Today shalt thou be with me
Three men were hanging on wooden crosses "on either side one, and Jesus in the midst" (Jn 19.18). On the centre cross hung the Lord Jesus Christ, who is holy and sinless (Heb 7.26; 1 Jn 3.5). He is the only begotten, eternal, and beloved Son of God. The men on either side of Him were thieves, thus fulfilling the prophecy that He would be "numbered with the transgressors" (Is 53.12; Mk 15.27,28; Lk 23.33). Both the men, like all people who have ever lived on earth, with the exception of the Lord, were sinners (Rom 3.23). Pilate, the governor of Judea, had written a notice which proclaimed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews" (Jn 19.19). It was attached to the cross where the Lord hung in agony, nailed by His hands and His feet. On that day the Lord bore "our sins in his own body on the tree" (1 Pet 2.24). He bore the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 2.2; Jn 1.29), including those of the two thieves who were crucified with Him, and on that day one thief repented, accepted Him as Lord and Saviour and was graciously saved, but the unrepentant thief was lost.
The Lord was surrounded by violence and enmity. The people who were passing by hurled insults at Him, as did the chief priests, scribes, elders, and soldiers. The thieves who were crucified with Him also insulted Him (Mt 27.29-44). They were all enemies of God, as indeed are all people who are not believers (Rom 5.10).
Dost not thou fear God?
The Holy Spirit graciously revealed to one of the thieves that he was a sinner deserving eternal punishment and that the Lord was sinless and willing and able to save him. This thief stopped railing on the Lord and rebuked his companion saying, "Dost not thou fear God?" (Lk 23.40). The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9.10), and is a result of the operation of the grace of God in the heart of a man, for there is no "fear of God" in the natural, unregenerate man (Rom. 3.18). The thief, through the operation of the sovereign grace of God, was aware that "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb 9.27). When the centurion and those who were with him watching the Lord "saw the earthquake, and those things that were done" following the death of the Lord, they "feared greatly" (Mt 27.54). The thiefs fear of God, however, was brought about by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, before the three hours of darkness and other phenomena occurred. He spoke of God, and then addressed the Lord with befitting reverence, showing the change which had taken place in his attitude.
Both thieves were in the same situation. For their crimes, they had been sentenced to the terrible punishment of crucifixion and now they were near to death. By grace, the repentant thief acknowledged that he and his companion had been justly sentenced because of their guilt. He acknowledged that he was a sinner, but then witnessed to the sinlessness of the Lord saying, " but this man hath done nothing amiss" (Lk 23.41). The thief, as he hung in agony on his cross, showed that he was aware that the soul lives on after the death of the body, and that unless he were saved, a holy God would justly punish him eternally for his sins.
Lord remember me
By grace the thief realised that, despite appearances, the One on the centre cross was Divine and had the power to save him (Heb 7.25). He had heard the doubt expressed in the peoples words when they had said, "If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross" (Mt 27.40), and in the words of the other thief when he in turn had said, "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us" (Lk 23.39). The repentant man, however, had no doubt in the deity of the Lord. God gave him the faith to believe and He said to the Saviour, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (Lk 23.42). Both thieves had heard the Lords first utterance on the cross when He said "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23.34), and now one thief turned to Him in faith, believing that He was indeed the Son of God, and asked to be remembered.
To those whose eyes had not been opened by the grace of God, the Saviour looked like a failure, a defeated man. He had no throne, only a cross, and His crown was a crown of thorns. He was shedding His precious blood and was enduring physical and mental agonies. He had been deserted by His disciples (Mt 26.56), and yet the thief called Him "Lord", and spoke of His kingdom. Above the Lord was the superscription "...the King of the Jews" (Jn 19.19). By faith the thief believed that this was so, and that, in the future, He would come into His kingdom and be recognised as "King of kings, and Lord of lords" (Rev 19.16). The thief was enabled by the Holy Spirit to call Him "Lord" (1 Cor 12.3), to believe that the Lord would rise from the dead, and to see beyond the present sufferings to "the glory that should follow" (1 Pet 1.11).
Today shalt thou be with Me
The repentant thief asked only that, at some time in the future, when the Lord had received His kingdom, He would remember him. The Lords reply to the man is yet another example of the wonderful truth that He is "able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Eph 3.20). The Lord, speaking with the absolute authority, power and certainty of Deity, gave the thief complete assurance and peace of mind when He replied, "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Lk 23.43). The Lord had not replied to those who had hurled insults at Him and mocked Him, but He graciously responded immediately to the plea of the repentant criminal who had not asked to be relieved of his suffering, but that the Lord might remember him in the future. The Lord promised him that he would experience eternal blessing which would begin that very day. The thief had no opportunity to do good works, and was not involved in any ordinances or sacraments. One, but only one, of the criminals hanging on those crosses on that momentous day was saved and, when he died, he went immediately to be with his Lord. This shows, clearly and definitely, that there is no such thing as "soul-sleep" or purgatory. The man was saved, as are all believers, by grace through his God-given faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 2.8,9). None of us can contribute anything to our salvation (Tit 3.5).
At the commencement of the day the malefactor must have been looking forward with great fear to the agony of his crucifixion. On the cross, in his suffering, he insulted the Saviour, and then came the change. He repented, confessed his own sinfulness and the sinlessness of the One on the middle cross, prayed to Him calling Him "Lord", and ended the day with his Saviour in paradise.
The Greek word translated "paradise" is a word which has Persian origins and was used to describe a beautiful enclosed garden or park. The word is used to refer to the place to which the Lord and the thief went that day, and is also used later in the New Testament to denote "the third heaven" to which Paul was caught up "and heard unspeakable words" (2 Cor 12.2,4). It is used again in Revelation 2.7 where we read of "the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God". It would have been so good for that thief if the Lord had promised no more than that he would be taken to paradise that day, but the wonderful truth is that the Lord said, "To day shalt thou be with me ". No waiting, but with Him that very day. Such is the anticipation of all believers. Whether we pass through death, or are taken to be with Him when He returns for His saints, we shall be with Him immediately and for ever. When Stephen was near to death he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7.59). Paul spoke of "having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better" (Phil 1.23), and of preferring "to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor 5.8). The Lord said to His disciples, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also" (Jn 14.3). The blessed prospect for those believers who are alive at His Coming is that they will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air and shall "ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4.17).
To be continued.