The Thief and the Cross

In light of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, I wanted to take some time to write about the thief on the cross. Originally, I was planning on writing this much sooner in the year, but was too busy helping my church run our youth group winter camp that I had to push it off. So I figured that publishing it this weekend would be an ideal and relevant time.

By thief on the cross, I am referring to one of the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus. One became a believer, while the other did not. So for now, any references to the thief on the cross are towards the thief that became a believer.

Why Were People Crucified?

Bart-d-ehrman-2012-wikipedia
Bart D. Ehrman, PhD | James A. Gray Distinguished Professor University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This thief on the cross is an interesting figure in the historical account of the crucifixion of Jesus, but is often overlooked in the grand scheme of things. He most likely would have been a Jewish man due to a number of factors like his belief in one God (1) and his familiarity with the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom of Heaven (2), along with his punishment. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, points out the uniqueness of the crucifixion and why only a certain group of people would receive this form of punishment when he writes

Crucifixion was reserved for special cases. But there were lots of special cases. Two of the most common were low-life criminals and enemies of the state. These are two very different matters – they are not the same thing… This was especially the case – I reiterate – for enemies of the state. Rare exceptions might be made for low-life criminals – escaped slaves, horse thieves, general riff-raff who did not matter to anyone in power (3).”

In other words, the two thieves were most likely crucified for either stealing something very valuable like horses as their names would suggest or for being insurgents that were sworn enemies of the state. Regardless of why they were hung in the first place, these two men died alongside Jesus and witnessed His final moments before His death. This will be the bedrock with which the rest of this blog-post will rely on as a foundation moving forward.

Artistic Depictions of Christ’s Crucifixion

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What is also of note is how artists depict where the three are in different works of art. For instance, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian seem to have placed the thief on the cross to the right of Christ, while the proud thief is to His left. This deliberate creative choice of putting the thief on the cross beside the right hand of God is significant.

In both Judaism and Christianity, to be on the right hand of God was a sign of God’s “ruler-ship, authority, sovereignty, blessing, and strength and is significant in Scripture (4).” We can see this in many places in the Bible such as Psalm 110:1b where it says “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” To be fair, there are other works of art like Rembrandt van Rijn’s Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses (5) that appears indifferent to where each thief is in the picture and is rightly so focused on Christ Himself.

Likewise, James the brother of Jesus once wrote “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (6).” It would seem that in the spirit of this passage and the current state of the thief on the cross, that Rubens and Titian visually depicted what was spiritually taking place inside this thief’s soul. That as the thief on the cross was up there next to Jesus, his heart and mind were radically changed. A series of events that brought this man to a point of understanding.

Things like Jesus asking for the forgiveness of His executioners (7), soldiers dividing His garments by way of casting lots, and those passing by railing blasphemous statements towards Christ in a taunting way (8) all occurred before the thief on the cross had a change of heart. In the Gospel of Matthew (9), it even records both thieves mocking Jesus until a certain point where only the proud thief is left to mock Jesus. Sometime between both thieves mutually mocking Jesus and the one thief continuing to mock Him, was there a sharp change in attitude from the thief on the cross.

A Change of Heart

What happened so suddenly that a thief dying on a cross would suddenly have a complete change in how he perceived Jesus? I’d argue it is a combination of moments, but for now we will only focus in on one. What Jesus said and how He acted during this whole ordeal.

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Anatomical Crucifixion Sketch | Jacques Gamelin, 1779 (11)

Just for a little more context, their punishment by way of crucifixion was not so nice. In fact, it was one of, if not the most painful form of torture at that time. According to Maslen and Mitchell’s article written in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (10), crucifixion had many cruel ways of ending one’s life.

Some of those causes of death may have been, but are not limited to acidosis, arrhythmia plus asphyxia, cardiac rupture, hypovolemic shock, and so on. Death by crucifixion was a brutal, yet extremely prolonged way to die. For some, they died in a matter of hours. For others, they died in a matter of days.

I believe of the three events that took place before the thief on the cross had a change of heart, the moment of Jesus forgiving His executioners had the most impact on the thief. Christ’s response showed the thief a direct contrast to the way He lived His own life. A seed of regret was planted.

Jesus forgave those that were killing Him. The two thieves probably hated those that were crucifying them. Jesus was known as an exorcist and a teacher who wanted to help the poor and sick. The two thieves were most likely men that spent the majority of their lives only helping themselves.

As if the name was any indication, these thieves were probably selfish. Christ was selfless. The thieves died for crimes they committed. Jesus died for crimes we committed. For the thief on the cross and from his perspective, this man was different in almost every single way from him and the other thief. They deserved this death, but Jesus didn’t.

This strong distinction between a thief and the giver of eternal life is a drastic black-and-white difference. One died for taking that which was someone else’s, while the other died for giving all that He had for others. This I believe is what changed the thief on the cross from mocking Jesus to defending Him in front of everyone.

By everyone, I mean everyone. Gentiles and Jews. Pharisees and Roman soldiers. Family, friends, neighbors, and so on. Everyone there at the crucifixion knew of or had heard of these three crucified men and were probably shocked watching the thief on the cross have a change of heart. A thief for the first time encountering something he had never seen before: unlimited love in response to unbridled hate. The love of God in reaction to the darkest of human deeds. The Gospel happening before his very eyes.

The short story of the thief on the cross ends in a profound way. Luke chronicles the rest of that story when he writes

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise (12).””

In response to the thief’s change of heart and his humble demeanor, God gives Him grace. A grace that surpasses all understanding. This is the thief and the cross. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless.

Footnotes

  1. Luke 23:40
  2. Luke 23:42
  3. https://ehrmanblog.org/why-romans-crucified-people/
  4. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2015/06/13/what-does-the-right-hand-symbolize-or-mean-in-the-bible/
  5. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/41.1.31/
  6. James 4:6-8b
  7. Luke 23:34
  8. Luke 23:35-37
  9. Matthew 27:44
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1420788/
  11. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/gamelin_home.html
  12. Luke 23:40-43
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Don’t Judge Me By The Color Of My Eyes

Photo: John w/ his two sons.

A while ago, my older brother John wrote a really powerful Facebook post about the state of racism in the world. He considered the matter and concluded that racism is nothing more than a categorical error. The idea that because of a sole variable (i.e. the color of one’s skin), those that share that variable are different than those who do not have that variable (i.e. those of a dissimilar skin color).

Even if both groups shared almost every other variable (i.e. culture, DNA, religion, etc), they were and are still identified by a variable that bears little to no significance when compared to more appropriate labels of identification like one’s birthplace or cultural upbringing. With his permission and in light of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to share his thoughts with you (1). So, let’s see what he said:

“I’ve heard so much talk lately about “black” people and “white” people. Unfortunately, every single post has missed the point entirely. We live in a world where we’ve been taught to categorize by color. A process that if not taught to you since you were born, would make absolutely no sense. In fact, you would find it ridiculous because if you step back and think about it, color does not represent anything.

You would never consider categorizing people by eye color. It would be so stupid to even try. Close your eyes for a second and try to imagine a world where people were categorized by eye color. The whole idea is just stupid, right? Well, open your eyes. This is your reality.

So why don’t you even give it a second thought when someone says “white” or “black” people? The very moment that you define someone by their skin is discriminatory. That is the birth of racism. Allow me to explain.

The deep rooted problem lies in our fundamental thinking process that we all are guilty of being indoctrinated into believing. Somewhere in our messed up ideology we discarded categorizing other people by real connections like culture and heritage. Instead, we have substituted appropriate labels with something more superficial and shallow: the color of our skin.

The way we use the word color itself is ridiculous. Everyone’s a different shade of brown. Have you ever actually seen a person with white or black skin? Me neither.

Also, the word “race” is entirely incorrect in the context that we use it in when talking about people. If there is no biological difference between people of different shades, then there is only one race. I’ll say it again. If there is no biological difference between people of different shades, then there is only one race: the human race.

If you really break it down, there is only one thing that people of the same skin shades have in common: the way society views and treats them. This is the only thing that creates the bond between people who look similar and separates those who look different. But the way society treats you has entirely nothing to do with you.

Now we’re back to agreeing that there is really no difference, except the one that we created in our minds. So I leave you with this: as long as you yourself define people by categories of skin “color,” you are reinforcing racism. If you want to change society, then you must first change the way you think.”

If you change the way you think, then you will naturally change the way you speak. Don’t judge others by the color of their eyes or skin, but instead judge them by the inner condition of their identity. Now before you go, here is some more food for thought from two very important men in history speaking on the same subject:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” – Christ Jesus (NRSV John 7:24)

With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless.

Footnotes

  1. John also gave me permission to make minor edits that help fit the format of a blog-post, as well as fix any grammatical errors present in his original Facebook post.
  2. For more from John Cribari, here’s his personal training business: https://lessons.com/ca/simi-valley/personal-training/cribari-training
  3. Disclaimer