I finished reading the gospel of Luke this past week as a part of an effort to read through the entire New Testament in 90 days (right now it’s already starting to look more like 100-120 because I keep missing days). As always, new things jump out at me every time I read through one of the books of the Bible and this journey through Luke has been no different. Most notably for me this time through was the realization that the thief crucified beside Jesus was the first to really express faith in the resurrection of Jesus prior to his appearance to the disciples later.
All four gospels make reference to the two thieves who were crucified next to Jesus after he was given over to the Jewish council by Pilate to be executed. In Matthew’s account, the two robbers are said to have reviled Jesus along with the chief priests, elders, and scribes. “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Matthew 27:44).
However at some point one of them had a change of heart. Luke records one of the thieves rebuking the other for his mockery. Speaking in Jesus’ defense he said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due rewards of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 24:39-41). Something about the character of Jesus spoke of innocence, and this man recognized it. That alone speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus and of this criminal’s humble recognition of his own predicament, justly earned.
That’s not all the thief said though, he goes a step further by turning to Jesus and saying “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 24:42). The thief didn’t just defend Jesus, he asked that he be remembered when Jesus enter his kingdom. That’s like telling a fellow inmate on his way to the electric chair to send you a postcard once he’s safely reached his resort in the Bahamas. Even more remarkable is that this man, a thief by trade with no apparent interaction with Jesus prior to his crucifixion, had more faith in the resurrection of Jesus than the disciples did.
The first to see the open tomb and the body of Jesus missing three days after his crucifixion was a group of woman including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, a woman by the name of Joanna, and several others. Remembering that Jesus had told them of his death and resurrection prior to its occurrence they returned to the disciples and told the men about their encounter with angels and of the missing body. The majority of the disciples responded with doubt, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
It took the physical presence of a resurrected Jesus to convince the disciples that he really was alive. Not so the thief. Hanging from a cross with death nearby, he believed that Jesus would still prevail, that his kingdom would still come and asked to be remembered when that day arrived. Jesus’ response? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It did not require a lifetime of good works and religious tradition for the thief to be accepted by Jesus (nor does it today). It was an expression of faith in Jesus as the Christ and able to overcome death that brought the man forgiveness and salvation.
The first man to place his faith in the resurrection of Jesus was probably the last man anyone expected. His faith and subsequent forgiveness and freedom is an excellent illustration of what Paul states in his letter to the church in Ephesus, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). A thief at death’s door cannot earn a pardon, but he can receive one freely given by a just and compassionate God.