The old song asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Each year, as I meditate on the last hours of Jesus’ life I try to envision myself as someone in the story. I first did this when I visited Jean’s father’s house for Easter over ten years ago. I was Pilate. Who do you identify yourselves as, as you picture the final days or hours of Christ’s life?
We often approach the last hours of Jesus as if we hold him in our judgment. We see ourselves as Pilot or Herod, as the crowd, even as his disciples. What is it going to be? Are we going to stand with Jesus or not? Are we going to accept his claims or not. Are we going to rule in his favor or not. One preacher once said, the most important question anyone can ask themselves in this world is: “What do you think about Jesus?”
I am going to contend this morning that that is not the essential question that we ultimately need to be asking. If we came to Jesus from a position of power, maybe that would be appropriate. If we came as a part of the detached crowd, that question may ring true. But the truth of the gospel is that we are not merely faces in the crowd, and how dare we sit in judgment over God? No, if our position before God is seriously considered, it must be as those men in this story that we probably would be least likely to identify ourselves with: the criminals.
It sounds shocking – none of us want to identify ourselves with the criminals. After all – we are fine, good, hard-working, family-loving people. Yet the Bible teaches us that we indeed are criminals – breakers of God’s laws, violating His commandments. These men had stood before an earthy judge; we, the Judge of heaven and earth. These men had been found guilty for their crimes; we are guilty in our sins. All of us carry around in our bodies a sentence of condemnation of death. Do you know how the cross kills people? They run out of breath. You, my friend, someday will run out of breath. Yes, we go through our lives mostly ignoring the fact that every breath we take is a slow crucifixion.
So these two criminals are hanging on the cross, slowing dying, painfully aware that the number of their remaining breaths is becoming smaller and smaller. What a grace it is when God allows us to see our mortality! Those moments of clarity when we can see that our life is but a mist, and we come out of the fog and realize that life is short, eternity is forever, and the barrier that separates now from them is as narrow as a traffic accident, a biopsy report, a miscarriage, or a heart attack. When’s the last time you knew you were going to die? In this moment of clarity, the two thieves react in two very different ways.
Verse 39: One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Now stop. Is this not a prayer? He’s talking to Jesus. I never thought of this as a prayer before, but isn’t this how we pray when we are facing the terrifying idea of our mortality? God, if you’re there and if you care, save me! I was 13 years old, camping with my dad in the middle of nowhere. I had forgotten to bring my inhaler for my asthma with me and had a dreadful asthma attack in the middle of the night. I couldn’t breathe. Every breath was a struggle – I was being crucified. “God, I prayed. Save me! I’ll be better. I’ll go to church. I’ll give some money to needy people. Just save me! Do something God! Can’t you do something?” Is that a prayer? Yes. But it is a prayer only of self-preservation. God is a life-boat or a get-out-of-hell free card.
Listen to the prayer of the second thief.
40: But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
1. He feared God more than death. Even in those moments when he was aware of his fast approaching death, he was conscious of a greater peril – that he would soon face the judge of his soul – the one not only able to condemn his body, but also his soul. His awareness of his mortality inspired within in a deep respect and reverence for the God he was soon to meet.
2. He owned up to his sin: We indeed justly. He did not try to cover or minimize or justify his sin before God, but confessed that he was indeed guilty. We sometimes think that we can impress God – as if he doesn’t really know us. If I could get God to think that I am a good person – then he’ll save me. Or if I make promises to him like I did that we’ll be better, that’ll impress God. This man put on no mask before Jesus. He owned up to his sin and accepted that his condemnation was just. This is more than a prayer of self-preservation – it is a prayer of repentance.
3. He recognized Jesus’ righteousness: This man has done nothing wrong. There was a third thief. A third man was supposed to die on the very cross that Jesus was occupying. His name was Barabbas and he was a very evil man – a murdering terrorist. Yet through the crowds insistence, that killer had been let go, and Jesus, the righteous one, had taken his place. I don’t know if the thief on the cross knew that backstory, but we understand that Jesus not only took Barabbas’ place on the cross, but – the innocent for the guilty, the righteous for the unrighteous. This transaction is the only hope for us sinners before God. That even as Jesus took my place bearing my sin, God also now accepts the righteousness of Jesus on my behalf – crediting it to my account,
4. He proclaimed Jesus as his King: When you come into your kingdom. What faith! With his eyes he sees an exhausted, bloodied, naked man dying, gasping on an instrument of torture and death. No one ever looked less kingly. Yet the thief understood by faith that Jesus’ story was not ending, but beginning. At a time when even Jesus’ closest followers were deserting him as a lost cause, this man, by faith, saw Jesus, the great and mighty king.
5. He put himself at Jesus’ mercy: Remember me. See this thief knew that the most important question was not, “What do I think of Jesus?” but, “What does Jesus think of me?” We do not stand in judgment over God, He stands in judgment over us. Jesus said elsewhere, “Many will come to me in that last day and say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, but I will say to them, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you’”. Yet to this criminal on the cross, he promised, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The man who sought to preserve his life, lost it, while the man who opened laid his heart out before Jesus found life eternal.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes. Our sins have nailed us each to a cross that we are slowly dying on. Jesus did not need to come to condemn the world, for we all stood condemned already. Some of us deny it – we distract ourselves from the brutal reality of death through our work, entertainment, relationships, addictions, technology. Some of us blame God, as if it were Him that got us into this mess, and so why doesn’t he snap his fingers and make it better for me. The ones who find life, are, like the thief willing to lay bare before God, admitting our guilt before him. By faith, they see the bloody Christ as their righteous King. They will be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. “Truly, I say to you,” Jesus told him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”