The Salvation of a Thief
The Power of the Cross
The magazine "Our Daily Bread" tells a story about a marshal in Napoleon Bonaparte's army who was totally devoted to his emperor. Sadly, the marshal was mortally wounded in battle one day and, as he lay dying in his tent, one of the last things that he asked for was a visit from Bonaparte. Napoleon came
The poor man thought that his emperor could do anything. He may have even put him in place of God. He earnestly pleaded with his leader to save his life. But, unfortunately, all that Napoleon could do was shake his head and turn away.
As the young man felt the merciless grip of death draw him away, he became even more insistent. Just before he died, he was still heard to shriek out: "Napoleon, save me!" However, in the hour of his death, that poor soldier found out that not even the great and powerful Napoleon was able to save him from physical death.
However, there is another whom we can look to, who has conquered sin and the grave and He is able to save us from death as well. His name is Jesus. He is the infinite God-Man whose death on the cross is part of an eternal plan of the Triune God-Head in which He took the sin of mankind upon Himself and gave His righteousness to those who believe in Him.
But three days later, he rose from the grave and by His resurrection gave us the ability to one day follow Him and be raised to life as well.
Scripture records that two men died with Jesus the day He was crucified. Two thieves were crucified, one on either side of our Lord. This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 that He would be "numbered with the transgressors."
Our Savior died on that cross for sin. One of the thieves rejected Him and died in his sin. The other, after witnessing our Lord on the cross cried out to Christ and he died with no sin. Two men, each encountering Jesus. But each had entirely different reactions to what Christ was offering on that cross. And, just like all of humanity, the responses of both of these men had eternal consequences.
I. Jesus: The God-Man Dying For Sin
But just who was Jesus Christ, the man on the center cross? And why did He have the power to forgive sins and offer eternal life? The Bible teaches that Jesus was and is God (John 1:1-14). There is one God, who exists eternally in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We call this the Trinity.
The Bible also tells us that everything was created by the Son of God and for His glory (Colossians 1:16).
In eternity past, God chose to create us human beings in His image (Genesis 1:26), knowing full well that we would sin and rebel against Him and make us unfit to be in the presence of our Holy Creator who cannot look upon sin (Habakkuk 1:3). Sadly, without the intervention of God, Scripture teaches that we are without hope, are subject to God's wrath ( John 3:36: Ephesians 2:1-12), and are on our way to Hell and ultimately the Lake of Fire and separated from the Lord forever ( Revelation 20:11-15). That is the bad news which makes the good news of the Gospel, good!
The Gospel teaches us that God the Father, sent God the Son to take upon Himself the sins of the world. He died the death that we should have died. And then, if we have faith in His name and accept His gift of salvation, we will receive His righteousness. So when the Father looks upon us, He doesn't see our sin. He sees us as perfectly righteous before Him, for we have the righteousness of Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:19-21).
The forgiven thief didn't have this complete revelation, for it had not yet been totally revealed. But He had enough understanding to ask the other thief if he feared God. And he knew that Jesus was righteous and didn't deserve to be crucified. This man understood that he himself, along with the other man next to Jesus were sinners and deserved their fate. He also knew that Jesus had a coming Kingdom of which he wanted to be a part. Jesus took that faith and forgave his sins and told him he'd be with Him that day in Paradise.
II.The Unrepentant Thief Dying in Sin
We find the accounts of Jesus' crucifixion that mention the two thieves who were crucified on his right and on his left in 3 of the 4 Gospel accounts: Matthew 27:35-44; Mark 15:22-32 and Luke 23:26-49. In Matthew and Mark, it tells of how the crowd around Jesus hurled insults at our Lord and mocked him. They all said things like:
"He saved others! Let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His chosen one!" (Luke 23:35).
Everyone, including the rulers and the soldiers, got involved (Luke 25:35-37). And for a short period of time, both thieves followed along and mocked Jesus as well (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). Only the book of Luke records how one thief repented and asked Christ to take him into His Kingdom.
Just who were these men who were rightly crucified next to the only sinless person to ever live? Luke uses the Greek word 'kakourgos' to describe them (23:39). This word means: 'criminal or evildoer,' It is one who commits gross misdeeds and serious crimes. The other two Gospel accounts call them robbers. This is the Greek word 'lestes' which translates as robber, highwayman or bandit (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27).
Though these men could have been simply common thieves, it is also possible that they were the kinds of highwaymen that attacked lonely groups of travelers who were going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Highwaymen would often swoop down and steal from unsuspecting people, stripping them of their possessions and beating them so severely that they were left for dead. Jesus told a parable that talked about such persons in the Story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Travel could be so bad that people went about in groups whenever possible.
The word used to describe the taunts of the thieves is 'blasphemeo.' It means: 'to demean through speech'. The Jews were an honor-shame oriented society and so this would have been especially repugnant for someone to be the recipient of such words. They were making fun of Jesus' seeming inability, despite having the title of Messiah, to do anything for himself or them. In effect, they were saying: " Surely the Messiah, the one to come would be able to save himself and us." Where is the talk of 'Messiah' now! You're dying just like us!" What none of the taunters, including the thieves at the time, realized was that they were committing the ultimate blasphemy. They were blaspheming God in the flesh!.
So what is the difference between the unrepentant thief and the one who ended up with Jesus in Paradise? Neither deserved Christ's grace and mercy. The difference can be seen by looking at another, more recent true story out of American history.
Back in 1830, George Wilson was convicted of robbing the U.S. mail and was sentenced to be hanged. President Andrew Jackson, himself, issued a pardon for Wilson but unfortunately, George Wilson refused to accept it. After much debate, the matter went to Chief Justice Marshall who concluded that he would have to be executed. "A pardon is a slip of paper," wrote Marshall, "the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. George Wilson must be hanged." For some, the pardon comes too late. For others, the pardon is not accepted.
Sadly, there is no indication that the first thief ever accepted Christ's sacrifice on his behalf or repented. He never asked Christ to take him into His Kingdom. As far as we know, this thief continued to blaspheme the name of our Lord. He rightly was being judged for his crimes. And one day he will see Jesus again. He will stand before his judge who will justly condemn him eternally for his sins. He died in sin!
III. The Repentant Thief: Dying with No Sin
But what of the thief who repented? He obviously had a change of heart. What caused him to call out to the Lord? We really don't know for sure. It could have been the strength Christ showed in the time of his death. It may have been the way He forgave His murderers or something else that Jesus said from the cross. Whatever it was, he did a 180 degree turn-about from where he was when he was first placed upon that cross. Obviously, the Holy Spirit worked upon his heart and lead him to call out to the Savior for mercy. Here is what the Gospel of Luke tells us:
"Now there was also an inscription above Him: "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." One of the criminals who was hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying: "Are you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other answered, rebuking him and said: "Do you not even fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he was saying: "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your Kingdom!" And He said to him: "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:38-43).
This word "Paradise" is used only here in the New Testament and in two other places. II Corinthian 12:4 by the Apostle Paul and Revelation 2:7. The word suggests a garden. It is the word used of Eden in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. However, in all three New Testament uses it seems to indicate Heaven. The thief on the cross went to Heaven to be with Jesus forever.
I love what Christian writer Philip Yancey has to say about this incident. He tells us:
"Jesus forgave a dangling thief on a cross, knowing full well the thief had converted out of plain fear, that the thief would never study the Bible, never attend synagogue or church and never make amends to those he wronged. He simply said: "Jesus remember me!" And Jesus promised: "Today you will be with Me in Paradise." It was another shocking reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God. But rather what God has done for us."
This man, as Yancey stated, was a picture of God's grace. He could completely say to our Lord: "Nothing in my hands I bring; only to thy cross I cling!" He is a type of all men and women who come before the Lord in faith. And because of that faith, he died without sin. And not only without sin, but he will stand before Christ one day and be completely clothed in Jesus' righteousness.
IV. Which Thief Are You?
The truth is, all mankind falls on the side of one thief or the other. And we all need to ask ourselves: "What thief am I?" We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We may think that our sin isn't as bad as those robbers on the cross. We have never beaten up and robbed anyone. We've never murdered someone. We try to live moral lives. But the truth is, in the eyes of a God who demands perfection, we are just as lost as those men on either side of Jesus' cross. We should have been the ones suffering for our sins and not the perfect, spotless Son of God. And we fall into one of the two categories. We are either the unrepentant thief who mocks Jesus Christ by not accepting His free gift of salvation, or we are the repentant thief who yells out to the Savior: "Jesus remember me! Save me!"
The Apostle Paul says it very well in Ephesians 2:8,9 when he tells us:
"For by grace are you saved, through faith. And that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast."
Are you trusting in your own good works to make you right with God? Then you are lost. For Paul says further:
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done but according to His mercy, He has saved us...." (Titus 3:5).
We are either saved by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone, or we aren't saved at all.
But the story of the repentant thief also tells us something else. As long as there is life and breath in your body, it isn't too late to receive the free gift of eternal life. For those who haven't accepted Christ, there is still time. However, you need to hurry. The thief, in this case, had the advantage of knowing his time on this earth was short and he needed to act quickly. None of us here has that knowledge. We all need to make sure we have cried out to the Lord for mercy. And just like the repentant thief, He will welcome each of us into His Heaven when we die, or when He returns.
And if any of us have any loved ones that don't know Christ, we must not give up. They just might come to know Jesus at the last minute and will be with us forever and with the Lord. God is a merciful Savior!
One day pastor D.M. Stearns was preaching in Philadelphia. And at the close of the service, a stranger came up to him and said: "I don't like the way you spoke today about the cross. I think that instead of emphasizing the death of Christ. It would be better to teach about him as the moral teacher and the example.
Stearns replied: "If I preached about him that way, would you follow Him?" The stranger answered without hesitation: "Yes, I certainly would!"
"All right," said the preacher, "He did no sin. Can you claim that for yourself?"
The man looked at him confused and somewhat surprised. "Why no," he said, " I acknowledge that I do sin."
Stearns then told him: "Then your greatest need is to have a Savior, not an example!"
Jesus died on that cross 2000 years ago as our Savior from sin. One thief acknowledged that. One didn't. Now it's our turn. Salvation, the greatest need that we have, was taken care of on the cross of Calvary. May we, like the repentant thief on the cross, cry out to the Lord for that Salvation this very day. And after we've done that, may we spend the rest of our lives telling others that Jesus loves them and wants to spend eternity with them in Paradise. For there is no greater message and no nobler cause for which we can give of our time. Thank God for His Amazing Grace!!
© 2019 Jeff Shirley