Read: Luke 23:32-43
Here we can see salvation reduced to its simplest terms. Stripped down to essentials, this is what it’s all about. It’s about a request and a promise.
The third word from the cross was spoken by Jesus to one of his fellow sufferers, the man we usually call the penitent thief, who died on a cross next to Jesus. It is recorded in Luke’s account of the crucifixion.
When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:33-43, NIV)
The general outline of what happened on Golgotha – “Skull Hill” – is clear from the four gospel accounts. The gospel writers all tell the same basic story of how Jesus came to be arrested, tried, convicted, tortured and executed. They agree about many of the major details of that last terrible day. For example, the four evangelists all mention the sign on Jesus’ cross, written in three different languages and detailing the crime for which Rome had judged him deserving of death: “Jesus of Nazareth,” it read, “the King of the Jews.” The Gospels all describe how the soldiers of the execution detail gambled for Jesus’ clothes, as if to emphasize how deep his humiliation went, how completely he was stripped of everything, down to his last tattered garments. The one who became poor for our sakes became so poor that in the end he didn’t even have clothes to be buried in.
Between Two Thieves
Another point upon which all four Gospels agree is the fact that Jesus was not crucified alone. His cross stood between two others, on which were executed a pair of common criminals. In a way it was one more insult heaped upon Jesus. Had he died by himself alone there would have been at least a sort of lonely dignity, even grandeur, about his death. But the authorities would not even accord that distinction to Jesus. To the powers and rulers of this world Jesus of Nazareth was simply one of a gang of undesirables whose lives were terminated on Golgotha that day. That’s how little they thought of him, or of what they were doing.
Then there is the crowd’s reaction. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus was afforded very little sympathy or respect during the ordeal of his dying. Most of his friends had run away or disappeared; the crowd on Golgotha was overwhelmingly hostile. They heaped ridicule and abuse upon Jesus even as he hung from the cross.
It may seem shocking to our modern sensibilities, but for much of human history public executions were a leading form of popular entertainment. Although, come to think of it, given current tastes in media viewing, perhaps that’s not so surprising after all. At any rate, there was a big crowd on the hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, and they enthusiastically joined in mocking him. Even the soldiers added their bit. “Hail, King of the Jews!” they shouted in mock homage, “come down from the cross and save yourself.” Other self-appointed wits amused the crowd by thinking up clever jibes: “He delivered so many people; too bad he can’t rescue himself!” “Hey, miracle man, why don’t you just come on down from the cross. Then we’ll all believe in you!” Oh, they were very funny. The whole scene was just hilarious. Even one of the criminals who was being crucified next to Jesus decided to join in. “Excuse me, Mr. Messiah, why don’t you shake a leg and save yourself—and us too. Ha, ha!” I’ll bet he never expected to have a laugh that day. Meanwhile Jesus simply bore it all in dignified silence. As one New Testament writer later described it, “For the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
And then, quite unexpectedly, the man on the other cross spoke up. He first rebuked his fellow criminal for his sarcastic taunting of Jesus. We call this man the penitent thief because he also acknowledged the justice of the terrible punishment he and the other criminal were receiving. “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve,” he said, adding then of Jesus, “But this man has done nothing wrong.” The penitent thief not only recognized his own sin but Jesus’ innocence as well.
And then he added an amazing request.
“Jesus, Remember Me!”
Turning to Jesus, he uttered this simple plea: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That humble cry for mercy, brief as it was, exhibited all the qualities of genuine repentance and faith. It was preceded by an acknowledgment of personal responsibility and guilt, together with an awareness of the seriousness of the consequences of sin. “Don’t you fear God?” the penitent thief had asked his mocking accomplice. This man knew that he was answerable ultimately to God himself, and he realized that he would soon be standing before the infinitely Holy One to give an account of his entire life. The repentant criminal knew that his biggest problem was not that he had been caught, or even that he was being made to pay the ultimate penalty for his crimes. His biggest problem was going to come after his crucifixion, when he faced the judgment of a righteous God.
So he did the only thing he could. He asked for mercy. No playing games with God, no attempt to explain or justify himself, no excuses, no assertions of rights or claims of merit, just an appeal: “Jesus, remember me.” By asking to be remembered this man is really asking for Jesus to be gracious, to show favor, to grant mercy. Repentance is not a deal we make with God. It’s not a contractual arrangement – as if to say, “If I decide to repent, then God has to forgive me.” It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t have to do anything. He chooses to offer us forgiveness out of grace by sheer mercy. If we repent and trust in Jesus Christ, that repentance and faith are simply our way of accepting God’s gracious offer.
The criminal’s cry is not only an expression of genuine repentance; it is also an extraordinary confession of faith in Jesus Christ. That such a person at such a time in such circumstances should make such a statement; how amazing is that? This man could not have known much about who Jesus really was. He certainly could have had no inkling of the deepest meaning of what Jesus was doing on the cross at that very moment before the man’s own eyes. But still he asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. What an astonishing request that is! “King of the Jews” read the sign at Jesus’ head, but Jesus certainly didn’t seem like much of a king hanging there on a Roman cross. In fact, the sign itself was part of the joke, Pontius Pilate’s contribution to the overall humor of the day.
What was it that gave that dying man the faith to cry out to a king on a cross, and ask to be remembered in the kingdom of the crucified one? The great theologian John Calvin well described the amazing faith of this thief on the cross when he wrote this about him:
I don’t know if there was ever, from the foundation of the world, a more rare or memorable example of faith . . . this thief . . . suddenly penetrates more deeply than all the Apostles . . . upon whom the Lord himself had spent so much effort . . . he adores Christ as king on the gallows tree, celebrates his reign in the fearful and unspeakable loss, and proclaims Him Author of life in the hour of dying.John Calvin
In the end it is a mystery, the mystery of God’s grace. Two criminals died beside Jesus on Golgotha. Both heard and saw exactly the same things, but one man hardened himself against Christ in mockery while the other turned to him in faith. And who can say why? Except that each of us is in the same situation today, with those same two (and only those two) options before us. We are all hastening toward judgment. As we face Jesus Christ we can either harden our hearts against him or entrust ourselves to him in his mercy. You are responsible for your reaction just as I am for mine.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise”
All of the preceding is the introduction to Jesus’ third word from the cross addressed to that dying thief in response to his plea for mercy. Jesus made him this promise: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). He offers the man salvation, immediately and unconditionally. What Jesus said to the thief was not a prediction or a vague hope. It was a specific promise that coming from anyone else would be preposterous and arrogant. Jesus didn’t say, “Someday I hope we’ll be together in a better place,” but, “This very day you will be with me in heaven!” Although I guess, in one sense, it’s easy to make promises like that. After all you can find religious leaders who will guarantee automatic entry into paradise to anyone who is willing to strap on a bomb and blow up a bus or fly an airplane into an office building. But I personally wouldn’t want to bet my soul on such a guarantee. The issue, you see, is not whether you can make promises about going to heaven but whether you can keep them. From Jesus’ lips the promise rings true. Do you have any doubt whatsoever that he did indeed keep that promise to the dying thief? I don’t.
Here we can see salvation reduced to its simplest terms. Stripped down to essentials, this is what it’s all about. It’s about a request and a promise. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding here what salvation is or how it’s obtained. Salvation means going to heaven to be with Christ when we die. We get there by grace as a gift from the Lord which we receive by simply putting our trust in Christ the crucified Savior. Not by performing good works, not by going to church or taking the sacraments, not by leading a religious life—the dying thief couldn’t do any of those things. He couldn’t even move his arms and legs; they were nailed to a cross. All he could do was look to Christ and ask. But that is enough.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” At the heart of this promise lies the simplest and best definition of heaven that I know: “. . . you will be with me,” Jesus says. Heaven is being with Jesus where he is. This is the Promise behind all promises, the fulfillment of every human wish or hope. And Jesus Christ offers it to anyone who turns to him in sincerity. The only thing that will keep you from receiving this promise is if you refuse to ask him to remember you when he comes into his kingdom.