I have heard and read the story of the two thieves who died alongside Jesus, on countless occasions. However, tonight, as I thought on them again as I listened to a Preacher on Harbour Light Online Radio Station, I received fresh insight like I had never had before.
As the Preacher preached his Sermon on the thief that went to hell and the thief that went to heaven (both of which are referred to in the Bible as malefactors, meaning criminals), I realized that there were some glaring truths about the thief that went to heaven that I had never really studied in great detail.
The scripture in Luke 23:32-43 reads:
- “And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.
- Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God. And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar, And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself. And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, This Is The King Of The Jews.
- And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us .But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
Based on the statements made by the thief that was saved, the following truths are clear, although I never saw some of it before:
- ONE – He saw himself as a sinner, accepted responsibility without excuses and was repentant for his sin, knowing that he justly deserved where he had ended up – about to be crucified. For, he said to the other thief: “And we indeed JUSTLY; for we receive the DUE REWARD of our deeds…”
- TWO – He feared God. Although he had done much evil in life, he had come to a point where he now feared God. As if in shock at the other thief’s brazen and dangerous behaviour, he therefore rebuked him when he was mocking Jesus and said: “Dost not thou FEAR God…?”
- THREE – He believed that Jesus was sent from God and that he was God in the flesh. In his rebuke to the thief who was mocking Jesus, he said to him: “Dost thou not fear GOD…?”
- FOUR – He believed that Jesus was perfectly righteous. Despite all the things that the Pharisees and other people had accused Jesus of in his lifetime, the thief believed that Jesus’ record was impeccable and that he was absolutely sinless. He told the other thief: “And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: BUT THIS MAN HATH DONE NOTHING amiss.”
- FIVE – He believed that Jesus was Lord and so addressed him not as Master or Prophet or Teacher but as Lord, the highest title reserved for the Son of the true and living God. He said to Jesus: “LORD, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
- SIX – He understood that although he was about to die, that his soul was going to live on. This is why he asked the Lord Jesus to remember him when he came into his Kingdom. Obviously, he knew that he, Jesus and the other thief were on the verge of being executed and therefore would all soon experience death. If he had thought therefore, that once dead, that would have been the end of his existence, he would not have asked what he asked. He was therefore speaking of a post-death existence which he believed existed and knew was important. He understood that his soul would live on beyond physical death.
- SEVEN – He believed that although it seemed to the average eye (and certainly to the other thief), that, given that Jesus had been captured and was about to be killed, that he was defeated, this was not the case. Somehow, he understood that this was heaven’s plan and he (Jesus) would ultimately be victorious. This is clear, as He envisioned Jesus coming into his Kingdom after he had died and therefore, envisioned him as being ultimately victorious in the end. He told Jesus, who he knew was about to die: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” He did not therefore allow the fact that Jesus was being held, that he was being insulted and humiliated publicly and that he was about to be painfully crucified, to make him doubt that Jesus was Lord. He did not see Jesus’ pending crucifixion and the seemingly pitiable position that he was in, as an attestation that Jesus was not all powerful was not the Son of God and not God himself. Unlike the other thief and the other naysayers around, he still believed that this was the Christ and therefore, he seemed to understand that Jesus was voluntarily giving up his life for a noble cause, although he could escape death if he so chose.
- EIGHT – He believed that Jesus would conquer the grave, get up from the dead and end up in Heaven. This is why he told Jesus: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” He was speaking of a future time post Jesus’ death and so he did not believe that Jesus’ death would be the end of Jesus’ or permanent but that he would rise again.
- NINE – He believed that as Lord, Jesus was all powerful and therefore more powerful than death, as this would not hold him down forever.
- TEN – He believed that there was a heaven and a hell. If he did not, he would have never wasted time asking Jesus to remember him in his Kingdom. Also, if he had believed that all persons who lived and died went automatically to heaven and there was no hell, then there would have been no need to put in his request to Jesus, to grant him favour by remembering him when he was in his Kingdom, as he would have automatically gone there after death.
- ELEVEN – He understood that heaven was a place to be desired, whereas hell was a place to shun, hence the urgency of his request to the Lord. He did not want to go to hell but wanted to go where he was convinced Jesus was going after he died and rose again. He therefore used his last words (which for any man are usually important), to request access to heaven.
- TWELVE – He believed that Jesus as Lord, had authority in heaven, held the keys of death and hell and could save a soul to HIS Kingdom or damn it to hell. For, he understood that Jesus was THE way, THE truth and THE life and that no man could come to the Father, except by him. This is why he did not use his last few minutes to try to pray to God directly in heaven but directed his petition to Jesus, the Son of God and God himself in the flesh.
- THIRTEEN – He understood that as a sinner and probably one of the worst ones at that, that he had nothing with which to bargain or to offer Jesus, when it came to him being granted access into Jesus’ kingdom. He realized that he could rely on no good works or achievements he had done, given his sinful life but relied on Jesus’ grace and mercy alone. This is why he did not put up any argument or case for himself to the Lord. He was guilty as charged and not only deserving of physical death but also of hell. All he had was a believing heart and it was upon this basis, that he asked Jesus, who he confessed as Lord, to remember him when he came into his Kingdom.
- FOURTEEN – He understood that although there was no hope left for him to continue living on earth, that there was still hope for him to be redeemed and his soul to get to live in heaven. He would not have asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his Kingdom, if he did not believe that, despite how messed up his life had been thus far and how much he had sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and despite the fact that he was now condemned to die on earth, that there was still hope for his redemption, still hope that he could be received in heaven because the one with whom he spake (Jesus), had the power to forgive sins.
Now, on another note, the Preacher said something that I disagree with. Considering Matthew’s account as recorded in Matthew 27:44, he said that the thief that was saved was initially cursing Jesus along with the other thief but then came to his senses and believed on Jesus.
I think it highly unlikely that this is what transpired. For, it is highly unlikely that the thief who got saved, would have been mocking Jesus up to that point and then suddenly have an epiphany right before he was crucified, that caused him to believe on Jesus. The very statements the thief made showed that he had given the whole question of who Jesus was some serious thought and that he had come to the conclusion that he was indeed Lord. Although some hold a different view, to my mind, all of the above truths about what the thief clearly believed and understood as revealed by what he said, required some time to process, which he did not have enough of, in those moments.
While I do not know what exactly transpired, it may be that Matthew, who reported that both thieves mocked Jesus, overheard one thief mocking and saw the other thief talking both to him and to Jesus and therefore assumed that the second thief was also mocking.
I believe Luke’s account. I also believe (and it is highly more likely that it was so), that the Lord may have been working on this thief’s heart before that point and maybe even before that day. The statements he made demonstrated that he had taken time to process the truth about Jesus (someone whose character he had definitely heard something about before) and had received it as true, something he was unlikely to suddenly do in the moments before his crucifixion.
Notably, he asked Jesus no question (based on what is recorded), other than to address him as Lord and to ask him to please grant him access to heaven, demonstrating that when he said those words, he already BELIEVED that Jesus was Lord. In putting forward his petition therefore, he simply went further by CONFESSING with his mouth that Jesus was Lord and securing the Lord’s forgiveness for his sins, which he was repentant of.
By the time he was positioned where he was to be crucified alongside Jesus, he was obviously remorseful for the life that he had lived. He was a criminal and was now being put to death for his crime/s. He also obviously had either heard about Jesus prior to that moment or was present at some point before, where Jesus was teaching or performing a miracle, as he was able to speak of Jesus’ character. He knew who he was and that he had done nothing amiss.
Whatever work may have begun in his heart before, as it appears to have been the case, thankfully, it was perfected before he died, based on his actual interactions with Jesus. For, he found the way to salvation, he was forgiven of his sins and was given the assurance of eternal life by Jesus, before he died.
This true story about the dying thief brings to the fore some important reminders. These are as follows:
- ONE – No matter how much sin a person has committed and how hardened a criminal he may be, once he is sorry for his sins, believes on Jesus, that he rose from the dead and confesses with his mouth that he is Lord, Jesus has the power to forgive that person of his sins (no matter how much and how bad), cleanse him of every guilty stain with his blood which he shed on the cross for sins, make him fit for heaven and when he dies, grant him access to his kingdom;
- TWO – Even when, as an outcast and an offscouring, the world has no purpose for us and we are rejected or even condemned to die, there is still hope that Jesus will accept us into his Kingdom, provided that we believe in his resurrection and confess that he is Lord, surrendering our life to his Lordship and trusting him with our eternity.
- THREE – The most important issue we need to have settled while we still have breath on this earth is to make sure that we ask Jesus for access to heaven. He will grant access to all who believe in their heart that he rose from the dead and confess with their mouth that he is Lord. Whosoever will, may come.
(Written on 22nd September, 2020)
There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s (Jesus’) veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose ALL their guilty stains. SEE Song: https://youtu.be/z1WRt1Ag5gI