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Once Upon A Cross

Disney’s Coco is an absolutely wonderful film. The story, the music, the artwork—it’s just incredible. The first time I watched it, I sobbed. Maybe it had something to do with feeling pretty overlooked and forgotten at the time, but it hit something deep for me with its theme of “remember me.”

This reminds me of another story found in the Scriptures where someone similarly hoped they might be remembered too.

Following the sham of a trial that could find an innocent God guilty of human crimes he didn’t commit, Jesus was hung on a roman cross to die.

There were three crosses on that hill that day, and on either side of Jesus hung a thief (each likely seen more as a terrorist to the state really, given to their crucifixion sentence). The gospel writer Luke paints the humiliating scene:

The people stood by, watching, and the rulers scoffed at Jesus, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals hanging there railed at [Jesus], saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other thief rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:35-42)

The first thief joined the jeering of the crowd, but the second thief noticed something different about Jesus—that he was a King coming into a kingdom. Then verse 43 relays the response:

And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

So while on his own first century Roman electric chair, this dying Jesus assures this dying thief on his own deathbed, that today, you—with all that you’ve done wrong, all that you are, and all that you are not—will be made fully alive, because you will be with me in Paradise.”

Two powerful connections come to mind—two threads, really—the first is seen here in our passage, and the second by looking with a wider lens.

For this first thread, look back to verse 32. Luke is so intentional as he writes:

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with [Jesus].

Luke begins his crucifixion story by telling us these thieves were being put to death with Jesus, but watch how brilliantly Luke wraps the passage up, contrasting this hopeless death with Jesus to Jesus’ hope-filled response here in verse 43: "And Jesus said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.'"

Today you will be with me.


And as this thread emerges, it becomes clear: the power of the crucifixion is all in the incarnation. The incarnation of our Immanuel (which means "God with us"). The in-the-flesh-ness of God as one of us, stepping into human history, taking on skin and bone, flesh and blood. The incarnation of God with us isn’t just a message for Christmas time; it is the spark-notes summary of the entire story of God wrapped up in a nutshell of swaddling clothes. God coming to be with us, that we may be with God.

God coming to be with us in death (verse 32), that we may be with him in life (verse 43).

God coming to be with us that we may be with God

That’s the first thread: with.

Now let’s trace the second: paradise.

This word “Paradise” is used in only two other places in all the bible. First, in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul describes being taken up to the place where God is, and secondly, when John connects it to the Tree of Life in Revelation 2:7, where Jesus says, “I (meaning, Jesus alone) will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."

As we consider this, a beautiful picture emerges:

Because of sin, our world had been set under a curse (the sting of sickness, the pain of grief, the fallout of relationships…all of this borne from the curse of death that ensued from humanity's very first sin). But here we see God coming to be with us in Jesus. And Jesus, the Lord of life, chose to die on a cross—a tree of death, if you will—but Jesus, unlike us, can turn that tree of death into a tree of life! And now, he makes this offer of paradise to us all, as he did with that thief 2000 years ago, that for all who see Jesus not simply as the one who gives his life, but as the one who gives life, we too can come to find the tree of death having been transformed into the tree of life.

When I was 17 years old, I wrote a song about this account that tells the story from the perspective of one of the thieves. It is the tenth song in our series of 12 telling the Story and I’d like to share the lyrics with you before closing with a final question.

Once Upon A Cross

I’m a thief and a murderer walking up this hill

Looked around, heard the crowd filled with laughter still

This life of homeless wandering, outcast in sorrow’s way

At last the time has come to die—this dark appointed day

They nailed me to a shameful tree, a place of grief and loss

This child of sin and misery to die upon a cross

Other men hanging also on this dying day

One of them, a chief by trade, mocked the Other’s claim

He laughed and said, “If you’re the Christ then save yourself and us

Prove to me you’re not a fraud, come off that rugged cross!”

I screamed, “You fool! We rightly die, yet he has done no sin

Then I exclaimed, remember me, and cleanse me from within”

He then replied, “My little child, I came to pay your price.

Today, My son, you will be with Me in Paradise!”

They nailed Him to a shameful tree, a place of grief and loss

But the Son of God on Calvary gives life upon a cross.

Three thieves died on a hill that day—

one forgotten;

the other, remembered;

and the Last died to steal every heart back to God.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “But who am I? What can I say for myself? I’m not someone worth remembering, I haven’t done anything deserving, I—”

Alistair Begg speaks well to this. He jokes about the thief showing up in Heaven after his death, and an angel standing at those pearly gates saying, “So, what gives you the right to come in?” And after this long awkward conversation, including a request to bring in the angel’s supervisor and realizing the thief knows nothing of justification by faith or the primacy of scripture or anything like that, the thief finally blurts out, “Look! The man on the middle cross said I could come, so that’s why I’m here!” (Link here).

The man on the middle cross said I could come.

That’s all any of us can say. We aren’t remembered because we’re great, or because of who we know, or because of what we’ve done. We’re remembered because Jesus has chosen to remember us, and only he can turn a tree of death into a tree of life.

So, which thief are you in the story?

Be the one Jesus remembers and let him make you new. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to email us on the Contact page. We’d love to talk with you about this, so that you too might hear Jesus saying, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

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