THE THIEF SAVED ON THE CROSS; Near the Cross (4)

 



Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom…Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:42-43)


The hill we call Calvary was also known by the Jews as Golgotha which meant the place of the skull; a suitably grotesque name for the gruesome place where public executions were performed.  


Being just outside the city wall near one of the gates of the old city, Golgotha was in close proximity to a main route. The Romans had a purpose in this barbaric and savage madness.  They executed their victims with extreme cruelty with maximum visibility as a warning; to reinforce Roman rule.  


The prophet Jeremiah many centuries earlier sat nearby lamenting for the Holy City which had been destroyed by the crushing force of Nebuchadnezzar.  As the travellers looked across at the ruins of what had once been a glorious place the weeping prophet wailed “Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by”.  On the sad day that Jesus died the travellers stopped to look and gaze upon three crosses standing side by side carrying three condemned men, with the centre cross occupied by the Saviour of the World.  They looked on oblivious to the greatness of the transaction that was occurring before their ignorant eyes.


There were three crosses occupying Golgotha on that tragic day.  On either side of the perfectly lovely Lord Jesus hung two thieves.  These men were consumed with the madness of their agony.  As the crowd gathered hurling their obscenities at Jesus these thieves cast the same in His teeth according to Matthew’s record.


But one of the thieves saw something or heard something in Jesus which transformed him completely as he hung dying, consumed with terrible pain.  He had looked into Jesus’ eyes as they struggled to carry those heavy timbers up to the brow of Golgotha.  He saw nothing contemptible in this man.  He saw a very different man from the man that he was.  As he cursed and screamed as the nails were driven the man occupying the centre cross was silent, serenely dignified.  Becoming convinced of the righteousness of Jesus the dying thief summoned up enough energy to shout out to his partner in crime:


Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.


What changed his mind?  Whatever this thief saw that was righteous and innocent he ultimately saw love glowing and shining through the persona of the dying Lamb of God.  


It was this love that caused this man, in the dying embers of a misspent life, to cry out, turning his neck painfully towards Jesus:


Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.


He now believed in the afterlife…that there was a kingdom to be gained beyond death, that Jesus was a King presiding over a Kingdom with the power to forgive and give hope to an old dying thief.


This man had learned more in those hours hanging beside the cross of Christ than the Priests and the Pharisees had learned after years of study.  He certainly understood more than the passing throng who watched without heart on that momentous day.  


This is the place to which we must come.  This understanding is essential learning for humanity.  Beyond death there is eternity and the prospect of entering into Christ’s Kingdom.  But to receive that Kingdom there must be the acknowledgment of our guilt and our need forgiveness.  The prayer of the dying thief is a good prayer:


Lord, remember me


The response was a promise of paradise.  This paradise would be instant, on that very day.  Death would herald a bright new future; paradise or as St Paul would later describe it -“with Christ which is far better.”


At Golgotha there was a distinct burning smell.  Just beyond the walls of Jerusalem was the Valley of Hinnom known as Gehenna.  Since the days of King Josiah this had been the public rubbish tip.  All of the waste was disposed in this foul place, where the fire never went out.  The smoke was continually rising, the smell of burning; a burning which included not only human waste but the carcasses of animals and the bodies of people, the criminals, the outcasts whom no-one cared for.  The Lord would use Gehenna as a vivid illustration of the torments of hell and the fire which would never be quenched.


It is almost certain that when the body of Jesus was lovingly and tenderly claimed by Joseph of Arimathea, the bodies of these thieves were taken down and thrown into nearby Gehenna.  By that time one man had already opened his eyes in Hell, like the rich man in the story related by Jesus.  The other thief, however, was in paradise.  The awful burning end that his body received bore absolutely no relation to the paradise of glory that he continues to enjoy.


Everything about the cross is awful beyond words.  Crucifixion represents the worst of humanity.  Therefore the cross signifies the curse…the ultimate representation of a cruel and broken world.


For the thief who repented, however, this place of pain and cruelty was transformed into a place of hope…the very gate of heaven for his soul.


It was for this very reason that the Apostle Paul gloried in the cross and preached Christ crucified to a baffled world which recoiled in fear before this symbol of cruelty.  The grace of God transformed the cross from a place of the curse to a place of blessing.  


It was on that that hill two thousand years ago Jesus Christ took our curse, our pain and our suffering.  While the bodies of the thieves would be cast into Gehenna His soul felt a greater fire during the three hours of mysterious and dreadful darkness…the burning wrath of God for the guilt of our sin that we like the thief might be liberated.  He was made a curse for us because He took our place upon that cross.


Therefore from the cross comes the same promise, a promise purchased by blood for all who look by faith towards the Lamb of God, a promise received by all who repent:


thou shalt be with me in paradise

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