The Lord’s first word from the cross concerned forgiveness (Luke 23:34). The second saying is also found in Luke’s account of the passion of Christ, and it concerns one who became a forgiven sinner.
In Luke 23:43 Jesus says to one of the thieves crucified alongside him: ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’.
To understand this saying it is necessary to consider the interchange between the thieves, one crucified one on the right hand and the other on the left hand of the Lord.
Between two criminals
The Lord Jesus was crucified between two thieves (v. 32). It appears that at first both of them joined with other observers in mocking him (Matthew 27:44). But one of them was changed. It was an eleventh hour conversion.
Here, then, are two men, criminals receiving the due punishment for their misdeeds. Between them is the Lord, a person of supreme innocence. Their attitudes toward him are noticeably at variance with one another.
The second ‘word’ of Jesus on the cross is directed to one of them, the one in whom a change was clearly evident.
Acknowledgement of sin
One of the criminals was blasphemous (Luke 23:39). The other, though he had mocked at first, now rebuked him: ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deed; but this man has done nothing wrong’ (vv. 40-41).
There are many differences among people, but there is one thing they all have in common— all are sinners by nature and practice (Romans 3:22-23). This thief recognised his sin.
There is no coming to God without such awareness. This thief recognised a sharp contrast between himself and the Lord. He saw something very special in Jesus Christ.
A soul coming to the Saviour will always experience conviction of sin, the more so as he or she appreciates his perfections.
A great change wrought
It is not just that the man recognised his own sin and Christ’s innocence. There is far more. It lies in what he goes on to say: ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (v. 42).
The dying thief had undergone a great change spiritually. For one thing, he calls Jesus, ‘Lord’. There is no ‘if you are the Christ’ with this man. The way he describes Jesus — as Lord — is not just a matter of respect. It constitutes a profound statement of faith on his part.
For he says: ‘remember me when you come in to your kingdom’. We say that this is faith because, after all, these three men were in the process of being crucified to death. So what was he saying?
Well, firstly, there was a clear expectation of a life after death. Things were not going to end with these crosses.
We do not know what knowledge he had of Jesus. It is reasonable to suppose, given what he says here, that the man had heard (or heard of) the Lord’s teaching. And Jesus had come teaching, preaching and explaining the kingdom of God.
So, secondly, there was a desire for this kingdom, which is not of this world. People should press into his kingdom. The thief had no doubt heard that repentance and faith were required for any who would enter this kingdom, and thereby enjoy an after-life with the King in his glory.
Thirdly, this man obviously believed in ‘resurrection’. ‘Remember me, when you come into your kingdom’, he pleads. Clearly his heart has been touched and opened by the one alongside him.
A promise received
Why should Christ take any notice of this man? After all, he was a criminal and he had mocked at first.
Jesus takes notice of him, no doubt, because the man had changed. He could discern that the man’s attitudes had been turned about. He knew he was sincere.
But Jesus takes notice primarily because he is gracious and full of compassion. In his desperation, this man had looked to Christ as Lord and King. It does not take a long time to trust in Christ. It takes but a moment and a look.
The man is given a great promise: ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (v. 43). One cannot help but notice that Jesus promises the man far more than he asked for!
This saying teaches us several important truths.
Firstly, it tells us that men’s souls survive physical death. Here they were, physically expiring. But Jesus says: ‘today … in paradise’.
Secondly, it tells us that only the soul trusting in Christ, united to him by faith, will experience a glorious and blessed future beyond the grave.
Thirdly, it tells us that there is a heaven to gain. Jesus speaks of ‘paradise’, by which we take it that he is referring to the intermediate state of bliss for the souls of believers after death. It is indeed a heavenly state.
And the leading feature, joy, and glory of that state must lie in this — that the believing departed are ‘with the Lord’.
Finally, it tells us that any notion of ‘purgatory’ is specious. This is something also explicit in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). No ‘limbo’ is envisaged. Notwithstanding his inability to perform any practical ‘good works’, this man would be with the Lord in glory that very day.
The thief on the cross experienced a spiritual change as he hung there, his life ebbing away. He died in hope. He received the divine promise.
And no more wonderful promise could be heard by any in this life. It was emphatic: ‘assuredly’. It was immediate: ‘today’. It indicated a destination: ‘paradise’. It promised a presence: ‘with me’.
With all but his last breath, the penitent soul turned to Christ and asked him what he could not possibly ask any other. In these moments, what could parents or friends do for him? What could an emperor do for him? What could a priest do for him? Nothing.
Only this Saviour, hanging with them that day on a hill in Palestine, can do anything for his soul, or anyone’s soul.
People often hope for such a change in their last moments. However, as Augustine put it, the example of the penitent thief is given us that we might not despair, but that of the impenitent thief is given us that we might not presume.
An opportunity to grasp
The penitent thief grasped the opportunity he had that day of receiving Christ and trusting in him for eternity. But it is folly to put off trusting in him. What shall we say of the other thief?
W. M. Taylor wrote tellingly: ‘there are no more melancholy words in the language than these: Too late! I have known them uttered by a skilful surgeon, when he was summoned to the bedside of a dying man, and I have marked the sadness to which they have given birth.
‘Too late! I have heard them uttered by an anxious crowd, as they stood gazing on a burning building and sadly saw the failure of those who sought to save the inmates from destruction.
‘Too late! I have known them uttered by the noble crew of a life-boat, when, as they put out to the sinking ship, they beheld her go down before their eyes, and “the frightened souls within her”.
‘But, oh! none of these circumstances are half so heart-rending as those in which the sinner who has despised his day must find himself when the terrible discovery is made that he is too late to enter heaven.’