The wood felt rough upon his back. The beam had not been crafted for comfort. It’s purpose was grisly, to slowly cause his life to ebb away through much suffering. One thing was certain now, death would start closing in upon him. He was about to meet God.
Suddenly from another cross, a second criminal began to hurl out insults at the one being crucified between them. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
According to Luke’s account of the Gospel, one thief rebuked the other criminal for accosting Jesus in that manner. Then he proceeded to ask Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus’ response has been immortalized, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” In response to a dying thief’s request, grace poured forth as Jesus granted salvation to this guilt-ridden individual condemned even by society’s standards.
What lesson are the readers of the Gospel of Luke supposed to draw from the thief on the cross?
Clearly, this story fits into one of Luke’s themes. Whether it be the paralyzed man let down through the roof, the sinful woman who anointed his feet, Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus at his house or the criminal on the cross, the wonderful message we all need to hear breaks forth throughout this Gospel. Not only has Jesus come to seek the lost, he has the authority to save them by forgiving their sins.
Were these stories ever intended to function as models informing the reader about the manner Jesus will save today?
While the Gospel of Luke establishes the fact that Jesus can forgive sins, it closes with Jesus’ proclamation that beginning at Jerusalem, repentance and forgiveness in his name would be preached to all nations. A new era would soon dawn based upon Jesus. His death and resurrection made possible a new and wonderful message for all peoples.
Starting in Jerusalem, Jesus was proclaimed as the crucified, risen and exalted Lord and Messiah. All peoples, even those who are a far off, are to rely upon him for salvation by repenting and being baptized. If there is a valid exception to this message about how people are supposed to respond to the risen Lord, it would need to have occurred after the good news about Jesus began to ring out from Jerusalem. There are none.
Would it not be a distortion of Luke’s message to argue that a person can be saved today on account of his friends’ faith because of the story of paralytic? Similarly, would it not be a misapplication of the text to argue that the criminal on the cross proves that someone does not need to conform to the message which was later inaugurated and given to even those who are a far off? None of the events where Jesus demonstrated his authority to forgive sins should be understood as nullifying some aspect of the gospel message which was later announced.
The story of the thief who was saved carries a wonderful and powerful message for us about Jesus and his authority. But for us to understand how to come to Jesus to be saved, we have to hear the whole proclamation. “When they believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized” (Acts 8:12).
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