In the middle of the night, about 10 days ago, before my brother Warren Peel published his post, I found myself wide-awake, with my head full of 'Thoughts on the Theology of the Thief'.
On the surface of things we are told very little - the recorded words surrounding the incident of his conversion on the Cross are sparing indeed: while I certainly want to resist unwarranted biblical speculation, I think there are some reasonable inferences which are possible to draw, concerning the more-than-likely 'Theology of the Thief'. I trust these will be stimulating and beneficial to the hungry sheep of Christ.
What then did the dying thief believe - looking through the eyes of a 1st Century Jew?
Jesus was the Joshua, typified in Scripture, to lead the People into the Kingdom of Plenty by Conquest
If, as has been suggested, this thief had been a lieutenant of Barabbas, and had miserably failed to bring in an earthly Kingdom by insurrection, at the point of death he now surrenders his earthly hope – now he looks to Latin Jesus (Iesous in Greek, Jeshua in Aramaic and Joshua in Hebrew) for the hope of another world and for the heavenly afterlife: not a nationalistic realm which just Israel will enjoy, but in which all nations will share and, through final salvation, be blest. He looks to the Messiah. He longs to be with Christ.
Jesus was the Just One punished for the unjust.
Despite his previous taunts, and vicious vilification of Christ, his raucous mockery now yields to the sight of Calvary; the thief is fully convinced, by the mocked Messiah’s manner, aided by heavenly light, that Pilate’s victim has no guilt – was His conscience rudely awakened by the notice above His head? In that case God’s sovereign power had worked to fix the will of Pilate to acquit Jesus of all charges. ‘What a remarkable thought! Could it really be true? Is Jesus really King of the Jews?’ were ideas in his brain evoked by Calvary’s sign. ‘Suffering without sin? Hung up on this Tree? That must mean’ he concludes ‘that Jesus has become a sin-bearing curse for us!’ As his heart palpitated with dehydration and heat did it also miss a beat with holy expectation and joy – clouds part in the sky, heaven opens up, in discovery of this soul-salvaging truth of the imputation of sin: did he now perceive that Jesus had a wardrobe to remove all filthy rags and conceal his naked-thief ribcage? ‘Hallelujah - in Him I can become the righteousness of God!’
Jesus was the Judge to whom He, and we all, must give account
Not only were Jewish Kings the protective shepherds of God’s flock – they were also charged with government and administration of justice. They settled all disputes as Solomon’s 'sword-bluff' proved. The prophets foretold that the coming Messiah would reign in justice - that would mean that the administrative word of King Joshua would be final. Urgently he pants for clemency to the Anointed King of God’s Kingdom. Hope of the heavenly Canaan rests on this appeal for royal pardon. ‘Remember me, Jesus, when you come into your Kingdom! You are the only and every hope this poor dying thief has left. Save me, O King, let me enjoy your eternal realm!’
Perhaps we need not make too much of the word ‘remember’ here. Maybe it is nothing more than a plea to recollect and not forget. He didn’t want to suffer in Hell, in like manner Pharaoh's butler let Joseph languish in jail. Yet, I just wonder, if there is more to milk from the text: 'remember', in the Bible, is often a sign of the covenantal theme. When Yahweh remembers nations or people it means he swings Covenant Promises into action. It seems, at least, it is a plea for faithfulness and loyalty, from an Israelite subject to His Monarch. I can’t help wonder does it also imply, in appealing to Israel’s King, faithful lovingkindness according to God’s Covenant. We certainly pledge our loyalty to Christ of His Bloody New Covenant at Communion. Is this an appeal to the basis of His redemption? Whether or not this is a simple or profound request of remembrance, the repentant thief appeals to the compassion and mercy of Christ. Covenant solidarity is the jailbird’s only hope.
Judgment had justly fallen upon himself and his co-conspirator.
At an earlier junction in crucifixion proceedings, the formerly wicked rebel had been glib. He also joined in hurling abuse, with his compatriot in crime, at Christ. From the throne of God, the Spirit is now sent out – from the bleeding Christ the Holy Spirit comes to convict. Suddenly he is sobered – a sinner stopped-dead in his tracks: this is much more than oops; self-deprecation ensues as His mind is riven with guilt; a darkness runs over his soul – he sees himself cringe in terror before the bar of God, as the thunder of Sinai strikes, and he is summoned before the Judge. Crushed and pulverized – if only this man could call rocks down on his head to hide him from Christ's gaze! What he would give now to take back his murderous bloodshed, self-centred pillage, and vindictively venomous insults that he had earlier poured out on the King of the Jews! If only he could obtain dust & ashes and not be plunged to deepest, well-deserved Hell! “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly!” perfectly summarize his mindset . ‘Guilty as charged your honour – remorse and repentance are what I now display, my Lord. Blackest darkness, King Jesus, is what I truly deserve. I do not refuse to die, under the hand of your lawful government. Swing your sword, Messiah, justly cut me off, and I will admit I have no grounds to object. Yet, in shame and sorrow, I issue my final plea, to you, Lord Jesus, appointed Agent of God’s wrath.'
Jesus is the King of Jews, as the Roman titlist showed
No other charge, save this, was placarded and emblazoned on the multi-lingual note: probably, however, there was something more than this, that the Holy Spirit used to command regenerate saving faith. It must have been hard to see King Jesus hang on a Tree, then audit the Psalms been quoted, recited, cried or prayed. It seems highly likely he had been present at Temple Worship at some point in his life. If he had fidgeted under Rabbis, and not paid a whole lot of attention, Psalms learnt in synagogue, and sung or said as a child, now came back to the thief and served as means of saving grace. In addition to the Psalms, prophecy also played apart. Now he looks on the One whom they pierced, and as a fountain of pardon is opened, he becomes the beginning of public grief as Christ’s hands and feet are pierced and he received vinegar to drink. Whatever rays of truth came like daybreak into his heart, some strand of biblical truth - or perhaps it was the mighty Word Incarnate made vivid to his sight and proclaimed to His heart – the thief responded in faith.
Repentance and faith in the Gospel were requisite and powerful for salvation.
This work of grace in his heart is acknowledged by Christ - on this basis He grants a judicial review of his sentence. ‘I don’t mean, by 'Today', that I’m granting this grace right now - not 'Today I say!'. I mean very shortly, you child and I, will be together in glory which My God has prepared for me: I mean 'This day You and I will enter Eternal Day'. 'We’re going to go to the Garden!' Garden, of course, is just a ‘Persian Paradise’, a pleasure park made for kings, better than those that Nebuchadnezzar hung in Babylon, in ancient times, as one-of-seven stellar wonders of the world. ‘This will be a park that is divinely, delightful and durable peace.’ (Irishmen take note!) He takes the dying thief back to the historical and original sin of Adam. 'In my death, the curse has been reversed, the serpent is being crushed, and the Garden of Eden unlocked, never to be padlocked again.' Come with Me friend. Submit to My embrace. Die in My arms and you’ll enter God’s eternal, final, blissful, Covenant rest.
Resurrection of Jesus is certain and inevitable.
Had the dying thief heard of the false accusations of Jews (destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days), and now deciphered the claims to mean bodily rising from the grave? It seems more likely that He had heard about the power exercised by Christ in the resuscitation of Lazarus in recent weeks – this was the catalyst that ignited Jewish plots and convinced their authorities that Jesus must now be put to death. It is hard to imagine that he had never heard of the elevation of the daughter of Jairus from the dead-bed: set that against the conviction, widely held by Jews, of the resurrection of the just. As we have seen above, this converted thief believed Jesus was just. Having confessed him King, and admitted Christ’s innocence, he must have concluded that, sooner or later, God would raise His vindicated Son and bring His Kingdom in.
As we listen to faith of Bryn Calvaria’s thief (just in case you're Welsh), and attempt to reconstruct the ‘theology of this thoughts’, let us recall, non verbatim, the maxim of J.C. Ryle: One thief was saved that no-one might despair but only one thief was saved that none may presume!
Are these characteristics of the faith that you’ll die with? Then, dear friends, on account of sovereign grace, and evidence of the Spirit’s work, through faith in Christ’s curse, after your deathbed, you’ll joy in Paradise - hope of hopes, O soon to join Jesus with the thief, in the resurrection of the just!