Wonder of the Cross
The Thief on the Cross: A Prized-Catch of the Redeemer
The cross influenced not only Simon of Cyrene, a law-abiding Jew and a foreigner in Jerusalem but a hardcore criminal also. Cross is powerful to bring about changes in the hearts of both civilians and criminals. Though all four Gospel writers record about the crucifixion of Christ along with two criminals the synoptic gospels give more details than John’s Gospel(Lk.23:39-43; Mk.15:27; Mat.27:38; Jn.19:18). The narrative of the conversion of a thief on the cross is a beautiful description of what cross can do in the lives of even ‘chief of the sinners’.
Who were the thieves?
Different words have been used by the Gospel writers to describe the activities of these two hardcore criminals. The words have been translated as ‘thieves’, ‘malefactors’ or ‘transgressors’. It can also mean robbers, plunderers, bandits, evil-doers etc (2 Tim.2:9; Mk.15:28; Jn.18:40). The same word is used for Antichrist and the people of Sodom- ‘wicked and lawless ones (2 Thess. 2:8;2Pet.2:8). Luke also used the same original word to describe the thieves who plundered and manhandled the traveler from Jerusalem to Jericho, in the parable of Good Samaritan. Probably they were two notorious high way robbers of those days who use to loot the travelers. There was no fear of God before their eyes. From the conversation between the Lord and the thief, it is clear that he had knowledge of the Messiah and His coming Kingdom. He requested the Lord to make him the partaker of that Kingdom. So we can safely conclude that he was a Jew.
What motivated them to accuse Jesus Christ?
Both Annas and Caiaphas along with the scribes and elders visited the site of the crucifixion, to supervise the entire process. They mocked and reviled him by wagging their heads. The public who passed by and both the thieves too did the same (Mat.27:39-44; Mk.15:32; Lk.23:39 ). The thieves repeated what the public, chief Priests, and scribes said (Mk.15:29-32). It is said that both these thieves railed and reviled at him which means speaking in a blasphemous manner and accusing vehemently.
As all three were suffering in the same manner; in a normal case, they should show their solidarity in suffering. Instead, thieves started accusing Christ. What made them revile and accuse Him?
In normal circumstances, Jews won’t allow crucifixion to take place on festival days. It takes a few days for a crucified person to die. Jews will not allow the bodies to remain hanging on the festival days. So, instead of crucifying a Jewish criminal during a festival, Roman authorities would set free a criminal of Jews’ choice and thus pacify the Jewish community on such occasions.
During the festival days Jews gather together at Jerusalem from all over the world. So Jewish leaders thought it unwise to get Christ crucified on the festival day as the people might revolt uncontrollably.(Mat.26:4-5).But later on they conspired along with the Roman Governor and plotted to carry out the murder on the festival day.
Roman authorities maintained extreme security alert during festivals to contain any possible revolt from the Jewish zealots. Personal presence of Pilate at Jerusalem was an indication of that. Normally Governor resides at Caesarea. Jewish leaders plotted to kill Jesus on the festival day as the extra Roman forces and Governor were present in the city.
Thieves knew that authorities will kill them but not on the festival days. Sudden decision to crucify them might have surprised them and realized that it was because of Jesus Christ. This might have caused the thieves to revile, blaspheme and accuse Christ. Sinners always think that their life will prolong, but death comes upon them unaware (Lk.12:16-21).
A criminal converted to Christ
Initially both the thieves reviled at Christ. However one of the thieves started experiencing a change in heart. He rebuked the other one and asked, “Does not thou fear God……” What may have caused him to fear God? In his whole lifetime, he himself never feared God or man.
Though no miracle, no earthquake nor any extraordinary event happened at that point of time, yet the thief might have observed Chief Priests, Scribes, Pharisees and General public accusing Christ and a few feeble women flock watching all these events from afar off sorrowfully.
At the same time, he heard a wonderful prayer, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. This thief could not believe his ears. Christ, in spite of suffering the excruciating pain at the hands of enemies, was praying for them. Christ was arguing a case for his enemies before the Heavenly Father. It is an unpardonable crime to crucify an innocent one. Yet as an advocate, Lord Jesus Christ was pleading for them. This prayer might have moved the heart of that thief. Moreover the writing on the cross, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” and public opinion that ‘he saved others’ caused the thief to change his mind. His darkened mind was illuminated by ‘knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor.4:6). By faith, he saw the coming kingdom and confessed his sins and pleaded for an entry to the Kingdom by accepting Christ as his King and Lord.
How he Died?
Roman soldiers broke his legs to hasten the death. None came to claim his body. Though authorities buried him in the common grave, he along with the Lord entered into paradise (Isa.53:9).The only deathbed confession in the Bible.
Marks of true repentance and confession
In the conversation of the thief on the cross, we can see all the marks of true repentance and confession.
- First of all he admitted that he is a sinner. “We indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds:” the thief said, Luke. 23:41.
- He was gripped by the fear of God, “Dost not thou fear God,” he advised the fellow thief. It is the mark of repentance.
- He confessed the innocence of Christ.” This man hath done nothing amiss”, Luke.23:41.
- He recognized Jesus Christ as the Lord and King of his life.
- He believed in the literal second coming of Christ to establish the Kingdom.” He said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom”, Luke.23:42.
- He was assured of his salvation. “Jesus said unto him, ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise'” Luke.23:43.
- The thief kept his faith on the dying savior where us we trusted on the risen LORD.
Judas said to the priests that he has sinned and went down into the eternal hellfire whereas this thief confessed his sin to Christ and got promoted to paradise. Here we see the wonder of the cross, the grace of God. On that morning the thief was standing near the mouth of hell but by evening he was transported through the pearly gate of Paradise! All throughout his life he was a robber, just before his death he even robbed paradise by faith. Greatest of all robbers!
Saved by Grace
No acts of this thief could save him. His hands were nailed and his legs were nailed. He could not do any good thing to be saved. Salvation is the free Gift of God. Only his heart was open and lips were free. He believed in his heart and confessed with his lips that Jesus Christ is his Lord.
The words of a great Puritan scholar, Alexander Smellie, (“The Hour of Silence” 1899) summarizes the beauty of this conversion in the following words.
“Twas a thief, who said the last kind word to Christ.
In the MORNING, the thief was OUT of Christ: far from God and far from righteousness, the helpless captive of sin, the child of despair and death.
At NOON the thief was IN Christ: remembered graciously by the Savior of the lost, redeemed with an everlasting redemption, endowed with the new heart, and freely and perfectly justified.
In the EVENING the thief was WITH Christ: gazing on the glories of paradise, safe at home with his good Shepherd and adorable Redeemer.
What a crowded and memorable day this was in his history! So much was pressed into these few hours.
Such a glorious and unprecedented transition they brought, from the cruel cross–to Heaven’s glory!OUT of Christ, then IN Christ, then WITH Christ! “
Dear reader, what is your state? Are you OUT of Christ? Come to Him, He is the Saviour of the world. IN Him is Hope and eternal life. Accept Him as the Lord and be WITH Christ in paradise for eternity.