And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I’ve heard it often said, especially by people who should know better, that the thief on the cross knew almost nothing about the gospel, certainly nothing about redemption or the atonement, and very probably nothing about election and predestination. This false narrative is then used to defend the charge that folks need not believe nor even know sound gospel doctrine in order to be counted as brothers in Christ. Certainly, it is argued, they need not believe Jesus died only for His elect.
This false narrative, however, fails to take the thief’s own words fully into account. Instead, his last words are very often breezed over as though it were a common occurrence for a man in the throes of unimaginable pain and horror at the hands of execution by crucifixion to make note of the innocence of the man whom, it is supposed, he did not know nor had ever met, being crucified next to him even while he himself knowingly suffers for the crime of robbery.
If we let the thief speak for himself though, and resolve to leave our presumption behind us as we listen, then what we hear is a very different narrative than the false one most often asserted today. The story we hear from his own lips as recorded for us in the gospel of Luke by eyewitness account is one which reveals to us the fact that he knew a whole lot more than many folks today would have us believe. What he knew, in fact, was the gospel itself.
The thief’s final words are recorded for us in the twenty-third chapter of the gospel of Luke. They are:
– “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”
– “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
– “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
These are odd words indeed for someone who had supposedly never previously met Jesus, had never heard Him and knew nothing about His message. In fact, even the other thief himself appeared to have had some clue as to who Jesus claimed to be, having railed at Him, saying, “Are you not the Christ?” How would he have known this without having heard any of Jesus’s claims about Himself?
So, the first thing we discover from Luke’s passage is the fact that both thieves had at least some knowledge of Jesus’ claims to Messiahship. Had they caught one or two of His sermons? Had they witnessed some of His miracles? Or had they only heard the things others were saying about Him? It probably doesn’t matter which, because Jesus’ renown was so far and wide that by the time He was arrested there was no one in Israel who had not heard about Him. (Acts 10:36-37, Luke 24:18). Whatever the case, we have no reason to believe both thieves had not, like the rest of Israel, also heard about Him.
Still though, the fact they knew something about Jesus does not necessarily mean they knew His gospel message, nor does it necessarily mean they believed it. Certainly, the first thief did not believe the claims Jesus made about Himself.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
These are not the words of someone who believes the claims Jesus made about Himself.
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
Same sentence? Same as whom? Same as Jesus.
Here we find the second thief confessing faith in the fact that Jesus, a man who has done nothing wrong and is therefore not receiving the due reward for His deeds, is nevertheless under the same sentence of death as he himself is. I am reminded of Sandeman’s words:
“The appearance of Divine grace, pouring contempt on all boasted human worth is so striking here, that it is no wonder to find them stumbling at it. Why wasn’t Christ made to suffer alongside men of equal repute with Noah, Abraham or Daniel? Why instead was He numbered with those who the world has always counted the worst of the worst? Because there would be no encouragement, no hope for people like us, who identify not with Daniel, but with a common thief. He, who had spoken no blasphemy and had committed no wrong, and who was yet capable of saving Himself and the thief beside Him, nevertheless, made no effort to save Himself nor the thief from the condemnation of the cross. Rather, by suffering the injustice of men, even men whom He had created, He pleased the Father, because He was doing His will. If God did not spare His own just and sinless Son from wrath, what hope do we sinners have should we try to stand by our own sin stained merit? If this is what God does to the tender root, what will He do to the dry? The thief did not ask that God change his heart. Nor did he ask that God make him less a sinner than the other thief. He instead, fearful of what the wrath will mean for a twig as dry as himself, asks that this One who has opened not His mouth to His accusers, nor sought to escape His Father’s wrath or His Father’s will, would remember him when He comes into His kingdom.” — Robert Sandeman, Letters on Theron and Aspasio:Addressed to the Author, pg 270
Our thief acknowledged that he was under a just sentence of condemnation for his sins. He also acknowledged that the man suffering next to him, the man Christ Jesus, was blameless and had done nothing deserving of condemnation. For this reason, though He now hung dying on a cross, nevertheless He would still come into His kingdom. His death then, could not have been for His own sins, because He had done nothing to deserve it. After all, people who are under a just sentence of condemnation do not come into kingdoms.
Well then, whose sins could He be dying for if not for His own sins? The thief tells us. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me. Remember the guy who is justly being put to death for his sins. Remember the thief who is deserving of condemnation.
How could the thief make the request for Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom if the thief’s sins were not the sins Jesus was dying for? Jesus would have no just reason to remember him if He were not dying for his sins.
Here in the thief’s own words then, we find a confession of faith in the propitiatory, redemptive nature of Christ’s atoning death for His people’s sins. And it isn’t a stretch to imagine him making these connections, because life in Jerusalem would have daily brought him into contact with Temple life. Daily animal sacrifices; lambs, goats, doves, pigeons being slaughtered in offering as a sacrifice for peoples’ sins.
Now here he hangs on a cross next to a man who is blameless, next to the Man who he is going to confess is the Messiah Himself, and it doesn’t occur to us that his final words are a confession of faith in the atoning offer of Christ’s sacrificial death? It would be absurd to think his words were anything but this.
But what about election?
Perhaps the thief was a Jew or a Samaritan or even a Roman slave. In either case, we can be certain that he was very well acquainted with the Jewish faith. He was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, after all. The soldiers hadn’t taken Jesus and the thieves on a three-week journey to Rome in order to crucify them. No, Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect stationed in Judea. Jesus and the thieves were crucified immediately outside the city walls of Jerusalem, in an area known as Golgotha. This was why the Jewish leaders wanted the bodies removed from the cross before the start of the feast.
For this reason, we know the thief had to have been residing somewhere in the area of Judea, and for this reason we know there is no way he would not have known about the Jewish doctrine of election. The Jews made sure everyone knew it.
Judea was steeped in the doctrine of election. From Israel’s very inception, God made certain they knew He had chosen only them from all the families of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6, Amos 3:2). They, in turn, made sure everyone else knew this about them too. This was the problem the Pharisees faced when they confronted John the Baptist. They thought they were safe, because they were children of Abraham.
The New Testament was written against the backdrop of election. The Jewish doctrine of election was in and behind everything the apostles preached. What’s more, it was also very well known among the Pagan Gentiles, who knew all too well from listening to the Jews, that none but the Jew could be saved. Today, it would be like suggesting that most twenty-first century Americans don’t know about the Muslim doctrine of Jihad. No way would we expect a twenty-first century American to know nothing about Jihad. In similar fashion, we should not expect someone living in first century Judea to know nothing about the Jewish doctrine of election. After all, this idea of Jewish exceptionalism gave the Roman state huge headaches. The Jews refused to go along quietly with Roman occupation even though Roman occupation meant great wealth and a better, more modern life. The reason they refused to go along with Roman occupation was because they believed themselves to be the chosen people.
All of Palestine and Roman territories east of Jerusalem were drenched in the teaching of Jewish predestination. Everywhere where there was a synagogue, you’d better believe election was being taught. And if you happened to be someone living in a region plum with these synagogues, then you could not escape learning about election.
We know then the thief knew about election. We know he confessed faith in the good news of accomplished redemption in Christ’s death.
But what about Christ’s resurrection? “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Dead people do not remember, and they certainly do not come into kingdoms.
Acts 10:30-31 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.
Hebrews 8:12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more
Revelation 16:19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.
How could the thief had asked Jesus to remember him if the thief had believed Jesus’ death would be the end of Jesus? How could the thief had expected Jesus to come into His kingdom if he believed Jesus was just going to die and stay dead?
Psalm 139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in the grave, you are there!
Psalm 68:20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
In addition to this though, the thief also acknowledged that Jesus would be coming into His kingdom. Who comes into a kingdom save for a king? And who in the world could possibly atone for sins not his own and then afterward come into a kingdom save for the Lord God of Israel alone?
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever. How much more resistant to destruction can a kingdom be than to have swallowed up and overcome even death itself.
If Jesus is going to be coming into a kingdom, then it is going to be an indestructible kingdom that has overcome even death itself. Such a kingdom could belong to no one but the Lord God of Israel Himself.
We also then find in the thief’s final words a confession of faith identifying the man Christ Jesus with the very Lord God of Israel Himself.
So, what do we know the thief believed? According to his own words, he believed the gospel. He believed Jesus had accomplished the redemption of His elect by offering His body as a sacrifice for their sins. We know he believed Jesus had accomplished this, because we know he believed Jesus would overcome death and in the process inherit a kingdom that He would obtain for all those for whom He had died.
There might be some folk who still disagree with me though. In fact, they may be accusing me of reading too much into the thief’s final words. To this I have only one thing to say.
Do these folks really find it so difficult to imagine someone living in first century Jerusalem coming at least several times come across an Old Testament passage like Isaiah 53:3-7? I mean, even the Ethiopian slave found this passage, right. Are these folks who find it so difficult to imagine the thief believed the gospel really trying to tell us that the Holy Spirit could not have later on a cross reminded this man of this passage he had come across and then opened his mind to understand the passage? Is this really what they are trying to tell us?
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
What did the thief know and believe?
37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Do you still believe the thief knew nothing about the good news of Jesus Christ?
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. – Isaiah 52:7-10