphasis meant to impart an even greater sense of assurance that whatever is proclaimed by him is going to happen. By adding truly to the statement it is an eternal guarantee that once this thief closes his eyes he will be with Jesus in paradise. It was meant to bring extreme comfort to this thief. It should bring extreme comfort to us.
Truly, I say to you, Today…
Today is not incidental here but very intentional. Notice the immediacy to the granting of salvation when real faith is present. There is no delay here. Jesus doesn’t ambiguously promise some possible potential timeframe for salvation to have an effect on this man’s soul. There is no purgatory here! There is no state of sitting and waiting and wondering what and when this will happen. When a right understanding of salvation is expressed in genuine faith the affects on the soul of that person from God’s perspective is immediate. It is today! When this thief’s suffering has ended he will wait no further but will be will Jesus today!
What comfort that must’ve brought to this thief as he lay in agony fretting over his eternal destination. What comfort that should bring to us as we ponder the after life. If we know nothing of death we know that immediately, that “today” we will be with Christ.
In order to understand the weight of this reality we have to understand a bit about the word paradise. Jesus says today you will be with me in paradise.
Paradise as a word occurs only 4 times in scripture and when it does it’s meant to indicate the place where the spirits or souls of men go immediately after death, which is also the place Christ was going to go once his Spirit separated from his body. Paradise is the place where believers go immediately at death to be with Christ. Paradise is where Jesus awaits all of those who are coming to be with him.
In saying this to this thief he is affirming the reality that, yes he has a kingdom, and that this thief will be there with him today. What a marvelous truth that is proclaimed to comfort those whom have an understanding of salvation like this thief!
Notice the difference from the first words of Christ asking the Father to forgive them for not knowing what they were doing. That was a general petition that the level of the Father’s wrath be weighted by the ignorance of those unaware of the severity of their actions. That was not a request for salvation. This is! They were not repentant before Him. This thief was. They had salvation misunderstood, this thief understood it.
Let’s step back even further from this scene at the cross and really marvel for a second at the grace of God.
The grace of God is so severe that even while facing the severest consequences for sin God will still grant forgiveness and removal of guilt. The last place you would expect to find salvation is the only place to find it; at the cross. Look at the mercy of God the Son and the faithfulness of God the Son extending the hand of favor to a man who by all accounts would have been deemed in the most unworthy of situations to receive it.
God extends to this man forgiveness of sin and yet he can do no acts of repentance and obedience to God. He cannot come down from the cross and now live a life fueled by the guaranteed grace of God in his life. He has no way to show that his faith in God is functional apart from these words. The thief was unable to repent, as we would count repentance. But his words were enough for Jesus to receive his guilt for his sin. His words were marked by faith and repentance as best as his situation could allow for. And God again shows the depth of his mercy and love, thus revealing that it is not what we do that grants us salvation. Its what we believe that grants us salvation.
Children of God, see the immediate reality for our lives today. If God would grant to this thief salvation with this verbal expression of faith, why would he not grant to you the immediate benefit of salvation as you are trying to live out obedience. How we live is a clear indication of what we believe and even though we are still guilt ridden sinners before a holy God with habits that seem to never go away at times, we are also fighting the good fight of faith.
These words are not just for this thief here on the cross. These words are the guardrails of temporary comfort while on this earth. They protect us. They show us the immediate mercy of God and the place where he waits to be with us forever.
They also give us hope as we share this truth with others. We can sometimes judge that people are beyond the reach of God’s mercy and kindness to forgive them but we see that even moments from death or in the midst of severe consequences for one’s actions salvation can be granted. May we continue to have a right view of salvation. No one should think they or others are out of the reach of Gods saving mercy.