And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him. . . . But the other answering rebuked him. . . And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. Luke 23:39-43.
Strange, certainly, that among those who rail at Jesus at such a time, one of those crucified along with him should be numbered. Those brought out to share together the shame and agony of a public execution, have generally looked on each other with a kindly and indulgent eye. Outcasts from the world’s sympathy, they have drawn largely upon the sympathy of one another. Since they were to die thus together, they have desired to die in peace. Many an old, deep grudge has been buried at the gallows foot. But here, where there is nothing to be mutually forgotten, nothing to be forgiven, nothing whatever to check the operation of that common law by which community in suffering begets sympathy; here, instead of sympathy, there is scorn; instead of pity, reproach. What called forth such feelings, at such a time, and from such a quarter? In part it may have been due to the circumstance that it was upon Jesus that the main burden of the public reproach was flung. Bad men like to join with others in blaming those who either are, or are supposed to be, worse men than themselves. And so it may have brought something like relief, may even have ministered something like gratification to this man to find that when brought out for execution, the tide of public indignation directed itself so exclusively against Jesus—by making so much more of whose criminality, he thinks to make so much less of his own. Or is it the spirit of the religious scoffer that vents here its expiring breath? All he sees, and all he hears—those pouting lips, those wagging heads, those upbraiding speeches—tell him what it was in Jesus that had kindled such enmity against him, and too thoroughly does he go in with this spirit which is rife around the cross, not to join in the expression of it, and so whilst others are railing at Jesus, he too will rail. It is difficult to give any more satisfactory explanation of his conduct, difficult in any case like this to fathom the depths even of a single human spirit; but explain it as you may, it was one drop added to the cup of bitterness which our Lord that day took into his hands, and drunk to the very dregs, that not only were His enemies permitted to do with Him what they would, but the very criminal who is crucified by His side, deems himself entitled to cast such reproachful sayings in His teeth.
But he is not suffered to rail at Jesus unrebuked, and the rebuke comes most appropriately from his brother malefactor, who, turning upon him, says, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?” “Dost not thou fear God?”—he does not need to say, Dost thou not fear man? for man has already done all that man can do. But, Dost not thou fear God? He knows then that there is a God to fear, a God before whose bar he and his brother-sufferer are soon to appear; a God to whom they shall have to give account, not only for every evil action that in their past lives they have done, but for every idle word that in dying they shall speak. He knows it now, he feels it now,—had he known and felt it sooner, it might have saved him from hanging on that cross—that over and above the condemnation of man which he had so lightly thought of, and so fearlessly had braved, there is another and weightier condemnation, even that of the great God, into whose hands, as a God of judgment, it is a fearful thing for the impenitent to fall.
“And we indeed justly.” No questioning of the proof, no quarreling with the law, no reproaching of the judge. He neither thinks that his crime was less heinous than the law made it, nor his punishment greater than the crime deserved. Nor do you hear from this man’s lips what you so often hear from men placed in like circumstances, the complaint that he had been taken and he must die, whilst so many others, greater criminals than himself, are suffered to go at large unpunished. At once and unreservedly he acknowledges the justice of the sentence, and in so doing, shows a spirit penetrated with a sense of guilt. And not only is he thoroughly convinced of his own guilt, he is as thoroughly convinced of Christ’s innocence. “We indeed justly”—for we receive the due reward of our deeds—“but this man hath done nothing amiss.” Little as he may have seen or known before of Jesus, what he had witnessed had entirely convinced him that His was a case of unmerited and unprovoked persecution; that He was an innocent man whom these Jews, to gratify their own spleen, to avenge themselves in their own ignoble quarrel with Him, were hounding to the death.
But he goes much further than to give expression merely to his conviction of Christ’s innocence—and it is here we touch upon the spiritual marvels of this extraordinary incident. Turning from speaking to his brother malefactor, fixing his eye upon, and addressing himself to Jesus, as He hangs upon the neighboring cross, he says, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” How came he, at such a time, and in such circumstances, to call Jesus, Lord; how came he to believe in the coming of His kingdom? It is going the utmost length to which supposition can be carried, to imagine that he had never met with Jesus till he had met Him that morning to be led out in company with Him to Calvary. He saw the daughters of Jerusalem weeping by the way; he heard those words of Jesus which told of the speaker’s having power to withdraw the veil which hides the future; he had seen and read the title nailed above Christ’s head proclaiming Him to be the King of the Jews; from the lips of the passers-by, of the Chief Priests, the elders, the soldiers, he had gathered that this Jesus, now dying by his side, had saved others from that very death He is Himself about to die, had professed a supreme trust in God, had claimed to be the Christ, the Chosen, the Son of God, and he had seen and heard enough to satisfy him that all which Jesus had claimed to be He truly was. Such were some of the materials put by Divine Providence into this man’s hand’s whereon to build his faith; such the broken fragments of the truth loosely scattered in his way. He takes them up, collects, combines; the Enlightening Spirit shines upon the evidence, thus afforded, shines in upon his quickened soul; and there brightly dawns upon his spirit the sublime belief that in that strange sufferer by his side he sees the long-promised Messiah, the Savior of mankind, the Son and equal of the Father, who now, at the very time that his mind has opened to a sense of his great iniquity, and he stands trembling on the brink of eternity, reveals Himself so near at hand, so easy of access. His faith, thus quickly formed, goes forth into instant exercise, and turning to Jesus, he breathes into his convenient ear the simple but ardent prayer, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
The hostile multitude around are looking forward to Christ’s approaching death, as to that decisive event which shall at once, and forever scatter to the winds all the idle rumors that have been rife about Him; all His vain pretensions to the Messiahship. The faith of Christ’s own immediate followers is ready to give way before that same event; they bury it in His grave, and have only to say of Him afterwards, “We hoped that it had been He that should have redeemed Israel.” Yet here amid the triumph of enemies ,and the failure of the faith of friends, is one who, conquering all the difficulties that sense opposes to its recognition, discerns, even through the dark envelope which covers it, the hidden glory of the Redeemer, and openly hats Him as his Lord and King. Marvelous, indeed, the faith in our Lord’s divinity which sprung up so suddenly in such an unlikely region, which shone out so brightly in the very midnight of the world’s unbelief. Are we wrong in saying that, at the particular moment when that testimony to Christ’s divinity was borne, there was not another full believer in that divinity but this dying thief? If so, was it not a fitting thing, that He who was never left without a witness, now when there was but one witness left, should have had this solitary testimony given to His divinity at the very time when it was passing into almost total eclipse; so nearly wholly shrouded from mortal vision? There were many to call Him Lord when He rose triumphant from the tomb; there is but one to call Him Lord as He hangs dying upon the cross.
But let us look upon the prayer of the dying thief not only as a public testimony to the kingly character and prerogative of Jesus, but as the prayer of individual, appropriating faith; the earnest, hopeful, trustful application of a dying sinner to a dying Savior. His ideas of Christ’s character and office may have been obscure; the nature of that kingdom into possession of which he was about to enter, he may have but imperfectly understood. He knew it, however, to be a spiritual kingdom: he felt that individually he had forfeited his right of admission to its privileges and its joys; he believed that it lay with Jesus to admit him into that kingdom. Not with a spirit void of apprehension, may he have made his last appeal. It may have seemed to him a very doubtful thing, whether, when relieved from the sharp pains of crucifixion, the suffering over, and the throne of the kingdom reached, Jesus would think of him amid the splendors and the joys of his new kingly state. Doubts of a kindred character have often haunted the hearts of the penitent, the hearts of the best and the holiest; but there were two things of which he had no doubt, that Jesus could save him if He would, and if He did not, he should perish. And it is out of these two simple elements that genuine faith is always formed, a deep, pervading, subduing consciousness of our unworthiness, a simple and entire trust in Christ.
It has been often and well said, that Whilst this one instance of faith in Jesus formed at the eleventh hour is recorded in the New Testament, in order that none, even to the last moment of their being, should despair,—there is but this one instance, that none may presume upon a death-bed repentance. And even this instance teaches most impressively that the faith which justifies always sanctifies; that the faith which brings forgiveness and opens the gates of Paradise to the dying sinner carries with it a renovating power; that the faith which conveys the title, works at the same time the meetness for the heavenly inheritance. Let a man die that hour in which he truly and cordially believes, that hour his passage into the heavenly kingdom is made secure; but let a window be opened that hour into his soul, let us see into all the secrets thereof, and we shall discover that morally and spiritually there has been a change in inward character corresponding to the change in legal standing or relationship with God. It was so with this dying thief. True, we have but a short period of His life before us, and in that period only two short sayings to go upon; happily, however, sayings of such a kind, and spoken in such circumstances, as to preclude all doubt of their entire honesty and truthfulness; and what do they reveal of the condition of that man’s mind and heart? What tenderness of conscience is here, what deep reverence for God; what devout submission to the divine will; what entire relinquishment of all personal grounds of confidence before God; what a vivid realizing of the world of spirits; what a humble trust in Jesus; what a zeal for the Savior’s honor; what an indignation at the unworthy treatment He was receiving? May we not take that catalogue of the fruits of genuine repentance which an apostle has drawn up for us; and applying it here, say of this man’s repentance,—Behold what carefulness it wrought in him; yea, what clearing of himself; yea, what indignation; yea, what fear; yea, what vehement desire; yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things he approved himself to be a changed man, in his desires and dispositions and purposes of heart. The belief has been expressed, that in all the earth there was not at that particular moment such a believer in the Lord’s divinity as he; would it be going too far to couple with that belief this other, that in all the earth, and at that moment, there was not another man inwardly riper and readier for entrance into Paradise?
“Lord, remember me when thou cometh into thy kingdom.” Loud and angry voices have for hours been ringing in the vexed ear of Jesus—voices whose blasphemy and inhumanity wounded (Him far more than the more personal antipathy they breathed. Amid these harsh and grating sounds, how new, how welcome, how grateful, this soft and gentle utterance of desire, and trust, and love! It dropped like a cordial upon the fainting spirit of our Lord, the only balm that earth came forth to lay upon His wounded spirit. Let us, too, be grateful for that one soothing word addressed to the dying Jesus, and wherever the gospel is declared let these words which that man spake be repeated in memorial of Him.
“Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom/’ He will not ask to be remembered now; he will not break in upon this season of his Lord’s bitter anguish. He only asks that, when the sharp pains of His passion shall be over, the passage made, and the throne of the kingdom won, Jesus will, in His great mercy, then think of him. Jesus will let him know that he does not need to wait so long; He will let him know that the Son of man hath power, even on earth, to forgive sin; that the hour never cometh when His ear is so heavy that it cannot hear, His hand shortened that it cannot save; and the prayer has scarce been offered when the answer comes, “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
The lips may have trembled that spake these words; soft and low may have been the tone in which they were uttered; but they were words of power,—words which only one Being who ever wore human form, could have spoken. His divinity is acknowledged: the moment it is so, it breaks forth into bright and beautiful manifestation. The hidden glory bursts through the dark cloud that veiled it, and, in all His omnipotence to save, Jesus stands revealed. What a rebuke to (His crucifiers! They may strip His mortal body of its outward raiment, which these soldiers may divide among them as they please; His human soul they may strip of its outer garment of the flesh, and send it forth unclothed into the world of spirits. But His kingly right to dispense the royal gift of pardon, his power to save, can they strip Him of that? Nay, little as they know it, they are helping to clothe Him with that power, at the very time when they think they are laying all His kingly pretensions in the dust. He will not do what they had so often in derision asked Him that day to do—He will not come down from the cross—He will not give that proof of His divinity; He will not put forth His almighty power by exerting it upon the world of matter. But on this very cross He will give a higher proof of His divinity: He will exert that power, not over the world of matter, but over the world of spirits, by stretching forth His hand and delivering a soul from death, and carrying it with Him that day into Paradise.
“Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” Jesus would not rise from the sepulcher alone; He would have others rise along with Him. And so, even as He dies, the earthquake does its allotted work, work so strange for an earthquake to do—it opens not a new grave for the living, it opens the old graves of the dead; and as the third morning dawns, from the opened graves the bodies of the saints arise with the rising body of the Lord—types and pledges of the general resurrection of the dead, verifying, by their appearance in the Holy City, the words of ancient prophecy: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust; for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out her dead.” And as Jesus would not rise from the sepulcher alone, so neither will He enter Paradise alone. He will carry one companion spirit with Him to the place of the blessed; thus early giving proof of His having died upon that cross that others through His death might live, and live forever. See, then, in the ransomed spirit borne that day to Paradise, the first trophy of the power of the uplifted cross of Jesus! What saved this penitent thief? No water of baptism was sprinkled upon him; at no table of communion did he ever sit; of the virtue said to be in sacramental rites he knew nothing. It was a simple believing look of a dying sinner upon a dying Savior that did it. And that sight has lost nothing of its power. Too many, alas! have passed, are still passing by that spectacle of Jesus upon the cross; going, one to his farm, another to his merchandise, and not suffering it to make its due impression on their hearts; but thousands upon thousands of the human race—we bless God for this—have gazed upon it with a look kindred to that of the dying thief, and have felt it exert upon them a kindred power. Around it, once more, let me ask you all to gather. Many here, I trust, as they look at it, can say with adoring gratitude, He loved me; He gave Himself for me; He was wounded for my transgressions, He was bruised for mine iniquity; He is all my salvation, He is all my desire. Some may not be able to go so far; yet there is one step that all of us, who are in any degree alive to our obligations to redeeming love, can take—one prayer that we may offer; and surely, if that petition got so ready audience when addressed to Jesus in the midst of His dying agonies, with certain hope of not less favorable audience may we take it up, and shaping it to meet our case, may say, Now that thou hast gone into thy kingdom, O Lord remember me.
Yet once more let the words of our Lord be repeated, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” But where is this Paradise; what is this Paradise? We can say, in answer to these questions, that with this heavenly Paradise into which the redeemed at death do enter, the ancient, the earthly Paradise is not fit to be compared. In the one, the direct intercourse with God was but occasional; in the other it shall be constant. In the one, the God was known only as He revealed Himself in the works of creation and in the ways of His providence, in the other, it will be as the God of our redemption, the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus, that He will be recognized, adored, obeyed—all the higher moral attributes of His nature shining forth in (harmonious and illustrious display. Into the earthly Paradise the Tempter entered; from the heavenly he will be shut out. From the earthly Paradise sad exiles once were driven, from the heavenly we shall go no more out forever. Still, however, after all such imperfect and unsatisfying comparisons, the questions return upon us, Where, and what is this Paradise of the redeemed? Our simplest and our best answers to those questions perhaps are these—Where is Paradise? wherever Jesus is. What is Paradise? to be forever with, and to be fully like our Lord. We know—for God has told us so, of that Paradise of the redeemed-—that it is a land of perfect light; the day has dawned there; the shadows have forever fled away. It is a land of perfect blessedness; no tears fall there; no sighs rise up there; up to the measure of its capacity each spirit filled with never-ending joy. It is a land of perfect holiness; nothing that defileth shall enter there, neither whatsoever loveth or maketh a lie. But what gives to that land its light, its joy, its holiness in the sight of the redeemed? it is the presence of Jesus. If there be no night there, it is because the Lamb is the light of that place; if there be no tears there, it is because from every eye His hand has wiped off every tear. The holiness that reigneth there is a holiness caught from seeing Him as He is. And trace the tide of joy that circulates through the hosts of the blessed to its fountain-head, you will find it within that throne on which the Lamb that once was slain is sitting. To be with Jesus, to be like Jesus, to love and serve Him purely, deeply, unfailingly, unfalteringly—that is the Christian’s heaven.
“I love to think of heaven; its cloudless light,
Its tearless joys, its recognitions, and its fellowships
Of love and joy unending; but when my mind anticipates
The sight of God Incarnate, wearing on His hands
And feet and side, marks of the wounds
Which He for me on Calvary endured,
All heaven beside is swallowed up in this;
And He who was my hope of heaven below
Becomes the glory of my heaven above.”