James J. Tissot, “Pardoning of the Good Thief” (1886-1894), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum.
I wonder what purpose the thief on the cross served as one of God’s vessels? God calls Himself a Potter, and we are His clay. He creates each of His vessels for a particular purpose. (Rom.9) This thief did not know when he was dying in agony that a mom from a little town 2000 years in the future would be reading and pondering about him.
Although his account in the scripture is brief, it says a lot. We know he was Jewish from the words he uses. Hmmm, I wonder what a Jewish family back then would suffer from having such a son? Would they be shunned? Turned out of the synagogue? I wonder if his family prayed for him, for their prodigal to return home and repent?
We know he was definitely not a believer in Christ as he joined in the abuse and insults thrown at Jesus. Can you imagine being in such agony and yet using your energy to sneer and mock? God wants to show us this man was part of the hatred.
I wonder if his mom was in the crowd. Scripture says nothing about his mom, but we know he had one at some point. Was she there, trying to get one last look at the poor son she prayed for, her prodigal, never repenting, never coming home? And now his last moments were seen by the whole region “getting what he deserved!”
While the abuse party was raging did anybody notice this man fall silent? Something was stirring in his soul. Inexplicably he looks at the other thief and says this:
40 …”Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
What had happened to make him do a 180 like that? My old pastor John MacArthur puts it this way and I want you to hear this because it describes what it may be like for a prodigal near death as he is taking his own life:
“His taunting goes silent and while his body is in horrible trauma and agony, the unparalleled suffering of crucifixion, his mind might be assumed to go foggy as he tries to deal with the pain. And as some kind of shock would set in, just to protect him from agonies that would be totally unbearable, and we know the body has the capacity to send us into shock in order to mitigate those kinds of excruciating experiences, but in the moment of the worst imaginable kind of agony, his mind becomes crystal clear with a clarity and perception of reality and truth that he’d never experienced in his life.”
Nobody knows what goes through the mind of a prodigal the minutes before he dies.
John goes on to say:
“This is a man whose whole life qualified him for hell. And in one moment a sovereign God swept down, gave him complete clarity on himself and on Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit rescued him from divine judgment and that same day met him in heaven and fellowshipped with him.”
Would anybody have been close enough to hear the conversation between Jesus and the thief? Does anybody know what goes on between a prodigal and God just minutes before death?
That poor mother, maybe in the crowd, wishing, only wishing she had seen any repentance and had her prodigal come home before he died. She will have to wait until heaven to know what happened. But her inaccurate take on the day her son died would have been this:
Her people– That reprobate got what he deserved!
Her prodigal–Sneering and casting insults at Jesus
Her authorities– Guilty with a fitting end!
Herself– Why didn’t God answer my prayers and save my child?
If you find yourself in that place today, waiting to see if your prodigal is in heaven, take heart. God planned, formed, and used this thief as His vessel, to give hope to all who would read about him for thousands of years. It was important enough to God that He preserved it in scripture for us. This man played a vital part in God’s plan as each of His vessels do and as your prodigal was created to.
“Dear God, I am so tired of wrestling with whether or not my child is with you right now. Please take my agony and replace it with trust in You, my all-wise, all-good God to have done what was exactly right with my child’s soul. You created him for YOUR purposes. Before he was mine, he was Yours. I do believe, help my unbelief.”
You may need to say that prayer over and over but every time you do, God gets glory because you are repeating back to Him what is true about Himself.
The full sermon on the thief on the cross goes into greater detail, here. All quotes from John MacArthur above are from this sermon.