Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me paradise.” (Luke 23.42-43)
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16.24)
A Journey Within a Journey
We equate Lent with Christ’s desert odyssey—a voluntary journey to find solitude and learn self-control over temptation. In this context, however, we can’t lose sight of this trek being a journey within a journey. Every step Jesus takes from His very first as a child leads to the cross. That’s what our journey is also about: preparing ourselves to claim Calvary’s inheritance in ever more vivid and vital ways. In this regard, however, we identify not with Christ, but with the criminal who declares his faith while hanging beside Jesus. His personal journey has led to this moment and beyond. When he asks Christ to remember him, his promise of resurrection is assured.
Popular art and movies paint Jesus’s progress up the Via Dolorosa—the road to Calvary—as a solo act. He’s surrounded by Roman guards and jeered at by a bloodthirsty crowd. But this flies in the face of the facts. Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, and executed as a common criminal, meaning He isn’t treated any differently than others who are crucified on that grisly Friday. He’s one of many, at least three but probably many more. All of them bear heavy crosses and many no doubt have also been severely beaten. Since Jesus is the focal point of the Gospels’ accounts, we know how He dies in excruciating detail. Yet torturing prisoners and nailing them to crosses isn’t uncommon in Roman times. It’s entirely possible those dying around him suffer similar agonies. Treating Jesus in customary fashion makes sense; it’s the ultimate form of humiliation and adds extra bite to the thorny crown and “King of Jews” inscription irreverently affixed above His head. Indeed, the fact that Jesus may have been treated on par with the others could be why another criminal hanging nearby taunts Him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23.39)
Bigger Than You
In Matthew 16.24, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Given Calvary’s seismic implications, we read this as the ultimate self-sacrifice—as well we should. But since Jesus says this before the event, we should also pause to consider what His disciples hear. To their ears, “taking up his cross” means subjecting themselves to everything common criminals suffered under Roman occupation: brutal arrest by a hostile regime, little to no hope of justice and mercy, public disgrace, agonizing death, and anonymous burial. In other words, Jesus tells His followers they must volunteer and prepare themselves to be ground down to utter insignificance. That’s why He prefaces His command to bear the cross with one of self-denial.
The disciples also grasp a deeper meaning in Christ’s words, though. They understand Him to say, “This is bigger than you, and if you truly want to be identified with Me you must lay your ambitions and hopes aside and follow Me.” Is that not what Lent’s journey within a journey teaches us? We leave all sense of privilege and uniqueness at the desert’s edge, walking into its unknown hazards with one phrase on our lips: “I’m yours.” We carry nothing with us but our crosses, embracing our determination to participate in something bigger than us—searching for clarity and resolve to sacrifice our lives for Christ’s purpose. And in the process, His teaching in Matthew 10.39 springs to life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Some of us, like the disciples, will discover it before we reach Calvary. But others of us won’t realize it until, like the repentant thief, we recognize the needless torture and shame Jesus endures on our behalf. The moment isn’t important; the meaning is what counts.
As our wilderness trek toward Calvary continues, the weight of the cross grows more pronounced. Our burden gets heavier uphill. There’s good reason for this. It tests our commitment and faithfulness. Our identification with the Savior heightens in intensity, and our sense of what’s really taking place becomes more acute. I believe this is the case with the repentant thief. As he lumbers alongside Jesus, bearing the cross of his sins, he’s keenly aware of Christ’s innocence. His own feelings of shame and futility instill horror that Someone Who’s done no wrong could be reduced to nothing by an evil, faithless society. While the other criminal’s lack of conscience causes him to berate Jesus, this man’s increasingly difficult journey unfolds Christ’s compassion and willingness to lower Himself among the worst of the worst. What he sees confirms Jesus is the Christ. He believes. Without the weight of the cross, this likely wouldn’t be the case.
“Remember me,” the criminal entreats Jesus, as both men fight for every breath. “This day you will be with Me in paradise,” Jesus declares. The sin and struggle that bring the thief to Calvary end in divine assurance. So it is with us. Following Jesus into the wilderness and bearing our cross are one and the same. Both bring us face-to-face with our wrongs and inner conflicts. Both lead us to confront temptation—to ask why our habits and burdens drag us down, prodding us to question why Christ doesn’t spare us. This journey is bigger than us. It stretches across the desert and proceeds up the steep road to Calvary, where we lose our lives in order to find new ones in the tomb. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead,” Paul writes in Philippians 3.10-11. That’s the repentant thief’s story. It’s ours, too.
Carrying our cross leads us through the desert to Calvary, where we lose our lives so we can find new ones in the Easter tomb.
Today’s post was inspired by Jake’s Lenten musical suggestion, Third Day’s “Thief.” It had been quite a while since I’d heard this powerful depiction of the repentant criminal—and before now, I’d never quite identified with it so strongly. Thank you for this, Jake!
I am a thief, I am a murderer
They call the King of the Jews
Jesus when You are in Your kingdom