The Thief on the Cross

Condemned to die, Jesus is led out to the place of crucifixion. Whatever might have marked this crucifixion from the rest seems lost on the Romans in charge of that day’s docket. Three are ready, so three are led out. Jesus and two robbers. All along the way, Jesus is mocked and derided. Matthew and Mark’s Gospels tell us that the robbers, plural, who were crucified with Jesus also reviled him in the same way.

Luke’s Gospel gives this account in chapter 23, “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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.” The very next verse says, “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

A few verses later, one of the two robbers railed at Jesus and said, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving our due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds to the second criminal’s request and says, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This is a stagger backwards, mouth open, fall to the floor and tremble display of the mercy of God. Jesus prays that this man would be forgiven, this man who had been reviling Jesus just a little while earlier. And now this man hears Jesus himself promise him that they will be together in Paradise. As the song says, “Tis mercy all, immense and free!”

What good news! No one is out of reach of the grace of God. No matter what you’ve done. You can be justly condemned to die for your crimes. You can revile Jesus as he hangs on the cross next to you and still you are not beyond Christ’s power to save.

God’s unmatched glory in his goodness and mercy is the main point of this story, but there is also a warning for us. It’s a warning we need. God’s mercy is beyond measure, but we do not set the terms just as we like. I fear that too many of us play fast and loose with God’s grace. We live our lives however we see fit and we use this story to justify it. We keep in the back of our minds the story of the thief on the cross and think, “I just have to ask God’s forgiveness there at the end.” We do not heed Isaiah’s call to seek the Lord while he may be found. And we forget James’ reminder that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Christ’s forgiveness becomes little more to us than our back pocket get-out-of-jail card. We’ll call to him as soon as we find ourselves in a jam too big for us to handle.

When we think like this, however, we are only remembering the one robber who was saved. We forget the one who was not.

Both robbers reviled Jesus and then both called out for Jesus to save them. The first questioned who Jesus is and demanded that Jesus prove himself by saving the three of them from the crucifixion. His focus was really on himself and he only saw what was before him that day. The second truly realized his culpability and need of a savior. He did not question who Jesus is, but spoke the truth about him. His focus was on Jesus and his eyes were set to an eternal horizon. Coming to Jesus in that moment was not a means to get off the cross. Instead, he looked ahead to Christ’s kingdom and asked that Jesus remember him.

Friends, do not trifle with God’s grace. It is a free gift, but God is the giver. We play too dangerous a game when we hold on to our sin, refusing to fully surrender ourselves to Jesus, always thinking that we’ll do it later.

The great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones succinctly captures J.C. Ryle on this topic when he says, “Few are ever saved on their deathbeds. One thief on the cross was saved that none should despair; but only one, that none should presume.”

This reminds us of our need to confess our sins.

Prayer of Confession

Father, we do not deserve your grace. The wages of our sin is death, but your free gift to us in Jesus is eternal life. Too often though, we presume upon your kindness to us. We do not revere you or your Word as we should. We ignore the areas of our lives where we harbor rebellion against you and we assume there can be no consequence for our sin. We live for ourselves and treat your mercy as fire insurance. You warn us of the seriousness of such folly and we do not listen.

Father, this is a great evil. And we know that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst, our prayers will be ineffectual, so we confess our individual sins to you now.

Father, we thank you for Jesus. If anyone could have laid rights to your grace by merit, it would have been him. But instead, he modeled for us what it means to receive your good gifts in thankfulness. To walk in obedience not out of compulsion or in order to earn favor, but out of love for you. We thank you that by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection none of us are beyond the reach of your mercy. All who call upon your name can be saved. Help us to call out in faith. By your Spirit now, be pleased to align our thoughts, desires, and loves with your own, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.