(Copyright: Marcelo A. Tolopilo)
We are in a short series entitled “Christ’s Remarkable Redemptive Love”. In this particular article (Part 3) as well as our fourth and final article, we will focus specifically on Christ’s merciful and selfless love.
As I pointed out in the previous article, when you consider Christ’s suffering at Calvary, it is astounding that the Lord Jesus—given the torment of His soul as He bore our sin, and the agony of His flesh as His body hung on the cross—continually reached out to others. This is indeed merciful selfless love, and nowhere are these twin virtues of Christ’s love more powerfully displayed than in the tender loving mercy He extended to a broken helpless sinner, a condemned criminal, who hung dying next to Him. The gospel of Luke rolls out the scene for us,
“Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:38-41).
A very different start to the day
As one reads Luke’s account of the repentant criminal, people often remark “Oh my, what brokenness, what beautiful penitence!” And it is true the contrition of this convicted, career, violent offender (this is precisely what the original language of the gospel narratives define him to be) is nothing short of remarkable. However, we must remember that the penitence, contrition and humility we find in Luke was not there earlier in this torturous ordeal.
The gospels of Matthew (Mt. 27:44) and Mark (Mk. 15:32) make it very clear that at one point (likely well into the crucifixion process) both robbers crucified with Jesus were hurling abuse at Him. Both of these men were casting the same insults that the hostile crowd and the leadership of Israel were heaping on the Lord’s wounded heart. And then in Luke we find this remarkable transformation in one of the men.
Why the hostility toward Jesus?
Before we can ascertain what lead to this man’s metamorphosis (to be explored in the next Lighthouse) we must try to understand what lead to this man’s abusive posture and words toward the Lord Jesus. Frankly, we’re not given a lot of information about what at first angered this man toward Jesus and eventually lead to his stunning change of heart, but there are a few clues in the text that shed some light on the possible process of this man’s animosity and ultimate repentance.
A misplaced glimmer of hope
For one, at first there was likely a last ditch glimmer of hope in this man’s then darkened heart that Jesus could get him out of the terrible fix he was in. The same frustrated glimmer of hope was also expressed by his fellow unrepentant thief in Luke 23:39. Let’s face it these men had exhausted all other options. Jesus was their only shot at escape.
Was Jesus a King?
Surely he must have thought, “What if this man is, after all, a king?” Earlier in the week the throng of Judah had hailed Him as the King of Israel (John 12:13). If He was a King then this man could potentially help him. He wasn’t interested in the truth claims of Christ he just wanted His help if He could deliver any! Classic case of foxhole Christianity.
Christ spoke with authority
It also appears that the repentant criminal had likely heard Jesus teach at some point about His returning glory and and coming kingdom (Luke 23:42). Jesus spoke with certainty and authority. That was impressive.
The miracle man
We can only surmise, but it is likely that if he had heard Jesus preach, this man had also seen Jesus perform some miracle. Jesus carried out His messianic ministry in the public eye. For example on two occasions He fed tens of thousands of people at one sitting. He conducted His miracles on the national stage of Israel. At the very least this thief had heard about the great miracles Jesus had performed. The news of Jesus’ miraculous signs had spread throughout the length and breadth of Israel.
No power to deliver
And so “maybe”, this criminal mused, Jesus had the miraculous power to deliver Himself and those dying with Him. However, as the crucifixion wore on, no deliverance came. Hour after hour, labored breath after labored breath, the excruciating pain mounted with every passing minute, and still no deliverance. Eventually, it became clear to both of these men that Jesus lacked the power to deliver! There was at least a limit to His power, or perhaps He lacked the power all together and the miracle he had seen or heard about was nothing more than a magician’s trick.
Apparently this Jesus was just a pseudo-messiah, a self-appointed megalomaniac, another hypocritical liar, just like all the others. And so, this criminal’s initial hope of deliverance turned to derisive anger as the pain and excruciating torture of death sharpened his frustration.
(How did this thief go from derision of Jesus, to a worshiper of Jesus? The answer in our next Lighthouse article.)