The Thief on the Cross

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” – Luke 23:42

I was a criminal. I deserved nothing but death. I can’t share with you the crimes I committed. The good doctor, Luke, decided not put them on the pages of Scripture for the world to see. That is if he even knew what my crimes were. If he did, it would likely be so deplorable that written words would not be able to capture the evil that I had done.

My crimes were so awful that I was dying on a Roman cross. Romans don’t hang just any criminal on a cross. They reserve the cross for the scum of the earth. For those who whose crimes are so heinous, it would have been better off if they had never been born. The public humiliation of the cross is nearly as agonizing as the physical brutality. Everyone is able to walk by and look at us hanging there, fully exposed, bleeding out from our hands and feet, as we struggle to push off from the nails to gain any last breath we can. They can yell whatever they want us. They can mock. They can spit. It is highest spectacle of undignified embarrassment. And there is nothing we can do to stop it. My shame is seen for all to see.  Yet, I deserved it all.

There were three of us that day. We were led up to the place called “The Skull” to die before the crowd. They drove the nails right through our hands and feet, a pain I am unable describe. I remember the splintering of the wood in my back as the cross was placed in the ground. Every bit of excruciating pain that was jolting through body I knew I deserved.

There was one of us though, the one crucified in the middle, the one they called Jesus; he had a crown of thorns that had been jammed on his head. He was already covered in so much blood before he was even placed on the cross. Blood was pouring from his head and all the open gashes all over his body. It looked as though he should already have been dead.

Everyone was yelling at him. The Roman soldiers were mocking him. Three of us are hanging there, but the crowd is fixated on Jesus. They cried, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” And others said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” But Jesus never reviled them in return. He just hung there being killed like an innocent, silent lamb.

There was something different about this man. He didn’t look like criminal, but was dying like one. In the moment of being mocked, he prayed for those who were mocking him. He prayed for his mockers! I will never forget it. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Who was this man that he would pray for the forgiveness of those mocking and killing him?

The criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus was not struck with the same kind of wonder at Jesus that had struck me. He joined in the mocking. He yelled, “Save yourself and us!”  I was so overcome at the injustice of criminal’s comment that I had say something. I could barely breathe, but I had to use whatever breath I had left to rebuke him. I said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same condemnation? We are suffering justly. We are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

I knew Jesus was innocent. I was certain of it. I was in awe of this bleeding lamb next to me. In this moment of grace, hanging next to Jesus, my blind eyes were opened and my cold criminal heart was softened and I believed that Jesus was truly the Christ, the Son of God.

I felt it swell in my heart; I began to love this man who was dying next to me. I wanted to know him. I wanted to be by his side forever. All I knew to do in the moment was use my final breaths to express my heart of faith and give him a simple request. I said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I didn’t have a clue how Jesus would respond to such a statement from a criminal like me. He could have said, “It’s too late for you. You have sinned too much. Your crime is too gross. Your heart has been too wicked.” But that is not at all what he said. With all the tender love and grace of God in his eyes, he responded, “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ words set me free. I was totally forgiven! I knew I was. I believed Jesus when he said those words to me. He is exactly who he said he was.  I felt the weight from a life of sin lifted off my back. The eternal condemnation I deserved was no longer what I was going to receive. Instead, I was given saving grace. Through the agonizing pain of the cross I was filled with I hung there at Jesus’ side, I knew that I would get to stay by his side forever.

With his final breath, Jesus said, “It is finished.”  Then he died. When Jesus died next to me, he was also dying for me. Even though I was physically being crucified for my life of crime on earth; my new friend, Jesus, was being crucified for my eternal crimes against a holy God. I hung with Jesus in his final hour and watched him shed his own blood for me. And the first thing I remember after hanging on the cross next to my Savior was standing right next to him, radiating with joy in everlasting glory! I can tell you this story today, because I am still alive with Jesus as we speak.

What I learned about Jesus that day is that no one is too sinful for Jesus to save. Jesus came to seek and save the lost.  He came to save people just like me. People who spend their whole life in rebellion can be saved by his grace in the final moments of life. I watched him shed his precious blood for sinners. He bore the wrath of God for his own. There is no crime too great for the cross of Christ. The blood of Jesus was shed for all who will believe on him. Look to Jesus. See him as your Savior. Love him and embrace him. And you will live by his side in paradise forever.  

Passages for reference: Luke 23:32-43; 19:10; John 19:30; Matt 27:27-44; Rom 5:8-11; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:21-24

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