“Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom”.
It’s an incredible statement. Even more so, given the circumstances.
I mean, Jesus is hanging on a Roman cross. Even if He was technically alive right then, He was as good as dead. The Romans excelled at killing people; they didn’t botch executions. It looks like the end.
By any reasonable measure, it is the end. The Pharisees were congratulating themselves on another heretic false prophet getting his just condemnation, the disciples were demoralised and scattered. Pilate had washed his hands of the whole business. He wasn’t even going to change the sign placed over Jesus’ head saying “King of the Jews”. He was done with it.
And yet this thief, this criminal, says “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom”.
What Kingdom? It’s the end. The King is dying on a Roman cross. No more Kingdom. No possibility of coming into a Kingdom. They are being executed.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight and the understanding that Jesus gave to His disciples of how the Law and the Prophets all showed that the Christ had to suffer and be put to death, we can see what was going on. Jesus was the Lamb of God, put to death to do away with the sins of the world. He was making atonement. He would rise again.
But at the time, this was far less clear.
The Pharisees certainly didn’t get it. The Sanhedrin missed it completely, even with Caiaphas’ High Priestly prophecy that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation (Jn 11:47-52). The crowds had turned on Jesus, demanding He be crucified. Even His closest friends and disciples didn’t get it.
But this criminal somehow does.
Incredible! Such faith!
Does He dimly grasp the coming Resurrection? Is He thinking about some far-off future day when God will judge the living and the dead and set all to rights?
Either way, it shows an amazing level of faith and hope from this criminal.
He’s somehow grasped the idea that death isn’t the end it looks like. That Jesus, even hanging dying, will come into a Kingdom. He prays to be remembered.
This is not some idle request, mind. Because of the way they were nailed to the cross, every breath they took required the effort of pushing up on the nail through their feet. Talking hurt.
Biblically, the word “remember” ususally has a slightly different connotation to the way we use the word. It’s not “remember to get milk on your way home”. It’s not “I can’t remember the name of my teacher from when I was seven”. “Remember” carries with it a call to action. At the end of the 40 days we are told that God “remembered” Noah in the Ark. To interpret this as “oh yeah, Noah” is absurd; something else is going on. God hadn’t forgotten about him; He was preparing to act on his behalf.
This is what this unnamed criminal is praying for. Jesus, at the Resurrection when You come in Your Kingdom, act on my behalf. Forgive me, because I know I’m getting punished justly. I deserve this; but You don’t. Remember me.
In short, he’s exercising the same faith for salvation that God wants from every one of us, and doing it with a lot less evidence that it’s all going to turn out right.
“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”, says Jesus to him. I used to wonder how this thief got in without repenting. But repentance isn’t mouthing some words, it’s changing your heart attitude. Agreeing with God about your problem and His solution. The thief repents. He just doesn’t have a lot of words to use at that point.