In Luke 23:39–43 Luke takes you to the foot of the cross. Listen to the request made of Jesus on the cross–and to the Savior’s response.
Echo the cry, “Jesus, remember me!” Jesus is numbered with the transgressors. From the perspective of the soldiers, Jesus is just one more person they have to execute. We could speculate why the execution of the two criminals had been scheduled for that day—during the Passover week—but Jesus is just one more person subjected to an intensely cruel Roman execution. Isaiah had prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be numbered among the transgressors, and that is literally true as Jesus is crucified with a criminal on either side. But Isaiah is looking deeper than that. Jesus is not just a criminal among other criminals. He is being crucified as the criminal. As the sinless Lamb of God, he who knew no sin has been made sin for us. As painful as was the suffering of the two thieves, that of Jesus was infinitely more intense, for he was enduring the wrath of God for the sins of his people. Isaiah said, “the iniquity of us all was placed upon him.” It is in that capacity that he speaks solemn assurance to one of the thieves.
God graciously chooses his people. The two thieves seem to be similar. They face the same execution, probably for similar crimes. Both were being executed for capital offenses. They have a similar encounter with Christ–up to a point. Both (see the accounts in Matthew and Mark) had begun to curse Jesus. The thief had nothing to offer, nothing to make him attractive. The women of Jerusalem had wept for Jesus. There is no record of anyone weeping for him. Yet God chose one. By God’s grace, one stops blaspheming, reproves the other, and asks Christ for mercy. Only God’s grace accounts for the change. “One thief was saved that no sinner might despair, but only one, that no sinner might presume.” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke, p. 471). Both thieves are undeserving. There is no excuse for the unbeliever–man’s responsibility to repent is clear.
Repent! One thief turns to Jesus. He saw the contrast between his own reaction to being nailed to the cross–and Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness for the executioners. He admitted his own guilt and reproved the other thief. He had some understanding of the justice and wrath of God. He acknowledged Christ’s goodness. At some point the truth of Christ’s messianic claim became more than a wild theory–but was acknowledged as reality. The thief saw the sign Pilate had ordered affixed to the cross, and doubtless recognized the implied irony and sarcasm. But what Pilate meant as an insult to the Jews, the thief came to see as profoundly true. He came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. He pled for mercy. The name he used to address the Christ, Jesus, means, “Savior.” You need this kind of repentance. Some look to the thief for false hope, claiming “I can always repent at the last moment.” You need to acknowledge your sin–and cast yourself on the Savior. God invites you to echo the thief’s prayer. “Not the unconfident word of a crucified malefactor, but the confident statement, the absolutely binding promise, of the Messiah is conclusive evidence for us that this corrupt son of Abraham was the object of the favor of grace. Christ accepts him. . . . He [the thief] surrendered himself. To whom? To Christ. By what means? By the hearing of the preached word. Small bits of the revelation of Christ Jesus had fallen into his ‘heart.’ Was it not a beautiful thing that he joined himself with the very last things which he himself heard and saw in Jesus?” (K. Schilder, Christ Crucified, pages 320–321).
Jesus assures you that you will be with him. Jesus is powerful to save. The request of the thief comes at Jesus’ point of greatest weakness. He is weak from the crucifixion and from the abusive treatment during the trials. More important is the agony of abandonment to suffering by the Father, and the shame of the death on the cross, Deuteronomy 21:22,23. In particular was his exposure to only the wrath of the Father. Yet, in his death, Jesus saves this sinner. Salvation is totally unmerited. Jesus is facing death–and the thief entrusts his soul to Jesus. The guilt of this sinner also is rolled onto Jesus. This sinner will be saved, and so will you as you call upon Jesus. “That which is striking about Jesus’ pronouncement is, in the first place, the absolute power and authority with which he bestows the partaking of the heavenly glory, and in the second place, the expression, ‘with me.’ It is the communion with Jesus, whom the malefactor confessed openly as the Christ, which guarantees salvation to him immediately after death.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 276-277).
Jesus gives a greater salvation than you ask. The request is for inclusion in Christ’s kingdom. The reference is apparently to the Last Day. In response, Jesus assures you of his presence. He says to the thief that the criminal will be with him that day! Salvation is totally gracious. Jesus assures you of salvation today. The answer to the thief is not merely a promise of future salvation, but includes Christ’s gracious presence today. Your relationship with Christ does not snatch you out of this sin-cursed world. The thief continued to suffer the pain of crucifixion until the soldiers broke his legs and he died. But even in suffering and loss you have the assurance of Christ with you. Nothing can separate you from that. Today removes grounds for purgatory and soul sleep. The dying Christian is close to Christ. Jesus offers that great salvation to you.
Jesus’ words “I tell you the truth” assure the thief and you of his final triumph. Hanging on the cross, Jesus appears to human eyes as an improbably Savior. Jesus died before the two thieves did. If the believing thief was still conscious as Christ died, was he tempted to doubt whether he had placed his faith in the right person? Jesus begins his response to the thief with “Truly.” At various points in his earthly ministry he had used the words to emphasize the certainty and importance of what he was saying. The word Jesus uses is the word “Amen.” Often it simply has the force of emphasizing certainty and truthfulness. But at root, it has the idea of faith, of believing. Think of Abraham, who believed God (could be translated, “said amen to God”) and it was counted to him as righteousness. Jesus words provided profound assurance to the thief, and that confidence extends to you as you trust him. But that Amen is also an expression of trust by the Suffering Servant in the goodness and faithfulness of his Father. If the God-man learned from Isaiah 53 what it would be to be led as a lamb tot he slaughter, he also learned from the end of that chapter that he would see the light of life and be satisfied. By his knowledge he would justify many. Those many are not just an abstract crowd, but included also one specific sinner who cried out to him for mercy. It is as though, going into the jaws of death, Jesus is given this person by the Father as a token of hope and salvation. Christ’s death would be followed by his resurrection!
Now is the time to utter the cry of the thief. God does forgive you–for Jesus’ sake.