Larry Kirkpatrick

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The Last Hours of Jesus #8: Between Two Thieves

As they nailed Him to the cross Jesus’ prayer went out to God. Cruel hammers and Roman nails pierced His hands and feet, and yet He prayed for His tormentors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Soon after, the cross was hoisted into place, its base leapt cruelly, jolting violently down the hole. Now Jesus is on the cross. He has been positioned centrally, with one thief either side. Pilate has posted over His head that accusation for which Christ was death-sentenced: that He is King of the Jews.

Our gospel passages helping us this Sabbath, are,

Matthew 27:38-44

Mark 15:25-32

Luke 23:32-43

John 19:19-27

We’ll consider events in order today. First, gambling for Jesus’ outer garment…

Gambling for Jesus’ Clothing

How can we imagine the inhumanity Jesus faced? Consider someone condemned to die and on the way to the electric chair but before he can even get there his clothes are stripped away to be sold on eBay. But Jesus is nailed to the cross and everything removed. Yes, I know; the paintings show Him with loincloth blowing on the wind, but it probably didn’t happen that way. The cross was utter humiliation; there were no loincloth police there to make sure there was nothing to blush about.

A crucified person is considered utterly cursed of God. As they say, you can’t take it with you. If you are cursed of God, there is no salvation. He who was crucified was considered utterly and totally godforsaken. So Jesus hung on the cross in our place. Inevitably He watched and listened as the rough soldiers gambled for possession of His outer garment.

It is a point of special irony to have unbelievers contesting with each other over who will have Jesus’ garment, because we all know that as fallen humans we have no garments our own fit to wear. Jesus’ righteousness only can save us, for only His divine power working in us can overcome our habitual self-service. Here then are pagan soldiers keen to possess Jesus’ garment, while self-righteous religionists would as soon burn it. Are we forgetting how great our need of that which Jesus only can grant us?

Between Two Thieves

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us Jesus has been placed front-and-center Between two thieves. Jesus has been given the position of prominence; He’s been singled-out.

Fallen humans are involved and so, no surprise; a show of power. This is the final triumph of the Sadducees and the Pharisees over the upstart Healer. And all it cost was total submission to Rome: Remember their startling affirmation: “We have no King but Caesar.”(John 19:15)

So Jesus hangs on display in the center. His is the position of prominence, and of ultimate revilement. He is enthroned now in the lowest place of all, but it will turn out to be the very highest.

Sneering Rulers on Parade

How much do the human rulers who are being manipulated by Satan know? You know how people are. Doubtless they are feeling a lot of self-satisfaction right about now. But their sneering words are more desperate than they know. Matthew 27:39ff has passers-by blaspheming Jesus in His hearing, wagging their heads, shouting out the false accusation, “You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God come down off the cross!”

All these are not mere human voices; there are demons speaking via human lips. They are trying to provoke Jesus into doing the one thing none have been able so far to do—to get Him to act for Himself, to take matters into His own hands, to trust in Himself rather than in His Father.

Matthew describes first the common people passing by sneering. But next come chief priests, scribes, and elders:

He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, I am the Son of God.(Matthew 27:42-43)

Save yourself! You cannot save yourself! Come down from the cross! Now come down! Prove who you claim to be! These are fallen-angel thoughts expressed in human voice. They are expressed in Jesus’ hearing very intentionally. This is the last opportunity for them to trick Jesus into doing what only He could choose. He can choose trust in His Father, or, He can choose trust in Himself. His choice is the same as our choice.

All the way to the end Jesus has laid aside His rights as deity in service to His purpose. Everything is as stake now, absolutely everything. One mistake now and the plan of salvation will be defeated.

Satan is trying the same things He tried before. Why? Because He has determined that these are His best attacks; these are the “optimums,” the ones he deems most likely to succeed. This is why He makes the same attempts over and over again. He is going to his aces, his surest-to-succeed temptations. But they have not succeeded. He knows he must get Jesus to choose unfaith, to rely on Himself; he knows he has one lifetime to do this. He also must understand that Jesus’ life will be sacrificed and He will die early, so really, Satan just has a few decades. Now things seem to be at the end; mere hours seem to remain. Satan is desperate but these are His best attempts. These are His last attempts to make a headshot, a kill shot. He is doing his utmost, as he always has, to get under Jesus’ skin.

That is what he is always trying to do to me and to you—to get under our skin, to lead us to choose to let go faith in God and indulge trusting in self. Always know that that is the plan, that you will be tempted away from the side of Jesus and begin operating out of your own strength.

As Jesus persisted in trusting in the Father, so we are to persist in trusting in our Father.

John and Mary

One of the incidents in the last hours of Jesus is described in John 19:25-27.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

Even as Jesus is expiring on the cross, He thinks of the help and welfare of another. Even now He discharges familial duty, providing for His mother’s sustenance. This is not according to Satan’s plan. Jesus is supposed to be consumed with thoughts of His own suffering, the torture of His human body. But even now He persists in outward-focus, love and care for others pouring out of Him. And so, as a male leadership figure, Jesus provides for His mother’s needs.

The original design of responsibility-taking by spiritual male family members is seen here again. Jesus was never captive to the trends and bends in culture. He adhered to the original design. We are malleable; He is solid. We are wishy-washy; He is clear. Culture overwashes us in the slime trail of the prince of this world, but Jesus was never overwashed; He is our pattern.

Differently Repentant Thieves

But let us now turn our thoughts to the main event. Turn to Luke 23:36-37. When we look at the Gospel accounts we understand that, at first, both thieves reviled Jesus. Both mock Jesus. But the hours wear on, and there they hang. They are in each other’s presence. Inescapably, they are in Jesus’ presence. They are literally nailed into Jesus’ presence.

Being in Jesus’ presence changes those who are willing to be changed. He is selflessness embodied, humanity pure living in humanity impure, an unfallen character in a fallen nature, sinless God in sinful flesh. Who is willing to be changed? Lock them in a room with Jesus. You’ll find out.

It is not God’s normal pattern to lock us in a room with Jesus. He does not compel us. He grants us free will, free choice. We choose the examples we embrace. We choose in whom and in what we trust. We choose to come down off the cross or to go up onto the cross. We choose indulgence of self or denial of self.

The hours pass on. And finally we come to this:

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.’(Luke 23:39-43)

The mind of the first thief is under demonic influence. He replays on his lips the thoughts of devils. “If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” There it is just as it was in the wilderness temptation: the covert doubt, the subtle “if.” Prove who You are, prove who You are. Act in Your power. Take Your power back to Yourself. It is Yours by right. You are God, are You not? Then prove it. Show us. Demonstrate Your power. We don’t believe You. We won’t believe You. But if You prove it to us, we will believe You.

That is a lie. Devils have already seen Jesus’ power. They know who He is. They are in determined rebellion, incurable rebellion. The fallen angels have all of passed the line, chosen rebellion; it is essential to them as beings. It has passed into their core, into their character. It is what they are. Jesus is in His core, in His character, selflessness; they are in their core, in their character, selfishness, or self-indulgence.

Saving Himself and them would mean acting in unfaith. It would mean abandoning trust in His Father. Jesus is committed to a different choice. At any and all cost to Himself He will die for whoever is willing to come to Him to receive life.

The other thief responds. “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?” He is referring to the same condemnation as Jesus. All three are crucified, all three regarded as entirely cursed, entirely God-forsaken, utterly and hopelessly condemned. Death on the cross was the ultimate torture, the ultimate abandonment, the ultimate kind of life-ending.

The second thief continues. “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” They both knew they were guilty. There was justice in their sentence. They were criminals, they were caught, they were judged, and now they were in process of being executed, guilty and guilty.

“But this man has done nothing wrong.” There it is. The same pronouncement as Pilate. They are receiving the most cursed death justly, but Jesus, unjustly. He has done nothing wrong. His is the ultimate miscarriage of justice. You should remember this from before, from the Garden of Gethsemane. Two paragraphs: The Desire of Ages, pp. 691-693:

The humanity of the Son of God trembled in that trying hour. He prayed not now for His disciples that their faith might not fail, but for His own tempted, agonized soul. The awful moment had come—that moment which was to decide the destiny of the world. The fate of humanity trembled in the balance. Christ might even now refuse to drink the cup apportioned to guilty man. It was not yet too late. He might wipe the bloody sweat from His brow, and leave man to perish in his iniquity. He might say, Let the transgressor receive the penalty of his sin, and I will go back to My Father. Will the Son of God drink the bitter cup of humiliation and agony? Will the innocent suffer the consequences of the curse of sin, to save the guilty? The words fall tremblingly from the pale lips of Jesus, ‘O My Father, if this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.’

Three times has He uttered that prayer. Three times has humanity shrunk from the last, crowning sacrifice. But now the history of the human race comes up before the world’s Redeemer. He sees that the transgressors of the law, if left to themselves, must perish. He sees the helplessness of man. He sees the power of sin. The woes and lamentations of a doomed world rise before Him. He beholds its impending fate, and His decision is made. He will save man at any cost to Himself. He accepts His baptism of blood, that through Him perishing millions may gain everlasting life. He has left the courts of heaven, where all is purity, happiness, and glory, to save the one lost sheep, the one world that has fallen by transgression. And He will not turn from His mission. He will become the propitiation of a race that has willed to sin. His prayer now breathes only submission: ‘If this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.’

If left to yourself, whoever you are, you must perish. Jesus saw that; Jesus knew that. Whoever you are, Jesus saw your helplessness. Sometimes you might think you are spiritually strong, but, except for God’s gift of repentance to you, His constant nurturing or spiritual life in you, your strength is weakness, nothingness.

Jesus sees the power of sin. He sees our hopeless situation and He makes His decision. Here is the character of Christ. “He will become the propitiation of a race that has wiled to sin.” His mercy pleads with our hardness. He knows who and what we are exactly, what you are exactly. He knows what you are and what you aspire to be spiritually. He knows the defeats and victories all, and how dim, how feeb is your spiritual life. And knowing all, knowing you better than you know yourself, Jesus acts, Jesus chooses, Jesus determines He will die for you.

This is the person of Jesus who hung on the cross between the two thieves. “But this man has done nothing wrong.” In this terrible moment of gloom and hopelessness, the criminal turns as much as he can in his crucified situation, and fighting for breath, says to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

It is the simple statement of faith. He calls Jesus His Lord, he throws himself on Jesus’ mercy. He has acknowledged the justice of his own sentence. And He simply asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus attains His kingdom. On this day of bottomless gloom, dying the death of the cursed, the thief believes in Him. The King is on His cross, and in some limited measure, the thief understands.

He exercises faith in Jesus.

Jesus hears the request. Surrounded in darkest gloom, Jesus rejoices, and replies. “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” Virtually every Bible translation misplaces the comma here in the translation into English. Koine Greek had minimal punctuation by our standards. Because we know the larger Bible teaching about the situation of the person who has died, we know that the response of Jesus, Englishified, would be, Assuredly, I say to you today—as in, this utterly hopeless day—I am promising to you in this hour, this impossible hour—you will be with Me in paradise.

One thief was locked in the room with Jesus, and all he could do, like a machine, like a radio, was repeat the thoughts of demons. The other thief was locked in the room with Christ, and he repented, surrendered himself to Jesus, declared Him his Lord, and trusted in His mercy. And you and I will one day very soon have opportunity to converse with that man, that believer in Jesus. He was as we were, a lost sinner alone and without God in the world. And He gave Himself to Jesus.

Jesus hung between two thieves and those two thieves reflect the two, exactly two, possible stances humans can take toward God’s merciful offer of salvation. We can reject Him and become entirely enslaved and corrupted, or, we can accept Him, and become entirely free and entirely uncorrupted. Because of His mercy, His gracious offer, the choice is ours. We can choose to die in our sins or to accept Jesus’ death for our sins.

What will we do with Jesus?


— Fremont MI Seventh-day Adventist church 2022-02-19

— Muskegon MI Seventh-day Adventist church 2022-02-26