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"Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called 'The Skull', there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.' And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, 'He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One!' The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, 'If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!' One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!' But the other 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 in your kingdom.' And he said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'"
- Luke 23: 32-37, 39-43

Let's face it: forgiveness is not a natural human trait. When someone does something bad to us, we want to do something bad right back. We want REVENGE. Thus, one of the hardest parts about becoming more 'Christ-like' in our daily lives - in other words, learning to react to things that happen to us the way Jesus would react - is developing the ability to allow God's love to overcome our natural human desire to strike back.

As usual, Jesus Himself provides the greatest example of the power of forgiveness. I'm sure that when he told His followers during the Sermon on the Mount (and undoubtedly many other times during His three year ministry), "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Matthew 5: 44) some of the people listening thought that this was a much easier thing for Jesus to say than to do. When the time came, however, Jesus demonstrated that He wasn't all talk. He did exactly what He told others to do: He forgave His persecutors, and prayed that God the Father might not hold these sins against them. The most innocent victim of all time, the one person who has ever walked the earth who never did anything deserving ANY kind of punishment, much less death, was still able to love those who hated Him and were having Him killed.

There's an added dimension to this passage that we can discover by looking at the original Greek text. In the Greek language there are additional verb tenses that English doesn't have. Two of these are the 'perfect' and 'imperfect' tenses. The perfect tense indicates completed action. The imperfect tense, on the other hand, implies repeated action. In verse 34 of this passage - "And Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.'" - the Greek word translated 'said' is in the imperfect tense. This means that Jesus said it over and over, every time He was verbally or physically abused.

Some people point to different passages about the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus and claim a contradiction. Indeed, the accounts of Matthew and Mark do state that both of the thieves reviled Jesus. Is this a contradiction, or is something deeper going on here? I think the use of the imperfect tense for Jesus' prayer of forgiveness gives us the crucial clue. I believe that at first, both thieves DID revile Jesus. But as one of them continued to watch the abuse that was being heaped on Jesus, and how each time He responded by praying for His persecutors, over and over, something began to happen in his heart. This thief began to understand that the man hanging beside him was no ordinary criminal - indeed, that this was no criminal at all. This was someone who was so filled with love and compassion that He couldn't possibly be guilty of any crime.

So when the second thief again began to deride Jesus, the other could stand it no longer. Though he may not have completely understood that Jesus was God, he certainly perceived that God was within Him, and so he came to Jesus' defense. And then, this convicted criminal humbled himself before Jesus - and received His assurance that he would shortly join Jesus in Paradise.

If there was ever a proof text for salvation by faith apart from works, this would have to be it. The thief on the cross had a lifetime of wrongdoing behind him, and never had a chance to do any good works, or even to be baptized. Yet he received eternal life, simply by trusting in Jesus. The power of forgiveness first impressed him, then convicted him of his own sin and unworthiness, and finally was poured out upon him by Jesus Himself.

May all of us look upon Jesus on the cross and see God, the way the thief did. And in each day of our lives, let us resolve to follow Jesus' example of love and forgiveness, even toward those who may persecute us unjustly. As the story of the thief on the cross shows, unqualified forgiveness is a powerful witness of the presence of God in a person's heart, and can bear truly remarkable fruit.

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