We’ve all heard sermons about this man and his salvation. He’s the classic example of one being saved who could do nothing at all to earn or merit it. He was nailed to a cross. Just hours away from death. He was guilty by this world’s standards, let alone heaven’s standards. Yet he was saved. There’s hope for the least and the worst. There’s hope for you. And me.
At the same time, there’s more to his conversion than might meet the eye at first reading. It wasn’t just some simple “accept Jesus,” with no idea of what was really going on. In fact, this “criminal” puts many of us to shame with his understanding of who this One next to him was. Granted, he didn’t start there, but he finished there. That’s what’s important.
Let’s look at what happened.
1. Condemnation. Matthew and Mark both tell us two criminals were crucified with our Lord. Matthew tells us that they were robbers. And they joined in with the onlookers in reviling the Lord Jesus, Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32.
2. Conviction. Luke alone records this: Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong,” Luke 23:40, 41.
What happened? May we suggest several things.
We can’t even begin to visualize the scene. I admit I haven’t seen The Passion of Christ or other movies attempting to portray this event, but I know beyond any doubt that they don’t even begin to “tell it like it is”. They can’t; we’re too far removed from that mindset, with our emphasis on “criminal rights,” and making sure they get a “fair trial.” Such fantasies were a long ways beyond the savagery of that time. “Special effects” may be realistic, but we know in the back of our minds that they aren’t “real.” This was.
Executions were public, held out in the open. We’ve no way of knowing what kind of “crowds” they might have drawn. There were people there, though. Matthew 27:39, 40 even speaks of those who were simply passing by. Then there were those who were “watching,” namely, the Roman soldiers, Matthew 27:36, though they were just doing their job. There were many women, looking from far off, Matt. 27:55. There was the apostle John, supporting Mary, the mother of our Lord, John 19:25. Perhaps as the scene drew to its ugly end, the women came nearer the Cross, for John describes them as being close to it, John 19:25, 26. And there were the chief priests, scribes and elders gloating over this One who had dared to question their authority and teaching, Matthew 27:41-43. How they hated Him and His teaching. Finally, they thought, they were done with Him. How little they understood of what they were doing!
Through his own agony and despair, the thief saw all this. Both thieves saw it. They heard the derision of the crowds shouting their insults and blasphemies at the Man in the center.
“You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the Cross!”
“He saved others others; Himself He cannot save.”
Devilish taunt expressing a truth far beyond those uttering it.
“If He is the King of Israel, let Him come down from the cross and we will believe Him.”
He did come down from the Cross, and they still didn’t believe Him.
“He said He trusted in God, let’s see if God will have Him!”
Even the thieves yelled at Him.
“Hey, ‘King of Israel!’ Save yourselves and us! Come on! Get us down from here!”
As this went on, one of the thieves began to notice there was something different about this Man in the middle, something wrong. He was hanging there naked, just like they were. He had been condemned, just like they had. He was suffering, just like they were.
There was something.
What was it….?
As the soldiers were driving in the spikes that would hold the Son of Man to the cross, the thief heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
“Forgive…?” That certainly wasn’t what he’d said!
Then he saw, rather than heard, an exchange between an onlooker and this One. After a few words from the Cross, the thief saw the man put his arm around a sobbing woman and gently lead her away….
Who was this, who was concerned about a mere woman in the midst of His own agony? …who could forgive His tormentors?
Who WAS He?
As he came from his musing, he heard the other thief cursing and swearing.
“If you’re the Messiah, then do something! Save Yourself and get us down from here!”
He felt a stirring in his soul. Later men would call it “the quickening of the Spirit,” but he didn’t know anything about that. He just knew that he was suddenly sick of it all. It was too much. He wanted to be done with it, even if it was too late.
“Stop it!” he exclaimed to the other man. “Don’t you fear God at all! You’re about to die, yourself. We’re just getting what we deserve. But this One,” he nodded his head toward Christ, “this One hasn’t done anything wrong.”
He was as sure of Jesus’ innocence as he was of his own guilt, more than even the Romans knew about. He had seen Him show compassion, pray for forgiveness – for His executioners!
He couldn’t understand anything of what was going on. He remembered what little he’d heard from the Rabbis and others as they talked about the coming kingdom. How they expected Him to throw off the Roman yoke and free Israel. Yet here was the King – he knew that – here was the King, hanging on a cross just like he was. He didn’t understand it at all. He just knew one thing –
Yes, He was Lord, the thief knew that, too, not just “Jesus of Nazareth,” not just another condemned man on a Cross. He was Lord.
“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Just remember me, that’s all I ask. I don’t deserve even that, but “remember me” if you will. He didn’t understand all the nuances of what he was asking or how the kingdom would come, with its King being executed in front of him…. He just knew, somehow, this wasn’t the end. When that happened, he knew, just to be remembered by this One would be more than enough.
Jesus looked at him.
The two men looked at each other.
“Truly,” said Jesus, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
The robber would have been overjoyed to be “remembered”…”when.” He was promised, “today.” And not just “remembered,” but would be “with” Him in paradise. Again, he didn’t understand all that was involved, but it was enough.
Men have looked at this in various ways. Some have tried to change the meaning around altogether; they have Jesus saying, “Truly I say to you today, you will be with Me in paradise.” But this same sentence structure occurs numerous times in the NT and even in their own translation, they have the comma before “today,” or whatever other word is there. Only in this place do they change the meaning of what the Lord said to something completely different.
Another man, a Reformed pastor, quoted it, “Today you will be with Me in my kingdom.” That’s not what the Lord said. It isn’t the purpose of this post to discuss what He meant, or the importance of what the Scripture actually says, as opposed to what our doctrine says it says. It’s enough that He gave the thief on the cross what he wanted, indeed, infinitely more than he wanted. He does that, gives us way beyond what we can ask or even think, Ephesians 3:20, 21.
Before that day was over, the soldiers broke the legs of two thieves in order to make them die more quickly. When the one thief got to the other side, Jesus was waiting there, to welcome him home.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day,
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.