RPM, Volume 17, Number 51, December 13 to December 19, 2015

The Thieves

Luke 23:39-43

By D. Marion Clark


We have been studying different characters in the story of Christ's passion, asking Who is responsible. We've considered the roles of the disciples, of the religious leaders, of Herod, and of Pilate. That is about all to consider in terms of who were instrumental in delivering Jesus to his crucifixion. We will bring up the crowd involved at the Maundy Thursday service.

Now we are going to take a different turn. As Christians, we know that Christ died for sinners. We will look at persons who represent such sinners. We will look at the thieves.


One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

The two criminals hanged with Jesus were most likely insurrectionists against the Romans. Matthew and Mark refer to them as robbers, a term that John uses for Barabbas who was being held for committing murder during an insurrection. It is likely they had participated in the same insurrection, and Barabbas was scheduled to be crucified with them.

Luke alone gives this exchange with Jesus. The remarks of the first criminal make sense. The man all along would have been a bitter man. To understand how much he would have despised the Romans, just think of the Palestinian suicide bombers. He has committed himself to ridding them from his land, enough so that he has resorted to violence. And now his oppressors have become his tormentors. He is filled with hate and despair.

And who hangs beside him? A man purported to be the King of the Jews. The sign above Jesus is a sign of mockery to this man and his cause; indeed, in his eyes Jesus would be the ultimate symbol of mockery. He, no doubt, longed for the coming of the Messiah to free his land from bondage. Most likely he had known about Jesus and the hope of many in him. Maybe he had even hoped that Jesus would be the one. And now they hang together, victims on their crosses.

Are you not the Christ? Are you not the Messiah? Isn't that what you claimed? You gave us hope, and will you now let that hope be dashed? What are you doing on a cross? How could the Messiah let these blasphemous pagans do this to you? How could you let those who would have fought at your side hang? I would have fought for you if you had led your people.

Save yourself and us! Save us! My dreams are dying; I am tormented by pain; save us! You've done miracles; why can't you do one now? Why won't you if you are the Messiah? Why do you let me writhe in agony?

It is not difficult at all to understand this crucified man. It is the other victim who is the mystery.

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."

Remember, this criminal is also hanging on a cross, experiencing the slow agonizing execution process. But he speaks with godly insight. Note the opening remark: "Do you not fear God?" That is a perceptive comment, and it nails the hypocrisy of the first thief.

Think about this. Why were the Jews, among all the other peoples controlled by the Romans, the most hostile to occupation? They would say because of their religious belief in being the people of God. Israel was God's chosen people, and their land was their promised inheritance. Rome represents more than a more powerful nation conquering a less powerful nation. It represents a pagan nation putting into bondage a holy people, and defiling a sacred land. Those Jews who were fighting against the Romans saw themselves not merely as freedom fighters, but as a righteous army fighting for the glory of God.

Now here is the second thief's point to the other. "You have let your hate turn you from what is supposed to be your motivation for life — the glory of God. You have become a bitter man." Indeed, if the truth be told the bitter thief was really bitter at God. This is what happens to so-called believers who believe that they must take matters into their own hands to achieve the goals they have decided must be right.

Here is their mindset. Nothing could be worse than Roman occupation, right? Nothing could cause greater offense to God; isn't that true? Surely there is no greater sin than for a Jew to accommodate the enemy. How could God tolerate such a thing? We must do the fighting for him, and we will have to use the methods we know work. And so they rationalize violating God's law to preserve God's honor. They murder even their own people. In the end, they become what they accuse their enemies of being — men who no longer fear God; men who act out of hatred, not zeal for God.

Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? Jesus is taking the same punishment as you. The sovereign God whom we profess to believe has put all three of us in our predicament. The first thief treats Jesus as though he is receiving his just end for pretending to be the Messiah. The second thief points out correctly, "You are hanging on a cross too." They are in this together, except for one big difference. Jesus is innocent.

41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.

Regarding the two criminals, the Romans are merely carrying out their system of justice against insurrectionists. Crucifixion is the penalty. The two men knew this is what would happen if they got caught. But what has Jesus done? Goodness, he preached that God's people should love their enemies and pay taxes due to Caesar. He is being delivered over out of jealousy and the spite of his own kindred.

The second thief doesn't need special knowledge for this. The hatred of Jesus by the religious leaders was common knowledge, as was also the integrity of Jesus and his teachings of peace. And yet, he does seem to have insight beyond the norm as revealed in his words to Jesus: 42 And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

He professed Jesus to be the Messiah. He spoke of Jesus' kingdom. Jesus is King. What does he mean? Does he believe Jesus was about to come down and run out the Romans? No; he speaks of Jesus coming "into" his kingdom. There is a kingdom for him to enter. Where then is it? Perhaps the thief is thinking of heaven. If so, then he regards Jesus as Lord of heaven who has the authority to choose who may be with him. Maybe he is thinking of the unknown end of the age when the Messiah will establish a kingdom on earth. Then he is hoping in the final resurrection where the King will sort between the goats and the sheep and bid his sheep to enter into his rest. Whatever the case, the man's hope is in Jesus; he has been given the eyes to recognize God's Redeemer.

Bitterness did not blind this man. His despairing circumstance and agony produced, not bitterness, but conviction and repentance. He recognized before it was too late that peace lies within, with the relationship one has with God regardless of circumstance. The first thief blamed what was outside himself for his misery; the second looked within and learned the truth of Jesus' words said in another occasion — that it is within the heart from which sin and misery flow.

How did he see? What made him change? We can only speculate, but surely observing Jesus had to impact him. Remember, Jesus' mission was to suffer. The crucifixion is the battleground for the great battle that he had come to fight. This is the work of the Messiah; indeed, never more than on the cross is his identity as the Messiah who redeems his people more clearly displayed for those who have the eyes to see. And the Spirit has given him such sight. Here is the Suffering Servant who does not rail against his enemies, but "like a sheep that before its shearers is silent" (Isaiah 53:7). But not quite silent, for he does pray to his Father to forgive his persecutors. Is that the cold water that woke him up? Perhaps; I'm sure such words would have enraged the other thief. The bottom line is found in the words of old Simeon who held the infant Jesus in his arms: Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-35). Two men hung with Jesus that day; one fell and one rose as their hearts were revealed.

43 And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Jesus is king; and as king he grants the wish of his subject. How beautiful those words must have sounded to the requester. The hope he has nursed all his life — to experience God's kingdom — has been granted while experiencing what should have been the execution designed to wipe away all hope. Peace, not bitterness, lay in his heart as he lay upon an instrument of torture.

Note the certainty in Jesus' remark. There is no doubt in his words. "Truly, I say to you." You can bank on what I say. Despite appearances to the contrary, I know I am in my Father's will and carrying out my work. "You will be with me." I am not sending you where I cannot go; we are going together. "In Paradise." Our persecutors think they are sending us to hell; I know our destination, and it is Paradise; it is the very opposite of this torment. For all the pain you experience now, you will receive for greater blessing.


There are three lessons I want to bring up. The first has to do with the contrast between the two thieves. Let me ask, why does one turn bitter and another remorseful, considering they were under the same circumstance? More than any other reason, circumstance is the one I've heard for why people drop out of church and turn away from God. "I had a bad experience in church." "If you had suffered like I have, you will understand why I don't believe anymore."

But stories abound where the same experiences let to totally different reactions. One man goes to war and loses faith in God because of the carnage he experiences. How can there be a god? Another turns to God because he sees evil and knows the only hope is in God. One woman is abused and turns from God because he did not protect her. Another abused woman turns to God because of abuse because only in him does she find peace.

It seems to me that ultimately each of us is responsible for the decisions we make. As much as we would like to blame or credit an experience or person, what these outside influences are doing is bringing out what is in our hearts. The heart of one thief was filled with bitterness; the heart of the other, before it was too late, had somehow changed. What do the circumstances of life reveal about yours?

For the next lesson, I want you to consider one other thief — Barabbas. John also referred to him as a robber. Barabbas is little more than a name to us. He says nothing; there is no description of how he acted in the story. He is simply the man who was let free in place of Jesus. Barabbas seems to be the "lucky" one of the three criminals. An agonizing death was before him and he escaped. Perhaps he was captured another time; perhaps he lived to old age and died a peaceful death. But know this: he did die. And know this as well: if Barabbas died unrepentant, he entered into the same agonies as the first thief on the cross. We speak of bad death and good death. To die young is bad; to die in old age is good. To die in pain is bad; to die without suffering is good. Understand this: it is not the circumstance that makes a death good or bad; it is the condition of the heart when the death takes place. For if the heart has kept out Christ, then death leads to agony; but if the heart possesses Christ, then regardless of the suffering that accompanies death, it becomes the entry into Paradise. And that is a good death.

For the last lesson, listen again to the words of the second thief: Do you not fear God, since we are all under the same sentence of condemnation? That is the question for us all, for we are all born under the same sentence of condemnation. All of us fall short of the glory of God. All of us stand in need of redemption. And what these thieves serve to proclaim to us is that redemption can indeed be found for any of us under this same sentence of condemnation if we will but fear God and turn to the Christ of the cross.

Don't let your heart become bitter and hard against God. You know his heart. It is there in Christ on the cross. Jesus said that when you see him you see the Father. Well, there he is suffering to save you from suffering. There he is receiving the sentence of condemnation so that you may not bear it. Your redemption is in Christ's and the Father's hearts. Put away all your excuses about Christian hypocrites and bad experiences. Put away your fears that you are beyond redeeming, that Christ could not save someone like you. The choice is yours as to which thief is telling your story.

What do you have to do? All the thief could do was keep hanging. He could not prove his repentance with good deeds. What do you have to say? Do you have to get all the theology down pat? All the thief knew to say was, Remember me. Say such words from your heart, and you will learn that Christ, that your Father, has never forgotten you.

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