Seeing beyond the obvious
In a spoof science fiction series, Ford Prefect, is an alien trapped on earth for longer than he intended. This gave him ample time to observe humans and one of the things he noticed was the fact that we are very good at stating the blindingly obvious, such as "it's a nice day" or "Oh dear, you appear to have fallen down a large hole" (Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy). It is funny largely because it is accurate. But what about seeing beyond the obvious? Seeing that which is hidden? In the wild and rugged features of Tolkien's Strider, few would have seen the regal features of Aragorn the rightful king of Gondor. As Gandalf remarks,
"All that is gold does not glisten
not all those who wander are lost" (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings).
Sometimes there are profoundly important things lying just beneath the surface, below the blindingly obvious. The most important of these is the cross. To the world it looks like a tragic end to a promising life. But to Christians it is the very wisdom of God, because on that day Jesus bore (willingly and uncoerced) the sins of all who will come to him in faith. The result is that we need not fear the coming judgement of God against sin.
But it all looks very different that day outside the walls of Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. As Jesus is crucified as a common criminal, those around him can only see the obvious; a man dying a horrible death. The religious elite mocked him. "He saved others," they said, "but he cannot save himself." Passers-by also mocked him. His own disciples, barring John, had fled and left him. Even John could only see the terrible end of his friend's life. The two criminals executed with him also jeered.
But then something stunning happened. One of the two criminals stops jeering. And he says the most astounding thing. He says, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). And Jesus replies by telling him that that very day, he would be with Jesus in paradise. "Here was a faith able to see the glory of Jesus at its most hidden, stripped not only of divine majesty but of human dignity: helpless, battered, bloodied, mortal, derided" (Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified, (Nottingham: IVP, 2014), 44). If ever anyone said something the precise opposite of the blindingly obvious it was this man. "No-one ever again came to faith in such circumstances" (Macleod, 44). Truly his is, from a human perspective, an utterly baffling faith, especially viewed from his side of the resurrection, not knowing what we now know.
To see what he saw, something special must have happened. Was it how Jesus died? For sure that seems to have impacted the hard-bitten centurion, used to seeing gruesome deaths. It tells us in Mark's gospel, that when that centurion saw the way that Jesus died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" But when the thief on the cross makes his request to Jesus, when he sees what he sees, this was still future. Something special is happening that day. And this thief, or more likely brigand, was the first to see it. He sees what no one else around the cross gets to see at that moment. He sees what those who have lived with Jesus day in and day out for three years, and had been repeatedly forewarned about, did not see right then. He sees the majesty of Jesus precisely in that lowest of low points.
And he is not part of the religiously trained. He is no scribe pouring over the Scriptures. He is, by his own admission, a justly condemned criminal. And it is he who gets it first! He sees a true King on his way to His Kingdom via a cruel and barbarous cross.
So how does someone like that, who moments before was joining in the chorus of mockery flung at Jesus, come to see something so far from the blindingly obvious that no one else was seeing it? The answer comes in the second letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. In chapter 2 he says that the only way people can get to see the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus is by a divine and supernatural light breaking into their hearts and giving them sight. Here is what Paul wrote;
"...what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).
The thief on the cross, someone with no time left to put his house in order, to earn his way to heaven, has that light gloriously shone into his heart so that he is able to see what no one else sees. And his very simple statement of faith, simple but astonishing, is what leads to Jesus telling him that he will join him in paradise. If anyone demonstrated tow important truths it is him. The first is that we cannot see the truth about Jesus unless God first opens our eyes. The second is that, once he has done so, and we have believed in the glory of Jesus Christ, nothing more is needed for us to be saved.