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Conversion of the Robber on the Cross
The passages below are taken from Erwin W. Lutzer’s book “Cries from the Cross” published in 2002 by Moody Press.
“Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV)
We all find it difficult to speak with the dying; we find it especially difficult to speak to them about their impending death. Nurses tell us that relatives and friends adopt a code of silence, avoiding the one topic that their dying friend might wish to speak about. When a man who had been my doctor lay dying of cancer, I knew that this was not the time for platitudes. As I leaned over his bed, I whispered almost directly into his ear, “Dr.---, you have to accept Christ as your Savior.” To which he replied, “I know I do, but I don’t know how.”
I know I do, but I don’t know how! That afternoon, God gave me the privilege of showing him “how,” and in the few weeks he had left, he not only had the assurance of heaven but wanted the Bible read to him. How much better if he had come to faith in Christ early in life, but, thankfully, God’s grace is given even to those who are at the threshold of death. Yes, it is better late than never.
If we were the centurion in charge of the Crucifixion, we would have put the two thieves next to each other and Jesus off to the side. This Roman soldier probably had no idea why he arranged the crosses as he did, but he was fulfilling an ancient prophecy:
“He ... was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12 NKJV). God decreed that He who was most holy should die with those who were most unholy. Jesus not only died among criminals but was numbered as one of them, and therein lies the heart of the gospel.
God had His reasons for decreeing that Jesus should gracelessly hang between two thugs. He wanted to demonstrate the depths of shame to which His Son was willing to descend. At His birth He was surrounded by beasts, and, now, in His death, with criminals. Let no one say that God has stayed aloof from the brokenness of our fallen world. He descended that we might ascend with Him to newness of life. But I’m ahead of the story.
Our attention turns to the two men who were crucified on either side of Him. One particularly holds our attention because he received a promise that we must share if we are to be in paradise with our Lord. Here is assurance for those in our hospital wards dying of cancer; here also is hope for the strong and healthy who will someday face death without warning. Here is hope for the worst of sinners and the best of sinners.
What a day for this thief? In the morning he was justly crucified on a cross; by late that evening he was justly welcomed into paradise by Jesus!
Let’s reflect on the story.
This man’s rap sheet shows that he was a career criminal, a “bad to the bone” thief who initially joined with the enemies of Jesus in deriding Him: “In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Matthew 27:44 NIV). His attitude was like that of his partner in crime, hanging just on the other side of Jesus. We don’t know who was the greater sinner of the two, but either of them could have been on Jerusalem’s Most Wanted posters.
Bad as he was, he represents all of us. We might object, arguing that we are not thieves; we are not robbing banks and snatching purses from little old ladies walking down the street. But honesty requires us to admit that we have all robbed God. Suppose you were appointed by a firm in New York to represent its interests in Chicago. Every month they forwarded your check to you, which you gladly signed and cashed. But the fact is that you never worked for the company at all, but served another firm. Would that not be thievery?1
That describes us exactly. God gives us life; He gives us talents; He gives us the ability to earn money; He gives us friends; and yet we serve ourselves rather than Him. Rather than bringing glory to God, we live for ourselves and unintentionally serve Satan’s selfish interests. If we stopped comparing ourselves among ourselves and held our records next to the face of God, we would see that we are not much better than the thief who joined with his friend in ridiculing Jesus.
This man was out of options. It was too late for a new beginning, too late for hoping that his good deeds would outweigh the bad, Author Arthur Pink put it this way: “He could not walk in the paths of righteousness for there was a nail through either foot. He could not perform any good works for there was a nail through either hand. He could not turn over a new leaf and live a better life for he was dying.”2 Yet helplessness is not a curse if it draws us to the only One who can help us. Indeed, if we are not helpless, we cannot be saved.
There on the cross, this man---bless him---had a change of heart.
HIS REMARKABLE FAITH
Quite possibly, this thief did not see Jesus until that very day. As the three men were being nailed to their crosses, he thought that Jesus was just another criminal. When the crosses were lifted up and lowered into their holes, the thief had no reason to believe that he was in the presence of greatness. Golgotha was where criminals died. It was not a place where one would expect to find a divine man.
What changed his mind? We can surmise that, first, he heard Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NIV). He could not forget those words, for only a man who knew God could pray to the Father for the forgiveness of others. The prayer pierced his conscience, and he realized the stupidity and blindness of his own heart. He knew that he also needed forgiveness.
Then there was the inadvertent testimony of the crowd: “He saved others ... but he can’t save himself” (Matthew 27:42 NKJV). The words were shouted in defiance and ridicule, but the thief wondered, What could they mean, “He saved others’? As the mob rehearsed some of the sayings and miracles of Jesus, he pondered their mockery and began to realize he just might be in the presence of a savior.
What is more, Pilate wrote what someone has called a “gospel tract” and had it nailed above the cross. It was customary to write the crime of the crucified man on a billboard put above the cross so passersby could see the reason for the execution. Pilate had written, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38 NIV). Some objected. “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews” (John 19:21 NIV). But Pilate, in a rare burst of courage, would not change his mind. So there it hung.
When Jesus was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, this plaque would have accompanied Him. Now on the cross, this thief might have read the words, or more likely, others read them aloud in mockery. At any rate, he now believed that Jesus was a king, for he pleaded, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42, emphasis added). Incredibly, God birthed faith in this man’s heart.
Think of it! He believed at a time when it appeared that Jesus was entirely helpless to save anyone; in fact, He himself appeared to need saving! Jesus hung as a hapless victim, not a king. When you need saving, you do not turn to someone who is in the same predicament as you. When you need saving, you do not turn to someone who is dying in disgrace. Common sense tells us that a savior must rise above the fate of mortals.
What savior would wear a crown of thorns matted with blood? What savior would have His beard plucked out by the roots? Jesus’ body was slumped, the nails having ripped His hands and feet. His chin rested on His chest, except when He gathered enough strength to lift His head that He might breathe. What a pathetic sight! And yet for all that, the thief believed!
A messiah who could be murdered by His enemies was not what the Jews had been looking for. Messianic speculation said that He was to rout the Romans who occupied the land and establish a kingdom. When Jesus explained to His disciples that He had to be crucified, they were dumbfounded. And on this day, even those who trusted Him were doubting. Just as the blood flowed from Christ’s body, so faith flowed from the heart of His followers. Yet the thief believed!
This thief believed before darkness settled over the land; he believed before the earthquake and before the veil of the temple was torn in two. He believed without the evidence of the Resurrection and the Ascension. He believed without seeing Jesus walk on the water, feed the multitudes, or turn water into wine. Improbable as it was, he believed.
Arthur Pink challenges us to ask, “How can we explain the fact that this dying thief took a suffering, bleeding, crucified man for his God!”3 The answer cannot be found by doing a psychological analysis of him. The answer is found in the undeserved mercy of God. The Holy Spirit was drawing this hoodlum’s heart toward the Man on the middle cross. And he believed.
The thief’s journey of faith began when he rebuked his partner in crime: “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly” (Luke 23:40 NKJV). His awakened conscience told him that he should have feared God, for judgment was coming. He honestly admitted that he was suffering “justly”; that is, he was getting what he deserved. He did not justify himself nor make excuses. He could only hope that his partner on the other side would admit to his own sins too.
Struggling with each word, he turned and said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42, emphasis added). He did not ask to be honored when Christ came into His kingdom; he asked only that he be remembered. He was an outcast from society, someone his friends and family would be most happy to forget. His request was modest---”Remember me”---but what an honor to be remembered by God.
His was a courageous faith. The crowd was mocking Jesus. The rabble-rousers were chanting insults: “If you are a king, where is your kingdom?” And again, “If you are a king, come down from the cross!”4 This thief defied the common consensus. He turned away from the growing chorus of voices that would have led him astray. A friend of mine said that he would embrace Christ as Savior only if he were to move away from his family and friends. The thought of their rejection and ridicule was too much to bear; he could believe only in secret. No wonder we are told that hell is filled with “the fearful and unbelieving.” This thief cared not about the opinion of others. He believed.
His AMAZING FUTURE
Jesus exceeded the repentant thief’s expectations. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV).
The reunion would be that very day. The phrase “You will be with me” describes the personal fellowship they would enjoy together. The greatest blessing for the Christian is that God has called us “into fellowship with his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9 NIV). The previous night, Jesus made a similar promise to His close friends: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also maybe where I am” (John 14:3 NIV). Incredibly, this thief received the same promise as the disciples! He was as safe in the arms of Jesus as he would have been if he had served the Lord from his youth.
Whether or not Jesus descended into hades, as the Apostles’ Creed teaches, is debated by theologians. If He did, He was there but for a short time, for He promised the thief that they would be together that very day. Some folks, bless them, believe in “soul sleep,” the notion that the soul sleeps unconsciously until the day of resurrection. But this doctrine is not taught in the Scriptures but rather is found in the writings of a so-called prophetess who has, on many counts, been found to be unreliable. This is not the place for fancy theories or wordplays. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Obviously, Jesus died before the thief did, and He was on hand to welcome him into the eternal dwelling place. Spurgeon wrote that this “man who was our Lord’s last companion on earth” was His “first companion at the gates of paradise.”5 The thief was with Him in condemnation and hours later was with Him in salvation. If the dying Christ could give the thief a promise of eternal salvation, think of what the living Christ can do!
To make the promise more emphatic, Jesus prefaced it with the words “I tell you the truth.” This was a promise drawn on the bank of heaven, and it was as trustworthy as the Man who gave it. Hanging in apparent helplessness, Jesus still controlled the gate to paradise. He had power to make a promise to the repentant and to judge the guilty. Never did Jesus act more truly as a king than at that moment.
His FAITH Is TESTED
Let’s put ourselves in the dying thief’s predicament. He hears the promise from the lips of Jesus, but, later, at twelve noon, darkness spreads over the whole land. He hears his newly found Savior cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV). This is followed by an earthquake and rocks being split in two. “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (v.51). As he sees the darkness and is jostled as the earth beneath him shifts; as he hears the cry of distress from the very One in whom he had come to trust, waves of doubt wash his faith away. Perhaps this Savior cannot save after all! How can He bring sinners into the presence of the very God who now has abandoned Him? How can He speak with authority about heaven when He apparently cannot control the chaos on earth?
Doubts or not, the promise of Jesus was still valid. Even if the thief’s faith vanished in those last three horrific hours, his destiny was assured. Jesus had spoken, and that was all that mattered. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36 NIV).
I’ve known Christians suffering from Alzheirner’s disease who could no longer remember that they had trusted Christ as their Savior. Others, fully in charge of their mental faculties, have gone through intense emotional distress when death approached. A missionary who spent years sharing the gospel with others experienced a torturous death from cancer. His false hopes of recovery and broken dreams washed his faith away. He died believing he was abandoned by God. His last words were, “I feel trapped.”
William Cowper, a poet who loved God and was converted to Christ at an early age, suffered from mental illness and during his bouts of depression believed he was damned. One evening he wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.6
Yet, that very night, Cowper tried to commit suicide. And when he failed in his attempt, he believed he was as “damned as Judas.” But those who knew him testified to his great love for God and the gospel. He had passionately believed in Christ, and, at the end of the day, that is all that mattered. The turbulence of his mental state did not nullify the promise of Jesus, and it is His promise that counts.
Let the thief languish; let him have misgivings; let him think that the One in whom he had put his faith was unable to keep His promise---it matters not. God has spoken. That day he will be with Jesus in paradise. And when he hears Jesus’ final prayer, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46 NIV), no doubt his faith revives. The suffering is now tolerable, for this miserable day will soon come to an end.
This remarkable story carries some lessons for us.
Let us remember that both thieves prayed, but only one was saved. The other thief said, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us” (Luke 23:39 NKJV). The suffering man is thinking, if Jesus was a king, why did He not exercise His kingship and save all three crucified that day? This other thief wanted to extend his life on earth for a few more days or years. What if Jesus had answered this prayer and saved Himself and both of the others? He would have aborted the plan of God and would not have been able to save anyone else. This thief’s problem was that he cared only about this life, not the next, “There was no remorse for his sins; only distress that he was suffering the consequences of them.”7 Jesus died so that the forgiven thief could be in paradise and so that you and I would be able to join Him in the future.
Jesus was numbered with the transgressors so that you and I could be numbered with the redeemed. Though personally sinless, He was counted as a transgressor by both God and man. He got what He didn’t deserve, namely, our sin; and we got what we didn’t deserve, namely, His righteousness. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).
Both thieves had an equal opportunity. Both heard the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them.” Both knew that Jesus was ridiculed for claiming that He was the King of the Jews. Both heard the witness of Jesus’ enemies, “He saved others; let him save him self if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35 NIV). And yet, these thieves will be apart forever, each in his own separate destiny. Even as you read these words, one is in the presence of Jesus, the other in a place of isolation, grief, and horror. What separated them was not the degree of their wickedness nor their distance from Christ; they are separated because one called on Christ for help and the other derided Him.
These thieves represent the entire human race. Ultimately, the world is not divided geographically, racially, or economically. Nor can we draw a line separating the relatively good people from the relatively bad ones. All races, nations, and cultures are divided by the cross. On one side are those individuals who believe, and on the other are those who choose to justify themselves, determined to stand before God on their own record. Heaven and hell are not places far away, but near us. Everything depends on what we do with Jesus.
Finally, my dear reader, today is the day to believe on Christ. Some people see the thief as an example of a “deathbed conversion,” and I’ve met people who believe that some day, they too will believe just before they die. But few---very few---are saved in the last few hours or days of their lives on earth. One of the Puritans, commenting on the thief’s deathbed conversion, perceptively said, “There is one such case recorded that none need despair, but only one that none might presume.”
Warren Wiersbe points out that this man was not saved at his last opportunity, but at his first opportunity. He was not there when Jesus turned water into wine; he was not there when Jesus stilled the storm or fed the multitude; he did not hear the Sermon on the Mount or Christ’s words to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” This was his first opportunity to believe on Christ.
There are two powerful reasons we should not delay in accepting Christ as our personal sin bearer. For one thing, we do not know the time of our death. Not everyone has a warning; not everyone dies of a terminal illness or remains conscious after a car accident. Millions die unexpectedly, without so much as a minute to think about their relationship with God. Second, most people who refuse the gospel when they are healthy reject it when it is time to die. The older we get, our hearts are either drawn closer to Christ or impelled to move away from Him. Neutrality is impossible.
The unrepentant thief proves the point: see him there on the cross hanging in unimaginable agony. He has the sure knowledge that he is about to die; his friend has helped him become aware of his great sins. And yet, incredibly, he ridicules Jesus with his dying breath! Like most people, he died just as he lived. No wonder the writer of Hebrews asked, “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3 NIV) The answer, of course, is that there is no escape.
In contrast, the repentant thief gives us the hope we all seek. Though his sins were many, he is a witness to God’s undeserved grace. He is proof that one act of faith can save even the worst of sinners. In fact, the issue is not the greatness of our sin but our willingness to believe that determines our destiny.
William Cowper, though plagued with doubts, understood that if the thief could be saved, we all can be. He wrote a song titled “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” One of my favorite stanzas reads:
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.8
The thief’s forgiveness reminds us that there is more grace in God’s heart than sin in our past. We, like he, can also receive a welcome in the life beyond if we transfer our trust to the One who holds the key to the gates of paradise. (53-69)
I. Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross (Swengel, Pa.: Bible Truth Depot, 1954), 31—32.
2. Ibid., 34.
3. Ibid., 29.
4. For the Scripture text of these taunts, see Matthew 27:42, 43, 44; Mark 15:29—30, 31—32; Luke 23:35, 36.
5. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Christ Words from the Cross. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 33.
6. William Cowper (1731—1800), “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
7. Clarence Cranford, The Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), 24.
8. William Cowper (1731—1800), “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross
1. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." (Luke 23:34 NKJV)
2. "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43 NKJV)
He said to His mother,
"Woman, behold your son!"
Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" (John 19:26-27 NKJV)
4. "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46 NKJV)
5. "I thirst!" (John 19:28 NKJV)
6. "It is finished!" (John 19:30 NKJV)
7. "Father, 'into Your hands I commit My spirit.' " (Luke 23:46 NKJV)
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