Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

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 recorded.

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 of faith:

  1. Jesus was sinless—"this man hath done nothing amiss."
  2. He himself was a worthless sinner: "We indeed receive the due reward of our deeds."
  3. Jesus was "Lord", i.e. the Meessiah.
  4. He would rise from the deed.
  5. He would ascend to heaven.
  6. He would come again,
  7. At his coming he would raise dead —"remember me," a victim crucifixion,
  8. "Remember me" also implies discrimination (i.e. judgment) between those accepted and those not.
  9. His coming would also establish a kingdom.
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 Son.

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 death.

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. 32:5).

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 exploring further.

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" (Jn.6:37)?


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 presumed.

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 vain.


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 Study 232).


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 in Paradise."

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