“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But 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. 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” (Luke 23:39-43).
My family loves to read. So a favorite part of our evening and bedtime rituals is when we sit down together to read a chapter from a book or series. We have certain family favorites that we tend to read through every 2-3 years, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve recently started reading the latter series again, beginning with the first book, The Magician’s Nephew.
One reason I love going back to these family favorites is that, without fail, each time we read them there’s something “new” that stands out and grabs my attention. This is precisely why your pastor encourages you to read through the Bible at least once a year, by the way. Life has a way of changing you, and even in a space of time as short as a single year you’ll discover that passages you’ve read dozens of times have suddenly taken on new meaning.
Reading is an amazing thing because the books and literature you read are informed, very much, by the context of your own life at the moment. If you’ve ever asked someone to name their favorite book, you’ve likely walked away from at least one person thinking, “Really? What on earth is so special about that book?” It’s because they read that particular book at a particular moment in life—perhaps one you haven’t experienced—and what the author had to say about their situation resonated with them.
At any rate, this is exactly what happened as we were reading chapter 3 of The Magician’s Nephew the other night. Our community has a series of Lenten services that travel from church to church, and each week the pastor of that church is “assigned” a topic or Scripture to address. My assigned passage of Scripture was Luke 23:39-43, which I had been “ruminating” on (to steal a Pastor J.H. Osborne term) in preparation for the service.
The title of that chapter, in particular, grabbed me with its poetry—The Wood Between the Worlds.
The Magician’s Nephew
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia is setting the stage for the following books, and introducing the concept that the things of this world are not the only things…or only world.
The story follows two young children, Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke, on an adventure that begins with Digory’s eccentric uncle giving them “magic” rings that will transport them to another world. Only it doesn’t actually transport them to another world, exactly (their uncle has never tried the rings himself, as he’s too cowardly, so he didn’t know what exactly would happen when they used them).
Still with me? Good. (I’m trying to not ruin the story for you…)
So, Digory and Polly aren’t transported to another world, per se, but some sort of “in between” place—a place between worlds. A beautiful wood, with trees and foliage so thick they block out the sun and the whole place is awash in green light. When the children arrive, they lose all sense of time because the place is so utterly peaceful and calm. It’s a place of perfect rest, apparently, this wood between the worlds.
Digory describes the place as “rich—as rich as plumb cake,” and said if anyone ever asked him where he came from, he would have replied, “I’ve always been here.” Serene. Peaceful. Polly’s reaction is exactly that when asked. They both are entranced, in the best of ways, by the wood.
Later in the book, an evil queen, Jadis, comes to the Wood Between the Worlds (sorry for the spoilers) and has quite a different reaction to it altogether. Whereas the children receive rest and their spirits are calmed by the wood, Jadis is sickened and weakened by it. To her it is terrifying and she wants nothing to do with it.
As I said, I can’t escape the beauty and poetry of that term, “The Wood Between the Worlds.” And it struck me so, because the text I had been ruminating on is very much this same kind of place. A different type of wood, of course—the cross—but one that rests, most definitely, between the worlds. Either by choice or by force, every human will have to deal with this wood. The Cross of Calvary. And our reaction to it will be most telling, and make all the difference between which world we end up in.
The Wood Between
There are two ways we can respond to this other kind of wood between the worlds. And I can think of no better example than that given in Luke’s account of the crucifixion and the two thieves, one on either side of Jesus’ cross. Two reactions when faced with our own sin, shame, and unrighteousness:
One, we can thunder against Him and say, “I thought you were supposed to be God? If you’re so great, so powerful and loving, then why can’t you save me from this mess I’m in?” (Nevermind that we’re the ones who made the mess.)
Or, we can look on our situation next to His and say, “I am a sinner. I am undeserving, really, of any good thing. I deserve this punishment.” And then, not out of selfish desperation to save our own skin, but out of that understanding of our judgment being just next to His which was unjust say, “Lord, have mercy on me.”
The world is full of angry people who are angry at God in their self-righteousness, presuming that the Creator of the universe is obliged—as some great, cosmic gumball machine—to make their lives “happy” and smooth. Conversely, there are all too few who can and will recognize that God doesn’t owe us anything. Whatever good that comes our way is due, not to our own goodness or worthiness, but purely to His mercy.
These two thieves are really not too dissimilar. Both are guilty, both have been sentenced and are suffering crucifixion, both see and acknowledge Jesus after hearing His words—
Father, forgive them—and both want, quite desperately I’m sure, to be saved from death. This we have in common with the thieves. We will face judgment one day. And if death were the sentence, none of us would be able to rightly say, “I don’t deserve this.”
It’s precisely because I do deserve it that I rejoice in the Passover season we’re entering. There are things in my life I deserve death for. There is no case or argument persuasive enough to avoid the reality of it. And yet they have been passed over, because they’re under the blood of Jesus.
Are you not the Christ?
I can think of no better summation of the modern attitude towards God than this. It doesn’t matter to the first thief that he is suffering “the due reward of his deeds.” To this type of man, right and wrong are of little or no interest; his only objective is to save himself. Even if he believes Jesus to be the Messiah (which Scripture gives us no indication of), it’s really only a matter of convenience to him. He’ll take anyone who can get him down from his cross. Someone to serve his own purposes.
And this is, indeed, how many relate to God; especially in their suffering. Their test or trial—the cancer, the accident, the family trouble, the marriage issue—interrupts their pursuit of worldly pleasure. So, “fine,” they say. “I’ll try God and see if He can get me out of this. Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
There is no brokenness. No humility, admission of guilt, or penitence. Unmoved by their own guilt and sin, they fail to recognize Jesus as a King to be followed, and Father to be loved.
John Piper once called this line of thinking “the old car-jack theology,” saying, “A car-jack is a dirty, useless thing to be kept out of sight in the trunk until you have a flat tire (a little suffering). Then you get it out, let it do the dirty work, and put it away again. ‘If you’re such a good jack, jack me down off this cross, Jesus. If you’re such a good jack, jack me up out of this sickness, out of this financial mess, out of this lousy job, out of this crummy marriage.’”
“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
People hear the message of Jesus Christ—talk of His Kingship and authority—and respond by saying it’s foolishness; interested only in how His Kingship serves them.
When Jesus had finished feeding the 5,000 there was a great crowd following Him (and we think it’s a new thing that people only show up for church when there’s food involved). Jesus finally turns to them and says, “You’re only here because I fed you. You’re here for bread and fish, but unless you drink my blood, and eat my flesh, you can have no part of me.”
How did the crowd react? “That’s foolishness.” Their bellies were full, their worldly needs met, so they had no further use for Jesus. All but the disciples leave, and Jesus then says, “Do you want to leave me, too?”
Peter’s response is what Jesus is looking for. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”
Learning From a Thief
We can learn a great many things from the response of the second thief.
He is undeterred by what the first thief has to say. If we’re to follow his example, we’ll have to learn to stand our ground and not get sucked in to arguments from people who ask, “If God is so great, then why did [this thing] happen?” This is different from genuine, anguished questions of “why,” asked with the understanding that God is just even when we don’t understand. The “thing” changes, but the argument is the same regardless of the subject—“if God doesn’t fix things the way I want them, then He must not be God.”
The repentant thief rejects this argument, saying, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?” The Creator God was beside him, and he seemed to recognize it and fear Him.
“…And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds…”
All efforts to save face or appear righteous have been abandoned. He has ceased to assert his innocence. He felt the full weight of David’s words in the Psalms, “my sin is ever before me (51:3).”
Not only did he admit his guilt, but he accepted that he deserved the punishment.
“…but this man hath done nothing amiss…”
The first thief didn’t care about the injustice being done to Jesus, so long as He could get him out of his situation. But Jesus is not looking to save the selfish or enable the error. He is a king to be followed. And we must say with the repentant thief, “This man—this man has done nothing wrong. He only does what is good. I don’t always understand it, but I know that He does and speaks only Truth.”
“… 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.”
The repentant thief acknowledges the authority and Kingship of Jesus. He recognizes Jesus’ power, even in suffering, and makes a plea for Jesus to save him, even in his guilt.
The Wood Between the Worlds
There is no recorded response to the first thief. Which, to me, is terrifying—to have been so close to the Creator only to lose out because of his own arrogance and pride. To the penitent thief, however, Jesus simply says, “Today you’ll be with me.”
We witness in this short passage two very different reactions to the cross—The Wood Between the Worlds. And a principle is established. The response of God is given, and the promise of paradise established, with those who repent and recognize their need for Him. Both wanted to be saved, but only the truly repentant is promised salvation.
This Easter is a wonderful opportunity to bring someone to the cross. To introduce them to The King, in this Wood Between the Worlds, and the possibility of entering into something they have never and will never experience in this world.