The repentant thief on the cross who put his faith in Jesus is one of my favorite people in the Easter narrative. Possibly more than any other Bible character, this man shows that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace and it is truly never too late to trust in Jesus. The repentant thief shows us today can be the day of salvation!
While this crucified criminal is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27, 32; Luke 23:32-33, 39-43; John 19:18, 31-33), it may seem we know little about him. But Matthew and Mark used the Greek word lēstēs to describe the criminals crucified with Jesus.
In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke used that same word to describe the robbers who “stripped [the victim] of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30). From this passage, the word lēstēs indicates a violent person who takes the property of others by force, including possibly murder.
We need to understand that the men crucified with Jesus were not mere pickpockets or petty thieves. No, the criminals were violent robbers not unlike the swarthy characters in Jesus’ parable. The men crucified with Jesus had committed serious crimes against humanity. In our society, it’s possible they would have landed on death row.
With this in mind, let’s explore Luke 23, which provides the lengthiest account of this criminal.
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “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 23:32-33, 39-43).
In this fascinating interaction between three men, each within a few minutes of dying, we have two violent robbers on either side of Jesus. One man shows no remorse; he hurls insults at Jesus and uses his last breaths to mock him.
The second criminal has a much different interaction with our Lord, and it ends with a surprising promise of salvation.
How could this be? I believe the answer holds not only the hope of salvation for this criminal, but for everyone in the world, including you and me!
Salvation is a Gift
In the Lord’s interaction with the second criminal, we see three actions of faith that led Jesus to grant him salvation.
1. The criminal admitted his sin. This criminal was not a righteous man, for he had done something so despicable he had been sentenced to death. However, he readily admitted his sin and his guilt, and he declared he was getting what his deeds deserved.
2. The criminal believed in Jesus. He believed Jesus really was the Messiah (or Christ), the anointed King. Jesus was dying alongside him, and yet the criminal asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Clearly, the criminal did not think death would be the end for either of them. He believed Jesus would still be king of a kingdom, even though he was dying on a cross. The robber believed Jesus could make good on a promise of eternal life in his kingdom.
I can’t help but wonder whether Jesus had preached to or spoken with the men in a holding cell while they were waiting to be crucified. We know the men were led out together (v. 32). But only one of the criminals believed in Jesus and his power, while the other chose to mock him.
3. The criminal confessed Jesus as Lord. While on the cross, the repentant robber did not just believe in his heart, he also confessed with his mouth (in the best way he knew how) that Jesus is Lord. The repentant criminal publicly . . .
- rebuked the mocking criminal,
- declared the innocence of Jesus,
- declared that Jesus was king of a real kingdom,
- and said “remember me,” which was his way of asking Jesus to save his soul, for he knew his body would soon be dead.
Jesus assured the second criminal that his faith would not be forgotten and that “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Why would Jesus honor the confession of a dying criminal who was getting what he deserved? It certainly was not because of the man’s godly deeds or what he would do in the future. The man literally was about to die.
There is only one possible answer . . . faith. The man admitted his sin, demonstrated clear belief in Jesus, publicly confessed him as Lord, and asked for salvation.
This criminal of the cross was a living example of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The episode on the cross clearly demonstrated that no one is beyond the saving grace of Jesus!
The Good News is Still the Good News
It is easy to see the application of this truth for someone who has yet to place their faith in Jesus Christ. This is the good news of the gospel! No matter how far from God and how vile one’s past, salvation is still freely offered through placing one’s faith in Jesus and his substitutionary death on the cross.
It is for this reason that Point Church, which I serve as lead pastor, has a campus at Central Prison, the largest such facility in North Carolina. It is for this reason we offer regular worship services to the death row prisoners. The good news is still good news to people far from God, for we regularly see robbers and murderers place their faith in Jesus Christ. In the past two years alone, 25 prisoners have seen their status change from sinner to saint as they were baptized into Christ!
Why is this reality so important for people like us who have already trusted in Christ?
The reality is that the longer I am a Christian and the more good deeds I perform for the Lord, the easier it is to begin to feel as if I deserve God’s salvation or am worthy of it.
I need to be reminded this is a false perception and sinful pride. No one is worthy. Instead, the opposite is true. I am utterly unworthy. I have done nothing to deserve salvation. And yet Jesus died to save me and all others.
- I will guard my heart against an attitude of self-righteous pride, lest I become a modern-day Pharisee.
- I will live my life as a giant act of worship in gratitude to my Savior for giving me what I could have never earned or deserved. What amazing grace!
- I will not regard anyone, no matter how terrible their actions, as someone Jesus cannot save and transform into a child of God.
I thank the Father for this beautiful reminder that while I did not earn or deserve it, I am saved through Jesus’ great sacrifice and amazing grace. May I live the remainder of my life worshipping and glorifying the name of Jesus, whether it be for a few more moments—like the criminal on the cross—or for decades to come.