The presence of God is so thick in these 11 verses that if we all had the endurance we should really meditate together on each single verse!
Thank God we will have other occasions in the course of meditating on the whole Bible to come back to this sacred place.
It will seem odd that I am choosing to meditate not on the death of our Lord, but there is something God is leading me to see in verses 39-43. The death of Jesus is very familiar to us, but what God is showing us in verses 39-43 is too good to be missed!
The story of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus is also well-known, but because of the impact of the death of Jesus, we too often rush through the Gospel, which is presented in its entirety, in verses 39-43. The truth is that the two thieves represent the two and only two responses to God that are possible: life or death, heaven or hell. These two choices were given to Adam and Eve, and we know which path they chose. They are presented in Psalm 1, where they are known as the way of the wise and the way of the foolish. They are the same two choices given to Jesus Himself, who chose the will of the Father every single moment of His life, and they are the same two choices given to every human alive today.
The first thief chose the way of Satan and of the first Adam, which is the way of self-rule and sin and death. Now it might seem as if the first thief is simply asking an innocent question, or even just crying out to Jesus for salvation. But if you look at his language a little more closely, you may recognize that he is talking serpent-talk, the way of Satan. If this thief were a believer, he would rightly say “Since you are the Christ, save yourself and us” or “Lord Jesus have mercy on me, a sinner!”
But he doesn’t. What he actually says is “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” Where else have we heard such language? Look back at Luke 4:3, and you’ll see what I mean, for at the temptation of Christ in the wilderness Satan says: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Even more dramatic in its parallel with the first thief is when Satan says in Luke 4:10 “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Jesus’ response is: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
The first thief, then, is a Satanic, questioning, tempting figure. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down off that cross and save yourself and me.” It is the temptation from three years earlier, only even more intense.
What the first thief can’t see is that, in fact, Jesus is the Christ, and He will save the world, if only they would turn in faith.
The first thief, unrepentant, re-enacting the Fall of Adam, following the way of the fool and Satan, is left to suffer the consequences of his own rebellion against God.
But the second thief represents the other path, the way of salvation, the way of life, and the way of the Second Adam. He recognizes first of all that he himself is a sinner worthy of condemnation. He recognizes the other thief’s unbelief and rebukes him.
And then he says what we and the other thief should say: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
There is no questioning, no tempting, no self-assertion here. The second thief acknowledges his own sinfulness and the condemnation he rightly deserves. He calls Jesus Lord without any hesitation, and he begs Him to allow him into His kingdom.
Jesus’ response to the second thief is also His response to you and to me. If we have turned to Jesus in faith, we are the second thief. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, you were, either as the first thief, the first Adam, or as the second thief who turns to the Second Adam. You were hanging on the cross, and you had been sentenced to eternal death for your crimes against God. But like the second thief, you have turned to the Crucified Lord of Glory, and you hear what the second thief heard.
“Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
I had to pause a moment before I could continue writing, to allow my soul to absorb what Jesus has just spoken to me. “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
These words are meaningful beyond belief, not only because of the personal promise of eternal life that Jesus has just spoken to me and to you, but because I now see the entire Bible, the entire history of mankind in a single flash. You see, “Paradise” is a word that means “Garden.” What Jesus is telling the second thief and us is that if we turn to Him as our Lord, though we are hanging on our cross, we will be returned to His Garden with Him. The Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Lord in which Adam walked with close fellowship with God, the Garden for which God created us, the Garden from which we were forever banned. “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in the Garden.”
The thief who, like his father Adam, tried to steal the kingdom and the power and the glory of God, who stole from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – that thief is allowed back into the Garden from which he first stole.
This is why Jesus promises to the church of Ephesus (and to us) in Revelation 2:7 that “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” Oh yeah. Remember the other Tree in the Garden, in Paradise? The Tree of Life. God has invited us not only back into the Garden of Eden, Paradise, His presence, but has now offered us to eat from the Tree of Life itself.
And that Tree, intimately connected to the Tree of the Cross upon which Jesus hung, is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Bread of Life, and He is the Tree of Life. And if we eat Him (and drink Him), He will give us eternal life. We will be with Him this day in Paradise, His Garden, where we will feed off of Him forevermore.
This is the meaning of the two thieves on the cross: it is the choice between Satan and Jesus, between Hell and Paradise.
May we all seek entrance into Paradise, the Garden and Presence of God, not only for eternity, but also for today. This day, Wednesday in the 12th Sunday after Trinity, September 6, 2006, may we be in Paradise with Jesus. This day, may we be in Paradise with Jesus, as feed off of Him, who is our Daily Bread and the Tree of Life.
Prayer: Lord, remember me now that You have come into Your kingdom, and power, and glory. I acknowledge that I justly deserve Your eternal condemnation, the just reward for my deeds, and yet I confess my sins to You and turn from them. You hung on the Cross for me and with me, and now I humbly ask that You will bring me into Your Garden of Paradise where I will eat from You forevermore.
Point for Meditation: In what ways is it possible to experience Paradise on earth? How can you seek and find the Tree of Life today?
Resolution: I resolve today to imagine myself justly on the cross for my sins and to imagine myself as the second thief, turning to my Lord for re-entry into Paradise.
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