Just (Un)Like Us (Sunrise Service) Luke 23:39-43
"Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ’If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ’Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ’Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ’Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’"
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in deathbed conversions. I get asked that question more often than you may think. And I would count myself among those who point to the dying thief on the cross being given the promise of Paradise as a proof of "11th-hour" salvation. But as I came back to this text once again, I began to wonder whether this incident would count as a "deathbed" conversion.
There is one very powerful statement made by this man that stands out above everything else in these few verses: "This man has done nothing wrong." It is a strong witness to the sinless humanity of the Savior, the one who had been obedient to His Father at all points, who knew no sin. Through centuries of theological wrangling over issues just like this, tradition has held without wavering to the truth of this statement. But the question must be asked: how did this man know that?
Of course, it’s entirely possible that this man wasn’t saying anything at all about the sinlessness of Christ. "This man has done nothing wrong" may not be a statement about sin at all, but a statement instead that "this man has not broken a civil law deserving punishment." But look at what else the man says: "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The second statement is more powerful than the first; and the second one seems to define what was meant by the first.
The dying thief understood that this was not the end of Jesus, and that He was to "come into His kingdom" even after the cross. That is a powerful statement of faith! Notice also that the man calls Him "Lord." That probably indicates even more his understanding of just who Jesus was. The objection might be made by someone that the term "lord" was a familiar address of respect, but it is doubtful that this man would have used that term in regard to one who is in the same condition as he is. But notice also the method of expression: "WHEN you come into your kingdom," not IF. This was something this dying man seemed pretty certain about. Perhaps he was among the crowd on the mountain when Jesus had made some pretty outspoken comments about the kingdom.
It comes easily to us to make snap judgments about what sort of man this was. He was, after all, being put to death for his crimes. The common interpretation of "robber" probably falls short--the Jewish historian Josephus translates the same word as "revolutionary."(1) We know nothing about how long this had been a part of the man’s character. The common conception of some of the revolutionaries of the time was that the Messiah, when He came, would be much like them.
That line of thinking seems to be reflected in the words of the first man, who thought that Messiah would not only save the three of them, but would deliver Israel from the Romans. Perhaps the second man had been a follower of Jesus who had been won over by persuasive arguments that these revolutionaries were in the right.
At any rate, whatever the man’s path had been up to this point, it does not seem very likely that his path had taken him one direction, and now turns 180 degrees upon meeting Jesus. It seems much more likely that by an accumulation of witness reports, or perhaps by his own eyewitness experiences, he had come to a faith in Christ which had previously been unacknowledged.
The finality of his situation, coupled with his rejection of his companion’s words, caused him to see his mistake in not yielding to what he knew in his heart, and brought him to the point of making this genuine plea for forgiveness and mercy. It took a dying Savior hanging on a cross beside him to bring his faith to the crisis point that caused him to embrace his belief. It took, for him, the knowledge that we have a Savior who at the core of His humanity is just like us. There is something about a dying Savior that convinces us that He will be with us in the darkest areas we could ever face.
And isn’t that just like Jesus, meeting us right at the point of our deepest need? No matter what the depth, He will follow us even to the gates of hell to try to draw us back to Him. Believe me, I know it’s true. I haven’t made it any secret that God had to chase me for quite some time--but I can tell you that all along the journey He was there. I didn’t always see Him at the time, but in looking back, I can see with 20-20 vision all the places where He was waiting for me, silently drawing me back.
Robert Browning wrote many years ago, "A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?"(2) That’s what I see in the heart of Christ--one who always reaches beyond the grasp of what He has in hand. We see that as a good thing for us--yet we do so not because we see in it something that is so much LIKE us, but because it is so UNLIKE us.
Jesus did not come to be like us just so we could rejoice at His willing humility and obedience; He did it so we would see the contrast between the ways He is LIKE us and the ways He is UNLIKE us--and give us something to reach for.
When we fully explore the mysteries of the Incarnation of one who was truly God and truly human, we ultimately discover His necessity to be both. In His willing identification with all the frailties of being human, we find our true identity. The Incarnation speaks to us of one who, though God, identifies with humanity. And the resurrection speaks to us of people who, though human, are identified with deity. Because of His humanity, His resurrection is the pledge of our own.
Go back to the cemetery, to the empty tomb. Take another look at the one who was so LIKE us in His humanity and in His dying. Take another look at the one who gives us identity by identifying with us. Take another look at the one who is so UNLIKE us in His rising again--and be thankful.