A Thought on the Thief on the Cross

Relevant Scripture:Matthew 27:38-44 “Then there were two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. … Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribe and elders, said, ‘He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him, for he said, I am the Son of God.’ The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.”
Mark 15: 27-28 “And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.”
 Luke 23: 36-40  “Then one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him saying, ‘If you are Christ, save yourself and us.’ But the other answering rebuked him saying, ‘Do you not fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ He said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus said unto him, ‘Truly I say to you, Today you shall be with me in paradise.’”

 I was struck several years ago when, in a Sunday School class, a man mentioned The Thief On The Cross as an example of death-bed conversion. This man went on to say that the Thief was saved at the extreme end of his life and therefore had no time to live for God, be a testimony for Jesus, or otherwise impact the Kingdom. Therefore, we should not be wearied in praying for our old, ailing, and unbelieving loved ones because they might yet be saved at the very last moment.

And while I agree that we should follow King David’s example and fast and pray until the loved one has actually died, that is not what this account is about. This account is about the power of Jesus Christ to completely, radically save sinners. And, it is about the tenacity of Thief’s faith, which is nothing less than astonishing. 

Consider what we know. Thief is a criminal, and it may be that the theft in question was not his first offense against the Roman law. Thief has not spent time in prison considering his sins and wondering if this man Jesus really is the Messiah. No, he joins in the mocking.  It is likely that he had heard about Jesus before this (Scripture is clear that Jesus was famous), but he certainly had not believed.  That is, he had probably heard about Jesus and rejected him. In fact, Thief is such a hardened criminal that in his own moment of extremis, he takes no time to ponder eternity, but spends his time insulting Jesus Christ. 

Then, in one of history’s great providences, God opens Thief’s eyes to the truth, and Thief believes. This is no deathbed confession wrung out of Grandpa by a pack of crying grandchildren. Nor is it the snatch at a straw wherein an old sinner hopes not to go to Hell by “making his peace with his Maker” at the last moment. 

What we have here is an instantaneous, eye-opening, heart-changing, God-propelled Conversion. Suddenly, God shows Thief what is going on here. Shortly before, Thief had mocked Jesus saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” Now, he looks and sees, not just some man who had done a lot of miracles and said a lot of nice things, but the Son of God.

He looks at a bloody mess and sees Divinity.

Instantly, his heart is changed and he believes: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Lord. An acknowledgement of superiority, of sovereignty.

Remember me. An acknowledgement that without Jesus all hope of entering the kingdom is lost.

When. When! Not if. Not if everything works out as I’m now hoping it will.

You Come into. Jesus is fastened to a tree by nails, and Thief knows this isn’t the end; Jesus is coming into Power.

Your Kingdom. An acknowledgement that there is a Kingdom, that it is not of this world, and that it belongs to Jesus. It belongs to that thirsty, pain-wracked dying man with the thorns pushed down into his scalp.

Jesus says to Thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I’m so glad we have this statement. It shows us that Jesus recognized a true conversion. Jesus knew that Thief had passed from death unto life. Here, Jesus is telling us that Thief’s conversion was real, that it wasn’t a simple snatching at straws, a hope-for making of peace. Jesus says, “Yes, you are saved.”

Then, Jesus dies.

Now, here’s the great part. Hold onto your hat. We know that Jesus died before the other two men hanging there. We know this because when the soldier comes to break the legs of the condemned men, he does break the legs of the thieves, but when he comes to Jesus, Jesus is already dead.

Thief looked on a dead man and believed.

He was the first New Covenant believer. Before this, everyone who believed, believed in the coming Messiah, in his sure (but not yet) atonement. Thief sees the dead man hanging there, understands that the Kingdom is ETERNAL and HEAVENLY, not temporal and earthly, and believes. 

Then, while he hangs on a cross, looking at the dead body of his Lord, a soldier approaches. I don’t know what it takes to break a man’s legs, but it must be something heavy, such as a sledge-hammer. Nor can I imagine the horror and terror of seeing a soldier approach me with such an instrument, raise it, and aim at my knees. Perhaps Thief looked away from the soldier and looked once again at the dead, limp, hanging body of the Savior.

I want to believe that while the sledge-hammer came down, crushing his bones, Thief gazed at the dead body of Jesus Christ and believed that this was the moment in which he would enter Paradise. Certainly after such an impact, any other thought than fighting for a breath or two would be impossible.

And yet he believed. We know his faith did not waver, because Jesus Himself had given testimony that this man would die in faith, that this very day, he would enter the Kingdom.

And so, apologies to everyone who has ever said that this man didn’t leave a testimony, but if this is not one of  the greatest testimonies of faith ever given, I’d like to hear one that is.  If this man did not leave a sweet savor of faith, hope, and love, I want to know who has. If this man has not impacted your work in the Kingdom, it’s time to meditate a little more on this life, because he should.

Thief knew what we should spend our lives living for: that there is an Eternal Kingdom, that Jesus is the King, and that there is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.

And in that faith—that great faith—he died.

3 thoughts on “A Thought on the Thief on the Cross”

  1. Good insights!–especially of the absolute demonstration here, not of emotional tug or even of convincing logic, but of revelation from God, pure and simple.

  2. Wow — you make probing Biblical teachings and spiritual insights more alive for me than years of church, Sunday School, Bible Class, Catechism, etc. ever did. Amazing. Please keep it up.

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