Some very good questions have been and will be asked concerning the consistency of Scripture as it relates to the Easter account. Although there are certainly head-scratching texts throughout the Bible, it seems that the four Evangelists pen some different perspectives on passion week that create difficulty in maintaining the non-contradictory nature of Holy Scripture. One of these was raised by a 13 year student of mine this past Saturday.
We were examining the four accounts of Jesus’ words on the cross. I wanted to demonstrate to my students that Matthew and Mark paint a much darker picture of the cross than do Luke and John – that is incredibly important. Luke provides us with the powerful story of the robber’s salvation experience. The “thief on the cross” has been used countless times to defend that great truth of “it’s never too late.” (of course, the conversion of the thief is pointless if you are a Universalist, but let’s not go there).
I could see a puzzled look on my student’s’ face. He raised his hand. “Pastor Philip, how does that make sense when we read Matthew 27:44?” Since I do not yet have the entire Bible memorized, I flipped over to Matthew 27:44 and read these words: “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” My student wanted to know something very simple; which was it? Was one of the robber’s saved or were they both reviling Jesus?
I did what all pastors do – I answered as best as I could and then went scurrying after class to consult every commentary I could find to see what they think. Interestingly, not many address verse 44. Most commentaries spend a good deal of time on the insults of the Elders, but not the robbers. My old set of Broadman Bible Commentaries did not address it nor did my newer ESV study Bible, nor any other commentary in my library. I then turned to my online library and found an interesting response in John Calvin’s commentary. He says, “. . .Christ was despised by all, even down to the very robbers; for they do not speak of particular individuals, but of the class itself.” Calvin reads Matthew as speaking in generalities and essentially saying that everyone hated Jesus, even criminals who were themselves dying. I don’t have any problem with that, but I think there is more to it, and I addressed it as such to my student. Albeit, Calvin did have the entire NT memorized in Greek, but if I may dare to add to his commentary, I will do so.
When we take Matthew’s account with Luke, what we see is a beautiful glimpse of how filthiness is made clean. Every Sunday morning there are dirty, sin stained, Christless persons who sit down in a chair or pew of a worship service. They come reviling the name of Christ. In some churches, and I wish it were more, these same darkened people are enlightened to the truthfulness of Christ Jesus and are radically changed in heart. They confess their sin to Christ and are promised life with him in paradise.
I have no doubt that upon first being nailed to the cross, both robbers scorned the name of Jesus. How could they do otherwise? All of us who resist and refuse the truthfulness of Christ Jesus revile him. However, throughout the course of the crucifixion, one particular thief became enlightened. Through God’s act of revelation and the awareness of the thief that something was markedly different about Jesus that confirmed his assertion that he was the Christ, the thief came to faith. Luke records this for us.
Although the thief on the cross should certainly be used to comfort those who think it is “too late,” it is also a beautiful example of how every single one of us have come to faith. We went from reviling the Savior to embracing him. We have moved from darkness to light. We are counted as children of God.
And that is grace.