By R. H. Boll
As smoke of battle would veil the beauty of God’s landscape so the dust of controversy sometimes hides not only the beauty but the very meaning and lesson of a passage of scripture. If ever one of the most beautiful and wonderful scripture-lessons has been obscured to us in the clash and strife of tongues it is that most tender, touching, wondrous story of the Thief on the Cross.
Some, interested in eliminating Baptism, have cited this incident as a case of salvation without baptism. That of course roused up others who, both zealously and rightly have shown that this is no illustrative case for us–not only because the Thief was fastened to the cross and could not have been baptized (which certainly is one consideration), but that all this occurred on the yonder side of the Covenant, before the Maker of the Testament had died (Heb. 9:17, 18), before the new order ushered in by the Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost had begun. Some have even attempted, Uzzah-like, to help the Lord out of a difficulty by flatly denying that the Thief was even saved! Some, again, who are interested in putting over the “soul-sleeping” doctrine have undertaken to torture the Savior’s holy words into agreement with their peculiar scheme of things. It would evidently never do to let the Lord Jesus tell the thief that he would be with Him that very day yet, in Paradise. That would ruin their whole theory; and in the eyes of a real votary, a sectarian theory is more precious any day than any mere passage of scripture. So they proceed to “examine” (as they say) the troublesome passage, and arrive at the foregone conclusion that said passage does not at all mean what it says, and does not furnish even the least shred of evidence of such thing as man’s spirit after death going to Paradise and meeting the Savior there. Never, no! What is “Paradise” anyway? A garden! Now who could think of such a thing as spirits of departed ones going to a garden! That’s evidently “highly figurative,” and none of that can be taken literally. Etc. Or else they go to work and punctuate the utterance of the Lord Jesus making nonsense of it, but saving the while that precious theory–thus: “Verily I say unto thee today, Shalt thou be with me in Paradise?” Which is to say that the Savior solemnly informed the dying thief that He was telling him something today–not yesterday or tomorrow; and then tells him nothing after all, but merely asks him a meaningless question. Which is the sort of thing that makes honest men turn away from religious controversy, weary and sick at heart.
LOOKING PAST THE FOGS
Let us forget all this for a while and put it clean out of our thoughts, and let us take a simple look at the wonderful story of the Thief on the Cross. Let us behold the scene. On Calvary, three crosses. On the tree in the midst the Son of God, on either side a thief crucified. The chief-priests and scribes, dehumanized by their false religion, mocking and reviling the royal Sufferer. The rabble joins in with them. Also the soldiers. And–is it possible?–even one of the thieves takes up the reproach, and says tauntingly, “Art not thou the Christ? save thyself and us.” The other thief* in the meanwhile saw and heard; and what the heard and saw impressed him more and more. He began to sense the truth of the situation. He had witnessed the quiet majesty of the Man on the cross. Perhaps, like Pilate (Mark 15:10) he discerned the motive of the mocking priests and scribes. Perhaps he knew something of their sort of “religion,” and their very hate and venom made him more attentive toward this Man. On what charge did they crucify Him? That He claimed to be the Christ? the Son of God? the King of Israel? It might just be true that He was all that. That prayer for His enemies–“Father forgive them!”–did ever any man so pray for his tormentors? “For they know not what they do!” Is it not a strangely merciful consideration that while he suffers the worst from their hate and meanness He allows for the one mitigating circumstance, and prays for forgiveness on their behalf? This Man is different from all men. Could He indeed be the Christ? We know not what thoughts surged through the heavy, agonized soul of the dying criminal. But when his partner in crime and doom said, “Art not thou the Christ? save thyself and us”–he raised his voice in protest. “Dost not thou even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.”
THE APPEAL OF THE CRUCIFIED ONE
Now follows the crowning word. Looking to the Man in the midst he said, “Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” It was a brief prayer, but better and more honest than many a long one. The Lord’s response was immediate: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” Paradise–the garden of God. There grows the tree of life and there springs of healing now! Paradise–O lovely word in the ears of the tortured man on the gibbet–a word full of promise, of rest and relief and release from all pain, and a hope of happiness pure and unsullied as in those long past days when his eyes still shone with innocence, and the sunlight of heaven still lingered upon the world. Paradise–long lost, forever lost–and yet, Paradise–Today! And “with Me”! Lord, how can it be? But no one could doubt the word of Jesus at such a time and such a place. O great compassion! O wondrous love! O loving kindness boundless and free! For me–such a promise? Some one has said that it is not sin that humbles us most, but grace. The thief’s body hung on the tree, but his soul was at Jesus’ feet.
“The dying thief rejoiced to see
That Fountain in his day,
And there, may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away.”
HOW AND WHY
And now let its look closer and behold the principle of the thing. If ever there was an exhibition of the grace of God, it is here. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us.” Here is the “God that justifies the ungodly.” If, as some say, in the last hour the panorama of the past life is unfolded before the inward eye–how terrible must that vision have been to the dying thief! Scenes of crime and lust, of bloodshed and vile revelry were passing before his mind. Conscience was tormenting him with the memory of light and opportunity spurned, of worse than wasted days and years, of deeds done that could never be righted. And now, no chance of ever doing better or of making good. The hands and feet that might have done service to God and man are fastened to the wood with rude spikes. The film of death is drawing over the eyes. The tongue that might have praised Him cleaves in fiery thirst to the roof of his mouth. It was in the case of one who could plead no right or goodness and who could not in any wise pay for it by offer of future service that God was pleased to make known the length and breadth, the height and depth of His free grace and His forgiving love in Christ Jesus.
“A BROKEN AND CONTRITE HEART”
Let us look closer, Let us note the revelation in the thief’s last words. “Dost thou not even fear God,” he says to his fellow, “seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss.” Here is the vindication of law and justice, and here also the outright confession. The punishment, terrible as it is, is just in his eyes. He fears God and bows before the authority of His moral government. He takes his place as a condemned sinner. He makes no plea for himself, no excuse. He acknowledges his sin and the righteousness of his condemnation. That is a point of exceeding importance. God cannot forgive if this is disregarded. (Jer. 2:35.) But “a broken and a contrite heart the Lord will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17.) The thief’s speech reveals repentance toward God from a heart humbled, chastened, and penitent.
But there is more. Turning to the Lord he said, “Jesus remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.” It is vain to wonder how the thief came by such a remarkable faith. Upon distressed and penitent souls the truth’ sometimes bursts suddenly, without conscious logical process. But the thief had heard and seen much. The accusation over that thorn-crowned Head read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And surely He is King. Though He now seems to be dying miserably on the cross–He doesn’t belong there, this cannot be the end of Him. Perhaps the thief had heard more than we know. But, however it be, his faith leaped boldly forward. “Thy victory, Lord, is bound to come; thy triumph shall not fail. Sometime, somewhere, Thou wilt come into thine own. And in that day, Jesus, remember me!” In this appeal lay his trust in Christ’s power and mercy. This was faith. Where faith is, there grace operates. “Therefore it is by faith that it may be by grace, to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed. . . . (Rom. 4:16.) Here, as when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, was one that looked to the Son of Man lifted up, and looked and was made whole. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish.
Here then is the picture of the grace of Christ, luminous with the glory of heaven, though set in the darkest framing. And that is still the pattern of His dealings with us. Though the new order has since gone in effect it is still the same way of faith and grace–“by grace . . . through faith . . . it is the gift of God;” just as free and loving and gracious as it was that day for the dying thief, and on the same principle and no other. Though in His loving wisdom our Lord has now placed baptism before the sinner as the step in which faith is manifested, accepted, and becomes effective, it is not as though a work of merit or worthiness were interposed as a condition of salvation. It is still of pure grace, through faith–faith manifested in obedience of faith. Nor was this given that any man might feel emboldened to defer his salvation to his dying hours–the man who attempts such calculations will find that God is not mocked. But it is written that any man who now will come, though his sins be as scarlet and red as crimson, though golden years be forever lost, and no hope remain, may cast himself upon that Savior who gave Himself for our sins, that through Him he may find the free and full forgiveness and an entrance forever into the Paradise of God.
* Both Matthew and Mark say that the thieves who were crucified with Him cast on Him the same reproach. Either then at first both the thieves reproached, and one began to realize the truth and turned about; or else Matthew and Mark’s statement is general, not noticing detail. The former explanation is more probably the correct one.