Christ and the Two Malefactors.
Go back, dear reader, to the hour that knows no parallel in human history. The scene is on Golgotha. There is a motley crowd, priests and soldiers, lawyers and rabble; some silent spectators in the distance; a group of weeping women, and in the midst, three crosses whereon hang three sufferers slowly expiring. Crucifixion allowed its victims to linger in torture for hours and even days, and to sink at last from exhaustion or starvation. Every nerve is wrung with agony, but no vital part is injured; heart and brain perform their functions, the mind is clear; so these sufferers can think, remember, anticipate; and they speak, each according to his character.
Over the central cross is inscribed, "JESUS of NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS," and the inscription tells the truth. It is Jesus acting out His God-given name, "He shall save His people from their sins." It is Jesus of Nazareth, Who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; a Prophet mighty in word and deed before God and all the people; He had done nothing amiss. And wherefore is He dying a felon's death? The immediate cause was the hatred of wicked men to the truth of His doctrine and the holiness of His life. But the real cause lies deeper. He is the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. He came to give His life a ransom for many; and in dying, He exemplified both its motive and its result. Speaking of His murderers, He says, "Father, forgive them;" speaking to the felon dying at His side, He says, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise;" a first gush from the fountain which has quenched the thirst of myriads of perishing sinners.
The other two sufferers were malefactors, whom the law suffered not to live. They had lived in sin, and were tasting its penalties, of which the agony of crucifixion was perhaps the least. Their hard hearts were yet untouched, and they are spending their last breath in taunting their meek fellow-sufferer. Suffering at last secures silence, and there they hang over the yawning gulf of perdition.
There, for the present, we leave them, and ask, Where are these three sufferers now? Behold Jesus of Nazareth, exalted to the highest place in Heaven, the Cross exchanged for the throne. Yet He is unchanged. The same love fills His heart; He is the Saviour still, exalted because, in order to be a Saviour, He humbled Himself even to the death of the Cross.
The other two? One is in Paradise with Jesus, a sharer of His joy. His fellow? Ah! who shall describe his doom? The day of grace departed; hope extinguished in the blackness of darkness forever; the worm that dieth not; the fire that is not quenched; these are his awful portion.
And what caused the vast, inconceivable difference? It is easy to see why that Just One was raised from the dust of death to the throne of God. And it is not difficult to understand why the malefactor who closed a life of sin by mocking and despising the only Saviour, should go to his own place. But the case of the other is the marvel of grace. Steeped in guilt, when that eventful day dawned, he, like his comrade, was without hope and without God in the world; ere its evening shades fell, he was with Christ in Paradise. Brief was the time left to him, slender were his opportunities of knowing about the only One that could save. In his youth, he may have heard the prophecies concerning the Messiah, may have seen the sacrificial lamb on the altar of God, and may have heard that "without shedding of blood is no remission." But what all this meant, he had probably never inquired. He may have heard current rumors about Jesus of Nazareth. He had seen Him that day, sink beneath the cross on the way to Golgotha. From Pilate's superscription and the jeers of the rabble, he had learned that He claimed to be the Son of God, the King of Israel. He had heard His words to the weeping daughters of Jerusalem. He had heard the mockery of priests, soldiers, and people. But his conscience still slumbered. Full of malice, he added his voice to the mockery. Surely here was a man ripe for hell.
But God had determined to snatch this brand from the burning and transform this mocking enemy into a trophy of redeeming love. We are left to infer the means of this transformation. Was it that utterance of God-like love, "Father, forgive them," that, like a sunbeam, pierced the abysmal darkness of his soul and revealed to him that Jesus was able and willing to save him just as he was?
Then all that he had seen and heard of Jesus was explained. The claims of Jesus were true, and that humble sufferer was He of Whom the Scriptures said, "His name shall be called the mighty God."
An hour ago, he had echoed the taunt, "He saved others, Himself He cannot save." But now, how horrid these words seem as his comrade repeats them. His new-born faith found utterance then, "Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss." O the life-giving power of the Word of God. Here was conviction of sin, confession and hatred of it; the fear of God and faith in Him; love to Christ and love to his neighbor; all wrought in this man already. He is a new creature. He turns to Him Who, to the eye of sense, was a spectacle of shame and weakness, but in whom the eye of faith saw the King of kings and Lord of lords, and prays, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." The natural heart would have despaired of help from One Whom he had just been daring to the verge of endurance; but faith discerned the grace that would not refuse even to him a share of the glory that was to follow. And how well faith understood Jesus! and how promptly the answer came above all that he had asked or thought, "Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." We who are saved by the same grace can tell what filled that felon's heart through all that followed, till the soldiers cut short the pangs of death, and let him into the fruition of that promised joy.
Here surely was salvation by grace; pure, sovereign grace; grace over- abounding when sin abounded. There is no other salvation for any sinner. "What," it has been asked, "could that man do?" He believed and was saved. Here was faith; simple faith, God-given faith, saving faith. You who are waiting for some long, painful experience to prepare you for Christ, learn a lesson here. Here is repentance. The man saw the truth about himself in the light of the truth about God, and he judged himself before God as guilty. The brief remnant of his life was fruitful in "works meet for repentance," though we might have thought a cross a poor place for worship, the rebuke of sin, preaching, and prayer.
It has been said, "There is one such case, that none may despair; only one, that none may presume." This is well, if it is meant to deter any soul from counting on a death-bed repentance; but not well, if it implies that others should not presume or expect to be saved by Jesus Christ, freely, at once and forever. There is no presumption in taking God at His Word, or in any measure of confidence in Him Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood.—Abridged.
"The Witness" (J. Inglis) May 1870.