The Saving of a Thief
Accomplishment #1 - God made man out of dirt and breathed him to life
Accomplishment #2 - God took sinful, depraved, wretched man and made
him clean, pure, and perfect!
Which is the greater accomplishment; which was harder; which took the
greatest act of love and sacrifice?
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at
Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But
the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God,
since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we
indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for
our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying,
“Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to
him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
All my life I was told of the hope people find in recounting the
“Thief on the Cross” (Luke 23). People would consider the horrible
life of great uncle Tubby McBaldo and how he was probably weeping and
gnashing his teeth by now because he refused to accept Jesus.
“But...” someone would exclaim with raised finger, “...remember the
thief on the cross! You just don''t know!”
I have never found reason to burst their bubble of hope for Good Ol''
Tubby, nor would I deny that death-bed confessions are possible – for
God desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
However #1; maturity of faith and discernment have brought me to the
understanding that salvation is a supernatural work of God by which
men are changed - being “born again”, a new man. However #2; Though
God said “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (Romans 9:15), to my
mind that does not negate mans responsibility to confess, repent, and
believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. However #3 goes like this; God
does not surrender His sovereignty nor submit to mans prerogative.
“No man can come to the Son unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44).
And finally, However #4; “...But as many as received Him, to them He
gave the right to become children of God, to those that believe on His
name.” (John 1:12); and, as Habakkuk said, “The man who finds life
will find it through trusting God.” (Galatians 3:11)
My conclusion...if you receive Him, He will draw you – or as some
would say if you receive Him He has already drawn you. His
prerogative, your responsibility. If you want Him it''s because He
wanted you first; because He made you He made Himself known to you; He
told you how to come to Him and He died to make it possible. “While
we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “...that who so
ever believes In Him may not parish but have eternal life.” (John
3:16) His prerogative, our choice.
So back to that thief - I think it''s safe to say that he had found
salvation in The Son of God hanging on the cross next to him before he
spoke what is credited to him in Luke''s gospel. The promise to meet
up in paradise did not go out to the one who cursed him (or should I
say STILL curses Jesus) or anybody else for that matter. Jesus was
completely in control of the situation so the fact that Jesus answered
the thief at all is astonishing. Jesus made no invitation, no alter
call, no call for repentance, but something changed the heart of this
Not to imply that the thief was unique, quite the opposite. The
salvation of the thief was a picture of salvation for every man. This
is what I hope becomes clear as we look at the scriptures closely.
We sometimes neglect that it is recorded by Matthew that both
criminals hanging near the Messiah mocked and ridiculed Him. Matthew
27:44 says the robbers who were crucified with Him “...were also
insulting Him...” right along with the Chief Priests and much of the
rest of the crowd. So this thief didn''t start out the day looking
forward to meeting Jesus but something in him changed. I''m guessing
something changed many of the people who were watching. Satan had had
his way with the hearts of the men who crucified Jesus but the
crucifixion it''s self was not a defeat for the Creator; instead it was
the greatest victory in the affairs of men, for God Himself had made a
substitution that I''m not sure even Satan understood at the time.
What took place was intended by men and the Devil to shame the Son of
God but instead was to His glory.
So there at the cross the Spirit of God looked on as the Son was
mocked, tortured, and died; and love flowed in the blood making the
narrow path complete for God''s grace to reach man. As God overcame
the evil of man and Satan, hearts were changed just as they would
continue to be miraculously changed for the rest of time...and the
heart of that one thief just shows it to be true.
The saving of the thief was miraculous, without a doubt. But no more
miraculous than saving any other man. It may have happened in an
instant but probably not the instant we have traditionally designated.
Jesus'' promise of a future meeting merely acknowledged what had
already taken place as the mocking man now rebuked the mocking words
of others, especially those of the criminal he knew on the next cross
the other side of Jesus.
Luke records all this in chapter 23, verses 39 through 43. In five
verses we can learn of the incredible salvation of man. The criminal
on the cross becomes a “who-so-ever” before our eyes.
Verse 39 of Luke''s account of the crucifixion describes the abuse one
criminal hurled on Jesus as “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself
Quite an acknowledgement and it may show that the first criminal
realized the possibility, but it also demonstrates emphatically that
even in the face of the horrible circumstances surrounding him, his
own death looming and the humiliation of the cross, he remained
rebellious, proud, and self serving - Joining with the rest of the
world, refusing to believe in the Truth and denying the insanity of
Verse 40a, brings us to the beginning of some astonishing statements,
especially considering the source. A condemned man who should, by all
worldly reason, be focused on assessing his own life and situation;
instead he turns to respond to the ranting of a fool (“A fool says
there is not God” Psalm 14:1) with a profound observation “Do you not
even fear God...?”
Think about what he is saying here. First, there IS a God. Second,
that God would be offended by what the man is doing and saying.
Third, that God has the power and initiative to respond to the mans
actions and attitude in a way that should bring about a healthy fear
if there was any wisdom in the man. (The fear of the Lord is the
beginning of wisdom. Proverbs 9:10)
At the same time this tells us much, in contrast, about the man who is
speaking. This man believes in God, knows enough to know God should
be feared, and knows that the blasphemous things first man is saying
is enough to bring the wrath of this God. Right here is enough
evidence to me that this man has been changed. You are hearing the
heart of a man who believes, repents, and wants to be with Jesus.
Right here we see the work of the Holy Spirit in a man who is
supernaturally changed. Most men don''t know or care that their sin
offends God, but this man does.
(A friend reminded me of the paralyzed man in Mark 2;2-12, who is
lowered from the roof by his friends. Jesus forgives the sins of the
paralytic based on the faith of his friends. Gotta wonder if someone
in the crowd was praying for this thief who, by providence, was at the
ear of Jesus.)
In Matthew''s Gospel account the thief was mocking, in Luke''s account
he fears God. Somewhere between what Matthew recorded and what Luke
was told this man was changed, and it will become more apparent as we
examine the rest of his rebuke of the mocker.
Verse 40b, “...since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 A man hanged from a tree is cursed. Possible
paraphrase?: “You are going to die; you''re not leaving the cross
alive, and yet you mock others under the same curse?” This fellow is
facing the reality of the situation and he''s trying to reason with his
cohort. He''s implying his friend has no room to talk. He''s going to
face God as a condemned man and he has no fear - he''s a fool.
Verse 41a; “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving
what we deserve for our deeds;”
He isn''t asking God to stop what is happening or save him as the
mocker is. He knows he is a sinner; he knows he''s cursed before God
and man, and under the law he must pay. This is humble, repentant,
and a true confession. His heart is wide open and the Spirit is
visibly at work.
Verse 41b; “...but this man has done nothing wrong.” This is
spiritual insight perhaps even the thief himself did not understand.
We are not given any information of this mans past or how he knew
Jesus but how many people attending that day knew for certain Jesus
was innocent – COMPLETELY innocent! This man knew things about Jesus
he could not know in his heart without the help of the Holy Spirit.
We can skip forward for a moment to verse 47 in Luke 23 and find a
certain centurion who came, miraculously, to the same conclusion,
“Certainly this man was innocent.” Luke even tells us the centurion
was praising God when he said it. The Spirit was moving, enlightening
those who chose to receive Him.
Salvation had come to Golgotha and the Holy Spirit wanted Luke to know
so he could pass it along to us. Perhaps those on site were too
caught up in the moment of the crucifixion to notice. Perhaps it was
the centurion who was close enough to hear the thief and wanted Luke
to know he too was overcome with the knowledge that the Messiah had
So the thief has admitted and openly confessed there is a God, a God
to be feared, and mocking Jesus would bring God''s anger upon you. He
has admitted there is judgement and death for those who sin and that
he and the other fellow are condemned justly, deserving of death. He
knows Jesus is innocent and does not deserve the punishment He is
It is my contention that this man is already saved. At this point we
have seen him go from a mocker of Christ to a follower of Christ with
special knowledge of the Spirit; this is a supernaturally changed man.
And now in verse 42 he makes the final confession - he needs Jesus.
“Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” The plea of a
dying man who wants to spend eternity with his Savior. His cry
brought about the response he wanted and needed “Truly I say to you,
today you will be with Me in Paradise.” “...I say to YOU, today YOU
will be with me...” The promise of God that could only be made to a
man who has taken the offer, received the Savior, chosen of God to be
a child of God. Drawn of the Father, led of the Spirit, made
acceptable of the Son.
One criminal died and all his hope died with him. The other criminal
died along side his hope knowing death was not the end!
The two thieves would go on to have their legs broken on the cross for
all to see the shameful, horrible death that awaits those who break
The Christ of God would go on to commit His Spirit into the hands of
the Father, and find His task completed – the debt paid – the reason
He wept and sweated blood in the garden, crying out to the Father to
take this cup from Him; the payment for sin is done. It was not the
physical death that brought the Son of God to His knees; “My God, My
God, why have you forsaken Me?” The Father turned His back and could
not look upon the sin-laden Christ. At His death the Father crushed
the Son under the load of OUR sins (Isaiah 53:10). The Trinity was
broken for the only time in eternity to save a thief on a cross and
multitudes of sinners who deserve death just as much. Two men died
with Jesus. One bore his own sin to the grave, but Jesus bore the sin
of the other.
He confessed God, confessed his sin, repented of his sin, and ask
Jesus to save him and you can''t do that unless you are supernaturally
drawn of the Holy Spirit of the Father; and it is by grace thorough
faith that belief in God restores a lost sinner to eternity with God.
God can save in the twinkling of an eye but the person must be changed
and that is the story of the thief on the cross; the miraculous
mystery of regeneration and sanctification; where God''s will enables
mans will to become what God intended in the beginning.