What’s the worst day of your life? I’ll bet it doesn’t compare with hanging on a Roman cross. Countless criminals and political opponents ended their lives that way.
One innocent man died there and rose again. But he didn’t die alone. The Romans crucified two more convicts on that day.
Centuries of tradition identify them as two thieves. The Bible doesn’t record their crime. It does record their interactions with Jesus, the man in the middle.
They each responded to him in one of the only two possible ways. One was offended by him and turned away. The other turned to him in prayer. Therefore, they hold up a mirror to us. How do we respond to Jesus on our worst days?
The first criminal
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39, NIV)
This man acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah with no hedging or equivocation. He was a believer! Christians dare not condemn him without recognizing the temptation to act exactly the same way. His Messiah wasn’t doing what he thought the Messiah should do. He took offense.
The first criminal was hardly the first believer to be disappointed in Jesus and take offense.
Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, but when Jesus said that he must suffer rejection and be put to death, Peter took him aside and rebuked him. He, along with everyone else, expected a Messiah who would shake off the Roman yoke, restore the kingdom, and sit on David’s throne. What, he wondered, does rejection and death have to do with that?
In John 6:66, many stopped following Jesus after he called himself the bread that came down from heaven. More than that, he had told them that they had no life in themselves unless they ate his body and drank his blood. These same former followers accosted Jesus in Jerusalem and opposed him there. They ended up wanting to stone him.
But the first criminal thought Jesus should not only save himself, but also the two criminals dying with him. A proper Messiah ought to rescue his people, after all. So he thought the man who was dying to save the world from sin was doing nothing useful. The first criminal died on his cross. That was the end of his, as far as God has revealed anything to us.
Let us repent of all the times we have taken offense at our Lord in our suffering.
The second criminal
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:40-43)
Probably the second criminal was also a believer. I read another opinion somewhere, though. The author proposed that this man may have only wanted to show kindness to a harmless nut case who thought he was king. In any case, showing kindness in the midst of his own suffering brought great reward.
He also accepted responsibility for his own crimes. That requires humility, which the other man lacked. If the second criminal indeed recognized Jesus as Messiah, he turned to him in prayer. He asked for grace. The worst day of his life became a path to a greater victory than he could have imagined.
He died on his cross. Jesus didn’t reverse his circumstances. But his death didn’t end his story. He went on to redemption. He is a better role model than the first criminal.
Under Mosaic law, if someone became so poor that they had to sell property, a close relative was supposed to redeem it, that is, pay off the buyer and return it to the seller.
If someone suffered a violent death, a close relative was supposed to avenge him. The Hebrew word was the same in both cases. In the book of Ruth, Boaz served as a kinsman redeemer. In the New Testament, Jesus is the kinsman redeemer.
A redeemer, therefore, helps out a relative who can’t help himself for some reason. It is the picture of what Jesus did for us. Isaiah describes it this way:
“I have trodden the winepress alone;
from the nations no one was with me.
I trampled them in my anger
and trod them down in my wrath;
their blood spattered my garments,
and I stained all my clothing.
It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.” (Isaiah 63:3-5)
In Jesus’ second coming, he will shed the blood of his opponents. In his first coming, he shed his own. No one could help him in his first coming. No one can help him in his second. He alone is Redeemer. And notice that the passage speaks of a day of vengeance and a year of redemption. That speaks volumes about their relative importance in God’s eyes.
God could have ordained that Jesus would die alone. Instead, he ordained that Jesus would die with two others. It gave him one last chance in his earthly body to minister to others. Both criminals had the same opportunity. One accepted it.
Thoughts on the imitation of the Redeemer
Anyone who turns to Jesus for redemption can, in turn, do redemptive works for others.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
On the worst day of his life, Jesus didn’t consider his own circumstances. He didn’t think of how unfairly he had been treated. Instead, he joyfully accepted the opportunity his companions gave him. He ministered to their suffering.
We can’t do his work, but we can do works like his even in the midst of our own suffering. It requires three things of us.
First, Jesus was present. His own suffering didn’t cause him to withdraw from others. We probably can’t fix another person’s problems, but we can be present and listen sympathetically to what they want to tell us.
Second, Jesus was compassionate. That is, he recognized the suffering of others and wanted to help alleviate it. Jesus made a promise to the second criminal. Imagine how much easier that man’s death must have been as he focused attention on the promise.
Third, Jesus didn’t just mouth clichés about going to a better place. He said the man would be with him in paradise. We can’t make any similar promises based on our own abilities, but we can invite others to consider Jesus.
To imitate Jesus in that way means that we must first respond to our own circumstances like the second criminal, not like the first.
Related post: Counting winners and losers on Good Friday–and Easter
Crucifixion (Grünewald) Some rights reserved by Cea.
Crucifixion (Tübigen) Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Crucifixion (Tissot) Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Runner receiving encouragement. Pingswept. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons