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The cross is where the sins of mankind confront the grace of God, and our choices determine which one dominates the other.
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Jesus, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? We indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong."
Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.
Luke 23:39-43 NKJV, condensed
Get this! A thief was the first person in the passion story who spoke up boldly on behalf of Jesus! Just another one of the many ironies surrounding the Good Friday events. There were two criminals crucified with Jesus. Both of them were subject to the same punishment, the same cruelty, pain and humiliation. One behaved the way we might expect him to. The other one surprises us.
Thief A followed the crowd of noisy rabble rousers. He echoed their mockery of Jesus. Save yourself and while you're at it, save us too. Show us your stuff. Come down off that cross. And don't forget us!
It would take him awhile to say that. We are told that victims of crucifixion usually die from asphyxiation. That's because the way the body hung on the cross made their lungs fill with fluids. As a result the person could not breathe unless they pulled their chest up in an effort to gasp for air. Soldiers could speed the process of dying if they broke the victim's legs, thereby making it more difficult to heave upward. If we were listening to this scene live from Skull Hill, it would be very difficult, even painful, to endure.
Thief B had even more to say than thief A. After some thoughtful observation, he realized the man dying in the middle was not like any man he had ever known. So he strongly disagreed with the words and attitude of thief A. Something about the agony of the cross reminded him to be in awe of the Almighty. In an open and honest confession, thief B defended Jesus as innocent and identified himself and his partner on the other side of Jesus, as guilty. Finally he was beginning to see the difference between justice and injustice, between good and evil. The evidence was so close, he could not miss it.
Then thief B made the most amazing statement of faith. On the surface, there was nothing regal about Jesus. All three of them were stripped, cursed, and hanging on Roman crosses to die. But for some reason, this thief asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Even though Jesus was slowly dying, this thief could envision a future to which Jesus was headed and he wanted to go there too. Take me with you, Jesus, wherever your kingdom is. Graciously Jesus replied, "Today you will be with me in Paradise."
Paradise is a new word, not found in the Old Testament books. Nor used up to this point in the Gospels. Having no precedence, there is a bit of mystery about its usage. But Jesus indicated he was going to this blessed place, and to the horror of those religious authorities milling around until the end to make sure he died, Jesus was going to take this unworthy criminal with him!
"You will be with me" is such a beautiful phrase. I suspect this man throughout his lifetime knew much more rejection than acceptance. He probably couldn't believe his ears as the words of Jesus took him by the hand and walked him into Paradise. Undeserving as he was!
Consider this! Thief B personified several distinguishing characteristics of God's kingdom. He proved that the kingdom is always at hand. He was contrite and humble, and left all those years of excess baggage outside the door. He exemplified the sinner entering the kingdom before the self-righteous. He obtained the same promise of eternal life as those who followed Jesus all their lives, even though he just squeezed in as the hourglass emptied. Without doing anything to deserve it, he had stumbled upon the treasure of meeting and really seeing Jesus. Like fertile ground he opened himself up to the good seeds of repentance, forgiveness and joy, and allowed them to germinate and grow into a huge tree. And as we read his story, we stop in its shade and eat from its fruit.
Paradise is a middle eastern word signifying an enclosed garden. Like the garden of Eden at the dawn of creation where Adam and Eve walked and talked with God before they succumbed to temptation. After they sinned, they hid and were afraid. The walking and talking ended. But whenever we are willing, God is a God of new beginnings. In that sense, the message of Paradise is one of restoration and reconciliation. It holds the promise and the possibility--for all those who put their faith in king Jesus, you will be with Me today and forever, walking and talking as God intended from the beginning.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: If you could talk to Jesus about the conversation from the cross in this text, what questions would you like to ask Jesus?
Make a list of all the key words in this sentence, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." Elaborate on the meaning of each word on the list.
React to the exchange between Jesus and the two others crucified with him. Do you like this story? Why or why not? Did you want to clap your hands with joy for the second thief? Does the fact that he received full forgiveness offend or upset you in any way? Explain.
We want Jesus to forgive our sins. Those words are part of the Lord's Prayer. But do you also want Jesus to forgive the sins of criminals? Are some people more deserving of a place in heaven than others? If so, what makes one person more worthy of heavenly reward than another?
Is there anybody you do not want to see in heaven? Whatever your answer to this question, how would Jesus respond to-- your answer, your attitude toward that person, and the motivation behind your answer?
The thief went with Jesus to Paradise without ever having received the sacraments of the Christian church or volunteering for any good works. What problems does this pose for Christian theology? Does this story threaten or strengthen basic Christian teaching? At a minimum, what is necessary for salvation? If you could put this passage into one word, what would it be?
In a world full of lies and uncertainties, Jesus told the criminal, "You can be sure of this! . . ." What does your faith in Jesus make you sure of?
Picture this! Entering Paradise with Jesus by your side. Store this thought in your mind; take it into your heart. May it give you strength for daily living and comfort you in death.