The First to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus

I finished reading the gospel of Luke this past week as a part of an effort to read through the entire New Testament in 90 days (right now it’s already starting to look more like 100-120 because I keep missing days). As always, new things jump out at me every time I read through one of the books of the Bible and this journey through Luke has been no different. Most notably for me this time through was the realization that the thief crucified beside Jesus was the first to really express faith in the resurrection of Jesus prior to his appearance to the disciples later.

All four gospels make reference to the two thieves who were crucified next to Jesus after he was given over to the Jewish council by Pilate to be executed. In Matthew’s account, the two robbers are said to have reviled Jesus along with the chief priests, elders, and scribes. “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Matthew 27:44).

However at some point one of them had a change of heart. Luke records one of the thieves rebuking the other for his mockery. Speaking in Jesus’ defense he said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due rewards of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 24:39-41). Something about the character of Jesus spoke of innocence, and this man recognized it. That alone speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus and of this criminal’s humble recognition of his own predicament, justly earned.

That’s not all the thief said though, he goes a step further by turning to Jesus and saying “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 24:42). The thief didn’t just defend Jesus, he asked that he be remembered when Jesus enter his kingdom. That’s like telling a fellow inmate on his way to the electric chair to send you a postcard once he’s safely reached his resort in the Bahamas. Even more remarkable is that this man, a thief by trade with no apparent interaction with Jesus prior to his crucifixion, had more faith in the resurrection of Jesus than the disciples did.

The first to see the open tomb and the body of Jesus missing three days after his crucifixion was a group of woman including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, a woman by the name of Joanna, and several others. Remembering that Jesus had told them of his death and resurrection prior to its occurrence they returned to the disciples and told the men about their encounter with angels and of the missing body. The majority of the disciples responded with doubt, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

It took the physical presence of a resurrected Jesus to convince the disciples that he really was alive. Not so the thief. Hanging from a cross with death nearby, he believed that Jesus would still prevail, that his kingdom would still come and asked to be remembered when that day arrived. Jesus’ response? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It did not require a lifetime of good works and religious tradition for the thief to be accepted by Jesus (nor does it today). It was an expression of faith in Jesus as the Christ and able to overcome death that brought the man forgiveness and salvation.

The first man to place his faith in the resurrection of Jesus was probably the last man anyone expected. His faith and subsequent forgiveness and freedom is an excellent illustration of what Paul states in his letter to the church in Ephesus, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). A thief at death’s door cannot earn a pardon, but he can receive one freely given by a just and compassionate God.

 

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4 thoughts on “The First to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus

  1. This is one interpretation you do. I dare to point out two alternatives:

    1. This all is about three men hanging at crosses, sure to die. The one you refer to did not convert and believe. All he did was venting his desperation and anger by trying to provoke Jesus.

    2. Three men are hanging at crosses, sure to die. The one mentioned thief on the cross is aware of Jesus reputation. He does not believe, but rather thinks that Jesus might be a bit delusional. At the same time, he knows that all of them are going to die, so why not trying to give each other as much comfort as possible, for the remaining time they have?

    I know that this doesn’t fit as nicely in a religious view, but when interpreting a text with so little info given, alternative results are also valid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, there are a lot of different ways this could be interpreted, depending on your view of who Jesus Christ is. In fact, I would argue that deciding who Jesus Christ is, is crucial to how a person interprets the Bible in general.

      For example, because I believe that he is who he said he is, God wrapped in human flesh, I therefore believe that he had the authority to promise the thief a life in heaven with him after death and to make good on that promise. But if I thought he was a lunatic or a malicious con man, I would have a completely different idea about what all these passages are about. I think that’s where you’re coming from, correct? If Jesus is not God, then we absolutely have to consider a different meaning behind these things.

      There’s a really good quote by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity to this regard, just pointing out how crucial it is to decide what kind of man Jesus is. He’s not talking about it in light of interpreting scripture, but I think it’s relevant here.

      C.S. Lewis states:
      “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

      That’s the starting point I believe, asking one’s self, ” who do I think Jesus is?” Depending on the answer to that question, you will have a completely different perspective on the Bible.

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      • “For example, because I believe that he is who he said he is, God wrapped in human flesh, I therefore believe that he had the authority to promise the thief a life in heaven with him after death and to make good on that promise. But if I thought he was a lunatic or a malicious con man, I would have a completely different idea about what all these passages are about. I think that’s where you’re coming from, correct? If Jesus is not God, then we absolutely have to consider a different meaning behind these things. ”

        Close, but not exactly. Where I am coming from is not what you believe, but what the guys on the crosses next to him believed. We have no way of knowing that, thus also can’t determine if the factual level was prevalent in that situation, or (very likely) one or another emotional level was actually the determining factor.

        Anyway, I guess that’s kind of a curse I acquired from my job. I am a tester (ISTQB certified, even) and tend to look at things from many angles, poking at the weak spots. I can read a text or watch a movie and simultaneously agree on it on a personal level (my feelings and believes) and disapprove it on an analytical level due weak logic. [Not necessarily that my believes are based on weak logic, but that the text/movie is of lower quality. ] My friends by now also disallowed me to tell them what I think about a movie after we were at the cinema, since I am rather good in wrecking movies for them which they enjoyed till I pointed out all the flaws. 😀
        [I might even go like “awesome movie, despite …” and still continue to love the movie, while they can’t wrap their minds around that split and can’t help it but always suffer from the pointed out flaws when watching it again. ]

        So, no offense intended, it was just the analytical part of me taking over again.

        Liked by 1 person

    • None taken, I appreciate your insight and the conversation. I think it’s important to think critically about these things; I’ve certainly had my doubts and questions over the years but at this stage I am confident in what I believe to be fundamentally true yet I still place a high value on interacting with other viewpoints or criticism.

      A while ago I completed an MAR, a Master of Arts in Religion and while it was done through a church affiliated school, we still had to read sources That accepted a different premises than our own so I also have some experience in seeing how someone else (often much smarter than I am, academically) might view things differently.

      On a related note, C.S. Lewis, the author of the quote I referenced before initially set out to “poke and prod” and all the weaknesses and inconsistencies that he believed were in Christianity. In his crusade to debunk the Bible he ended up becoming a Christian himself. The way I see it is that if the God of the Bible is true and if Jesus is truly God, than there should be no reason I or anyone else should shy away from testing the veracity of those claims.

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