Christ on the Cross Between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens
Knowing that my hour of death was getting closer and closer, I had heard the words of the Master and was still in unbelief and shock. Saying it as he did, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Jesus’ manner of speech; his words—their clarity, directness, authority, power, justice, compassion, and mercy—convinced me of my abject poverty as a human being, not materially but spiritually.
In spite of what many would say years later, I was there and his words were directed towards me and the other thief. They were not directed towards the unrepentant clerics, many of the Roman soldiers who were well known to us Jews of lesser repute as barbarians, and the novel curiosity seekers. My crime had not been in the coveting of things but in human trafficking, a form of kidnapping punishable by death under God’s law.
His Holy Spirit led me to the conclusion that even though we were on display before the whole world as human objects of the basest, vilest, and most despicable sort, my past errors in judgment had led me to ultimately see my wretched condition as only God could see me. . . And this, after my vulgar words of derision had been cast foolishly and unjustly in the Savior's’ face. As foretold, Jesus was indeed crucified between the transgressors; I the chiefest.
On display at this seemingly inconspicuous moment in man’s history, I was confronted with the vanity, arrogance, conceitedness, ruthlessness, emptiness, pride, jealousy, and condescension—everything contemptible in the human condition. The glaring ugliness of man's radically corrupt nature was juxtaposed to the unsurpassed humility, mercy, holiness, and grace I witnessed in the Lord’s eyes.
Realizing my own moral bankruptcy, I sensed that I too was being crucified in my soul and being granted a second chance at life, even though my demise was imminent. It was as though the Lord had asked me the question, ‘Who do you say that I am.’ I was able to answer this elusive human inquiry by saying, ‘You are indeed the Christ, the Son of God.’ I continued, ‘without you, Lord, I can do nothing.’
The physical pain I was experiencing could not be compared to the loneliness, rejection, hatred, and forsaking Jesus endured for me and those he had created and blessed with a moral conscience; although many looking on had revealed to me, they did not possess one.
I had come to realize that the forgiveness Jesus offered me could never be appropriated by those who were not grateful of his sacrifice, his words, and who he is. I’m speaking of unrepentant sinners. Jesus would never extend forgiveness towards those who were thankless, unrepentant (refused to forsake), nor showed no sorrow for their sin. I realized repentance is not a human quality I or anyone else alive is capable of cultivating. It is miraculous. It is not of this world. It is independent of men. It is a gift revealing the work of Christ’s Holy Spirit within.
Before I started making the decisions that led me down the path of irretrievableness, I had seen John and his baptism of repentance. This is why John’s ministry was of God! While John’s ministry was significant in that the Holy Spirit produced the fruit of repentance, it could not produce regeneration and authentic change from within. Only when I asked Jesus to come into my life and live within me, did I realize the power of Christ and his imputed righteousness, to convert the sinner.
Even though the Acts of the apostles were still future, Jesus had not risen, and his Holy Spirit had not been freely given, he revealed to me this future truth that would be borne out in scripture and in Christ's elect. What Christ had revealed to me on the cross was the significance of Acts 2, an unparalleled event known as baptism by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, I was going to paradise, the abode of the saints, prior to Jesus' ascension to the Father (John 20:17). It is here, I would encounter Abraham and all the Old Testament saints prior to their relocation from paradise to heaven when Jesus returned to the Father in Act 1:9.
Not able to endure the pile of derision the other thief was heaping on the Savior, I rebuked him by saying, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.”
Looking upon the consequences of my words in the face of the other thief, I could see they had made their impact. His face sullen and full of disgust for himself, he came to understand what he had done and become. At this point I didn't care what he or anyone other mortal thought. My only focus was on the central figure in this, as I perceived, a morbid tragedy, Jesus the Christ, my Messiah.
For the three of us, sensing that our time left on this earth was ebbing away, I could no longer hold it in. In every ounce of effort and strength I could muster, and fighting through my own insecurities, uttered in my quivering voice of unrestrained emotion, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Just before slipping into a state of unconsciousness from the unspeakable pain my body had been subjected, the Savior’s words flooded my soul. I would never forget his words of peace. He actually told his Father to forgive me. I realized at that moment, Jesus the Christ, is the only conduit through which all good things flow. Just before giving up the ghost, my Lord encouraged me with these words, “To day shall you be with me in paradise.” In these, he made me realize ‘not my will, but his will would be accomplished in me, in spite of who and what I was.’