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MATTH. Xxvii. 38.
There were two thieves crucified with bim; one
on the right band, the other on the left.
We have here an exhibition of two men, in the same situation, suffering the same punishment for the like crimes from the civil power ; but in their end and apparent future destiny, the most opposite that can be conceived.
It must raise more than a bare curiosity, it must give us an interested concern, to know what there could be that could make such an infinite difference betwist those, who in other respects so much resembled each other; so that one should be seen to go out of the world with such dispositions as must make him ever miserable so long as they continue;
whilst the other receives the approbation of him, who spoke with authority from God, and gave him an assurance of future happiness. For no other construction can we put upon that answer of our Saviour to the man's humble application to him at the moment ; (Luke xxiii. 42.) “ Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”
It has been, indeed, matter of dispute, when this promised happiness was to com
whether the instant the man died, i.c. a few hours after he had made his request; or not till the resurrection at the last day of this world, which is the general period of retribution assigned by Christ and his apostles. And that only the latter was or could be intended, I remember some years ago to have pointed out to you.
I am to call your attention, at present, to inquire into the grounds of the prodigious preference given to one of these men above the other ; and particularly on account of the strange interpretation some put upon it: and it will lead us to many useful reflections.
I. It has been said, that this was not owing to any
difference of the characters of the two men, at the time that they were hung upon the cross ; but the change was made suddenly afterwards in one of them. For that he that became the penitent joined at first with his fellow-criminal in impiously railing at our Saviour.
And this conclusion has been thought to be supported by the narrative of two of the evangelists, (Matt. xxvii. 44. Mark. xv. 32.) who both say, that " they that were crucified with him reviled.” Speaking as if there was the same behaviour at first, of both.
But, as has often been observed by others ; it is an obvious and just rule, for the understanding of the same passages of the Gospelhistory, recorded by the different evangelists ; as it is indeed the same in other parallel authentic histories, “ that when two or three of them relate the same story, but one more particularly and distinctly than the others, the full account of it is to be taken and learned from him who enters into the circumstances the most minutely. Now, Matthew and Mark stay not to
enter into particulars, but to relate, that their divine Master · was cruelly insulted in his last extremities, by men of all ranks, their rulers, the Pharisees, the Roman soldiers : amongst these they enumerate in a summary way,
those that were crucified with him.
Luke chose to be more exact and distinct in this instance.“ And one of the malefactors, (says he) which were hanged, railed on him, saying, If thou be the Christ, save thyself, and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying, Dost thou not 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."
Such variations as these in the relations of the different evangelists, of some lesser incidents, which show that they did not write in concert, but are so many separate independent witnesses ; instead of weakening, do tend mightily to corroborate their general testimony, and the truth of the main facts of their history.
II. It is nevertheless maintained, that this man,
now so penitent and pious, had been equally wicked and hardened all along with the other, who remained the same and unaltered ; and that the happy change in him, was wrought all at once, as he hung upon the cross, by an act of sovereign grace, being instantly transformed from a great sinner, into a holy and godlike person, and fixed in the divine favour
No one will question the extraordinary power of God, when there are just grounds of evidence given that he really does exert it. But we ought not to make such suppositions, and multiply miraculous interpositions, when we can account for things in a natural manner, and in the ordinary way of the divine government and dealings with mankind.
And the history of this nian, so far as we can make it out from the imperfect hints afforded, will satisfy ús, that he had not been originally, nor was at the last, the bad character he is by some supposed to have been.
St. Luke calls the two men, who were condemned to suffer death at the same time with our Lord, malefactors. But Matthew and Mark denote them by a word which we trans