THE TWO THIEVES
“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.” Luke 23: 39-43.
The conversion of one of the two thieves crucified at the same time as the Lord Jesus Christ is one of the most amazing displays of God’s sovereign grace recorded in the Bible. The very fact that such a hardened, godless man should be converted at all is ground for astonishment, but when one considers that his conversion took place in the last few hours of his earthly life, when he had earlier joined his fellow-malefactor in railing at the blessed Son of God, the sovereignty and power of God’s grace are seen in even greater splendour. But the narrative does more than just illustrate the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. It reminds us that, in the sight of God, humanity is divided into but two categories – the unconverted and the converted – and gives us a real insight into the plight of the former, and the making and blessedness of the latter. With these thoughts in mind, let us consider, in turn, the impenitent and penitent thieves, as they are revealed in Luke’s clear and concise narrative.
1. The impenitent thief.
We must resist the temptation to rush on and consider first the section which attracts us most. Before we look at Luke’s moving account of the thief who was converted on Calvary’s hill, let us spend time in studying four main points from what we are told about his impenitent companion.
(a) He had no sense of his guilt before God. Although his own transgressions of God’s commandments had brought him to this shameful end, and the holy, sinless Son of God was crucified just a short distance away from him, the impenitent thief never showed any real awareness of his own sins. Even in the last hours of his earthly life, when he was about to give account to his Maker, he remained without any real conviction of sin. Not that such insensibility to personal guilt was something peculiar to this man. By nature, all men are in the same state of spiritual blindness, and cannot and will not face and own their transgressions of God’s holy laws, or seek forgiveness on God’s terms. Granted, they may sometimes experience lashings of conscience which lead them to outward confession, and even temporary reformation, and at other times be loud in their condemnation of other people’s sins. But the mere workings of natural conscience must not be confused with spiritual convictions of sin, and to condemn another person’s sins is far removed from facing and owning one’s own transgressions. How soon is the voice of conscience silenced, and its impenitent owner hardened in either atheism or self-righteousness! Not to have any true, spiritual sense of one’s guiltiness before God is a sure sign that a person is in an unregenerate, unconverted state.
(b) He was blind to the Person and Work of Christ. The spiritual blindness of the impenitent thief becomes even more apparent when we consider his attitude to the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, how revealing are the words he threw into the face of the suffering Son of God – “If thou be Christ..” (v.40). Are they not an echo of the scoffing comment of the rulers, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God.” (v. 35)? Do they not tell us that the impenitent thief no more believed in his heart that Jesus was the Christ of God than many in the crowd of onlookers? What an astonishing proof of man’s spiritual blindness! One would have thought that any sinner placed in such circumstances would have soon realized who Jesus actually was, and what He was really doing. And yet, though hanging only a short distance from the Lamb of God being offered for the sins of many, the impenitent thief cannot see any beauty in Jesus that he should desire Him. But why should we find this amazing, when fresh examples of the same blindness to Christ appear before us day after day? Go into any true Evangelical Church, where there are many people of whom it may be said,’. . before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you . .’ (Gal. 3.1), and observe the response of many to such faithful preaching of the Gospel. One would have thought that, being in such dire need of so great salvation, hearers would be flocking to so great a Saviour upon hearing such tremendous news! Alas, it is not always the case. Many content themselves with mere notions about Christ’s Person and Work, or trust in some professed ‘experience of conversion’ which does not stand the test of Holy Scripture, and manifest by their continued love to, and walk with, the world that they remain strangers to Christ’s glorious Person and Work. Another sure sign that a person remains in an unregenerate, unconverted state is actual spiritual blindness to Christ’s Person and Work.
(c) He was concerned only about the salvation of the body. A first reading of verse 39 may initially lead us to think that the impenitent thief called upon Christ for the eternal salvation of his soul. However, a closer inspection of the whole incident reveals that, when he cried out. “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us .. “, he was concerned solely with escaping death, not damnation. Now is there not something awful in this? Here is a man, who has lived an utterly godless life, and brought himself to an untimely end by his own sins, about to launch into a never-ending eternity, and what is his great concern? – to escape physical death. It is as though he never had any concept whatever of the nature, worth and destiny of his immortal soul. Now let us not be misunderstood. There is nothing wrong with a desire to be healthy, or to prolong one’s life in this world. To live and to preserve life are God-given instincts, and ought not to be despised, particularly in a callous, violent age like our own. But t
o think and behave as though man is but a highly evolved animal, who, like the animals, experiences annihilation when he dies, is to court eternal disaster. Sadly, the same obsession with the salvation of the body, to the complete neglect of the salvation of the soul, continues to hold many thousands of people in its vice-like grip today. Men and women will put themselves to any expense, undergo any type of surgery, and submit to anybody’s fitness schemes, if only they may cling on to life, while they will either give no thought for the salvation of their immortal souls, or, if they do, accept anybody’s teaching without making serious enquiry as to whether their mentor’s teaching accords with Holy Scripture. There is a sad consistency about unconverted people. Those who have never experienced real conviction of sin, or seen anything spiritually of the grace and glory of Christ, will continue to be concerned solely about the salvation of the body. (d) He never received one word of forgiveness from Christ’s lips. There is no record in Luke’s narrative that our Lord ever replied to the impenitent thief, nor is there any evidence elsewhere in the four gospels that Christ ever assured this man that his many sins had been forgiven. The impenitent thief died as he had lived – hardened, Christless, unpardoned. And like all people who die in this dreadful condition, his portion for eternity will be the opposite of that paradise which Christ promised the penitent thief. Oh, who can describe the misery that awaits all who die unconverted, especially those who have enjoyed the advantages of a Gospel ministry! They will never be able to accuse God of injustice. They will never be able to lay the blame for their damnation at anybody’s door but their own. Their sins were their own; their contempt of the Gospel was their own; their continued impenitence was their own. And God will make it abundantly plain, in the Last Day, that the responsibility for the eternal loss of their never-dying souls rests solely with them. Truly, there is nobody in the world in so dangerous a situation as the person who continues in an unconverted state. Surely Christ’s word to the unconverted of our generation is the same as it was to His own – “.. except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13.3,5).
2. The penitent thief.
It is now time for us to turn away from the sad spectacle of a hardened sinner dying in impenitence, and look at his fellow thief. How different, how fundamentally different, he now appears to be, not only from his impenitent former companion in crime, but also from what he was when first nailed to the cross. Both Matthew and Mark record, in their accounts of the Crucifixion, that both thieves initially joined in the general mocking of Christ (see Matt. 27.44 and Mark 15.32), yet here is Luke telling us that one of the thieves experienced a fundamental change! The apparent discrepancy in the Gospel narratives is soon cleared up if we note that Matthew and Mark record what took place soon after the two men had been crucified, while Luke narrates what happened after they had been on the cross for some time. In other words, it is Luke’s account that gives us such a clear picture of one of the most amazing conversions found anywhere in Holy Scripture. In the very last hours of his life, one of the thieves was gloriously converted to Christ, through the sovereign, effectual work of the Holy Spirit. Let us look at four of the main features of his conversion:-
(a) He was under real conviction of sin.
The rebuke that the penitent thief gave to his former companion in crime speaks volumes about what he was passing through in his own soul. Firstly, notice his new fear of God, implied in the words, “Dost not thou fear God . . .?” (v. 40). How real the existence and nature of the Lord have become to him, and how great his responsibility to his divine Creator now appears! Secondly, behold his awareness that he is already under God’s condemnation!. Notice how he assures his railing, impenitent companion, “… seeing thou art in the same condemnation” (v. 40). How real, and altogether new, is his sense of having been arrested, tried and found guilty by his Maker! In his estimation, the sentence has already been pronounced: it is only a matter of time before it is executed in full! Thirdly, there is his acknowledgement of the justice of God’s sentence, implied when he says, “And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds . . .” Is he not implying, by vindicating his earthly executioners from injustice, that the verdict passed by his Heavenly Judge is equally correct? Oh, how real, how definite is the Holy Spirit’s work in awakening elect souls to see and feel their guiltiness before a holy God, and own the justice of the sentence He pronounces against them! But there is something else for us to notice from the rebuke the penitent thief addressed to his railing colleague. Is not the rebuke couched in the form of a question? Surely what we are witnessing here is something often seen when an awakened and convicted sinner begins to see in a new light the awful plight his former companions are still in? In pity for their souls, he remonstrates with them as he realised they are still afflicted with the same spiritual blindness that characterized him before the Holy Spirit opened his own eyes.
(b) His eyes had been opened to Christ’s Person and Work. The great change wrought in the soul of the second thief becomes even more apparent when we consider his new attitude to the Lord Jesus Christ. His earlier railing has been replaced by a confession of faith in Christ’s Person and Work. Notice how this poor man had been brought to see that the Person suffering on the central cross was none other than God manifest in the flesh. ‘And he said unto Jesus, Lord . . .’ (v. 42)* Oh, the glory of that confession, for it shows most vividly that faith had indeed come, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Christ could now say of this penitent thief, as He had earlier said of Simon Peter, after the latter had made a similar confession, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 16.17). Notice, too, how the second thief had also been brought to see why the incarnate Son of God was an the cross. The dying thief could see that “this man hath done nothing amiss”, and was about to come into His kingdom. In other words, it was given to him to see, in some measure at least, the glorious truth about Christ’s death on the cross. Here was no mere man, ahead of his times, misunderstood by his age, dying as a kind of martyr for his beliefs, much less a felon like himself, being justly punished according to the law of the land. This was the Son of God, expressing His amazing love for sinful men in the greatest way possible, i.e. by taking upon Himself the guilt of all those sinners He represented, and bearing in His own body and soul the full punishment divine justice demanded. And so it will be with every sinner whom the Holy Spirit takes in hand. Not one will ever find relief from his burden until he has first been brought to see something of the glory of Christ’s Person and Work as they are revealed in the Gospel of God’s dear Son.
(c) He was concerned only about the salvation of his soul. When we hear the penitent thief’s rebuke to his hardened fellow, and the plea he addresses to the Lord Jesus Christ, we are listening to a man taken up with the concerns of his immortal soul. He is no longer under illusions about his guiltiness before God; the sentence that Divine any justice has already passed on him, or the everlasting punishment that awaits him if he dies unforgiven by his Maker. In spite of the excruciating pain he must have been suffering by this time, his mind is wonderfully concentrated on the one thing needful, i.e. obtaining the salvation of his soul. But look how he goes about such a tremendous work in such a critical hour! ‘And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.’ (v. 42). Only nine words, and yet they were the most important words he would ever speak in this world! He does not demand salvation as a right; he does not begin talking of his own merits, or plead for them to be taken into account. With but a few hours of his earthly life remaining, the penitent thief, in that last, short prayer, casts himself completely upon the mercy and grace of the Redeemer, not even daring to ask for the forgiveness of his sins in so many words! Oh, what repentance is in those few words; what faith in Christ’s Person; what trust in Christ’s righteousness; what hope in Christ’s grace!
(d) He received an assurance of heaven from Christ’s own lips. The penitent thief did not apply to the Lord Jesus Christ in vain. No sooner had that plea broken forth from his burdened heart that he heard the most glorious words any dying sinner can ever hear. ‘And Jesus said unto him. Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.’ (v. 43). It is impossible to think of a more clear and definite word of assurance Christ could have given this poor man in these circumstances. Let us notice its three main ingredients.
Firstly, see the way Christ assured the penitent thief of a place in heaven. “Today shalt thou be with me in PARADISE.” Oh, glorious news for a sinner who, until that moment, had seen himself on the brink of hell!
Secondly, observe how Christ assured him that he would enter heaven the moment he died. “TODAY shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The Blessed Son of God does not mention the need for this base sinner to spend any time in what Bishop Hugh Latimer aptly termed ‘pick-purse purgatory’. No, the true Head of the Church assured him that he would go straight from the cross to glory!
Thirdly, notice how Christ assured the penitent thief that he would be with his Saviour in heaven. “Today shalt thou be WITH ME in paradise.” Oh, how carefully we should note Christ’s exact words here! How clearly He assured the poor sinner that, although he had ignored God all his life, and even railed at His dear Son when first crucified next to Him, he would nevertheless spend eternity in paradise with Him. What a clear reminder that it is the presence of Christ that makes heaven a paradise to believers. Let no burdened sinner, then, ever despair of finding mercy at Christ’s hands, or obtaining a God-given assurance. Though his conscience should witness against him, the law of God thunder against him, professing Christians pass him by on the other side, and Satan assure him he has left things too late, let him press through all this crowd, and cast himself upon the mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the blessed Son of God, in his awful agony on earth, had time to receive and pardon a great sinner, will He not receive and pardon great sinners the more, now that He is exalted in glory? It is never too late for any sinner, who sincerely seeks salvation from Christ, to obtain an assurance of heaven before he dies.
*It is just at this point that we have an example of the many serious deficiencies of the NIV. That version omits the word “Lord” completely, thereby removing, a clear testimony to Christ’s Deity, and the way the Holy Spirit brings a sinner to faith in Christ’s Person when accomplishing the work of conversion. The NIV also distorts the meaning in verse 39. – PDJ.