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“The Characters of Lent: Thief on the Cross”
Luke 23:39-43

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service V—March 25, 2009

Following the King James Version, we traditionally refer to the malefactors crucified alongside Jesus as “thieves.”  But the Greek word means simply a “criminal” of some sort.  The historian Josephus reports that crime was a serious problem in Jerusalem during Passover week, when criminals could find easy targets among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who came for the festival.  Perhaps these two “thieves” were guilty of common thievery.  In the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire, non-Romans were routinely crucified, even for minor offenses.  Or, they may have been guilty of more serious or violent crimes.  Josephus says that gangs of thugs would commit many murders in the huge crowd gathered for the festival.

Whatever their crimes, two criminals are led out to Golgatha with Jesus and crucified with him there, “one on his right, the other on his left, and Jesus in the middle.”  This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, “He was numbered with the transgressors.”

As they hang upon crosses dying, one of the criminals hurls insults at Jesus: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebukes him: “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”  That criminal is called the “repentant thief” because he acknowledges his guilt.

Like those criminals crucified alongside Jesus, we also are guilty, and we also deserve the punishment of death—eternal death and damnation.  Like the repentant thief, confess your guilt before the Lord.  And, like the repentant thief, turn to Jesus for salvation and eternal life. 

“Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answers him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Paul says in Titus, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”  In the Thief on the Cross we see an example that salvation is by faith alone.  He did no good works to earn his salvation.  In fact, at the very moment he was saved, he was being executed on account of his evil works.  But, through faith alone, faith in Jesus, his sins were all forgiven.  Salvation is a gift of God, and even saving faith itself is a gift of God, as Paul says in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Like the Thief on the Cross, trust in Jesus Christ as your King, your Savior, your Lord.  As Paul says in Acts, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”  Like the Thief on the Cross, the moment you die your soul will depart your body and you will immediately be with Jesus in the paradise of heaven.

The is the lesson of the Lenten story of the Thief on the Cross.  Amen.

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