As Easter comes near, there is much focus placed on Jesus’ resurrection and the victory it claimed. Today, though, I’d like to focus on the scene of his death. Even these heart-wrenching moments hold heavy, glorious meaning, and I’d love to share some of it with you! Let’s start by reading in the book of Matthew.
Two rebels were crucified with [Jesus], one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. -Matthew 27:38-44
This is the most evil moment in history. The blameless, humble, holy Son of God has been beaten and literally torn apart for hours, then nailed to a cross. Suspended by the iron spikes in his wrists and ankles, he suffers the slowest, most agonizing and humiliating death the Romans could dream up. He is being tortured and crucified at the hands of the very humanity he came to save and the evil he came to destroy.
Insults roar and swarm the air. Jesus’ mockers are relentless and many. Commoners passing by, priests, elders, and both criminals beside Jesus join in. I cannot imagine the humiliation and pain he suffered: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Death rejoices, giddy at the prospect of Jesus’ imminent defeat. A festering crowd of demons lean in, watching the scene with sickly glee. Angels turn their tear-stained faces away, burdened with grief.
The jeers of these demons are about to be stupefied, though. Let’s turn our focus to the thieves dying beside Jesus.
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with [Jesus] to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left . . .
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
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 23:32-33, 39-43
These are quite the guys. They’ve committed crimes deemed worthy of death on a cross, and just moments earlier we saw them “heaping insults” on Jesus. They are criminals, thieves, and outright mockers of Jesus Christ.
However, as one thief’s death and final damnation to Hell inch nearer, everything changes in the breath of just four sentences. By some grace of God or swift perspective-change, this man’s eyes are thrown open to realize humbleness in the presence of God, his own sinfulness, Jesus’ innocence, and Jesus’ power to save his soul.
And in that very moment, Jesus saves him. Although this man has quite a few things going against him, his simple confession of faith saves him instantaneously. His eternity is transformed.
What a picture of pure grace! There is absolutely nothing this criminal could have done to earn his salvation. He was literally nailed to a cross: bleeding, dying, and utterly helpless. Unable to move any limb. Unable to even take a full breath. He hadn’t been baptized. He didn’t build up enough good works to ‘earn’ heaven. He probably hadn’t studied God’s Word or Jesus’ teachings at all. Faith alone saved him.
God’s wisdom alone placed this perfect gospel-portrayal at such a profound moment in history. This thief stands out to me as one of the first people to be saved by Jesus’ death. His story screams of God’s grace for even the most reprehensible sinners!
We miss the true message, though, if we don’t realize that we are just as helpless to save ourselves as this thief. His situation forced him to see himself truthfully, but his is the same story as yours and mine. We are all hopelessly careening towards hell without Jesus’ intervention.
All this man could do was to confess his faith. And that’s all he needed to do. How could there be any pride or smug self-sufficiency left in him? In his most hopeless moment, he humbled himself further and cried for Jesus’ help. I pray that we’d be blessed with this perspective of our salvation.
There’s another profound truth to this story: Even in the dismal territory of Jesus’ death, life staked a victory. I can imagine the sly grins and smacking lips of evil being suddenly sobered as they watch this man’s soul be saved: a man they were surely readying to usher into hell! Jesus' power and victory shuns even death in its greatest moments of euphoria.
Three days later, Jesus would rise from the dead: shattering the power of death, satan, and sin once and for all. On that day, salvation became a free gift to all who believe. The thief’s confession of faith on the cross is now an example of the freely-given love and grace poured out by Jesus.
Have a blessed Easter as you celebrate these wonderful truths!
Find my post from last Easter here: The New Way to God.
Hello! I'm Anna, a college student living in the Midwest. I'm a strong believer in uncontrollable laughter, powerful words, and a morning cup of coffee. I pray these posts will encourage you to live a full life with and for God: unhindered. Look forward to new posts every Monday morning!