We often study Christ’s crucifixion, its import, its cruelty, its significance. It is seldom, however, that we take the time to consider those two others crucified with Him. Matthew 27:38 tells us these were thieves and political criminals, and Luke, in chapter 32:33 records them being put to death with Christ. We only have one recorded conversation between Jesus and these two, but there is much we can learn from the exchange between Jesus and those put to death with Him.
One of these, in Luke 23:39, turns to Jesus, ordering Him to save Himself and them from their fate (Remember the amount of effort it would take to talk while hanging from a cross). The other rebukes the first speaker, though. The second reminds the first that Jesus is innocent while they are guilty. Then He asks Jesus to remember him before the Father. Matthew tells us that both of these criminals are initially involved in mocking Christ, but we see one of them turn his heart.
Lessons from the Faithful Criminal
In these last moments of Luke 23, one thief exemplifies a few characteristics we should also have if we desire Jesus to say to us, “I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
- Penitence. In Matthew 27:44 records both criminals mocking Christ, but, in Luke 23:40, he demonstrates a change of heart when he asks his counterpart, “Do you not fear God?” He goes from arrogant mocking to humbly asking for intercession.
- Standing Up for Jesus. In this environment of mocking and cruelty, this criminal is one voice of compassion for Jesus. Had the two witnessed any of Jesus’ trial? Had they seen the crowds turn on Him? He speaks up on Jesus behalf, even in dire circumstances.
- Understanding Justice. That humble criminal recognizes that he deserves his fate. He understands that justice cannot save him. He needs mercy.
- Turning to Jesus. Finally, instead of demanding salvation from Christ, he simply asks for Jesus to remember His soul.
Having the Faith of the Thief
This nameless criminal is an example of faith – the faith we should have in our own service of Christ. He comes to believe in Jesus in a few short hours, and he has faith in Jesus’ power to forgive and deliver Him. He recognizes Jesus’ sovereignty, and he expresses faith in something beyond this life. There is much in that statement: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Because he had a faith the other prisoner did not have, he gains one more thing his counterpart would not have: hope for salvation. In Matthew 27:50-54, we see individuals who realize Christ’s divinity after the cross, but this lone thief becomes faithful before those great events. He stands in contrast to the other criminal and to those surrounding the cross.
At points in our lives, we become like one of these two thieves. We will either go with the crowd, refuse to humble ourselves, be defiant in self-confidence or arrogance, and refuse to turn to Jesus for help. In contrast, we may see our Savior, grow humble, recognize our guilt, stand up for our Lord, and ultimately turn to Him for salvation. Like these thieves, we have a death sentence upon us. Unlike them, we may not know the timeframe of our own lives, but we face the same choice. Which one will you be more like?
lesson by Tim Smelser