How did he hear about Jesus? Our Lenten services this year focus on the words from the cross, and last night we focused on the promise of Paradise given to the thief on the cross. Now, there are a number of different ways to look at this event, from the parable of the workers in the vineyard to faith like a mustard seed to a discussion on the necessity of baptism. But what struck me about last night’s service was something I’d never thought of before—how did this criminal come to saving faith in the Redeemer of the world?
Crucifixion was the lowest form of execution possible, reserved for the worst criminals, those who posed a serious threat to the nation. This wasn’t a death for some guy who cheated on his taxes. These guys were probably very dangerous, even those we might consider terrorists today. So it’s highly unlikely that this man had ever been in a crowd while Jesus was teaching. Probably the only contact he had with Jesus was those couple of hours when they hung together on their crosses. So again, how did he come to saving faith, especially in such a short amount of time?
Obvious textbook answer, of course, is the Holy Spirit, and yes, that’s true. No one can come to faith on their own. But look with me beyond the “easy way out.” This man asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. How did he know Jesus was a king with a kingdom? He knew because he heard the taunts of the passersby, the chief priests and elders, and the Roman soldiers. He read the sign above Jesus’ head. He heard Jesus praying for forgiveness for His enemies. He could see this Jesus was no ordinary criminal. No, correct that. He could see that Jesus was no criminal at all. While the third man crucified that day hurled insults at Jesus and tried even in his last hours to save himself, Jesus instead was praying for salvation for His enemies. This was no mere man. There was more to Him than meets the eye.
Look with me at Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion. (Matthew 27:27-43, if you care to read the whole passage.) First, while they were mocking Jesus before crucifying Him, they put a scarlet robe on Him, pressed a crown of thorns into His head, put a reed in His right hand, and mocked Him as the “King of the Jews.” Then when they had crucified Him, they nailed the sign above His head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The passersby went a step further and quoted His own prediction as they mocked Him: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt 27:40). The chief priests, elders, and scribes taunted Jesus as well. “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God'” (Matt 27:42-43). Do you see what’s happening here? Even as they mock Jesus, they are spreading the Gospel! By quoting Jesus’ words back to Him, they are speaking the life-giving words necessary for the salvation of this criminal. He heard the taunts and read the sign. He realized that Jesus was in fact a king, the Son of God. He believed through the cruel mockery of those watching. It’s ironic, really. The chief priests were so upset over Jesus’ “blasphemy,” as they saw it, that they had Him put to death so people would stop believing in Him. Yet even as He hung upon the cross and they mocked Him, He was still bringing others to faith in Him. And what means did He use this time? The tauntings of His enemies.
“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” as Romans 10:17 reminds us. The criminal on the cross heard the words of Christ, spoken both by Jesus Himself as well as His enemies who themselves didn’t believe in Him. And those words of Christ brought him saving faith. Last night’s sermon brought up the interesting point that this criminal, rejected by society as unsalvageable, was the very first person to whom Jesus promised eternal life. Amazing, really. And all because of the jeers of Jesus’ enemies. Now think about this, dear ones. If the Holy Spirit can even use the mocking and taunting of nonbelievers to work saving faith in a hardened criminal’s heart, how much more so can He use our words when we speak the Gospel? Don’t be afraid to speak of your faith. Live your faith and speak it at all times and in all places. After all, you just never know who might be listening.