The Saving of a Thief

Accomplishment #1 - God made man out of dirt and breathed him to life - Amazing!
Accomplishment #2 - God took sinful, depraved, wretched man and made him clean, pure, and perfect!
Which is the greater accomplishment; which was harder; which took the greatest act of love and sacrifice?
Luke 23:39-43
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
All my life I was told of the hope people find in recounting the “Thief on the Cross” (Luke 23). People would consider the horrible life of great uncle Tubby McBaldo and how he was probably weeping and gnashing his teeth by now because he refused to accept Jesus. “But...” someone would exclaim with raised finger, “...remember the thief on the cross! You just don''t know!”
I have never found reason to burst their bubble of hope for Good Ol'' Tubby, nor would I deny that death-bed confessions are possible – for God desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. (1Timothy 2:4)
However #1; maturity of faith and discernment have brought me to the understanding that salvation is a supernatural work of God by which men are changed - being “born again”, a new man. However #2; Though God said “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (Romans 9:15), to my mind that does not negate mans responsibility to confess, repent, and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. However #3 goes like this; God does not surrender His sovereignty nor submit to mans prerogative. “No man can come to the Son unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44). And finally, However #4; “...But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those that believe on His name.” (John 1:12); and, as Habakkuk said, “The man who finds life will find it through trusting God.” (Galatians 3:11)
My conclusion...if you receive Him, He will draw you – or as some would say if you receive Him He has already drawn you. His prerogative, your responsibility. If you want Him it''s because He wanted you first; because He made you He made Himself known to you; He told you how to come to Him and He died to make it possible. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “...that who so ever believes In Him may not parish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) His prerogative, our choice. So back to that thief - I think it''s safe to say that he had found salvation in The Son of God hanging on the cross next to him before he spoke what is credited to him in Luke''s gospel. The promise to meet up in paradise did not go out to the one who cursed him (or should I say STILL curses Jesus) or anybody else for that matter. Jesus was completely in control of the situation so the fact that Jesus answered the thief at all is astonishing. Jesus made no invitation, no alter call, no call for repentance, but something changed the heart of this criminal.
Not to imply that the thief was unique, quite the opposite. The salvation of the thief was a picture of salvation for every man. This is what I hope becomes clear as we look at the scriptures closely.
We sometimes neglect that it is recorded by Matthew that both criminals hanging near the Messiah mocked and ridiculed Him. Matthew 27:44 says the robbers who were crucified with Him “...were also insulting Him...” right along with the Chief Priests and much of the rest of the crowd. So this thief didn''t start out the day looking forward to meeting Jesus but something in him changed. I''m guessing something changed many of the people who were watching. Satan had had his way with the hearts of the men who crucified Jesus but the crucifixion it''s self was not a defeat for the Creator; instead it was the greatest victory in the affairs of men, for God Himself had made a substitution that I''m not sure even Satan understood at the time. What took place was intended by men and the Devil to shame the Son of God but instead was to His glory.
So there at the cross the Spirit of God looked on as the Son was mocked, tortured, and died; and love flowed in the blood making the narrow path complete for God''s grace to reach man. As God overcame the evil of man and Satan, hearts were changed just as they would continue to be miraculously changed for the rest of time...and the heart of that one thief just shows it to be true. The saving of the thief was miraculous, without a doubt. But no more miraculous than saving any other man. It may have happened in an instant but probably not the instant we have traditionally designated. Jesus'' promise of a future meeting merely acknowledged what had already taken place as the mocking man now rebuked the mocking words of others, especially those of the criminal he knew on the next cross the other side of Jesus.
Luke records all this in chapter 23, verses 39 through 43. In five verses we can learn of the incredible salvation of man. The criminal on the cross becomes a “who-so-ever” before our eyes. Verse 39 of Luke''s account of the crucifixion describes the abuse one criminal hurled on Jesus as “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Quite an acknowledgement and it may show that the first criminal realized the possibility, but it also demonstrates emphatically that even in the face of the horrible circumstances surrounding him, his own death looming and the humiliation of the cross, he remained rebellious, proud, and self serving - Joining with the rest of the world, refusing to believe in the Truth and denying the insanity of the event.
Verse 40a, brings us to the beginning of some astonishing statements, especially considering the source. A condemned man who should, by all worldly reason, be focused on assessing his own life and situation; instead he turns to respond to the ranting of a fool (“A fool says there is not God” Psalm 14:1) with a profound observation “Do you not even fear God...?”
Think about what he is saying here. First, there IS a God. Second, that God would be offended by what the man is doing and saying. Third, that God has the power and initiative to respond to the mans actions and attitude in a way that should bring about a healthy fear if there was any wisdom in the man. (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Proverbs 9:10)
At the same time this tells us much, in contrast, about the man who is speaking. This man believes in God, knows enough to know God should be feared, and knows that the blasphemous things first man is saying is enough to bring the wrath of this God. Right here is enough evidence to me that this man has been changed. You are hearing the heart of a man who believes, repents, and wants to be with Jesus. Right here we see the work of the Holy Spirit in a man who is supernaturally changed. Most men don''t know or care that their sin offends God, but this man does.
(A friend reminded me of the paralyzed man in Mark 2;2-12, who is lowered from the roof by his friends. Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic based on the faith of his friends. Gotta wonder if someone in the crowd was praying for this thief who, by providence, was at the ear of Jesus.)
In Matthew''s Gospel account the thief was mocking, in Luke''s account he fears God. Somewhere between what Matthew recorded and what Luke was told this man was changed, and it will become more apparent as we examine the rest of his rebuke of the mocker. Verse 40b, “...since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” Deuteronomy 21:22-23 A man hanged from a tree is cursed. Possible paraphrase?: “You are going to die; you''re not leaving the cross alive, and yet you mock others under the same curse?” This fellow is facing the reality of the situation and he''s trying to reason with his cohort. He''s implying his friend has no room to talk. He''s going to face God as a condemned man and he has no fear - he''s a fool.
Verse 41a; “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds;”
He isn''t asking God to stop what is happening or save him as the mocker is. He knows he is a sinner; he knows he''s cursed before God and man, and under the law he must pay. This is humble, repentant, and a true confession. His heart is wide open and the Spirit is visibly at work.
Verse 41b; “...but this man has done nothing wrong.” This is spiritual insight perhaps even the thief himself did not understand. We are not given any information of this mans past or how he knew Jesus but how many people attending that day knew for certain Jesus was innocent – COMPLETELY innocent! This man knew things about Jesus he could not know in his heart without the help of the Holy Spirit. We can skip forward for a moment to verse 47 in Luke 23 and find a certain centurion who came, miraculously, to the same conclusion, “Certainly this man was innocent.” Luke even tells us the centurion was praising God when he said it. The Spirit was moving, enlightening those who chose to receive Him. Salvation had come to Golgotha and the Holy Spirit wanted Luke to know so he could pass it along to us. Perhaps those on site were too caught up in the moment of the crucifixion to notice. Perhaps it was the centurion who was close enough to hear the thief and wanted Luke to know he too was overcome with the knowledge that the Messiah had come.
So the thief has admitted and openly confessed there is a God, a God to be feared, and mocking Jesus would bring God''s anger upon you. He has admitted there is judgement and death for those who sin and that he and the other fellow are condemned justly, deserving of death. He knows Jesus is innocent and does not deserve the punishment He is receiving.
It is my contention that this man is already saved. At this point we have seen him go from a mocker of Christ to a follower of Christ with special knowledge of the Spirit; this is a supernaturally changed man.
And now in verse 42 he makes the final confession - he needs Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” The plea of a dying man who wants to spend eternity with his Savior. His cry brought about the response he wanted and needed “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” “...I say to YOU, today YOU will be with me...” The promise of God that could only be made to a man who has taken the offer, received the Savior, chosen of God to be a child of God. Drawn of the Father, led of the Spirit, made acceptable of the Son.
One criminal died and all his hope died with him. The other criminal died along side his hope knowing death was not the end! The two thieves would go on to have their legs broken on the cross for all to see the shameful, horrible death that awaits those who break the law.
The Christ of God would go on to commit His Spirit into the hands of the Father, and find His task completed – the debt paid – the reason He wept and sweated blood in the garden, crying out to the Father to take this cup from Him; the payment for sin is done. It was not the physical death that brought the Son of God to His knees; “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” The Father turned His back and could not look upon the sin-laden Christ. At His death the Father crushed the Son under the load of OUR sins (Isaiah 53:10). The Trinity was broken for the only time in eternity to save a thief on a cross and multitudes of sinners who deserve death just as much. Two men died with Jesus. One bore his own sin to the grave, but Jesus bore the sin of the other.
He confessed God, confessed his sin, repented of his sin, and ask Jesus to save him and you can''t do that unless you are supernaturally drawn of the Holy Spirit of the Father; and it is by grace thorough faith that belief in God restores a lost sinner to eternity with God.
God can save in the twinkling of an eye but the person must be changed and that is the story of the thief on the cross; the miraculous mystery of regeneration and sanctification; where God''s will enables mans will to become what God intended in the beginning.