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]
On the evening of Christ’s death on the cross, an episode occurs between the Lord and the two thieves with whom he was crucified. Matthew had recorded that “the robbers who had been crucified with Him” (Matt 27:44; NASB). This has caused some to cry “CONTRADICTION!”, but this supposed dilemma is easily resolved through two possible explanations: 1) both thieves initially mocked Christ, and one later repented; 2) Matthew may be using a figure of speech known as synecdoche, which can refer to many things, but one of them is when you refer to part as you would a whole. In other words, one thief mocked Christ, but Matthew (who is known to abbreviate or simplify stories throughout his gospel) refers to the thieves as a whole.
In either case, Luke goes into further detail about the dialogue between the three crosses. Christ is in the midst of mockery, having already received it from the Jewish onlookers (v. 35) as well as the Gentile soldiers (v. 36-8). Now, as if that wasn’t bad enough, one of those suffering with Christ turns against him as well. His words reveal the true nature of his heart:
1) He repeats the mockery. “Are you not the Christ?” he asks (v. 39). “Save yourself…” This was what the Jewish rulers had demanded, and the Roman soldiers as well. The dozens upon dozens of miracles Christ had performed were not enough, and to many – even Christ’s loyal followers – the idea of the great, expected Messiah being crucified and mocked by foreigners was unthinkable. The very nature of this world is to look upon the cross as foolishness (1 Cor 1:18), seeing it either as a failed ministry, a needless suicide, or divine murder. Indeed, is it any wonder that, when the day of resurrection comes around each year, the jokes directed towards Christ are amplified? Many people, seeking to either satisfy their own lusts or appear justified before others, mock Christ’s death, not realizing that they are merely joining in with the Pharisees and Roman soldiers.
2) He adds himself into the equation. The blaspheming thief not only desires Christ to save himself, but demands that, if Christ be who he says he is, he rescue the two of them as well. Many today likewise demand something from the cross: the idea of a crucified savior is good for nothing, in their eyes, unless something is gained from it. We demand health and wealth, a better life now, or a special purpose. If the man on the cross cannot give us these things, then we dismiss his claims to divinity and Messianic lordship. What’s more, we demand it without any real discernment on whether or not we truly deserve it. Upon what basis does the thief believe he deserves this freedom? Was he not hanging on the cross for charges lodged against him? The unregenerate heart does not ponder these things. Those outside of Christ declare that God must be gentle and kind towards them, irregardless of their own personal guilt and sin.
Let us now stop and ponder something many might have missed in their studies of the Passion: at this time, throughout the whole account, no one has stood up for Christ. All the disciples had fled. Peter brashly cuts off the ear of the Temple, but falls when he then denies Christ three times under pressure. No one – Jew or Gentile, commoner or nobleman – seeks to defend Christ against his enemies. All this changes here and now, when the afflicted savior finally gets words of support. However, it’s not from a Pharisee, a disciple, his mother, or a Roman officer…it’s from the other thief. The following points arise from his words to the his fellow condemned:
1) He rebukes the other thief. “Have you no fear of God?” he asks him (v. 40). This shows the regeneration that had happened within the thief. The fear of God had driven him to say these words, and to those who truly fear God, blasphemy appears as absurdity. Those who love God feel ache in their heart in regards to those who don’t, just as the apostle Paul wrote regarding disbelieving Jews: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (Rom 9:3).
2) He affirms his own sin. “And we indeed justly,” the thief adds, “for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds” (v. 40). He recognized, unlike the former thief, that he was guilty of the crimes for which he was being punished. He had broken the law, and was receiving what was owed to the law for his crimes. He was guilty, and held no innocence within himself at this moment of judgment. The great Christian author and evangelist John Bunyan wrote:
He that truly confesseth and acknowledgeth his sin, acknowledgeth also the curse to be due thereto from the righteous hand of God.
3) He affirms the righteousness of Christ. “But this man,” the thief adds again, “has done nothing wrong” (v. 41). Pilate had earlier pointed out that Christ was innocent of any serious crimes (v. 4, 22), but his intentions were based more on political motivations than true care for Christ. The repentant thief, on the other hand, is convicted by Christ’s innocence, for he had earlier told the blaspheming thief “you are under the same sentence of condemnation” (v. 40). Christ was suffering and yet, unlike the two thieves there, he had committed no wrongs. His spot on the cross, in fact, had been reserved for Barabbas, an insurrectionist and rebel, but it had gone instead to the innocent Christ (v. 17-21). The wise thief points this out as a further indictment against the blaspheming one, for the latter had shown great disrespect towards Christ, not seeming to realize that Christ was suffering for sins that were not his.
The repenting thief was showing the true fruits of repentance, for these few sentences reveal: 1) a confession of personal guilt; 2) an acceptance of the righteousness of God. All this leads to what Matthew Henry called “the prayer of a dying sinner to a dying savior,” when the wise thief turns to Christ and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). The former thief had sought pain from the then and now for a better life in the here and how, but the latter thief had sought freedom from the judgment of God in the soon to be. The thief had sought happiness not now (for he recognized he deserved none), but rather for happiness in the next life. What’s more, he recognized that the only freedom from judgment and sin came through Christ, and in his last dying moments he clung to the cross and, in not so many words, pleaded for mercy. To these words, Jesus Christ replied:
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (v. 43)
Many people have speculated on what Christ means here in regards to “paradise,” however in its purest form it simply refers to the joy and comfort of being in the presence of the Redeemer in the hereafter. All sins which the man was guilty of were, at that moment, washed away, and no longer held against him. He was justified not for anything he had done – for there was nothing he could have done – but rather, he was justified through his faith. Christ would eventually commit his soul to God (v. 46), but the wise thief committed his soul to Christ. He would die, but his life would be “hidden with Christ in God,” and upon the day of resurrection he would appear with Christ in glory (Col 3:3-4).
The two thieves as a whole represented the effect that the cross would have upon the world: on the one hand, an indictment of sin and judgment; on the other hand, regeneration and the giving of grace. It was a personification of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12, for Christ was “was numbered with the transgressors,” as seen with the wise thief, and “bore the sin of many,” as he bore the sins of the thief, and would make “intercession for the transgressors,” as Christ personally interceded for the wise thief.
Everything the cross represented could be seen at this moment, for though “the word of the cross” was “folly to those who are perishing,” to those “who are being saved,” as the wise thief, it was “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). God bless.