230. The Thief on the Cross (Luke 23:39-43)*
At a time during the long drawn-out hours of pain, thirst and
misery, when by jeers and taunts priests, people and Roman soldiers seemed bent
on adding as much as they could to the sufferings of Jesus, there came
marvellous help and encouragement from an altogether unexpected source. What was
it that turned the thief at Jesus' right hand from curses and blasphemy to the
utterance of a matchless confession of faith? The gospels offer no explanation,
nor do the commentators. It is ground for thankfulness that the fact is
The contrast between the two malefactors is picked out
markedly by Luke's choice of word "other" —a different kind of man.
The one ends his days foaming out bitter curses and sarcastic sneers: "You are
the Messiah, aren't you?" The other not only rebukes him but also acknowledges
his own fate to be well-deserved. His estimate of Jesus is remarkable: "This man
hath done nothing amiss." But how did he know that Jesus had done nothing amiss?
Even if taken in a vague, general way as signifying: 'This Jesus has committed
no bloody crimes as we have,' his words are sufficiently startling as betraying
a knowledge of the kind of man Jesus was and the work he had been doing. But if
the words are taken at their face value then this thief must have known Jesus
before this, and known him so intimately as to be able to say with emphasis:
'This man hath done nothing amiss; his character is without any blemish;
none has ever convicted him of sin.'
By itself this conclusion might appear farfetched. But the
rest of this unique incident makes it a much more likely explanation.
Eloquent confession of faith
"Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." The
thief's appeal appears to mean: 'Remember me when you inherit your kingdom.' But
the more precise translation of the RV changes the meaning drastically:
"Remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom." These words now plainly imply the
thief's conviction that Jesus would one day come again in a kingdom, that
is, with authority and power as King of the Jews.
Indeed, the implication is much more far-reaching than this.
Here was Jesus dying by his side, and yet the thief expressed a conviction that
he would one day "come in a kingdom." Then he must surely have believed that
Jesus would rise from the dead, and, further, that he would ascend to heaven;
for unless he first went away how could he come in a kingdom?
It has to be realised, that, whilst the resurrection of Jesus
and his ascension to heaven are commonplace knowledge to the believer of today,
the disciples of Jesus seem to have been blind to these glorious truths until
the resurrection had actually taken place. Time after time when Jesus had sought
to instruct the Twelve concerning the experience that lay before him at
Jerusalem, "they understood not that saying" (Mk. 9:32), "they understood none
of these things; and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things
which were spoken" (Lk. 18;34). Indeed, after the first news of the resurrection
had been proclaimed to the Twelve, it was still possible for Jesus to say to the
two whom he accompanied on the road to Emmaus; "O fools, and slow of heart to
believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered
these things, and to enter into his glory?" (Lk. 24:25,26).
The impressive conclusion seems inescapable, then, that when
the thief proclaimed his faith in the dying Jesus, he was perhaps the only
man in all the world who believed also that this same Jesus would soon rise
again from the grave, the conqueror of the great Enemy, and would ascend to
heaven. Surely, if ever there was a justifying faith, it was in the heart of
this man who now hung on a cross paying the penalty of his crime.
It is worthwhile to make a list of the articles of belief,
which explicitly or by implication, were included in the malefactor's confession
The catalogue is certainly a remarkable one, especially when
set over against the blindness of the apostles who had had such exceptional
opportunities of grasping the truth of the Father's purpose in His
- Jesus was sinless—"this man hath done nothing amiss."
- He himself
was a worthless sinner: "We indeed receive the due reward of our
- Jesus was "Lord", i.e. the Meessiah.
- He would rise from the
- He would ascend to heaven.
- He would come again,
- At his
coming he would raise dead —"remember me," a victim crucifixion,
- "Remember me" also implies discrimination (i.e. judgment) between those
accepted and those not.
- His coming would also establish a
Now it is possible to add other even more remarkable items to
the list. The other malefactor, echoing the jibes of the chief priests, had
railed on Jesus, saying: "If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us."
But this man made a careful distinction. He said, in effect: "I know you are
the Christ. Therefore save me." This seems to imply a realisation that
Jesus must die, and that apart from the death of Jesus there could be no
salvation for himself! This harmonizes admirably with what has already been
learned concerning the man. It adds the crowning fact to his saving knowledge of
Jesus that without the death of the Saviour on the cross his own sins could
not be forgiven!
There is also this. The rebuke to his fellow: "Dost not thou
fear God . . . ?" carried with it the implication: "I do fear Him." Thus, not
only did he believe, but he also made an open confession of faith. Up to that
point, as a supporter of a popular hero Barabbas, he and his fellow would have
the strong sympathy of the crowd. But now this was forfeited. He chose instead
to share the reproach of Christ.
A lapsed disciple
The question inevitably arises: How came this malefactor to
have such remarkable insight into all these divine truths? To this, there is
only one possible answer: He had been a disciple of Jesus in earlier days! Not
only so, to have gained such exceptional knowledge of his character and teaching
he must have been one of Christ's most intimate followers.
Consequently, it is manifestly inaccurate and unfair to
represent this man as making a "deathbed" repentance-a rank unbeliever suddenly
brought to belief in the Saviour when face to face with the stark horror of
A far more close (though not exact) parallel would be with
Peter, who in spite of many vigorous protestations to the contrary, denied His
Lord three times and then, coming to himself, went out and wept bitterly. For
such the grace of divine forgiveness is ever available "I acknowledged my sin
unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my
transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Ps.
Thus it was with David; thus it was with Peter; and thus also
it was with this nameless sinner, for did he not declare: "We (the other
malefactor and himself) are receiving the due reward of our deeds"?
The suggestion that a man of this character could ever have
been a disciple is not as unlikely as it may seem. This matter is worth
The word "thief" in the ordinary version of the Bible is
misleading. This man crucified with Christ was neither pick-pocket, cat-burglar,
highwayman nor brigand. The same word is applied to Barabbas (Jn. 18:40 Gk.),
who certainly was no insignificant, unknown cutthroat from the hills, but a
well-known and popular figure in Judaea (a "notable prisoner"; Mt. 27:16), who
had led a rebellion in Jerusalem itself against Roman authority (Lk. 23:19).
This "thief" was one of a number who had been taken prisoner during this
upheaval: "And there was one named Barabbas which lay bound with them that had
made insurrection with him..." (Mk. 15:7).
Evidently, then, Barabbas and his two fellows were Jewish
Zealots, patriots who might be described in modern jargon as members of the
nationalist resistance movement.
Alternative to Jesus
With these facts in mind the sequence of ideas in John 6
becomes impressive. At the time of that Passover, Jesus had fed a great
multitude miraculously from a few loaves and fishes. The effect of this on the
crowd was more marked than after any of his other miracles: "Then those men,
when they had seen the miracles that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that
prophet that should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that
they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again
into a mountain himself alone" (Jn. 6:14,15).
The party of the Zealots evidently thought that at last they
had found the very leader they needed. Led by a chief endowed with such amazing
powers, they could speedily drive the Romans into the sea, and the Kingdom of
Jehovah over Israel would once again be established in Palestine.
But Jesus quenched all such wild notions by an abrupt
departure and, next day, by his discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum:
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and
drink his blood, ye have no life in you." There was immediately a sharp reaction
among the multitude: "Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this,
said, This is a hard saying: who can hear it? . . . From that time many of his
disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (Jn.6 :53,60,66).
The more energetic and idealistic of these who now deserted
Jesus would almost inevitably drift into the ranks of the Zealots. Where else
could they go? And if indeed this "thief" crucified with Jesus was among that
number, the sudden regeneration of faith when hanging on the cross is easily
understood. He would not only recognize Jesus but would also have it driven home
to his mind that Jesus, in foretelling his own miserable death at the time of
Passover in order that others might have eternal life, had proved himself a true
prophet. It would therefore come to him in a flash that all the other
far-reaching claims included in that discourse at Capernaum must also be true-
his divine origin, his Messiahship, his sinlessness, his resurrection and his
coming again to raise the dead (see, for instance, John 6:46,38,51,62,54,). All
of these, in one way or another, this malefactor now included in the noblest
confession of faith ever made. And who can doubt that he was encouraged to it by
the memory of other words of Jesus that day: "All that the Father giveth me
shall come to me, and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out"
There need be no difficulty now over the question: Will this
malefactor receive his eternal life without being baptized? The preponderant
evidence of the New Testament is that baptism is essential for salvation (Mt.
3:15; Jn. 3:5; Mk. 16:15,16; Acts 10:48 and 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). Appropriately,
then, both John the Baptist and Jesus had insisted on baptism for their
disciples (Jn.3 :22,23; 4 :1,2). So if this crucified sinner were indeed a
renegade disciple, his earlier acceptance of Christian baptism may be safely
A question of some interest now arises. Baptism is a symbolic
death with Christ. Then, since this malefactor was literally crucified with
Christ, dying when he died, would he need the symbolic death also? The answer is
not important for modern believers, but it is intriguing.
In that endless day of living death how Jesus would be
heartened by this sinner's matchless confession of faith. What a difference it
would make to the spirit with which he now endured the torment of suffering and
shame. Here was plain proof to his own eyes and ears that his work was not in
No wonder, then, that he answered the man's appeal with such
emphasis: "Verily / say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with me in
Paradise" —as who should say: 'Remember you then, in the day of my
glory? nay, you shall have my assurance now.'
Some are uneasy about this shift of a comma in such a way as
to rid the words of Jesus of the meaning put on them by a misguided orthodoxy,
but they have no need to be. Textually and grammatically, and also from the
point of view of harmony with the context and the over-all teaching of
Scripture, this re-punctuation of the words is altogether sound.
The same construction (in Gk.) comes in Lk. 22:61 (see RV);
Acts 26 :29. There are plenty of examples in the RV of corrections of, or
alternatives to AV punctuation similar to the one suggested here: Lk. 23:42 (the
preceding verse!); 17:7; 13:24; 10:5; 12:1; 24:47; 21:34; 1:45; Mt. 19:28;
24:47; Jn. 1:3; 4:35; 7:21,38; 11:28; 16:23; Rom. 9:5; 15:13; Dt. 5:29; Is.
40:3; Jer. 31:33. At Lk. 23:43 the Gospel according to Nicodemus has the order
of words: "Today I say unto thee . . ." Yet there may be a sense in which the
promise of Jesus had its fulfilment in the very day in which it was spoken (see
One further detail of interest and importance remains for
consideration. The malefactor asked to be remembered in Christ's kingdom.
Why, then, did Jesus answer with a promise of blessing "in that Paradise"
(see Gk. text)?
There is, of course, no adequate ground for equating Paradise
with heaven, as is commonly done. In Genesis 2,3 LXX uses "paradise" thirteen
times. The word normally means a garden, and is used with this specific
reference in Ezekiel 36:35: "This land that was desolate is become like the
garden (paradise) of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are
become fenced, and are inhabited."
Paul's personal reminiscence about being "caught up to
Paradise" (2 Cor. 12:1-4) is much too figurative and problematical to serve as
proof for anything. The promise: "To him that overcometh I will give to eat of
the tree of life which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7), also
has a marked figurative element, but it is as definitive as one could wish, for
it pictures an enjoyment of this world restored to the faultless perfection of
the Garden of Eden (cp. Rev.22:2 for the same idea).
A little reflection will now show that there was purpose and
wonderful insight in this precise choice of words made by Jesus. It was in
Paradise that Adam and his wife, whilst yet innocent of transgression, had
fellowship with the angels, the sons of God (Job 38:7). Later, because of
sin, that high privilege was lost. Instead they found themselves thrust forth
from the garden and put under sentence of death. Yet even in the hour of
condemnation they were given ground for hope in the promise of a Seed of the
Woman who would crush the power of sin, himself suffering in the process (Gen.
3:15). Understanding and believing this matchless Promise, Adam gave his wife a
new name: Eve, the mother of life. Thus Adam and Eve died according to the
curse, but they died justified by faith in the promise of the Saviour.
All this story of human sin, condemnation and regeneration was
re-enacted in the microcosm experience of this thief to whom Jesus spoke. He had
known the fellowship of the Son of God: he too through disbelief had gone
over to the side of the Enemy: he suffered the due reward of his deeds,
for still death was and is the wages of sin, and he, believing in the promised
Saviour who was even now consummating at his side the great work of
sin-conquest, was justified by his faith and received the sublime and emphatic
assurance of restoration to life and the fellowship of his Lord.
All this remarkable parallel Jesus saw in a flash and with the
divine wisdom which was with him to his dying breath he embodied it in a word,
for the blessing and inspiration of generations to come: "Thou shalt be with me