And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
I want you to look at the crucifixion of Jesus from the perspective of the elect thief. Through his eyes we see what Good Friday is all about. From his perspective we will appreciate what the cross accomplished. We do wonder at the amazing faith of this man. We also see the need to look to the crucified Savior in faith for salvation.
It is a wonder that God saves sinners by grace alone and justifies them through faith alone. The words of Jesus to the thief herald forth this Reformational truth: man is not justified by works, but by faith alone.
We fall into the error of thinking that God saves one person because he is better than another. We are surprised at God’s justification of the worst sort of criminal. I remember reading a book about missions in New Hebrides. I was surprised when I read that God converted a wife-murdering cannibal. We can be very skeptical about whether a person whom we think is much worse than we could really be saved by God.
When most people think of this crucified thief, they think of how different he is from them. But he is more like each one of us than we care to admit. We share a common fallenness. His conversion is precisely like that of any Christian–it is a wonder.
God intended to show the power of Jesus’ cross to save while Jesus was still hanging on His cross! It was by God’s “determinate counsel and foreknowledge” that Jesus was crucified between two malefactors. In fulfillment of prophecy Pilate caused Jesus to be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:120. God would reveal His sovereign grace in saving one thief.
But the emphasis falls not on the one saved, but on the mighty Savior hanging on His cross, but ruling and saving from His cross.
Three Crucified Men Converse!
God plays out this great drama of salvation as three crucified men speak to each other from their crosses. What a scene we have! Roman soldiers crucify two thieves on either side of the holy Son of God. The three sufferers take time out from their excruciating agony to address each other!
Good Friday is the day when the Christian church remembers the crucifixion of Jesus. It takes a mighty work of God’s grace for sinners to look to the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation. It was a mighty wonder that one thief believed in Jesus. May we who learn about this thief’s confession of faith in Christ not fail to confess Jesus as Savior and king!
It was a boisterous scene that morning at 9:00 when Jesus was crucified. The two thieves cursed the soldiers who threw them on the crosses, held them down, and hammered away.
A Vicious Criminal
The elect thief knew that he had it coming. There is reason to think that these thieves were not merely burglars, but highwaymen. They had committed thefts bad enough to deserve crucifixion. They hid along the roads of Palestine and attacked and robbed travelers. Whatever the crimes of these two thieves were, they were serious enough to deserve the worst penalty; crucifixion.
Society viewed them as scum. Now justice had caught up with them. They were men without consciences. They would have beaten you bloody to rob a few drachma.
The elect thief was a vicious criminal. If he was alive today and the FBI captured him, he would be held in maximum security at a Federal Prison. There was nothing romantic about him. He had hurt, robbed, beaten, and perhaps murder. He is angry now and he vents his venom on Jesus. He is in such terrible pain. His body hurts beyond belief. He will take his hurt out on someone around him.
Strangely the thieves also join the crowd in railing against the one crucified between them. Such were the depths of shame into which Jesus was plunged that even his co-sufferers mock him.
It is one thing that others mock Jesus. Different classes mock Him. The Pharisees lead the way: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ the chosen of God.” The by-passers wagged their heads: “Thou that destroyest the temple, save thyself!” A Roman soldier says: “If thou be the King of the Jews, save thyself.”
Usually when a number of men are being publicly executed they are sympathetic to one another. That the thieves also mock Jesus means that His rejection by men is complete. Matthew 27:44 records: “The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.”
But after a while one of the criminals falls silent.
After a pause the other thief again takes up his tirade. Glaring over at Christ, he impudently asks: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” Luke literally interprets the request as blasphemy. The tone is a sneer. The thief mocks the idea that Jesus is the Christ. Placing Jesus in his same category, he says: “Save thyself and us.”
This is an impossible request. The thief asks for the equivalent of a jail break. If Jesus is the Christ, then He must stay precisely where He is. He must pay for the sins of His people.
From His Cross Jesus Converts One Thief
An amazing thing has happened. From His cross, Jesus suddenly and dramatically converts the other thief. We immediately see the evidence of the Spirit’s saving work in the elect thief’s heart. His anxious rebuke of his partner is the first evidence of saving faith. Indignation makes him speak out. The fire burned in his soul until he could no longer bear to hear the innocent king reviled. He was stirred to defend the name of Jesus. He knew this might bring down on him the jeers of the spectators and the anger of his partner.
How can a Christian listen to men who curse and blaspheme the name of Jesus and the name of God and not have his soul stirred to defend God’s holy name?! Would you dare stand out in a crowd of sinners and say: “Don’t take the name of God in vain.” I fear that this thief outruns us in his willingness to stand up for God’s glory no matter what others think.
He rebukes his fellow for not fearing God when he is “in the same condemnation” as Jesus. Since the thief also faces death and the judgment seat of God should he not be silent? The converted thief is shocked at the lack of the fear of God in his partner. He urgently insists: “Do not even you, you fear God?” (verse 40) It might be expected that the crowds would lack the fear of God: but his partner who will soon face the living God?!
He is evidently anxious to change his friend’s mind. How amazing it is that while many professing Christians never show anxiety for the souls of their acquaintances or friends, this thief did! He rebukes him and reasons with him. Today we would say that he is involved in personal evangelism. Evangelism involves not only telling the good news about Jesus, but confronting sinners in a wise way about their sin.
The thief confesses that he is a sinner. He acknowledges the justice of his sentence. The thieves are punished justly: “for we receive the due reward of our deeds” (verse 41). He recognizes that he deserves the cross. But he draws a sharp contrast between his guilt and Jesus’ innocence. Jesus has not done anything “out of place”. Much less has he committed a crime worthy of death.
A Remarkable Faith
What is remarkable is the faith of this thief. He confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and King of Israel. He believes that this naked, crucified, dying man now reigns as king! He calls Jesus “Lord”. He says: “Lord remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom”. He confesses that Jesus possesses a kingdom.
This is so remarkable when we realize that no other man on earth at this point believes this. Judas sold Jesus. Peter denied him. John stands away in the distance. The rest of the disciples forsook Jesus.
The Jews see Jesus as a fraud. The fact that He could not avoid crucifixion is evidence that He is not the long-awaited Messiah. The Roman soldiers have made a joke out of the fact that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews.
It is true that there is this inscription above Jesus’ head that reads: “The King of the Jews”. But that is a joke that Pilate has played on the wretched Jews. He is implying that the Jews must not be much if this is what their king is like.
Everyone else saw an abused and tortured man dying on a wretched cross. This thief saw the long-awaited King! All that he saw with his eyes was calculated by Satan to hinder faith. Yet God gave him faith!
What sweet music this confession of Lordship must have been to Jesus!
This thief looks in faith to Christ on His cross for salvation. He expects that through His cross Jesus will enter into His kingdom. He confesses His need for Jesus to save him in his humble request. He just wants Jesus to “remember” him when He comes into His kingdom.
The Power of Intercessory Prayer
Already on the cross we see the power of Jesus’ intercessory prayer. While the crowds had screamed, the Lamb of God remained silent. Before Jesus’ second cross-word to the converted thief, He had only spoken one cross-word; a brief prayer. He prayed for the elect around Him who were involved in the crucifixion and mocking: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Jesus’ prayer is already being answered in the conversion of this thief!
A Four Point Sermon
Christ used various means to convert this thief. Although he heard no preaching from Jesus, no sermon from the disciples, God delivered a four point sermon to him as he walked the via dolorosa and hung on His cross.
First, God used Jesus’ behavior and words on the via dolorosa (the way of suffering) to convert him. The thief heard women weeping for Jesus. The mysterious man said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for your children.” He was struck with wonder that a man facing death could be so forgetful of his own sufferings. Although it was clear that Jesus couldn’t carry his cross anymore, He never complained. He didn’t curse the soldiers. He wondered at this fellow sufferer making a prophecy about the future destruction of Jerusalem. These words and actions were the first point of the sermon that God was delivering to the thief’s heart.
Secondly, the thief was startled to hear Jesus pray: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When they started holding him down, the thief had fought and cursed. But Jesus willingly placed his hands on the wood! He is surprised. He had never dreamed that a man being crucified would ask God to forgive like that! The Spirit caused convictions to creep across his mind: “What don’t they know they are doing? Are they killing the Messiah?”
Thirdly, when the thief was lifted up, from his cross he could read the third point of God’s sermon. It was the superscription on the cross of the man in the middle: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” God’s Spirit began to put all of this together for him.
Finally, as a covenant boy he had learned from his mother and father about the promised Messiah. We have no idea if he remembered some of the ancient prophesies about the Messiah. We do not know what thoughts God caused to run through his head. He must have asked himself: “Is this the promised King?” As a Jew he would have known Messianic prophesies. But even the disciples did not understand that the Messiah should suffer. Isaiah 53:3 read:
He is despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Could the thief have known that Jesus was the one prophesied of in Psalm 22:16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.”
This thief looks at the people hooting and hollering at Jesus. If he remembered Psalm 22:7,8 everything could have been clear:
All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
He must have heard about Lazarus’ resurrection and the other great miracles of Jesus. What Jesus did was not done in a corner. By the grace of God this thief comes to the staggering conclusion that he is crucified next to the great Messiah!
Salvation is a Sovereign, Gracious Act of God
The salvation of the thief demonstrates that salvation is a sovereign, gracious act of God. The only explanation for the conversion of one thief and not the other is Sovereign election. The one thief did not believe in Jesus because he was in a better condition than the other or had advantages that the other did not. Both were hardened criminals. Both feared death. Both saw and heard Jesus. What is even more serious, both were dead in trespasses and sins. They were dead. The only way that they could live spiritually is if the Holy Spirit would sovereignty blow in their hearts and give the new birth.
But God according to His good pleasure elected one thief to be a vessel unto glory and the other a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction (see Romans 9:22). The blaspheming thief is representative of reprobate men who respond with hardened hearts to Jesus. These men are referred to in Proverbs 16:4: “The Lord hath made all things for Himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” This thief would soon experience a weightier judgment than the cross when he fell into the hands of an angry God.
The converted thief is a fitting representative of the elect. He was a sinner who deserved Hell, and yet was saved by grace. God chose him from before the foundation of the earth to be one of Jesus’ elect sheep.
We might feel uncomfortable about this thief’s salvation. How could Jesus let a man like this enter Heaven? What good works has he done? Perhaps we view ourselves as superior to this man. Maybe we think that we have done many good works to deserve salvation.
When God chose the elect thief, just like when He chose anyone of His elect, they brought Him no credit. The thief had nothing to offer. He did not bother to offer any righteousness. Looking back over his life he could find none. The Bible says that all of our righteousnesses are like filthy rags anyway. No one deserves salvation. God chooses His elect unconditionally. He does not choose them conditional on seeing some good in them. His choice is unconditional.
The conversion of the thief demonstrates that there is power in Christ’s cross to save elect sinners. Jesus’ second cross-word, “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise” pardons the thief on the basis of His present sufferings and His imminent sufferings in Hell (especially during the three hours of darkness). God imputed the sins of all the elect to Jesus. Our sins were nailed to the cross. Jesus is paying the penalty for this thief’s sins. That is why God reckons Jesus to be like a common criminal.
There is power in Jesus’ cross to justify elect sinners. Jesus was giving us a lesson in saving this thief. He is making it shockingly clear that a man is not justified by works. This thief does not deserve Heaven. He has no merits to get him there. But God justifies him by faith alone in Christ. We are to look closely at this wretched thief and realize that we are sinners, who like he, must be justified by faith alone if we are going to be saved.
King Jesus promises Paradise to the thief today. Although the Jews attempted to rob Jesus’ honor, they could not strip Him of His power to save. The thief rightly had seen that Jesus was reigning from His cross. Jesus’ cross is for a moment transformed into a throne from which He exercises His right to give a place in His kingdom to this thief.
Divine grace wildly exceeded the expectations of the thief. He merely asked to be remembered in the coming kingdom. Jesus promises him the kingdom and glory today! This was a great relief. He would not linger for 3 days on the cross. He was snatched from the flames of Hell.
Jesus rules out the possibility of their being a place called Purgatory. The Roman Catholic Church has made it dogma that there is a place called Purgatory where believers suffer in hell-like conditions after death. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that because believers sinned in this world they must pay for some of those sins in Purgatory before they are purged clean and can enter into Heaven.
Jesus makes clear that there is no Purgatory. If there was any man who ever deserved Purgatory, it was this man. But there is no such place. The only good works this thief ever did are rebuke his fellow and confess his faith in the crucified Jesus. That is all.
Jesus teaches us that the worst of sinners who is completely forgiven through faith in Jesus, after death goes immediately into the presence of Jesus Christ. How is it possible for this thief to go to Heaven? It is only because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him. Jesus’ righteousness includes both His perfect obedience to the will of His Father and His innocence because our sins that were imputed to Him have been paid for. This perfect righteousness of Jesus is ours through faith in Him. Even the greatest Christian has only a “small beginning of the new obedience” according to the Heidelberg Catechism. There is no Christian in Heaven who brags about His good works. Every Christian in Heaven recognizes that the reason that they are there is completely and only because of the work and righteousness of Jesus Christ. For that reason Jesus Christ receives all of the glory in Heaven.
Later that Day…
This vicious criminal was Jesus’ companion at the gates of Paradise. That very day Jesus was with the converted thief in Paradise. Jesus died around 3:00 in the afternoon. About that time the thief saw Roman soldiers approach him and cruelly break his legs. He sank down on his cross. He could no longer hold himself up and try to grab breaths of air. Sinking down in agony, he soon expired. But he slept in Jesus.
When he died powerful angels immediately carried his soul from Calvary into Paradise.
And King Jesus did remember the thief!
These twenty centuries this thief has been with Jesus, singing the song of the Redeemed.
This elect thief was admitted to an incredible covenant intimacy! Jesus said that he would be “with me” in Paradise. The Apostle Paul later wrote that to be with Christ is “far better”. How marvelous it is to be in the presence of Jesus Christ, our glorious King and beloved bride-groom. There is nothing else that compares. In all of the cosmos there is nothing in comparison. To live is Christ, but to die is gain, because to die as a believer is to experience more Christ.
Who is the first spoil of Jesus’ victory on His cross? It is a condemned thief! Jesus did not come to glory with a great saint, but with a sentenced criminal.
And in this we find a great lesson. There are no saints in Heaven who stood back in revulsion from this criminal. Not one said: “What is this wretch doing in Heaven?” No one said: “What credit does this thief bring to you, Jesus?” This is because every saint in Heaven knows that he is the chief of sinners, and that he too is a wretched sinner, a criminal who rebelled against God, a thief who robbed God of His glory. All the saints in Heaven know that they are sinners saved by grace alone through faith alone.
The Apostle Paul said that all of his boasting was in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Is that what all your boasting is in? Or do you boast in yourself and how nice a person you are? There is no room in Heaven for anyone who boasts about his own works. Just as the saints in Heaven boast only in the works and merits and cross of Jesus, may we on earth do the same.
Since salvation is all of God, to God alone be the glory for saving His precious elect.