Crucifying the King: The Penitent Thief

"Christ and the Thief" by Nikolai Ge.Luke 23:35-43. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. 34 (Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”) They divided his garments by casting lots. [The above is not part of the Sunday reading, but is generally considered within the narrative. ] 35 The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.” 36 Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine 37 they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”  39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The “Penitent Thief” While one of the criminals, already crucified, began to revile “Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The word “revile” is eblasphēmei, literally “blaspheme.” It is then we hear the words from the one we know as “the penitent thief.”  Luke does not describe the criminal is such terms. His crime is never described and his penitence is conveyed only by his acknowledgement of his guilt and Jesus’ innocence, and his request that Jesus remember him.

The other criminal reprimanded the other, saying “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”  The criminal adds his own proclamation of innocence to those of Pilate, Herod and later the centurion at the foot of the cross. He also fulfills Jesus instructions in 17:3 – “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. The petition echoes the plaintive cries of the those in need and those dying in ages past. “Remember me…” is the petition of Joseph to his fellow prisoner who would be set free (Gen 40:14). Hannah prayed to God “Remember me” (1 Sam 1:11), as did Nehemiah (5:19, 13:31), Job (14:13), the psalmist (25:7, 106:4), and Jeremiah (15:15). The criminal’s request echoes all those who have gone before him that hope for a relief from suffering in this world.

The thief’s request is perhaps the greatest act of faith in all of scriptures. Jesus is dying on the cross. The apparent reality is that this king and his kingdom and his power will come to an end. That was the purpose of the execution. Jesus is dying, yet the criminal has the faith to see and believe that Jesus can remember him. He has the faith to see and believe that Jesus is the one who will rule as king. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the theology of the cross than the criminal’s request. God’s power to rule the universe is seen as Jesus is dying on a cross. Yet he sees something more than the obvious: this dying Jesus will rule as king.

“Amen, I say to you” is the sixth time Luke has used this phrase and the only one addressed to one person.  It is also the last of the emphatic “today” pronouncements. Like the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame in Jesus’ parable of the great banquet (14:21), the thief would feast with Jesus that day in paradise. Like Lazarus who died at the rich man’s fate (16:19-31), the thief would experience the blessing of God’s mercy.

St Paul wrote:

For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life (1 Cor 15:16-22)

In Luke’s own way, the promise to the penitent thief reflects this same idea.  Others taunted Jesus, mocking him with challenges to save himself, so with fitting irony his last words to another human being are an assurance of salvation. Jesus’ ministry has been focused on the widow, the tax collector, the outcast, the foreigner, the poor and destitute, and any number of monikers for those people on the margins of life. Jesus began the ministry proclaiming “good news to the poor” and “the release of captives” (4:18) – and he ends the ministry by extending an assurance of blessing to one of the wretched.

…today you will be with me in Paradise. The promise is that the criminal would be “with Jesus” in paradise. Jesus’ close association with sinners and tax collectors that was part of his life, is also part of his death and his life beyond death. The word “paradise” (originally from Persia) meant “garden,” “park” or “forest”. The Greek paradeisos was used in the LXX for the “garden” in Eden, the idyllic place in the beginning where the humans walked and talked with God. Isaiah presents the “garden/paradise” of Eden as part of the future salvation (53:3). Later, some groups within Judaism considered paradise to be the place where the righteous went after death. Paul considered paradise to be in the “third heaven” (2Cor 12:4). Revelation has the tree of life in the “paradise of God” (2:7). In later chapters the tree of life seems to be located in the new Jerusalem that has come down from heaven (22:2,14,19). Perhaps as with basileia, we should think of paradeisos as something other than just a place –  perhaps as a restored relationship with God.

Notes

Luke 23:39-43 – the story of the “two thieves”: This episode is recounted only in this gospel. The penitent sinner receives salvation through the crucified Jesus. Jesus’ words to the penitent thief reveal Luke’s understanding that the destiny of the Christian is “to be with Jesus.”

Luke 23:39 reviled Jesus: eblasphēmei, lit. “blasphemed” In the LXX, the root word blasphēmía always has reference to God, e.g., disputing his power (2 Kgs. 19:4), desecrating his name (Is. 52:5), violating his glory (Ezek. 35:12), wicked speech (Is. 66:3), or human arrogance (Lev. 24:11). In the NT blasphemy is violation of God’s power and majesty. It may be directly against God (Rev. 13:6), his name (Rom. 2:24), the word (Tit. 2:5), Moses (Acts 6:11), or angelic beings (Jude 8–10; 2 Pet. 2:10–12). For Christians blasphemy includes doubting the claim of Jesus or deriding him (cf. Lk. 22:64–65; Mk. 15:29; Lk. 23:39). “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”: This is the third mocking connected with “saving.”

Luke 23:40 rebuking him: epitimáō. This word appears 12 times in Luke and it is usually Jesus who is doing rebuking.  Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?: The word krima can mean “judgment” or “sentence.” This verse can be read at two levels. (a) All three are suffering under the same secular sentence of death or (b) all three are under God’s judgment as they faith death. “fear of God” is thus appropriate.  has done nothing criminal: This is the fourth declaration of Jesus’ innocence (cf. 23:13-23), proclaimed by a kakoúrgos (v.33) who can contrast his own deeds for which the death penalty is deserved and the lack of wrong-doing (ouden atopon – lit. nothing out of place)

Luke 23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom: the penitent criminal’s request echoes texts such as Ps. 115:12; Judg. 16:28; 1 Sam. 1:11, 19, where Yahweh’s “remembrance” is a source of divine blessing in keeping with his covenant (Green Gospel of Luke, 822). The mss are divided as to whether we should read ‘in your kingdom,’ or ‘into your kingdom.’ The former would more naturally refer to the return of the Messiah to the earth in triumph, the latter to his going through death to a kingdom in the next world. Both are well supported in the mss, but perhaps there is a little more to be said for ‘into your kingdom’. It presumes too much to introduce the second coming at this point in Luke’s narrative and more likely that the “repentant thief” realized at least that death would not be the end of everything for him and that beyond death was the kingdom. Jesus’ words of reassurance gave him more than he had asked for. Not only would he have a place in the kingdom, whenever that would be established, but that very day he would enter Paradise.

Luke 23:43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”: Jesus’ reply promises fellowship with him “in paradise” (en tō paradeisō), a term that the LXX uses to translate the Hebrew gan, “garden.” The term “paradise” also echoes texts such as Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 28:13; 31:8–9 in which paradeisos is understood as an eschatological image of new creation, a place of expected bliss, the abode of the righteous after death (see TDNT 5:765–73; see also 2 Cor. 12:3; Rev. 2:7). In other words, Jesus asserts that he has the key to paradise—a reality implied in his statements that the kingdom of God is present in him (11:20; 19:9) and that he will pour out God’s Spirit on his followers (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5; cf. Acts 2:16–21). Jesus’ remark to the criminal on the cross can thus be understood as a pronouncement by Jesus in the role of Judge of the living and the dead. In this way Jesus is described as the “new Adam,” who inaugurates a new period of salvation.

Sources

Commentaries

  • R. Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 454-59
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 817-23
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 375-81
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 977-78
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988) pp. 342-47
  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007) pp. 396-98
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com

Dictionaries

D. N. Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)

  • Virgilio C. Corbo, Golgatha, 2:1071-73 (tr. Dietlinde M. Elliott)

G. Kittel, G. Friedrich and G.W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995

  • H. W. Beyer, blasphēmía, 1:621–25
  • W. Grundmann, kakoúrgos, 3:469–87
  • G. Bertram, ekmyktērízō, 4:796–99

Scripture –  Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.

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