Beautiful words about God can be spoken in ugly places. They’re uttered by those selling their bodies in brothels, lurking among unorthodox misfits, and taking their last breath in execution chambers.
The Lord is bizarre; there’s no telling where he might hammer together a temporary pulpit.
In Israel’s youthful days, for instance, a Jericho sex worker named Rahab delivered quite a noble and moving testimony about the unparalleled nature of the God of Israel. Or listen to how a Samaritan woman described the Messiah’s work: “He will explain everything to us,” (John 4:25). Isn’t that a deliciously precise creed? This lady, an unorthodox member of a hated sectarian movement, revealed that the Father’s Anointed is the embodiment and revelation of all wisdom.
But perhaps my favorite example of a good confession in a bad situation was uttered by a convict during his protracted execution. Tradition has dubbed him everything from Dismas to Titus to Rakh. But we usually call him “the thief on the cross.”
His nine words in Greek translate into nine words in English: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (Luke 23:43). These are the only recorded words of this man. Of course, never in his wildest imagination would he have dreamt that every year, for centuries on end, he—a good-for-nothing, a lawbreaker, a bad and broken and bleeding man—would preach his brief but eloquent sermon in churches around the globe.
But isn’t that just like God, to chisel the rasping, gasping plea of a dying man into undying stones of remembrance?
And isn’t it just like God, to use this seemingly untheological crook, who was executed by a worldly kingdom, to teach us the theology of an entirely different kind of kingdom?
Autobasileia: The Kingdom in Person
People in the Bible often say more than they realize. Their words, conceived by the Spirit, are pregnant with prophecy. Our dying friend was certainly like this. What he meant by Jesus “coming into his kingdom” is uncertain. But what the Spirit meant, who inspired this unlikely prophet, is much clearer.
Where is the kingdom of God? We can’t use the GPS on our iPhones to pinpoint it. Nor was it an ethereal location galaxies away in heaven to which Jesus was journeying. So he couldn’t really “come into” his kingdom, like one comes to a town or house or faraway planet.
Indeed, the kingdom of God is not a place, a thing, a concept, a philosophy, a spiritual force, or a state of being. The kingdom of God is a person. In the splendid language of Origen, a 3rd c. teacher of the church, Jesus is autobasileia, “the kingdom itself” or “the kingdom in person.”
The way Jesus “came into his kingdom” was precisely by being himself—the great “I Am,” Yahweh in the flesh, a human being fully divine, whose mission was, by drawing all people into himself, to recreate humanity in his own person as the New Adam over a New Creation.
Thus, he says to the thief, “Truly I say to you, ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise,’” (Luke 23:43). This word “Paradise” (παραδείσῳ) is the same word used in the Greek translation of the OT to describe the “garden” which God planted in Eden (Gen. 2:8). What is Jesus saying? “Today, with me, in me, as part of my body, you will become part of a new creation, for I have come to reconstitute everything—including you—in myself.”
In other words, the dying thief is about to truly live in the one who is Life itself. A few feet away from him hangs the kingdom of God in person. The autobasileia. The kingdom with skin on it. Today, this believer, executed for his crimes, is exalted in the Christ. Though he die, yet shall he live in the new and better Garden of the kingdom of God called the body of Jesus.
As it was for this man, who was crucified with Jesus, so it is for all of us who are crucified with Jesus. In baptism we are co-crucified with him, sink into his grave, and enter into his own death. The apostle says “we buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” (Rom. 6:4).
We enter a novel kind of life. It’s a Jesus-life, if you will. Since we’ve been crucified with Jesus by the liquid nails of baptism, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. We have died and our lives are concealed with Christ in the Father. Who we are is wholly subsumed by who he is. We are all part of his body, his flesh, his very being.
In short, we are in the King who is the kingdom.
The next time you hear about the thief on the cross, say a short prayer of thanks for this man. He may have done many bad things, but at the end of his life, he gave us a good confession. We can repeat it every day, and every day know that it is heard. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus will respond, “I tell the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And he means it, for every day we are alive in Jesus, we are in the paradise of the kingdom that is himself.