By James Stalker
It is not said by whose arrangement it was that Jesus was hung between the two thieves. It may have been done by order of Pilate, who wished in this way to add point to the witticism which he had put into the inscription above the cross; or the arrangement may have been due to the Jewish officials, who followed their Victim to Golgotha and may have persuaded the soldiers to give Him this place, as an additional insult; or the soldiers may have done it of their own accord, simply because He was obviously the most notable of their prisoners.
The likelihood is that there was malice in it. Yet there was a divine purpose behind the wrath of man. Again and again one has to remark how, in these last scenes, every shred of action and every random word aimed at Jesus for the purpose of injuring and dishonouring Him so turned, instead, to honour, that in our eyes, now looking back, it shines on Him like a star. As a fire catches the lump of dirty coal or clot of filth that is flung into it, and converts it into a mass of light, so at this time there was that about Christ which transmuted the very insults hurled at Him into honours and charged even the incidents of His crucifixion which were most trivial in themselves with unspeakable meaning. The crown of thorns, the purple robe, Pilate's Ecce Homo, the inscription on the cross, the savage cries of the passers-by and other similar incidents, full at the time of malice, are now memories treasured by all who love the Saviour.
So His position between the thieves was ordained by God as well as by men. It was His right position. They had called Him long before "a friend of publicans and sinners;" and now, by crucifying Him between the thieves, they put the same idea into action. As, however, that nickname has become a title of everlasting honour, so has this insulting deed. Jesus came to the world to identify Himself with sinners; their cause was His, and He wrapped up His fate with theirs; He had lived among them, and it was meet that He should die among them. To this day He is in the midst of them; and the strange behaviour of the two between whom He hung that day was a prefigurement of what has been happening every day since: some sinners have believed on Him and been saved, while others have believed not: to the one His gospel is a savour of life unto life, to the other it is a savour of death unto death. So it is to be till the end; and on the great day when the whole history of this world shall be wound up He will still be in the midst; and the penitent will be on the one hand and the impenitent on the other.
But it was not in one way only that the divine wisdom overruled for high ends of its own the humiliating circumstance that Jesus was thus reckoned with the transgressors. It gave Him an opportunity of illustrating, at the very last moment, both the magnanimity of His own character and the nature of His mission; and at the moment when He needed it most it supplied Him with a cup of what had always been to Him the supreme joy of living--the bliss of doing good. As the parable of the Prodigal Son is an epitome of the whole teaching of Christ, so is the salvation of the thief on the cross the life of Christ in miniature.
Both thieves appear to have joined in taunting Jesus, in imitation of the Sanhedrists. This has, indeed, been doubted or denied by those, of whom there have been many, who have experienced difficulty in understanding how so complete a revolution as the conversion of the penitent thief could take place in so short a time. Two of the Evangelists say that those crucified with Him reviled Him; but it is just possible grammatically to explain this as referring only to one of them; because sometimes an action is attributed to a class, though only one person of the class has done it. The natural interpretation, however, is that both did it. It is likely enough, indeed, that the one who did not repent began it, and that the other joined in, less of his own accord than in imitation of his reckless associate. Very probably this was not the first time that he had been dragged into sin by the same attraction. His companion may have been his evil genius, who had ruined his life and brought him at last to this shameful end.
It was an awful extreme of wickedness to be engaged, so near their own end, in hurling opprobrious words at a fellow-sufferer. Of course, the very excess of pain made crucified persons reckless; and to be engaged doing anything, especially anything violent, helped to make them forget their agony. It mattered not who or what was the object of attack; they were reduced to the condition of tortured animals; and the trapped brute bites at anything which approaches it. This was the state of the impenitent thief. But the other drew back from his companion with horror. The very excess of sin overleaped itself; and for the first time he saw how vile a wretch he was. This was brought home to him by the contrast of the patience and peace of Jesus. His brutal companion had hitherto been his ideal; but now he perceives how base is his ferocious courage in comparison with the strength of Christ's serene endurance.
The desire to explain away the suddenness of the conversion has led to all sorts of conjectures as to the possibility of previous meetings between the thief and Christ. It is quite legitimate to dwell on what he had seen of the behaviour of Jesus from the moment when they were brought into contact in the crucifixion. He had heard Him pray for the forgiveness of His enemies; he had witnessed His demeanour on the way to Calvary and heard His words to the daughters of Jerusalem; the very cries of His enemies round the cross, when they cast in His teeth the titles which He had claimed or which had been attributed to Him, informed him what were the pretensions of Jesus; perhaps he may have witnessed and heard the trial before Pilate. But, when we attempt to go further back, we have nothing solid to found upon. Had he ever heard Jesus preach? Had he witnessed any of His miracles? How much did he know of the nature of His Kingdom, of which he spoke? Guesses may be made in answer to such questions, but they cannot be authenticated. I should be inclined with more confidence to look further back still. He may have come out of a pious home; he may have been a prodigal led astray by companions, and especially by the strong companion with whom he was now associated. As there was a weeping mother at the foot of the cross of Jesus, there may have been a heart-broken parent at the foot of that other cross also, whose prayers were yet going to be answered in a way surpassing her wildest hopes.
The question of the possibility of sudden conversion is generally argued with too much excitement on both sides to allow the facts to be recognised. Among us there may, in one sense, be said to be no such thing. Suppose anyone reading this page, who may know that he has not yet with his whole heart and soul turned to God, were to do so before turning the next leaf, would this be a sudden conversion? Why, the preparation for it has been going on for years. What has been the intention of all the religious instruction which you have received from your childhood, of the prayers offered on your behalf of the appeals which have moved you, of the strivings of God's Spirit, but to lead up to this result? Though your conversion were to take place this very hour, it would only be the last moment of a process which has gone on for years. Yet in a sense it would be sudden. And why should it not? What reason is there why your return to God should be further postponed? There are two experiences in religion which require to be carefully distinguished: there is the making of religious impressions on us by others from the outside--through instruction, example, appeal and the like; and there is the rise of religion within ourselves, when we turn round upon our impressions and make them our own. The former experience is long and slow, but the latter may be very sudden; and a very little thing may bring it about.
Another way in which it is possible to minimise the greatness of this conversion is by questioning the guilt of the man. When he is called a thief, the name suggests a very common and degraded sinner; but it is pointed out that "robber" would be the correct name, and that probably he and his companion may have been revolutionaries, whose opposition to the Roman rule had driven them outside the pale of society, where, to win a subsistence, they had to resort to the trade of highwaymen; but in that country, tyrannised over by a despotic foreign power, those who attempted to raise the standard of revolt were sometimes far from ignoble characters, though the necessities of their position betrayed them into acts of violence. There is truth in this; and the penitent thief may not have been a sinner above all men. But his own words to his companion, "We receive the due reward of our deeds," point the other way. His memory was stained with acts for which he acknowledged that death was the lawful penalty. In short, there is no reason to doubt either that he was a great sinner or that he was suddenly changed. And therefore his example will always be an encouragement to the worst of sinners when they repent. It is common for penitents to be afraid to come to God, because their sins have been too great to be forgiven; but those who are encouraging them can point to cases like Manasseh, and Mary Magdalene, and the thief on the cross, and assure them that the mercy which sufficed for these is sufficient for all: "The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth us from all sin."
The fear of those who endeavour to minimise the wonderfulness of this conversion is lest, if it be allowed that a man of the worst character could undergo so complete a change in so short a time on the very verge of the other world, men may be induced to put off their own salvation in the hope of availing themselves of a death-bed repentance. This is a just fear; and the grace of God has undoubtedly been sometimes thus abused. But it is an utter abuse. Those who allow themselves to be deceived with this reasoning believe that they can at any moment command penitence and faith, and that all the other feelings of religion will come to them whenever they choose to summon them. But does experience lead us to believe this? Are not the occasions, on the contrary, very rare when religion really moves irreligious men
"We cannot kindle when we will
The fire that in the soul resides:
The spirit breatheth and is still--
In mystery the soul abides."
Nor is it by any means a uniform experience that the approach of death awakens religious anxiety. The other thief is a solemn warning. Though face to face with death and in such close proximity to Jesus, he was only hardened and rendered more reckless than ever. And this is far more likely to be the fate of anyone who deliberately quenches the Spirit because he is trusting to a death-bed repentance.
Yet we will not allow the possible abuse of the truth to rob us of the glorious testimony contained in this incident to the grace of God. We set no limits to the invitation of the Saviour, "Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out." However late a sinner may be in coming, and however little time he may have in which to come, let him only come and he will not be cast out. There is no more critical test of theologies and theologians than the question what message they have to a dying person whose sins are unforgiven. If the salvation which a preacher has to offer is only a course of moral improvement, what can he have to say in such a place? We may be sure that our gospel is not the gospel of Him who comforted the penitent thief, unless we are able to offer even to a dying sinner a salvation immediate, joyful and complete.
How complete the revolution was in the penitent thief is shown by his own words. St. Paul in one place sums up Christianity in two things--repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And both of these we see in this penitent's words. His repentance towards God is brought out by what he said to his companion. "Dost thou not fear God?" he asked. He had himself forgotten God, no doubt, and put Him far away in the sinful past. But now God was near, and in the light of God he saw his own sinfulness. He confessed it, doing so not only in his secret mind but audibly. Thus he separated himself from it, as he did also from the companion who had led him astray, when he would not come with him on the path of penitence. Not less distinctly do His words to the Saviour manifest his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are simple and humble: all he dared to expect was that, when Christ came into His kingdom, He would remember him. But they recognised the glory of Christ and expressed trust in Him. At the moment when the religious teachers of the nations thought that they had for ever destroyed Christ's claims, and even His own disciples had forsaken Him, this poor dying sinner believed in Him. "How clear," exclaims Calvin, "was the vision of the eyes which could thus see in death life, in ruin majesty, in shame glory, in defeat victory, in slavery royalty. I question if ever since the world began there has been so bright an example of faith." Luther is no less laudatory. "This," says he, "was for Christ a comfort like that supplied to Him by the angel in the garden. God could not allow His Son to be destitute of subjects, and now His Church survived in this one man. Where the faith of St. Peter broke off, the faith of the penitent thief commenced." And another asks, "Did ever the new birth take place in so strange a cradle?"
It is worth noting that it was not by words that Jesus converted this man. He did not address the penitent thief at all till the thief spoke to Him. The work of conviction was done before He uttered a word. Yet it was His work; and how did He do it? As St. Peter exhorted godly wives to convert their heathen husbands, when he wrote to them, "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, that, if any obey not the Word, they also may, without the Word, be won by the conversation (i.e., behaviour) of the wives, while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear." It was by the impression of His patience, His innocence, His peace, and His magnanimity, that Jesus converted the man; and herein He has left us an example that we should follow in His steps.
But His words, when He did speak, added immensely to the impression. They were few, but every one of them expressed the Saviour.
The robber was thinking of some date far off when Christ might intervene in his behalf, but Christ says, "To-day." This was a prophecy that he would die that day, and not be allowed to linger for days, as crucified persons often were; and this was fulfilled. But it was, besides, a promise that as soon as death launched him out of time into eternity, Christ would be waiting there to receive him. "To-day thou shalt be with Me." All heaven is in these two last words. What do we really know of heaven, what do we wish to know, except that it is to be "with Christ"? Yet a little more was added--"in Paradise." Some have thought that in this phrase Christ was stooping to the conceptions of the penitent thief by using a popular expression for some happy place in the other world. At least the word, which means a garden or park and was applied to the abode of our first parents in Eden, could not but call up in the consciousness of the dying man a scene of beauty, innocence and peace, where, washed clean from the defilement of his past errors, he would begin to exist again as a new creature. Even Christians have believed that the utmost that can be expected in the next world by a soul with a history like the robber's is, at least to begin with, to be consigned to the fires of purgatory. But far different is the grace of Christ: great and perfect is His work, and therefore ours is a full salvation.
This second word from the cross affords a rare glimpse into the divine glory of the Saviour; and it is all the more impressive that it is indirect. The thief, in the most solemn circumstances, spoke to Him as to a King and prayed to Him as to a God. And how did He respond? Did He say, "Pray not to Me; I am a man like yourself, and I know as little of the unknown country into which we are both about to enter as you do"? This is what He ought to have answered, if He was no more than some make Him out to be. But He accepted the homage of His petitioner; He spoke of the world unseen as of a place native and familiar. He gave him to understand that He possessed as much influence there as he attributed to Him. This great sinner laid on Christ the weight of his soul, the weight of his sins, the weight of his eternity; and Christ accepted the burden.
 "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."
 So Augustin and many.
 Schleiermacher makes much of this; and, indeed, does everything in his power to minimise the moral miracle. The whole sermon is a specimen of his worst manner, when he rides away on some side issue and fails to expound the great central lessons of a subject.
 "In Biblical Hebrew the word is used for a choice garden but in the LXX. and the Apocalypse it is already used in our sense of Paradise."--EDERSHEIM.
 The word "Lord" in the robber's speech is, however, unauthentic.