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version—it has a bearing upon the subject of very late, what are called, death. bed repentances. And there is the fear, lest, in speaking without due thoughtfulness and caution, something should be said, either, on the one side, so as to minister to presumption and false security, or, on the other, so as to take away hope, where rather it needs to be confirmed and encouraged.
But, first, let us review the Gospel narrative of what took place. “And with Him (we read) they crucify two thieves, the one on His right hand, the other on His left. And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, And He was numbered with the transgressors.” These companions in our Lord's sufferings, it would appear from St. Matthew and St. Mark, both of them, even while hanging on either side of Jesus, joined in the reproaches which the Chief Priests were casting out against Him. But very soon there was a great change. For one of them, deeply impressed by our Lord's whole demeanour in their common sufferings on the way to the place of crucifixion, and by the words of prayer he had heard Him utter for His murderers, and perhaps by what passed in Pilate's judgment-hall (as Pilate himself had been), and at the same time softened by his own afflictions, and brought to a full consciousness of his own evil deeds, underwent a blessed change, and came to a better mind.
The account of what passed afterwards is given only by St. Luke. And from his narrative it would rather appear as if the penitent had not taken part in the revilings of his companion in guilt and punishment. “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us.” Perhaps it is the better way to understand both the accounts as strictly true, but referring to different times. St. Matthew and St. Mark, speaking of what both the thieves did at first-St. Luke, of what took place after they had been hanging some time, when observation of our Lord's whole behaviour, and his own sufferings, and reflections upon his own case, had wrought a change in the heart of one of them. Then afterwards “the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation ? And we indeed justly; for we receive, the due reward of our deeds : but this Man hath done nothing amiss.” “From which words it is evident that he had known something before of our Blessed Lord, of the circumstances of
His condemnation, or something else, which assured him of our Lord's innocence.” Then the Evangelist proceeds : “And he said unto Jesus, LORD, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” Behold the riches of God's grace' and mercy, who first by His inward working puts it into the heart to cry unto Him, and then is wont to give more than either we desire or deserve. The penitent asked only remembrance, when Christ should enter into His kingdom, and the LORD granted him an immediate place in it. “ To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.”
Thus to the end did our Blessed Lord display His compassion and lovingkindness, thus did He place opportunity of good in the way of all, who were brought near to Him, and graciously and considerately, even in the midst of all the circumstances of His Passion, measure out their portions to each in various ways, according to their several capacities for profiting. If they employed what He set before them, their eyes even then might have been opened to the things, which belonged unto their peace. Thus did He deal very mercifully as well towards the rebellious city and her children, towards Pilate, towards the Chief Priests, and even towards Judas, as towards His Apostles, and Peter in particular, and lastly, in this crowning act of sovereign mercy towards the penitent thief. Fit accompaniment to the great work of love which He was hastening to fulfil, were His dealings towards these several parties : very fit that God's very work of perfect love should be ministered to, at every step in the way to its completion, by exercises of the same Divine temper in all imaginable forms: very fit that as the great concluding mercy was for all, so should there have been acts of mercy going before towards all, yea, even towards those who, “like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ears, refused to hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely 1.”
But I observed, that our Blessed Lord measured out their portions to each, according to the aptness of each to lay hold on and profit by that, which was offered. And as in the case of the penitent thief, the mercy shown surpasses any recorded in the Gospel, it is well that we have his case clearly before us, lest we suffer its comfort, and encouragement to minister to presumption and false hope.
1 Psalm lviii. 4, 5.
His case has been thus described by the writer already often quoted. “In the depth of our Lord's extreme humiliation, when even the disciples had fled, and doubted, and denied, and the beloved disciple alone of all the world been found faithful, the penitent thief showed in this instance a combination of humility, charity, faith, and fear of God, such as indicated a thorough conversion of heart ; a state of mind, which was marked by these qualities in the highest degree. At a time when, to worldly eyes, the King and the Kingdom appear so utterly beyond acceptance and belief, as to be a matter of scorn and ridicule, this penitent acknowledged Him as his LORD, and his King, as one having power to save from death. Our LORD was set before him, not in His miracles, not in His authoritative teaching, not as pointed out by prophecies, not as proclaimed by the Great Forerunner. But as He had said to Pilate, that he who was of the truth would hear His voice, so is He known to this penitent thief, and acknowledged ; acknowledged too by a confession almost beyond every other acknowledgment during our Lord's life. The spiritual nature of His kingdom is acknowledged, His heavenly kingship: He is not only acknowledged but defended, when all the world is against Him, and no other is found to maintain His cause. Here is humble confession of unworthiness, “we receive the due reward of our deeds,” and “he that confesseth his sins shall find mercy.” Here is reverential fear of God expressed, and acknowledgment of His judgments, “ dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation, and we indeed justly?” and “he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Here is love to man shown in concern for the other thief ; love to God in submission to His judgments, and in defending Christ; and “charity shall cover the multitude of sins." Here is faith of the highest kind attributing the power to perform : and hope of the highest kind, that looks to nothing less than a heavenly Kingdom. And as the first to enter into Paradise with CHRIST, he is perhaps set forth as an example of that temper, which is required of all, who would enter there. For he has most attained unto Evangelical righteousness, who is the most thoroughly penitent, the most truly humbled.”
Some have thought, that the case of the penitent thief is in all its parts so peculiar, that it is not safe to draw any conclusions in respect of the Divine mercies towards great offenders, who turn to God very late : for that the like occasion for holy dispositions so exemplarily shown never can precisely occur. But it seems a juster and a better view, to believe that no word or act of our Blessed LORD—and especially at such a time—can have emptied its force and meaning upon any one individual, or set of persons. And good men, the best instructed in God's holy Word, in all ages, have not feared to speak of it as a most merciful token for the encouragement of all penitents, whenever turning to God. One such writer has in these few words set forth what seems the safest and best conclusion to be drawn from this most wonderful conversion. “One sinner is converted at the hour of death, therefore hope ; and but one, therefore fear?”
There are a few comforting remarks in respect of God's dealings with men, about which doubting thoughts sometimes arise, which may have an appropriate place here. It is continually the case, that by protracted sickness, or accident, or old age, people's active powers are reduced to a state of uselessness. They seem to have been withdrawn from every purpose of life; they become helpless in body, and enfeebled in mind, and seem as if nothing was left but to die. In this pause there may be opportunity for a great work within—the greatest and most important work of a whole life, if it be heartily grappled with, and to the best of the ability that remains. Much may go on within, which eye of man cannot mark, and which the tongue of him, in whom it is going on, cannot express and cannot judge of, or which in his humility and self-distrust he would not wish, or would fear, to express : while outwardly little can be done. The thief hung motionless upon the cross, and spoke but a few words, but within him the work of the saving of his soul went on. He practised humility—he confessed his sin—he allowed the justice of all he endured—he was patienthe reproved impenitence and profaneness in another-he preached CHRIST—he turned all his thoughts from earth heavenward-he acknowledged a power he did not see, which was by all around him set at nought and contemned—the placed his whole case in
Christ's hands—he trusted all to Him, and solely to His mercy. And since a bed of sickness, or old age, or other helplessness admit of the exercise of these acts; and since we cannot certainly pronounce upon how, and when, the work, of which these are but parts, may begin, or proceed, or terminate, let this teach us to look with other eyes (than many do) upon the case of persons, whom it pleases God to reduce to such condition, and so to lengthen out their days. Let it be without impatience, without indifference, with attention and watchfulness, as though we were gazing on some mysterious event in Divine Providence, the meaning of which we cannot penetrate. It may be that a work is being forwarded within, or even it may be that it has to be well nigh begun, in which God will be the doer and not man. God may bring the work of a life even into this narrow span of feebleness. “ Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the CREATOR of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength 3.” What may be God's purpose in lengthening out a life of helpless feebleness and suffering, it becomes us not to pronounce. Still less should we venture to pronounce that it is. lengthened without purpose to the sufferer.
Thus I have endeavoured on these days to direct your thoughts towards the Cross and Sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in such sort as to move our love towards Him, for His great love towards us, particularly by tracing the forbearance, gentleness, mercy, and considerateness shown by Him towards all, who were brought near to Him, whether in love or enmity, and who took part in the proceedings of these days. And in what He showed towards them, we may read His continued lovingkindness and forbearance towards us.
May we carry away some good thought or resolution with us, from the reflections, in which we have been engaged. Would they might assist any one towards a habit of frequent meditation on subjects in our Blessed Lord's life in the flesh, but specially on the mysteries of His Cross and Passion. Neither will they have been without purpose, if there be one
3 Isa. xl. 28, 29.