Today's story of the two thieves on the cross (this expanded version) appears only in the gospel of Luke. The two men are mentioned in the other gospels, but not to any great extent.
Here, however, in Luke 23:32-43, we see verbal interaction between them and Jesus. (NASB version)
32Two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him.
33When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. 35And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” 36The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” 38Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”40But 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.” 42And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Luke records that, as Christ hung on the cross, many of the onlookers and soldiers on the scene were taunting Him. The miracle of the universe was unfolding right before their eyes and they had no idea. In verse 47, not reproduced here, the centurion on duty did exclaim, "Truly, this was a righteous man!". Matthew 27:54 records that he also said, "Truly, this man was the Son of God!" It is entirely probable, of course, that he said both and in that moment became a follower of Jesus Christ.
Other characters to consider in this crucifixion scene are the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. Verse 39 tells us that one of them, like the general crowd present, was hurling abuse at Jesus. Now, crucifixion is a death by asphyxiation, where every successive breath becomes more and more difficult. So, it is a marvel that these men spoke at all. For the one to be using his precious breaths to verbally attack Jesus is quite remarkable and shows the depths of the darkness in his soul. The other thief chastises the first. Somehow, he has gained some knowledge of Jesus. Perhaps he heard Jesus preach and teach or saw Him heal someone. At any rate, his eyes were opened and he recognized not only Jesus' innocence but also that Jesus was indeed his Messiah. He recognized (vs. 42) that Jesus' kingdom was not an earthly one, but a heavenly one, a kingdom of the spirit and heart.
Upon hearing this request/confession Jesus promised the man that they would both be together in the paradise area of Sheol that same day.
Some would say that Jesus let the man off easy. This man was a criminal, guilty of such heinous crimes as to deserve crucifixion. Some would say that he did not deserve a "death-bed pardon" for his sins, that he did not deserve eternal salvation, that he was "too far gone" to be forgiven, that he was not "good enough". Those same naysayers look with disdain on anyone who comes to Jesus in the latter hours or days of life, as if, somehow, those latecomers to faith are somehow... cheaters. Those people would be wrong.
The Bible is clear that none of us is "good enough" to earn salvation. Jesus repeatedly illustrated this truth by choosing the most "unlikely" to be his disciples. Not a single one of them was a religious leader or even a priest, as far as I can tell from the scriptures. Most were common laborers, but one was almost certainly a forgiven thief (Matthew, the tax collector). One of his most devoted followers was a forgiven prostitute (Mary of Magdala). Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman ... I could go on and on.
Why do you think that Jesus chose these whom society deemed "unworthy"? He did it, I believe, to demonstrate that none of us is worthy. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling religious council), who sought out Jesus in the dark of night, so as not to be discovered, eventually became a disciple (though not one of The Twelve) and helped Joseph of Arimathea (another member of the Sanhedrin) take possession of Jesus' body and lay it in Joseph's new tomb, along with about 75 pounds of burial spices that Nicodemus donated. (John 19:38-42) These two men are those that the society of that day, and ours, might consider "worthy" of salvation.
But, in Nicodemus' case, Jesus made it plain that only a person who has been "born again" (John 3) can enter the kingdom of Heaven. That truth applied to well-respected Pharisees as well. There is none worthy, none righteous on our own, none "too far gone" in sin to be washed clean by the blood of Jesus, bought back, redeemed, given eternal life through His sacrifice and grace. It is a gift.
There is a fountain, filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel's veins.
And, sinners plunged beneath that flood lose ALL their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day.
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God are safe, to sin no more.
"There is a Fountain", by William Cowper, 1772
Do you know someone - - - are YOU someone - - - that society would consider to be an irredeemable, hardened sinner? There IS salvation for you, if you only accept it. Christians, let's not stop praying for those "impossible cases". They are only "impossible" from our limited perspectives. We serve the God of the Impossible!
Lord Jesus, I thank you for the free gift of your salvation, to EVERY one who believes. I thank you also that it is not my "works of righteousness" which "keep" my salvation. God knows! If I could have "lost" my salvation, I'd have already lost it! Frankly, none of us could hold onto it on our own. It is all about You, Lord, and Your marvelous mercy and grace. The glory belongs to You, not to me and my pitiful "good works". I praise You for choosing and using the broken, the unworthy, the "least of these" for the glory of Your kingdom. I thank you for using me. In Jesus' name, amen.