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The Death of the Cross Duncan Heaster  
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1-1-10 " Today you will be with me in Paradise"


37 The thieves (and Barabbas) would have been tried along with Jesus; they would have been present at His trial. Roman law required that the death penalty be executed the same day as it was given. The crucifixion being quite early in the day, it seems almost certain that the four cases to be tried that day would all have been heard in the same room. The behaviour of the Lord must have really given those other three something to reflect on.

An interesting point comes out of the Greek text of Lk. 23:39: " One of the criminals who were suspended reviled him" (Diaglott). Ancient paintings show the thieves tied by cords to the crosses, not nailed as was Christ. Hanging on a tree became an idiom for crucifixion, even if nails were actually used (Dt. 21:23 cp. Gal. 3:13; Acts 5:30; 10:39). If this were so, we see the development of a theme: that the whole ingenuity of man was pitted against the Father and Son. Christ was nailed, not tied; the tomb was sealed and guarded; the legal process was manipulated; the Lord was flogged as well as crucified (see the reconstruction offered above in the 'Background' section).

The Sayings From The Cross (3):

" Today you will be with me in Paradise"

It is all too easy for us to see the thief on the cross as a pawn in the game of the Lord's crucifixion. But there is real New Testament evidence that we are to see in Him our personal representative. Thus Paul challenges us to be " co- crucified" with Christ (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20 cp. 1 Cor. 11:1). To be crucified together with Christ immediately sends the imaginative mind to the thief on the cross- the one who was literally crucified together with Christ. It is doubtful if the Spirit in Paul would speak of 'co- crucifixion' without deliberate reference back to the thief. Our Lord matched the idea of the word " Kingdom" in the thief's plea with the word " paradise" . Occurring only three times in the New Testament, it is hard to resist the conclusion that in Rev. 2:7, our Lord's mind was back in the agonizing conversation with the thief: " To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" . It was to the thief on the cross, some years earlier, that Christ had made the same promise of paradise. It may be significant that Rev. 2:7 was specifically addressed to those who were zealous by nature, hating laxity, yet who had left their first love. The thief may well have been a 'zealot' who had once turned to Christ, but whose real faith had slipped away. But to any who overcome, the same promise of paradise is made.

It has often been pointed out that the brief words of the thief encompass all the basic beliefs of the One Faith. He believed in the sinfulness of man, the supreme righteousness of Christ, salvation by grace, the second coming and judgment seat of Christ, and the Kingdom. Yet not only did he believe those things as abstract principles. As he beheld, at close range, the sufferings of God's peerless son, the reality of those principles really came home to him. Perhaps he was a slave who had committed a relatively petty crime, but as a slave he had to be crucified. All prisoners and most condemned men feel keenly their relative innocence and the unfairness of it all. But with quite some pain he gasped: “...and we indeed justly". He came to deeply understand the basic principles, and appreciate their personal bearing to himself. He knew the basic principles of the true Gospel, but it was his co- crucifixion with Christ that made him grasp hold of them for dear life. Job too went through the same process, thanks to his typical suffering together with Christ: " I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee" (Job 42:5). And us? The thief, not to say Job, represents us. If we are truly co- crucified with Christ, the basic elements of our faith will not be just a dry doctrinal skeleton. The coming of the Kingdom, the doctrine of judgment and the atonement, these will be all we live for! For they were all the thief had to live for, during his hours of co- crucifixion. In passing, this surely means that we will regularly want to remind ourselves of those basic doctrines, e.g. by way of public lectures or re- reading basic preaching material.

It is possible that the thief had a really deep Bible knowledge. “Remember me when thou comest in thy Kingdom" is almost certainly reference to Gen. 40:14, where Joseph desperately and pathetically asks: “But think on me when it shall be well with thee...". Joseph went on to say “ also have I done nothing that they should out me into the dungeon" (Gen. 40:15). This is very much the spirit of “This man hath done nothing amiss...". It could be that when he asks to be remembered for good, he had in mind Abigail's words: that when David returned in glory in his Kingdom, " my Lord, then remember thine handmaid" . This was prefaced by her asking: " Forgive the trespass of thine handmaid...a man is risen to pursue thee, and to seek thy soul: but the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God: and the souls of thine enemies, them shall he sling out" (1 Sam. 25:29-31). And David's response was marvellously similar to that of the Lord to the thief: " Go up in peace to thine house; see, I have hearkened to thy voice, and have accepted thy person" (1 Sam. 25:35). It would seem that the thief saw in David a type of the Lord, and saw in Abigail's words exactly the attitude he fain would have. And the Lord accepted this.

It is recorded in the other Gospels that both the thieves " railed on" Christ, joining in with the crowd to " cast the same in his teeth" (Mt. 27:44). We must see the words of the repentant thief in Lk. 23 against this background. There he was, knowing the truth, having fallen away, now facing his death. In his self- centredness, he grew bitter against the one he knew to be his saviour. Despite the difficulty and pain which speaking whilst crucified involved, he made the effort to lambaste his saviour, as well as he knew how. But as he watched the Lord's silent response, sensing the deep spiritual communion with the Father which was then happening, he experienced a wave of even greater anger and remorse- this time, against himself. 'I could have made it, I could have repented, but now it's too late. I've added insult to injury, I've blasphemed and mocked my only possible saviour, in this my hour of desperate need'. So he fell silent, whilst (we may infer) the other thief kept up his insults and selfish pleas for immediate salvation. And he watched the suffering saviour, literally from the corner of his eye. Remember, the thieves were crucified next to Jesus. Indeed one wonders whether the other thief had also once been a believer when he says “Art not thou the Christ?" (Lk. 23:39 RV).

Such was the holiness, the supreme righteousness of the Lord, that the thought grew within him: 'Perhaps even now, while I've got life, I could ask for forgiveness, and a place in the Kingdom?' We can be sure that he grappled within himself with this thought, before ever presenting it verbally to Jesus. He would have seen the Lord's demeanour under trial, and the beauty and graciousness of His character and essential being must have made a deep impact upon the thief. When he speaks about Jesus having " done nothing amiss" , he is repeating what he had heard hours before (Mk. 14:56); and the Lord's confident words of Mt. 24:64 were still ringing in his ears when he spoke of wanting mercy when this crucified man came again in glory to establish His Kingdom (cp. Lk. 21:42). And yet this perceptive man had just blasphemed Jesus with all the vicious vitriol he knew (" cast the same in his teeth" is the forerunner of 'a kick in the teeth'). It was supreme faith in and appreciation of the love and mercy of Christ which led him to make his request. I see the very fact he could make that request as a wonderful triumph of human faith over the weakness of human flesh when afflicted. That request was born out of a healthy fear of God. Before speaking to Jesus, he rebuked the other thief: " Dost not thou fear God...?" (Lk. 23:40). Appreciating the enormity of his sin, the repentant thief had come to fear God, to imagine the day of judgment and condemnation of sin. We dare to imagine the nervous tone of voice in which he then spoke to Jesus: " Lord, remember me (i.e. for good) when thou comest into thy Kingdom" (Lk. 23:42). He was pleading for acceptance at the day of judgment, provoked to do so by a fear of God's coming judgments. This was surely a spiritual pinnacle. The pain of his own sufferings, coupled with his close observation of the supreme holiness of Christ as he hung on the cross, had led him to appreciate his own sinfulness, and had inspired one of the greatest levels of faith in the mercy of Christ which mankind has reached. And so he received the ultimate assurance: You will be with me, in the Kingdom. The question of where the comma should be placed becomes irrelevant when we imagine how the Lord would have gasped for each word. There would, as it were, have been a comma between each word.

Day by day, we must imagine even for a few moments our Lord's vertical body as it hung there, that perfect mind within it, fighting to maintain that ultimate spirituality which He had achieved. " Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy Kingdom" . Perhaps we could silently pray those words day by day, night by night, for the next while. Perhaps we could unite with other believers in discussing and tackling a failing which we each have: the failure to meditate upon the sufferings of the Lord as much as we ought to. Never a day, a morning, an afternoon, should slip by without a thought for Christ's cross. " Gethsemane, can we forget?" . Yes, Lord, day after mindless, spiritually empty day.

The thief was confident, in faith, that he would be heard. But how he would have hung upon every one of the quiet words which the Lord muttered in response, travelling over the few metres which separated them. " Verily I say unto thee this day: with me shalt thou be in Paradise" (Rotherham). We believe that to have been the emphasis in His words (1). 'Yes, I can really tell you, here and now, you will be in the Kingdom!'. Think of the spiritual ecstasy which would have come over the thief! God had caused him to triumph in Christ! He, the lowest sinner, had entered the highest rank of saints- those who have been directly assured that they will be in the Kingdom. Daniel, the disciples and Paul seem the only others in this category- along with the thief. 

Crucifixion was a slow death. Mercifully, our Lord died abnormally quickly. Remember how Pilate " marvelled that he were already dead" . Normally men lingered in agony for days before death. The thief lived a little longer. He would have seen Christ's death, " the lonely cry, the anguish keen" ; the men taking the body from the cross. We can infer that he was still conscious when the soldiers broke his legs- if he was obviously dead, they would not have bothered. " But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already..." (Jn. 19:33) seems to imply this. The reason for breaking the legs was to stop the criminal having any chance of running away. Surely, amidst the waves of his pulsating pain, he would have marvelled at the way in which Christ was truly the lamb of God, seeing that " not a bone of him (was) broken" . There he was, assured of the mercy of Christ at judgment day, hanging on the cross, in physical agony which it is hard for us to enter into. In some ways, he continues to be a type of us. Whether we are dying of cancer, crippled with arthritis, emotionally trapped in a painful relationship, chained to a demanding job, we too can have every assurance of Christ's mercy. " To him that overcometh" , Christ has promised the paradise of the Kingdom, just as he did to the thief. Brethren and sisters, in the light of this let us truly be inspired to overcome. Effectively, we are waiting to die, however young we may be. Agonies of every kind afflict us. There is just no human escape.

But like the repentant thief, our mind must be full of the vision of our dying saviour, triumphing in His holiness, freely confessing our sin and the justice of God's condemnation of it, thrilling with the certainty of our Hope- of being in the Kingdom with Christ. Not for the repentant thief the increasing bitterness of the other man. As his bitterness grew, so the serenity and hope, and anticipation and joyful expectancy of the Kingdom rapidly increased for our crucified brother. The bitterness and disillusion of the world should not be ours, as the pain rages within and around us. Ours should be the strength and (somehow, amidst it all) peace of Christ's example. And the thief is alluded to later on in the NT as a symbol of us all. The Lord’s promise to him that he would ‘be with him’ is the very language of 2 Cor. 5:8 and 1 Thess. 4:17 about us all.


(1) Always in the OT, “I say unto thee this day" was used as a Hebraism to bring home the utter solemnity of some great truth (e.g. Dt. 4:26,39; 8:19). It's worth noting that the comma is placed after 'today' in  the Curetonian Syriac version of the New Testament; the Syriac versions would reflect better the original Aramaic in which the Lord likely spoke. See B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 181,182.