As Jesus dies on the cross, a criminal is dying next to him. Jesus turns to him and says: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23v43). This is a remarkable statement considering the bleak predicament of the thief. And it begs the question: how can this dying thief be promised paradise? How can he get to heaven?
Let's say we were in the position to judge his case. Perhaps we might start with all the good he has done in his life; do his good deeds outweigh his bad? That might make him worthy of salvation. But no, the punishment for crucifixion is reserved for the worst of criminals – at the very least he is likely to be guilty of murder. His life is altogether worthless. But how about the rest of his life? Could he not reform his ways and seek to redeem himself with suitable acts of charity? Ah, but, he's dying on a cross and will be dead within a day. He's in no position to do good, no position to do anything but die, his deeds are complete, nothing can change the balance on the scales. Hang on though, many people think they will get to heaven because they have been baptised once. But alas, he has not been sprinkled with water or dunked underneath. There's no hope for him there.
Indeed, this thief is not rich, powerful or intelligent (he was caught after all) and has no friends to help him or priest to bless him or even anyone to pray for him. He has nothing and has done nothing worthy of salvation and can do nothing to make him worthy. We know as well that he even insulted the very man who is now promising him heaven (Matthew 27v44 records both criminals insulting Jesus). The last hours of this man's life would seem to be hopeless but then we have the promise of Jesus that this thief would join Jesus in paradise that very day.
This would beg two questions: how can such a salvation be promised and who is Jesus to make the promise? The answer to both those questions can be found in the one answer. If we go back a few verses and get the whole scene we can learn more:
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him [Jesus]: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23v39-43)
What led the thief to rebuke his fellow criminal? Why did he go from insulting Jesus himself to defending Jesus? Why did he speak at all? His answer tells us two things: his new opinion of himself and his new opinion of Jesus.
As to the first, we find that the thief is now humble, he recognises that he is being punished justly and getting what his deeds deserve. There is no self delusion here, no reliance on his works, no trust in himself, he sees clearly that he is fully deserving of death. How many criminals ever come to that realisation? In the film Shawshank Redemption there's a running joke that all men within the prison are innocent. And that is how we all like to think of ourselves, it is painful to admit we were wrong let alone deserving of death!
The second new opinion the thief forms is of Jesus and he implies a further three thinks about Jesus. The first is that Jesus has done nothing wrong (not just nothing worthy of death but nothing wrong); the second that Jesus is a King and the third that Jesus, though he is also about to die, will be able to remember him.
There are many today who look on Jesus as a 'good moral teacher'; many who think him a good example and a fine and upstanding religious leader of his day. The thief of the cross saw more clearly: he saw that Jesus was the sinless one, innocent of any wrong doing. He saw that Jesus was a king, not just a king but his King and not just his King but the King: the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and he saw that death would not hold Jesus but that Jesus would be able to remember him.
In other words he had faith in Jesus Christ, he was sure and certain about what he could not humanly see. After all, Jesus did not look like a king as he died on the cross, he looked a mere mortal, he looked like he was going to die and he did indeed die (and three days later was raised to life). By this we learn the supernatural nature of faith, it is a gift from God, a gift worked in us by his Holy Spirit, not of human origin. So we are saved not by works but through God's gracious gift of faith, faith in Jesus.
The thief asks only to be remembered but Jesus promises him so much more, entry into paradise no less. Kings can promise many things but this is a royal gift beyond anything a mere king of this earth could promise. It points to the fact that Jesus is both God and Man, and therefore king of heaven and earth and able to promise entry into heaven, able to offer salvation to a man worthy only of death.
But what was the salvation based on if not in the thief? It can only be on who Jesus was, his person and work. For about Jesus it was said: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1v29) and about him it was prophesied centuries before he came: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53v5-6)
A king who promises paradise to an unworthy subject; a king who dies for a rebellious subject – what wonder is this? What love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Such is the character of God, a God who declares: “The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.'” (Numbers 14v18).
As we read the second part of the declaration let us remember the second thief, the one who continued to heap insults on Jesus and did not confess his wrongdoing or look to Jesus in faith. He received no promise of salvation and, unless his repentance is unrecorded, at his death he was justly punished for his sins in Hell. It's tragically ironic really, he taunted Jesus saying "Save yourself and us," thinking only of a being saved from dying on the cross. Yet Jesus had no need to save himself for he gave his life willingly and he saved the other thief not from physical death but spiritual death. For Jesus was a far greater Saviour than the rebellious thief thought.
I find the salvation of the thief on the cross to be the most beautiful account of God's saving power recorded for us in the Bible, a sinner snatched from the jaws of Hell and given entry into heaven and all had nothing to with his own merit, for he had none, and all to do with the merit of King Jesus. With joy I tell it for I was once like the thief, hurling insults on God with my self righteousness and sin; now I stand with the promise of Jesus that one day, when I die, I will be with him in paradise. Such is the grace and forgiveness of God that a sinner such as I might be saved.
You too are a thief on the cross, deserving of death, Hell and judgement and heading towards it. But which thief will you be? The one who saw his guilt, saw Jesus' perfection and kingship and asked Jesus to remember him? Or the other thief who went to his death unmoved by the loveliness of Jesus Christ?