I’ve Got Two Tickets to Paradise: Uncharted, Thieves, and Gritty Salvation (Luke 23)

As gamers, we know how we like our scoundrels. The classic archetype of a suave, sarcastic, debonair con-man has been portrayed with excellence on screen by actors such as Harrison Ford in his iconic role as smuggler extraordinaire Han Solo, Nathan Fillion in his turn as the renegade captain of the Firefly, or more recently by Chris Pratt in his Star-Lord persona as he guards the galaxy. A thief we can root for in spite of their roguish behavior, they typically conceal a heart of gold behind their gruff exterior and while their actions may be occasionally deplorable we can’t help but to root for them to swoop in and save the day at the last second.
Nathan Drake embodies all of these while still managing to be his own man, and that’s saying a lot. While you can certainly find dashes and sprinkles of how each of these characters and so many more have influenced his persona, look, and approach there is no denying that he is a unique figure in the gaming landscape. And over the course of his hero journey in four console games, one handheld game, and a pending cinematic treatment he has lived up to both the best and the worst of what a treasure-seeking ne’er-do-well would do… he steals our hearts while simultaneously convincing us that we wanted him to do it. Well played, Mr. Drake… well played.
A clever con is typically most appreciated when the thief is taking from an “undeserving” source. From the morally ambiguous Robin Hood syndrome to the slightly more villainous approach of Captain Cold, many of our favorite “thief” characters earn points for their brashness in sticking it to the man even as they are clearly breaking the law. But truth be told, few of them get to ride off into the sunset with a happy ending. Sometimes it is their insatiable greed that proves to be their undoing, other times it is a sacrificial choice to save others and die as the hero that completes their path. But few have had as much of an impact as the thief we will discuss today…
He could have been nothing more than a footnote. In several texts he is just the background window dressing to a much more engrossing drama playing out on center stage. He doesn’t even get the dignity of a name, credited as nothing more than criminal #2. You could write him out as simply a fulfillment to prophecy, as Mark 15:28 does when it briefly mentions that Christ was crucified between two robbers to bring to pass the prophecy that Christ was “numbered with the transgressors”. But Luke digs a bit deeper in his account revealing that while this thief was unwittingly assisting Jesus in fulfilling His destiny by crossing one more prophecy off the checklist, good ol’ nameless faceless Criminal #2 was about to carve out his own destiny as well.
As Jesus was hanging from the cross, the sadistic crowd around Him began taunting and mocking Him with cruelty. They challenged Him to show His power and prove His divinity by coming off the cross, failing to understand that it was His power on display that was keeping Him there. And in an odd twist, one of the criminals joined in the heckling and told Jesus that if He was truly the Christ to come down and bring the two thieves with Him. So strange, that even as he is dying this criminal joins the wrong crowd one last time and echoes their hate, as if that might have some positive outcome on his situation. Isn’t it funny that it is often the people who are just as challenged and damaged as we are that still choose to use the last ebbs of their remaining strength to throw a few more rocks at us before they fall to the same fate we both share. The poor tear down the poor, the addicts insult other more unfortunate addicts, and sadly just like this thief many people barrel on unrepentantly to their final destination with both middle fingers pointed in the air at a God who literally died to save them just a few feet away.
Matthew and Mark each record that both criminals jeered Jesus from their equivalent positions on the cross, and it is possible for a time the second thief joined in. But in Luke 23:40 we see a whole new drama play out as he gathers himself for one final discourse, and three sentences that would change his path forever:
But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Let’s dig into each of these three statements by the condemned thief and see how this led him to his ticket to paradise. This may mess with your “salvation theology” a little bit, and if it does I suppose you will have to take your grievances up with Jesus since He issued the ticket. But contained in these three sentences is the key to what true salvation looks like… bloody, gritty, and life-altering.

First, the thief makes a public statement of his belief in God. This was not passively whispered in his mind, but was delivered as a direct verbal rebuke to his tag team partner in condemnation as he clearly and vocally states his position on Jesus. Next, he acknowledges his sins and understands that he is receiving a fitting punishment for his crimes against both man and God. And finally, he demonstrates his understanding that salvation can only be found in Christ by confessing that He is the sinless King who alone has the authority over who receives eternal life. In those few short sentences, the thief earned a ticket to paradise courtesy of Christ’s personal invite from His blood-stained hand.
It’s a great salvation story that demonstrates how easy it is for someone to choose to be saved, but I want to move in a little deeper than that. Into something a little more personal. In a Roman crucifixion it was customary that the offenses of the guilty were written out and nailed above their head, ostensibly to act as a very visceral deterrent to those who may consider committing those same crimes. This is why they nailed the “King of the Jews” statement over the head of Christ, because he was found guilty of insurrection. If the Roman soldiers followed protocol, the criminal offenses above the two thieves was also posted above their heads as they received their punishment. This would mean that although our good friend thief #2 has received the most important pardon any human can ever receive, his crimes were still posted over his head as a shaming reminder to all those who walked by.
So let me ask you something. What is still posted over your head? You may be saved and have truly received Christ’s forgiveness, but if you are like me there may still be some offenses that remain nailed to your cross as painful reminders of the mistakes you have made. Maybe you have not let that sign come down because you know you are guilty and you struggle with removing it as a result. Or perhaps others refuse to take the sign down and continue to point out your past failures even as you try your best to start over. Either way I want to encourage you with something extraordinary… at the moment that Christ chose to grant entry to heaven to this condemned criminal it no longer mattered what his rap sheet contained. His sign and all it contained was no longer able to define him. He was granted eternal life with Christ, and now he is forever remembered as the penitent thief who stuck up for Jesus when it appeared He had nothing left to give in exchange.
Whatever has been hung over your head, I am asking you right now to tear it off your cross and throw it away. Your sign now simply reads “Paid In Full” and is signed by the nail-scarred hand of Jesus Himself. You are not who you were, even if you are still not yet all that you will become. If others still laugh and point at the sign that lists your former failures, remind yourself that Christ never asked the thief what sins he had committed before offering him pardon. He simply offered him eternal life for his confession. Of course you are guilty of sins… we all are. Innocent people don’t need forgiveness, only the guilty do. So rip that sign down along with the nails that were holding it in place over your head, damaging your witness and making you feel dirty and unworthy. Join the thief from the cross, the adulterous woman, the greedy tax collector, the demon-possessed man, and all of the rest of us sinners who Jesus took time out to save.
Salvation is not a fashion parade down the catwalk full of the Hollywood elite while paparazzi snap photos with light bulbs flashing everywhere. It’s a victory party in which the red carpet we walk on is drenched in blood and covered with tears. It’s for all of us damaged and broken sinners who chose to fall on His grace and realize He loves us in spite of our record. We can all celebrate that despite our lengthy history of poor choices He has chosen US. True salvation is a gritty experience in which dirty sinners are washed clean through the bloody and violent execution of our Savior. And now we can replace that laundry list of sins over our heads with “Forgiven by the King of the Jews”. See you in paradise!

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