It’s my favorite story in the whole Bible. When people want to know about salvation in Christ, I tell them this story. When I preach a funeral service, I always include this story because it brings such comfort to so many. Why is this my favorite? Because I am convinced it really is the whole message of the Bible condensed to one true little story. It’s the story of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).
Matthew and Mark in their gospel accounts tell us that two thieves were crucified on either side of Jesus, and both were cursing Him (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). They both joined in with the jeering, mocking crowd, taunting Jesus to come down from the cross and save himself.
But that’s not the end of the story. Thankfully, Luke gives us additional information. One thief spits out “Save yourself, and us” (Luke 23:39). But the other thief has a change of heart. Here is what that thief’s response teaches me today:
1. Time will run out on all of us someday.
Justice caught up with this man. And now here he is, nailed to a cross, paralyzed to change the physical outcome of the situation. His life is measured now only in a few more fleeting hours (Hebrews 9:27). He doesn’t want to die hurling invectives and snarling sarcasm. He knows that eternity awaits him, and eternity is a long time to be wrong. This man wants a change.
2. He knows he’s guilty.
The thief knows that he is indeed guilty. Look at how he challenges the other thief: “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…” (Luke 23:40-41). He fears God. That is, he knows the right response of human beings is to reverently respect Him. We will all have to face Him someday. None of us will escape. And he has no excuses before a holy God.
So many people I have met excuse their sin and condemnation before this true and holy God with “Oh I’m a ‘good’ person. I’m not as bad as so-and-so.” I’ve done it too. You probably are a nicer and more moral person than many others. But your comparison is all wrong. Compare yourself with Jesus — now how to you measure up? The thief offered no excuses! He knew he didn’t measure up. He knew he was guilty and would be justly condemned by God. The Apostle Paul later sums up this truth in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Before anyone comes to know Christ as Savior and Lord, he must first cross this hurdle and take his place with this thief. We must admit that we indeed are the guilty sinner who is in total need of a Savior.
3. We are helpless.
We are helpless. Destitute. Upon confessing his guilt, the thief turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42). What does this mean? This was a figure of speech from the Old Testament (Genesis 30:22; 8:1; 19:29). It basically means, “Be gracious to me. Please give me what I don’t deserve.” The thief was calling upon Jesus to show him grace, because he knew that none of his tears or good intentions or efforts could move his life even one inch closer to heaven.
No rituals or ceremonies could cancel his debt, forgive his sins, and grant him eternal life. Salvation is entirely by God’s grace, and never as the result of our efforts (Ephesians 2:8-9). We, too, must confess that we are just as paralyzed and helpless as that thief.
4. Jesus is the only Savior.
Though suffering and nailed to a cross, Jesus is still in complete command and is the only one able to answer this man’s sincere, brief prayer. The thief knows that Jesus is more than a crucified prophet. He is the Lord. He is the true King who — even though He’s expiring on a cross — will still come as king and reign over a future kingdom: “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
That man wants to be a part of Christ’s kingdom. Some kind of faith, isn’t it? And thank God all it takes is just a little bit of faith in a great big Savior. Only one Savior will do. And that Savior is Jesus.
5. God answers prayer.
The thief teaches me God answers sincere prayer, and welcomes home anyone who comes to Him on His terms. God welcomes … a thief. Jesus said to Him, “Truly, truly I say to you …” In the Greek New Testament Jesus is saying, “Amen, amen.” This is a double oath. Jesus is telling him the most serious truth and is pronouncing a solemn oath. And if Jesus makes a promise, He fulfills it.
He tells the thief, “… Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). I am aware that some people try to put the comma in the sentence elsewhere and try to make Jesus say, “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” This makes no sense at all. So Jesus is actually saying, “I’m telling you today”?
Well, what other time would he be telling the man? On what other day could Jesus have said this to this man? And in the 74 occurrences of Jesus saying “Amen I say to you” in the Greek text, the comma is ALWAYS after the word “you” in the sentence. No, Jesus is telling him that today … this day … that thief would leave that cruel Roman cross and his spirit would continue to exist consciously in a place of eternal peace and joy known as paradise. He would be with Jesus forever. Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life the moment they put their trust only in Him (John 5:24).
The Apostles Paul and John tell us that paradise is in heaven the abode of God (2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7). Today, the moment a believer in Jesus Christ dies, he is immediately transported to heaven where he will dwell in perfect peace with Him forever (Philippians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
I’m so glad this story is in the Bible. It is a snapshot of all of us in one brief little moment. We’re all there. We are the guilty thieves, steadfastly hanging on to our rebelliousness. Jesus is still the compassionate, almighty, and now resurrected Savior. Some cling to their rebelliousness all the way to the grave. Others realize that Jesus offers much, much better, and cast their lot with Him.
If there’s hope for a crucified thief, then there’s hope for me. Hope for us all. Thank God.