“THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR THIEF”
March 6, 2005
In the middle of that passage we read a little while ago, there is a story of the one commonly referred to as “the thief on the cross.” Burton Coffman said of this little story: “This priceless episode, peculiar to Luke, has marvelously enriched the Christian gospel.” I agree with him. Another writer has referred to this man as “the world’s most popular thief.” What he meant by that is that there are apparently more people who want to base their hope of salvation upon this man’s example than of anyone else that is mentioned in scripture.
The lesson that I want for us to study together this morning is based on one simple premise. The premise I suggest to us is that the focus of this entire passage is not the thief, but Jesus. This story is here not to serve as an argument for us for something that we don’t have to do, but instead to let us learn about Jesus and what he will do to our hearts. That is the approach I’m asking you to take as we study along this morning.
Let’s begin by considering a little of what we know of this man who died beside Jesus that day. He was being crucified because he was, Luke says, “a criminal.” The word is sometimes translated “malefactor,” which means that he was an evildoer. He was a man who had done, not merely wrong things, but evil things. Matthew and Mark refer to him as a robber (Mark 15:27; Matt. 27:38). That suggest to me that he, by threat of violence or perhaps even violence carried out, had broken the commandment that said, “Thou shalt not steal.” He had taken what did not belong to him by doing injury to other people.
Matthew and Mark indicate in their records that this man had been reviling Jesus in the same way that the chief priests, the soldiers, the passersby, and the other person dying on one of the crosses were doing. He had said the same kinds of things; he had hurled the same kinds of insults; he had mocked the one on the middle cross, suggesting that unless he would come down and save himself and save all others that he wasn’t the Christ, that he wasn’t the king, and there was nothing to him or anything that he had done except falsity and trickery.
Now remember that this man was being executed by the Romans. A fact that may sometimes escape us is that the Romans did not crucify Roman citizens. They crucified lawbreakers of the people’s lands they occupied. We can safely assume that this man was a Jew, a disobedient Jewish man. The way we would refer to it today is that he stands, not for an alien sinner, but for an erring child of God. Given this man’s background, if he were to serve as an example of how anyone might come to have salvation, he would be an example of how someone who had been a Christian and had fallen away into wrongdoing might be saved, rather than an example about how someone who had never known the Lord might come to be saved. This man belonged to the covenant people of God at that time. He had done wrong; he had fallen into evil doing, and now we find him confronting Jesus and the end of his own life.
That brings us to the event which is described by Luke in Luke 23:39-43. If this man had, as it seems, been casting the same kinds of reproaches upon Jesus, then over the length of time he had been observing Jesus and had been engaged in that activity, something changes the way this man is thinking. He begins to grow slowly silent and stops participating in the wrong that is being done, and then he begins to call attention to the other robber to the wrong, the foolishness, of what they are doing, and then he makes a request of Jesus. What is it, do you suppose, that changes this man’s behavior? What is it that changes the way he is thinking? Is it the fact that facing his own imminent death causes him to begin to think a little more reverently about some things? Had he been observing Jesus’ conduct and behavior while he suffered there, the dignity that the Lord showed in the face of the littleness and the bitterness that was being exercised by others around the cross? Had this man heard the first word that Luke says Jesus uttered: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Had that begun to dwell on this man’s mind to the point that he just could not go on being as little as he had been? Something changed the man’s heart, his thinking. Maybe it was a combination of all those things.
Then what he says reveals some very important things about the state of mind at which he had arrived. First, he says to the other criminal, rebuking him, “Do you not fear God?” suggesting now that this man acknowledges the existence of God and that God is to be reverenced and respected. This man now knows that. Observe then that he says, “We are under the same sentence of condemnation, and we indeed justly.” That tells us that this man believed that there is a standard of right and wrong, and that he and his fellow criminal had transgressed that standard and had done wrong, and that the awful situation in which they now found themselves was just. He was a man owning up to his wrong and facing the fact that he deserves to be condemned.
And then he proceeds to assert the innocence of Jesus. He says, “This man has done nothing wrong.” In spite of all the things those others around the cross are saying about Jesus, suggesting that Jesus had lied, that he had misled people, that he had arrogantly assumed a place for himself that he didn’t deserve, this man now says that Jesus has nothing but what’s right. He believes that Jesus is the king, asking him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He was showing a sense of humility and of dependence on Jesus with the idea that Jesus was a king and that the cross would not change that fact. Then in his request to the Lord – “remember me” – he is showing that he thought that Jesus, that man beside him on the cross, could bless him and that it was possible to have association with the Lord after both of them were dead. Think about it. A few hours earlier Jesus had said to his disciples, “Thus remember me.” Now this man beside him is saying, “When you come in your kingdom, remember me.”
I have a very serious question to lay before us. Where did this man come to have thoughts like that? How did this criminal on the cross come to believe there is a God to be feared and that what we have done is wrong, our condemnation is just, that Jesus is the king, that he can bless me in spite of the fact that he is dying here? How did he come to believe all of that? Let me tell you why I am asking this question. A very popular devotional writer, formerly affiliated with the churches of Christ and very well known in our country, in an interview a few months ago in The Christian Chronicle said that one reason that we ought to hesitate about whether baptism is essential in an individual’s being saved is that this thief is the only unbaptized man who came to have salvation that we find in the New Testament. Given what this tells us about this man’s thinking, some of those assumptions need to be challenged. For example, it is at least possible that this man knew about God and that God is to be reverenced and that Jesus was righteous and that their condemnation was just and that there is a life beyond the here and now and that the king would have a kingdom. It is at least possible that he might have been a disciple of John the Baptist, or that he possibly even had been a follower of Jesus, at some point. In Mark 1:4-5, it says that in John the Baptist’s ministry, as he baptized people for the remission of their sins – a baptism of repentance – that all of Judea and of Jerusalem was coming out to him to be baptized. In John 4:1-2, it says that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing even more than John was. I don’t know that this man had been through that process, but I know it is possible, and I know that he got this way of thinking these assumptions somewhere. He might have been someone who had been baptized either by John or through the work of Jesus and his disciples in John 4:1-2.
I do know for sure that this is not the only man who was forgiven and saved by Jesus before the Lord offered himself up on the cross. In Luke’s gospel itself there are other well-known sinners who were forgiven by Jesus. There is that woman “forgiven of much” according to Luke 7. There is the publican who, in Luke 18, wouldn’t so much as lift his eyes to heaven but simply beat on his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” There is Zacchaeus in Luke 19 who was widely regarded as a sinful man who climbs a tree to see Jesus. The Lord tells him to “come down for I am going to your house.” He then tells the critics that “salvation has come to this man’s house today.” The idea that this thief on the cross is the only one the Lord forgave before he died is just simply not so.
There are other cases like this. In Mark 2 there is a story of a man the Lord forgave just to show that he had authority, while he was on earth, to forgive sin. While he was here in person he could extend that gracious forgiveness to his own authoritative word because he was the Son of God.
Let’s move from the event now to thinking a little bit about the timing. Notice that this happened at sometime during the first three hours while Jesus was suffering on the cross. I know that because in Luke 23:44 we learn that it was about the sixth hour – about noon – when the darkness came. Jesus had been hanging on the cross since 9 a.m., so this interaction between the people mocking him and then his conversation with the thief happened sometime while that suffering had just begun.
That tells us some things about when this conversation took place that are important. This conversation took place at a time before the old covenant was removed. This man lived and died while the covenant God made with Israel through Moses was in effect. That covenant was not taken out of the way until Jesus nailed it to the cross, according to Colossians 2:13-14. The Hebrew writer in Hebrews 9:16-17 uses the illustration of a person’s will to show this truth. He says, “For where a will (or testament or covenant) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” That is an illustration most of us can understand. If I named you in my will to receive when I’m gone a part of my millions, that wouldn’t mean that you could come up and claim it right now. The will doesn’t take effect until I die or whoever made it dies. That is true with Jesus, also.
This conversation took place, secondly, before the great commission was given by the Lord. You remember that after Jesus had been raised up, he appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days, and he taught them things about what was to come. One of the things he told them was that they were to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, and that whoever believed and was baptized could be saved. That commandment had not been given when this episode in Luke 23 took place. Jesus had not died yet; the great commission had not been given yet. David Roper suggested an illustration that made me think about this. Suppose that I hadn’t paid my federal income tax. Suppose the authorities caught up with me and wanted to know, “Bill, why have you not for the last five years paid your taxes?” Suppose I would argue, “Well, I don’t have to.” “Why do you think you don’t have to?” “Well, George Washington didn’t pay federal income taxes. Abraham Lincoln didn’t pay federal income taxes. They are notable men who were great citizens of this country. They didn’t pay their income taxes. Why should I have to?” That authority might say to me, “Are you aware that in the year 1913 something known as the 16th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified? When that happened, it made all of us subject to the law which said that citizens can be taxed on their income. Washington and Lincoln didn’t pay those taxes because they lived before there was such a thing.” For me to argue that the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized, when I stop and realize that he lived before the great commission was given, proves nothing about what is required of me. He lived when the Law of Moses was still in effect. I think you see the point.
And, this man lived and this conversation took place before the gospel of Christ was actually preached in fact. The gospel, according to Romans 1:16, is the power of God unto salvation. Would any of us now in this day and age want to argue that a person can get to heaven without the gospel of Christ? Knowing that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, would you be willing to argue that the death of Jesus was not necessary? The gospel is the fact that Jesus died for our sins and that he was buried and that he was raised again on the third day (I Cor. 15:3-4). The gospel was preached for the first time was on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. They preached that Jesus had been put to death at the hands of wicked and lawless men, that he had been buried but that tomb was empty, and God had raised him up and exalted him to his right hand and made him both Lord and Christ. The people only then asked, “Men and brethren, what should we do?” Only that day did they begin to be told, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” This man in Luke 23 lived at a time when such a thing was not being preached. And he was in a situation where such a thing is not possible. As someone pointed out, “no person on earth today can claim any such status as the thief on the cross had.” We live in a different time.
Move on with me to the faith this man showed. Burton Coffman suggested that “all efforts to disassociate one’s self from the commandments and obligations of the Christian gospel on the basis of the robber’s salvation arise from a total disregard of the truly remarkable exhibition of faith on his part.” I believe this is a crucially important point. We want to act like this fellow on the cross did something that was only fleeting and unimpressive and was a minor response on his part.
Just think about this. This man, when he said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come in your kingdom,” was doing some amazing things. He believed on the Lord at a time when even the Lord’s staunchest disciples had forsaken him and fled. And yet, he calls on Jesus, “Remember me when you come in your kingdom.” He believed on Jesus and confessed his righteousness at a time when everybody else around the cross was reviling him, insulting him and calling him names. He made that confession when he himself was in an agony of nakedness and pain and humiliation, and not when he was dressed up on Sunday morning like you and I are. This man called on Christ in the presence of the Lord’s bitterest foes in the exact moment when their triumph seemed to be strongest. He confessed Jesus in the moment of the Lord’s deepest humiliation.
This is not some sort of an easy, minor statement of belief on this man’s part! It is not something that ever ought to be used to excuse ourselves from anything the Lord has asked us to do in response for what he has done for us. I’m saying that anybody who has any kind of faith like this man had will be glad to trust the Lord enough to submit to whatever he asks of him.
That brings us then to the grace shown in this wonderful passage. Here we find Jesus’ answer to that poor man that day, a Lord who is kind and gracious enough to give what is asked and far more. This man said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “I tell you truly, today (not when but today).” The man said, “Remember me.” Jesus said, “You will be with me.” The man said, “in your kingdom.” Jesus said, “in paradise.”
This last phrase has captured a lot of fascination in this passage. The word “paradise” means “garden.” It is used in two other passages in the New Testament, once in II Cor. 12:2-3 where it refers to that third heaven where Paul was caught up to. It appears to be a place near to God. In Rev. 2:7, the paradise of God is where the tree of life is. It is obviously a blessed promise this man is being given. If we were to suggest he is talking about heaven itself, we would probably be going too far in this passage. Jesus said in John 20:17, after his resurrection, that he hadn’t yet ascended to his Father. Acts 2:31 suggests that he went to Hades, the unseen world. So maybe this paradise is parallel to “Abraham’s bosom” that Jesus talked about in Luke 16:22.
However you look at it, though, Jesus is at the center of this picture’s meaning. This passage means that this one who died for our sins that day at that place was extending a grace that reaches down to us now. Even there on the cross, Jesus still had the power to inspire people to hope in eternal life. He still, even there, lifted up from the earth, was able to draw all men to himself. His grace was there forgiving even while he was suffering the very one who earlier had been adding to his suffering, forgiving a man apparently who had engaged in a life of wrongdoing at a moment when the man could do nothing back for him. The grace of Jesus is seen in this passage in his authority which he was willing to use to promise a dying man “truly you will be with me.”
What I am saying is that when you and I look at this thief, what we should be impressed with is Jesus. When I look at this thief, I am not meant to come away saying, “That is how I want to be saved. I want to wait until the very last breath I have and then I want to pray a sinner’s prayer,” which is what some people are arguing of this passage. There is no place under the gospel of Jesus when any person ever wanted to know, “What must I do,” and he was told to “pray this prayer after me.” This thief is not here for us to say “that is the way I want to be saved.” He is here for us to be able to look at Jesus and say, “That’s the one by whom I want to be saved!”
What I am trying to preach to us today is he can save us; he will save us; he wants to save us. And if we by faith will repent and be baptized into him in obedience to the gospel, he will save us, and some day we will be with him. If you are a person who hasn’t made that beginning today, you need to. If you have made that beginning and if you are a child of God living in error and wrongdoing, then that’s when you need to confess the sin and pray to the Lord and perhaps the thought of your heart might be forgiven. If we can help you in one of those ways today, we would love the privilege.