By Matthew West
Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom. -Luke 23:42
We never find out where he came from. There are no pages, not even a single paragraph, telling of his younger years or what his family was like. The final chapter of his story is the only one recorded. We never even learn his real name. We know him only as the thief on the cross, one of the two guilty criminals crucified next to the innocent Jesus.
But surely this man must have seen better days. Even the most evil of criminals who commit the vilest offenses start out as defenseless, innocent children who have their whole lives in front of them. No one can pick out a future criminal by looking at baby photos. Maybe this criminal loved to run and play. Maybe he had freckles on his face and a smile that could light up any room. Maybe he always knew how to make his brothers laugh. Perhaps he loved to follow his dad to work or cuddle up next to his mommy before bedtime.
Sure, we know who he became, but we know nothing of how he got there. Did a traumatic experience in his youth send his life spinning out of control? Was he orphaned as a child and forced to fend for himself at a young age? Or did he simply make one bad choice after another, eventually slipping further and further away from the innocence he once knew? He now bore absolutely no resemblance to that freckle-faced kid with a bright future. Three nails and a cross had sealed his fate; he was paying the ultimate price for the crimes he had committed. And those crimes must have been awful because crucifixion was the form of punishment reserved for the worst of criminals. This man hanging next to Jesus was the equivalent of today’s death row inmates waiting to die for what they have done.
I am sure you have heard someone who, after narrowly escaping a potentially dangerous or fearful situation, exclaim, “I just saw my whole life flash before my eyes!” Maybe you’ve said that yourself. It’s a common cliché we hear spoken when someone faces what is felt to be a near-death experience. I wonder if the thief on the cross experienced that. Perhaps in the midst of his excruciatingly painful punishment, his mind wandered back to those days of innocence.
Back to the feel of his mother’s lips on his cheek.
Back to the laughter of his siblings.
Back to the proud embrace of his father after a chore done well.
I imagine that, in his mind, this criminal retraced all that had led up to his first mistake, his first crime, his first taste of guilt and regret. I imagine that, as he hung dying on his cross, he wished more than anything that he could go back and undo all the wrong he had done. I imagine this because of the way he chose to spend his final breaths. Speaking to the other criminal hanging next to him, this man said, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong” (Luke 23:40).
This thief stood up to the other criminal who was hurling insults at Jesus. Quite out of character, don’t you think? This man who had done so much wrong in his life was now finishing the final chapter of his story in a different light. But why? Perhaps, as his whole life flashed before his eyes, he wondered, What happened to me? How did I get here? Where did my innocence go? I know right from wrong. Oh, how I wish I could go back. Perhaps seeing an opportunity to prove that he did indeed know right from wrong, he took up for Jesus and, in doing so, offered a brief glimpse of the innocence that his earlier chapters may have known.
Then he made this request of the Messiah: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Pretty bold, don’t you think? I mean, did this thief actually believe he could skate into heaven at the very last moment? Was it realistic to think this single honorable gesture to defend Jesus could blot out the laundry list of offenses that had landed him on a cross in the first place? Yes. That is exactly what he hoped for—but what he received was so much more.
In Jesus’ presence, the thief on the cross became a different man. His hardened criminal’s heart softened. He took up for Jesus—and then he dared to ask Jesus to take him up. The Scriptures encourage us to “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16). Never had the thief on the cross needed grace more than during his last dying breaths. And Jesus gave it to him: “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
© 2013 by Matthew West
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