First… a message to the reader
I know the title of this post is a bit … accusatory, and obviously I’m not saying anyone is really a thief, but it’s intended as a metaphor related to the two thieves who were crucified along side Christ. As we draw closer to Easter, I started to really think about those two men who hung next to Jesus, and the significance they hold as it relates to the Easter story. I certainly don’t want to take away from any part of the sacrifice of Jesus, but I do believe there is an important message we should understand that comes from this part of the crucifixion.
Setting the Stage
Mark, Matthew, and Luke all mentioned the thieves in their writings, but Luke really goes into more detail and provides context that the other two apostles don’t. However, the writings of Mark and Matthew do have an important nugget in them that I’ll try to draw upon in more detail. Matthew wrote “Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left” (Matthew 27:38 NIV) and similarly Mark wrote “They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27 NIV). In other translations they do refer to the men as “thieves” or “robbers” which does satisfy the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12 “And He was numbered with the transgressors.” Whatever they were called, they were definitely Transgressors. Luke, however, provides a lot more insight into the Penitent Thief through Luke 23:39-43 and that’s where most if this post will be focused.
I do want to take a moment to really set the stage though. Imagine you are Jesus and at this point you’ve been betrayed, falsely accused, unfairly tried, beaten, tortured, abandoned, mocked, insulted, nailed to a cross and left to die a most painful death. Just how generous would you be? Jesus endured through all of it, and still had forgiveness in his heart as he uttered “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
More about the Thieves
Circling back to Mark and Matthew, they both wrote of the two thieves and they also both wrote that both of the thieves started by rejecting Jesus as well. “In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Matthew 27:44) and “…Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” (Mark 15:32). So here we have a baseline of both of the transgressors who were crucified along side Jesus also started with hate and anger. In many ways this describes us so well as humans, we are prone to sin and it’s easy for us to judge, insult, and hate over forgiveness and love.
Understand there is some debate about whether both thieves actually insulted Jesus or if it Mark and Matthew were using synecdoche which is a literary tool where part of something is used to reference the whole. I know two things probably come into your head at the idea of this … First being “How do you pronounce synechdoche?”(the answer might surprise you) but the more important is whether that’s actually a thing used in the bible. The answer to the last is definitely a yes, though I doubt they had a wonky word for it back then. Personally, I prefer to think that Mark and Matthew omitted the part Luke explained and visa-versa, which seems to be the more common understanding.
The Penitent Thief
In case you were wondering, the term “penitent” is a fancy way of saying “repentant” so our Penitent Thief is one who repented. Luke 23:32-33 and Luke 23:39-43 is where you will find this part of the story.
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. (Luke 23:32-33).
So Luke has confirmed what both Matthew and Mark wrote about, that there were two other transgressors (thieves, robbers, rebels, etc.) crucified along with Jesus. We’ve also established that one was on his right and one was on his left. Throughout the Bible right and left seem to have more significance than direction. Right generally refers to strength, righteousness, goodness, etc. while the left refers to weakness, evil, sin, etc. Perhaps this is because most people are right dominant, I’m really not sure … maybe I can do more digging and write another post on it … but it’s interesting that they signify right vs left in this instance, but I didn’t read any reference to which thief was the Penitent Thief. Perhaps it’s more common thought that it was the man on the right, but Luke doesn’t call this out specifically as far as I can tell.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
So one of these thieves took his anger and fear out on Jesus, and challenges Jesus to save himself and save the two of them. Perhaps this thief is making fun of Jesus, that despite his title of “Messiah” he was just as helpless to change the outcome. The original Greek “blasphemeo” means to blaspheme, or to demean through speech. The thief was being disrespectful towards Jesus, degrading him and slandering him. However, I feel like the request here is pretty important because he challenges Jesus to “save yourself and us” and it’s clear to me that he is challenging Jesus to save them from their physical peril. Hang on to this idea because I do want to circle back and close the loop here.
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:40-42)
So here comes the other thief with a much different tone. Remember, according to Mark and Matthew this guy was being just as hurtful towards Jesus at the beginning. What happened between then and this moment? Jesus raised his voice to God and said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). Perhaps the Penitent Thief saw forgiveness in Jesus and it moved him? It’s really hard to say since it’s not well documented, but regardless this man speaks on behalf of Jesus and recognizes that while he [the thief] is guilty, Jesus is innocent yet being punished just the same (if not worse). The man also recognizes Jesus as the true Messiah and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom and how does Jesus respond?
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Jesus doesn’t ask him what he did because it doesn’t matter. Jesus was there to wash the sins of man with his blood, and he started with this one man. Jesus tells him that today he will be with Jesus in paradise! This one statement inspires awe in me, it’s just astounding that he merely asks for his place in the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus provides. The thieves cannot save themselves, but in a moment Jesus saves his soul without judgement and without any need to prove himself. The simple act of repentance and acknowledgement is enough!
I believe this story struck me as so important because it is the very foundation of our salvation. One thief shows arrogance and denies Jesus while the other shows humility and accepts Jesus. Nothing has changed, they are all about to die and nothing is going to save their bodies. However, the Penitent Thief seeks salvation and is granted it. He acknowledges his sin and is forgiven. He humbly trusts Jesus and is rewarded with eternal life.
Be mindful of the message here, this doesn’t give us license to live sinful and destructive lives only to repent at the last minute and receive salvation. While that may be technically true, it will leave you with a life filled with disappointment and pain. If you seek to live by the Gospel and be disciples of Christ, you will be filled with a joy that only God can provide. Be sure to show gratitude this season for what you have, even if it doesn’t seem like much, because God is with you right now even if you feel alone. Jesus truly was alone, abandoned, and separated even from the Father during his crucifixion, but he endured that so you and I don’t ever have to.
We come into this world as spiritual orphans, and we have to accept Jesus Christ so we can be reborn and adopted by God. Much like the two thieves, we can choose to believe in Jesus and follow his path to our eternal home, or we can choose to turn our back on Jesus and suffer eternal separation. Therefore, in closing, I ask you this … Which thief are you? Will you respond in defiance and arrogance? Or will you accept of Jesus?