The picture of Jesus hanging between two thieves is so shocking that on occasion we miss the meaning. Here is represented two possible responses to Jesus.
The one thief mocks Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” This thief lacks faith, and can only sneer—if it is a desperate sneer—as he faces his own painful mortality in this extremity of human suffering. He “railed” at Jesus, shouting at him, badgering him, sneering, and with disdain.
The other thief, however, understands the situation with far more clarity. He rebukes the thief who is railing against Jesus. Does that thief not fear God? They are under just condemnation, but Jesus has done nothing wrong. This thief, then, accepts that he is in the wrong, accepts that he is justly (if cruelly) condemned. What is more, he turns to Jesus with a simple expression of faith, profound in its brevity: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And to this, the second thief, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
What a glorious hope, what mercy and grace. This thief had done nothing to earn his way to heaven. In fact, he was being justly condemned as a thief. He had not stolen less than the other thief, and was not less guilty than the other thief. The only difference between the two was that this thief asked Jesus to save him. He did not rail against Jesus; he believed in Jesus. The thief who is saved is not less guilty than other the thief. They are both alike in that regard. He has not done any deeds to personally atone for his life of crime. He has not gone to church. He has not been baptized. He has not taken communion. There are no works, simply repentance and faith. And in that moment of faith, Jesus then tells him that he is saved—that he will be with him in paradise.
Take comfort, then, you who labor under a sense of guilt. All you need to do be saved is believe. Why? Because Jesus hanging on a cross for the sin of the world is sufficient sacrifice for your sin. Do you think that your sins are so special that the blood Jesus shed for them could not atone? No, his death is enough—and if you believe, you are saved.
Take warning those who sneer at this Jesus. The difference between those who are saved and those who are not saved is not that those who are not saved are less holy, less good, less pure. It is simply the humility to ask Jesus to save you. If you will do that this morning, then he will.
Let us, then, be sure that we offer this gospel of grace. Not to add to the gospel our own rituals or rules as necessary components of salvation. But to offer, on the word of Jesus, paradise to all who believe.
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