Oftentimes, we may wonder if the thief on the cross was the luckiest person on earth! Because we think he sinned as much as he could, but went to paradise when he died, don’t we? What a happy ending! Isn’t that what everyone wants?
Although not everyone ends up being a criminal in life, some want to enjoy a sinful lifestyle as long as they live in this world. But, when they die, they want to go to heaven. If Christianity gave a guarantee that God would take those who just say a prayer before they die to heaven, then who would not want to live like that?
But if we pay closer attention to what actually happened to the thief on the cross, we will discover that something supernatural happened to him. The thief was born-again! He repented of his sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as the only hope of his salvation. In this article, I want to show you how God saves sinners, even the vilest of sinners with his infinite power and compassion.
The good news is: even if you are the most wicked person in the world, if you repent of your sins and come to Jesus, there is hope!
The Thief’s Observation of JesusHistorians talk about why the ‘Roman cross’ was the most shameful and painful form of punishment that was reserved for criminals. The Romans might have used this extreme form of punishment to instigate fear, suppress any possible insurrection and take revenge against their enemies. So, these two criminals who were crucified with Christ must have either been bandits that murdered and looted people or rebels that were against Roman rule. The Bible records that both men acknowledged that they justly deserved the sentence of death on a cross (Lk. 23: 41).
Although all four gospels talk about the crucifixion of the thieves with our Lord (Matt. 27:38- 44, Mk. 15:27-32, Lk. 23:39-43, Jn. 19:18), it is the evangelist, Luke, who goes a step further and gives us the extra detail that is necessary for a better perspective on them.
As Jesus was hanging helplessly on the cross, there was none that did not revile him or insult him or curse him or abuse him. It looked like many observers took turns to abuse the Son of God one after another. Earlier on, Luke records that the crowd were urgent, demanding with loud cries together, “Crucify him” (Matt. 27:23b). Once the soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross, the passers-by began to vent their anger against him. After they were done with their vendetta, it was the chief priests, the scribes and the elders who said “He saved others…but he can’t save himself! He is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him…” (Matt. 27:41-42). Now, these two rebels joined the bandwagon of insulting and ridiculing Jesus Christ (Matt. 27:44). We do not know what exactly they said to Jesus, but they must have said something blasphemous, insulting and hurtful to him.
Initially, both the criminals reviled Jesus. But as time went by, one continued to revile him and the other began to change and see who Jesus really was. In addition to the unimaginable pain and excruciating agony inflicted by His Father because of our sins (Is. 53:4, 1 Pet. 2:24), Jesus also endured all the mental and physical persecution by his enemies. In the midst of all that, Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). The thief must have wondered how Jesus could do that! The thief could not help but notice the difference between the others and Jesus.
The Thief’s ConfessionIf we place ourselves in the thief’s shoes, it was obvious that a lot was going on both within his head and heart. He must have been overwhelmed with what he was witnessing. In the light of Christ’s crucifixion and his enemies’ accusation, there were three important confessions the thief made which are absolutely crucial for every sinner to be reconciled to God.
First of all, the thief acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. When the other thief said “aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us!” (Lk. 23:39). This thief rebuked him by saying “Don’t you fear God?” And he also said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). The Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would usher them into a new kingdom by conquering all their enemies (Mk. 8:31,32). And, by acknowledging Jesus’s kingship and his future kingdom, the thief acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
Secondly, the thief acknowledged his sin and rebellion against God and his guilt before him. When he rebuked the other thief, he said, “Don’t you fear God…since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve…” (Lk. 23:40-41). The thief acknowledges that he is under the condemnation of God because of his sins. He doesn’t justify or excuse himself for his actions. He understands that he deserves punishment for what he has done. He now sees that God has every right to punish him and banish him to hell forever. He doesn’t protest.
Thirdly, the thief acknowledges that it was only Jesus who could save him. That is why he cried out to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42). The very word ‘Jesus’ is self-explanatory. ‘Jesus’ means saviour. It dawns on the thief that his real need in life is not for the days of his life to be extended, but for his sins to be forgiven. When the thief sees Jesus being crucified, even though he had done nothing wrong (Lk. 23:41), he now understands Jesus is being punished for someone else’s sins. He sees the connection between Jesus’s punishment and his own sins. The thief understands that Jesus is being punished on behalf of his sins. He begs Jesus for forgiveness by saying “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. What a request! What a Saviour!
Jesus’s Promise to the ThiefLooking at the deep anguish the thief was in, Jesus said “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:42). Jesus’s promise to the thief is an indication that the thief not only repented of his sins, but also trusted in him for his salvation. When the thief begged for forgiveness, he was cleansed from his sins and his debt was cleared. The thief is now reconciled to God because he trusted in Christ to be his saviour.
The bad news is: if you trust in your own righteousness and don’t see your need for the Saviour, you are heading for judgement and eternal destruction.
So, here is both good news and the bad news. The good news is: even if you are the most wicked person in the world, if you repent of your sins and come to Jesus, there is hope! Jesus never casts away those who come to him at any given point of time in their lives (the earlier you come to Jesus the better). The bad news is: if you trust in your own righteousness and don’t see your need for the Saviour, you are heading for judgement and eternal destruction. Even if you are the nicest person in the world! There are no second chances. Once we die, we will never have any opportunity to be reconciled with God.
Jesus gives the ultimate assurance and hope to the thief by saying “…today, you will be with me in paradise”. The word ‘today’ indicates immediacy and the word ‘paradise’ indicates a place where God dwells (2 Cor. 12:3, Rev. 2:7). Incidentally, it is a grave distortion of the text and several other texts to say that our souls will go to a temporary place once we die and then will be purged at the request of Mother Mary or some other saint (see Lk. 16:22-23, Acts 7:54-59, Phil. 1:20-24, and 2 Cor. 5:1-10). This is an invention of Roman Catholic theology, which has no biblical basis whatsoever. In Luke 23:41, the words “you will be with me” make all the difference in the world. If we put aside for a second what paradise means and where it is, Jesus is assuring the thief he will be with him once his life comes to a close.
If Christ isn’t present in paradise, it isn’t paradise, it is something else. If Christ cannot take the thief with him after he dies, Jesus becomes a liar. His promise to the thief becomes an empty promise. However, Jesus cannot lie and contradict himself (Jn. 14:6).
Commenting on the thief of the cross, Philip Graham Ryken says “… but of all the criminals on all the crosses outside all the cities in the entire Roman Empire, the man happened to get crucified next to Jesus, and as a result, he had the chance to be saved before he died. How lucky can a man get? So “lucky” that he is still alive today, in the paradise of God.”1 My friend, if you’re a believer, be assured of the fact that we will be with Christ as soon as we depart from this world. What a joy and what a privilege! If you have not yet trusted in Christ, why do you not want to be with Christ in paradise when you die and drink from the everlasting springs that satisfy your soul forever? Come! Repent and trust in Jesus!
1 Ryken, P. G. (2009). Luke. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 2, p. 593). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.