Jesus was not received well by the Israelites of his day. Instead of listening to him and understanding his message of love, he was rejected. He was finally arrested and given show trials in which he stood no legitimate chance of acquittal. He was sentenced to death, execution using the Romans’ cruelest method, Crucifixion. He was nailed to a wooden cross that was then raised in a public place.
We often note the great pain that Jesus suffered, and it was indeed intense. But his humiliation was also devastating. Understand how crucifixion worked:
- He had already been beaten severely, with his body bleeding from head to toe. He was dirty, bloody, and bruised.
- He was stripped of his clothes and left naked or nearly so.
- His cross was not a towering affair, 10 feet above the crowd, as is sometimes portrayed. The Romans liked to keep their crucifixion victims down at street level. This way the helpless crucified person was low enough to have people spit in his face, to poke him, even to slug him. What’s the harm? Afraid you might hurt him?
- His beloved mother was there, and Jesus knew she had to watch all of this, and that must have been the most humiliating thing of all.
A further insult was given in the crucifixion companions of Jesus. Remember that Governor Pilate had offered to free Jesus, but the crowds had instead chosen a notorious murdering highway robber, Barabbas, to be freed. Jesus had been rejected in favor of a murderer! Consider also the two men who were crucified with Jesus. Luke uses the same term for them that John uses for Barabbas, lestes which is more than a common thief. A lestes is not the non-violent thief who operates by stealth and cunning. It is not the thief who steals your stuff while you are not at home. A lestes is the mugger, the person who confronts you directly and threatens you with violence in order to rob you. A good translation is “bandit,” but there is nothing romantic or Robin-Hood-ish or Pancho-Villa-ish, about it. These were violent thugs. These are the ones whom Jesus has for his final companions. It could not get much lower than that. He is being executed with the worst of the worst.
But is did get lower. One of these robbers, hanging on a cross next to Jesus, is so vile and bitter that he begins to make fun of Jesus: “Come on Dude, Yeshua, aren’t you supposed to be the Messiah? Aren’t you the all-powerful miracle worker? Aren’t you the toast of the town, the most popular man in Jerusalem? Work a little magic here, my friend. Get us down off these crosses and help us escape. What? Why? Can’t you do it? What’s wrong, ya big phony!”
And in this farce, this tragic circus of events, Jesus has a most unlikely defender: the other thief, the guy on his other side. This second thief says: “Shut up stupid. Have you no shame? Don’t you fear God? You should, because we are going to meet him in a few hours. We both deserve to be on these crosses, but this man, he did nothing wrong. He is innocent. He is holy. I’ve heard great things about him. So shut your mouth. I wish I could get off this cross and shut it for you.”
And then he turns and says to Jesus: “Sir, when this is all over, remember me. When you receive the power that God has promised you, remember me.”
And Jesus, even in his pain and his humiliation, even under great stress and untold agony, hears what this thief says, and recognizes the voice, for it is the voice of faith. It is, perhaps, the most remarkable expression of faith Jesus has ever heard, a dying man telling another dying man who is nailed to a wooden cross that he believes in him. So, in the midst of this great ugliness, Jesus says something beautiful: “Brother, trust me. Later today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is the third word of Jesus from the cross.
“Paradise” is a metaphor for something greater. The word is actually from the ancient Persian language and was used for a splendid garden that might be part of the residence of a rich man. The Bible’s idea of Paradise, though, is like nothing on Earth. It is not a place whose location has been lost, a mythical but real location somewhere in a hidden corner of the world. Paradise is a rich metaphor for Heaven, the abode of God, the place of perfect fellowship and joy. In the book of Revelation, the Risen Christ has this to say to the church at Ephesus:
To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the Paradise of God.
Paradise, we learn, is a place for those who conquer, the spiritual victors. Paradise is a place for the faithful, for those who have placed their trust in Christ, just like this thief on the cross.
Our remaining time on earth may be long or short, we don’t know. We read every day of the death of someone who did not expect to die. For any of us, that day may be today or tomorrow. What do you want to hear Jesus say on that fateful day, on your last day? I know what I want to hear. I want to hear my Savior say, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
O Jesus, dear Lamb of God, you hung on a cross for our sins. May we have the faith of that humble thief as we ask, “Remember us, Lord. Remember us we pray.” Give us this assurance of salvation that you gave that wretched man when you promised, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” We ask these things in your holy name, AMEN.
Nebraska Christian College