‘Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed [Jesus], 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. Then he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:39-43).
The two criminals crucified either side of Christ were not just petty thieves. Crucifixion was a punishment used by the Romans for the worst crimes, like murder and armed revolution.
We must understand that what Luke records here does not teach seven things. It does not teach:
Universalism — that is, everyone will go to heaven when they die. While one malefactor repented, the other certainly did not.
Soul sleep — that is, when you die, your soul goes into suspended animation, as some cults teach. But Jesus said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. The penitent thief went to heaven the moment he died.
Reincarnation — that we return to earth, perhaps as some unpleasant lower life, as Hinduism or New Age religion teaches. The thief was not coming back, but was going to be eternally with Jesus.
Purgatory — that is, before heaven we are cleansed from our sins in hell-like flames of suffering, as Catholicism teaches. This criminal would have been a perfect candidate for such a place if it existed. But Jesus said to him, ‘Today…’
Good works earn salvation — the penitent thief had done little good up to this point. He admitted to his fellow criminal that they were both being rightly punished for their deeds. Salvation is not by any good that we do, but through the merits of Jesus Christ.
Church ordinances are necessary for salvation — the penitent thief had not been baptised by immersion, sprinkling or effusion. He was not a Baptist, Anabaptist or paedo-Baptist. He had not taken the Lord’s Supper. There was no font, pool, bread or wine to hand. No ordinance (although ordinances certainly have their place in church life) is essential for salvation.
Proximity to death makes it easy to turn to Christ — Since one thief repented, you might be excused for thinking so. But, remember, only one repented; the other did not! In catastrophic, life-or-death situations, it is appallingly true that many spend their final moments blaspheming God. Don’t imagine you will turn to Christ easily if you leave repenting until the end.
But this narrative does teach nine things.
It is never too late to turn to Christ.
Although one thief did not do so, the other did. Maybe you are old and know you have lived badly. You may say, ‘You cannot teach an old dog new tricks’, but the thief’s salvation challenges such a view. It was not too late for him.
Fifteen-year-old Luke Short heard the Puritan, John Flavel, preaching at Dartmouth, just before he emigrated to America. When 100 years old, Luke was one day in a field reflecting on his long life, and then he remembered Flavel’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 16:22.
It occurred to him that he had never been converted and so he too was under the anathema of God. Eighty-five years after hearing that sermon, he was convinced of his sin and turned to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is never too late!
None are too wicked to be saved
This thief was not the only wicked person saved. King Manasseh, Saul of Tarsus and many Corinthian Christians had formerly lived depraved lives, but this account proves none are too bad to be saved.
Colonel James Gardiner (b. 1688) was assigned to the British embassy in Paris in 1719, where he lived a lewd life. But he had a godly mother, and one night, while awaiting a rendezvous with a married woman, he was given a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ suffering for him, and heard a voice saying, ‘O sinner, did I suffer all this for thee, and are these thy returns?’ Two months later, he was saved when reading Romans 3:25. He became a devoted Christian. Even though immoral, Jesus received him.
The Nazi criminals, held in Nuremburg after World War II, had an American Lutheran chaplain called Henry Gerecke assigned to them. Through Gerecke’s ministry several came to faith.
One was Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister. At first, he wasn’t interested when Gerecke visited his cell, but gradually he moved from arrogant indifference to sincere questioning. He became penitent and eager to turn from his past. Finally Gerecke admitted him to the Lord’s Supper, convinced that God had worked in his soul.
Ribbentrop was hanged in October 1946, with Gerecke standing nearby. Ribbentrop said, ‘I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul!’ and then whispered to his chaplain, ‘I’ll see you again’. There is none too bad to turn to Christ.
Jesus Christ did nothing wrong
As the penitent thief put it, ‘This man has done nothing wrong’. We know this is the case from all the New Testament. Jesus did not revile when they reviled him. He prayed for his enemies and they couldn’t pin any accusation of evil on him.
He was the sinless Saviour, completely righteous in all he did and didn’t do. His life incarnated the moral law of God in the beauty of holiness; and that is why he was a perfect Saviour, fully qualified to bear our guilt.
Salvation involves decision
You cannot be saved by mere decision or willpower, but, nonetheless, there is conscious decision in true salvation. The thief did not merely feel self-absorbed by his newly awakened piety, but he actively turned to Jesus and entreated, ‘Lord, remember me’.
We are not saved merely by being close to the things of Jesus. There must be a definite turning, a definite movement of the soul to Christ.
Salvation radically changes a person
Although the penitent man did not have time for ‘good works’, there was still a radical change in his attitude. Shortly beforehand, he was like the other thief, railing at Christ,‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us’. There was no fear of God, no sense of sin or acknowledgement of Christ’s lordship, but defiance and a desperate desire to escape punishment.
However, when he began to understand who Jesus really was and to observe his loving behaviour on the cross, his desire to escape punishment was replaced by a deep desire to be with Christ. Have you been changed by God? Have you lost your love of sin and begun to thirst for holiness?
Jesus hears prayer
He did not respond to the thief with, ‘Sorry, but I’ve far too much on my mind. I’ve enough problems of my own!’ Rather, he said immediately, ‘Assuredly, today you will be with me in paradise!’ If, in great weakness, Christ heard the thief, how much more will he hear you now from heaven’s bliss?
Jesus is the only way to God
To the prayer ‘Lord, remember me’, Jesus did not respond by pointing to some other religious authority, greater than himself, but said dogmatically, ‘I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’.
Jesus Christ is full of love.
We have noted the speed with which the Lord Jesus Christ heard the thief’s prayer, although he himself was about to descend into the darkness of God’s wrath. We can never fully understand what it meant for Christ to be made sin for us, in the fiery oven of God’s wrath.
And yet here, on the very brink of ‘hell’, Jesus pours out his time, love and compassion on this wretched, evil man beside him, as he replies to him, ‘Assuredly, today you will be with me in paradise’.
Never doubt the love of Christ or that he will receive you! Jesus won’t turn anyone away who comes to him.
The whole human race is represented in these two thieves.
Both men were born in Adam and both had lived as sinners. Their lives unmistakably expressed what is inwardly true of all people, that we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, and that we are all under God’s wrath for our sin, unless we turn to Christ.
One of the thieves finished his days outside Jesus Christ and he now suffers eternally in hell for his sin. The other thief was brought to faith in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, and now is for ever in ‘paradise’ — in the bosom of Jesus Christ.
In the same way, some ET readers are in Christ and the rest are not. May the Holy Spirit enable any reader not yet saved to cry to God for mercy, through Christ, and trust in his finished work for sinners at Calvary!