When Jesus was crucified, two men were executed alongside him. English Bibles sometimes call them ‘thieves’, but this is really too soft. The kind of person who would receive the death penalty by crucifixion in the Romans Empire were the very worst of people. These men were possibly part of the same group of murderous insurrectionists as Barabbas, who was pardoned earlier that day.
Luke describes in detail a conversion between the three condemned men:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.””
– Luke 23:39–43 (ESV)
In this conversation, we see something truly amazing: a change has happed in the second criminal’s heart.
In his wisdom and grace, God has included this brief conversation in his Word to show us something very special about what true, saving faith in Jesus is. After all, Jesus personally confirms this man’s salvation, saying to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (v43).
This simple faith is enough for Jesus to confirm this man’s forgiveness before God, and his eternal salvation.
For a start, this man realises his own guilt. He knows that he is to die because of the wrong he has done. He admits that this is justice. He fears God (v40).
Secondly, he does nothing in his own strength to either justify himself or to make himself acceptable to Jesus. Of course, he can’t His hands and feet are nailed to a cross. He is in a helpless position.
Thirdly, all he does is throw himself on Jesus’ mercy. Strange thing to request of a man about to die – but then again, he knows there is more to Jesus than meets the eye. So he simply begs Jesus, “Remember me” (v42).
Fourthly, we must notice that this simple faith is enough for Jesus to confirm this man’s forgiveness before God, and his eternal salvation.
And so, moments before death, this man is saved. His life with Christ appears as a speck compared to his life without Christ, but he is saved. His bad deeds would far outnumber his good deeds, but he is saved. He would never read a single New Testament letter, or belong to a church, but he is saved.
And though his hands and feet are nailed down, and he is short of breath in in agony, his rebuke of the self-righteous criminal and his simple proclamation of Jesus will count before the Great Judge as public evidence of the work the Lord has done in his heart.
When the famous astronomer Copernicus died in 1542, his final words were, “I do not ask for the grace that you gave St. Paul; nor can I dare to ask for the grace that you granted to St. Peter; but, the mercy which you did show to the dying robber, that mercy, show to me.”
Reflect on the faith of the “thief on the cross” today, and ask the Lord to help you learn to imitate it.
– Pastor Clint Lombard