The two thieves on the cross teach us a compelling message on God’s salvation. The thief that mocked Jesus only believes in a salvation that involves him getting out of the current pain he is facing. And when Jesus does not do that, he insults him and is almost vividly upset that he is still on the cross. Many people approach Jesus like this. They come with demands and conditions. “If you really are God, save my relationship/save my finances/stop them from hurting me.” Yet Jesus on the cross teaches us that he is not a God to be molded into our own image. The thief’s primary concern should be his inevitable death and whether he will face an eternity, but all he myopically sees is his bruised nailed limbs. What are healthy limbs if they are merely shackled in the pits of hell? More blessed are punctured limbs that freely traverse the fields of heaven. A second irony of the first thief is that he complains yet he deserves the crucifixion. He forgets that he deserves the cross and that Jesus does not. Many young people I speak to during my talks bear an almost similar attitude as the thief. After they fornicate, get drunk, get into wrong relationships, move in together, cheat on their boyfriends/girlfriends etc they get surprised that Jesus won’t get them down from the cross. And like the thief, they also insult him (with politically correct terms of course).
But it is the second thief that resounds the lesson we need to embrace on salvation. He admits his sin. He admits that his fooling around got him crucified. He is repentant, and for this reason he realizes that his crucifixion is a small thing compared to the need to have Jesus as his saviour. And so he says, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom, Jesus.” Accept a sinner like me. Have mercy upon me. I would rather have these nails puncture me and spend my eternity with you than get off this cross and live without you. My repentance is necessary more than my rights. The second thief teaches us that the salvation that Jesus offers is not for you to get your circumstantial wish list ticked! Instead of focusing on our nails (the heartbreak, the losses and the personal pains) we are to focus on the dying saviour. In an odd sense of gratitude, I can almost sense that the second thief is thankful that the nails bring him to a position to meet Jesus. The bad breakup with the ex brought him to Jesus. The backstabbing by his friends brought him to Jesus. The unwanted pregnancy brought him to Jesus. The loss of a job brought him to Jesus. If it weren’t for the nails, many of us wouldn’t have met Jesus.
The salvation Jesus offers is not a means to end your circumstantial hurts (some not your fault and some yours). It is a means to grasp a joy that is beyond the pains in this world. We are not saved to never experience hurt and pain. We are saved to see the glory of God despite those hurts and pains and come out refined like the Jesus who forgave his enemies even while he was dying. The pleasures of this life (health, wealth and prosperity) are fine and not sinful in themselves. But the first thief blindly views them as salvation. The second thief, correctly views them as temporary blissful moments in light of a greater salvation that Jesus offers. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”