By 3 o’clock Friday afternoon Jesus dismissed his spirit. The Roman soldiers did not break his legs as they did the other two thieves on their crosses because Jesus was already dead. Shortly before he died, we have in Luke 23:39-43 the fifth saying to the cross. The man who said this word is commonly called the penitent thief. It would seem he spent much of his life on the wrong side of the law. In all the agony that he experienced on his cross, he came to a profound realization of a great eternal truth. Prior to that time, he was only interested in the material world. Knowing that he faced death, he became concerned about what would happen to his soul. He asked for nothing from Jesus other than to be remembered. He asked for no special place or privilege. In the midst of all the shouting and suffering, this criminal seems to have been the only man at that moment who had his wits about him. He came to several realizations that we should consider today.
He realized his own limitations.
At the point of his request to Jesus he was hopeless. Mentally he stepped away from his own criminal thinking. Earlier he also reviled rejected Jesus. As time went on that gruesome afternoon, he observed Jesus and concluded that Jesus did not deserve to be on the cross. He changed his mind about who Jesus was. He saw in Jesus that which he needed. Even though his repentance was at the last moment, he had confidence that Christ could do something about his coming doom. In the words that he spoke to the other thief, he admitted his own unworthiness. Years later the apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:18 that in our suffering we commit our souls to him in well doing and do so as to the faithful Creator. All of those sinful acts he committed as a thief were submitted to the forgiveness of Jesus. His only request was to be remembered.
The helplessness of the penitent thief is an example to all that (whatever our circumstances) we can ask Jesus to be our Savior. This thief is not a biblical scholar. He did not experience baptism. And he could offer no good deeds to Christ. All that was present – was all that was necessary. He made conclusions about the identity of Jesus. He decided Jesus could do something for him spiritually. He believed that if he asked, Jesus would respond. He put his eternal soul in the hands of Jesus and let Christ take care of everything else.
He realized his opportunity.
It must have been comforting to be able to call Christ Lord. He was aware of the Jewish hope for the Messiah. Perhaps this thief on other occasions followed false messiahs that came before Jesus because there were many that taught revolution against the Romans.
Being remembered by the Lord Jesus Christ, this man could accept forgiveness and experience freedom from the power of sins that he committed. With blood gushing from his own wounds while hanging on the cross he went from the depths of despair to the highlight of comfort. Exodus 6:5 God made an important statement to the children of Israel. He said I heard you groaning, and I remembered. It is not so much a matter where, when, how we are groaning. It is that we have called out to God and he will remember us and all the promises that he has made to us for our deliverance and our salvation. This thief was able by simple faith to anticipate the kingdom with Christ.
The thief had no idea what it would be when Jesus kept his promise to be with him in paradise. All he knew was to ask for that privilege. Hebrews 11 is commonly called the faith chapter. In it are many examples of people who have trusted God and some who did not receive the answer in their lifetime. Verse six describes the kind of faith the thief had. It says, “he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” This dying man made a leap of faith and through him we can see the hope that is for all of us.
He realized his direction.
For him to be in paradise with Jesus, his request had to be specific and had to be personal. When someone comes to a salvation experience with Jesus, he cannot speak in generalities or use evasive terms. He must specifically confess sins that he is done and admit that he has obeyed the leanings of his sinful human nature. His appeal must be personal from him and to Christ. It cannot be to a vague, unknown god. What happened on the cross was personal for God and for man.
Where the thief wanted to go had to be requested promptly. He could not put off asking for Jesus’ help. So many people in church are convicted of their sin and resist the invitation to invite Christ into their hearts because they say they will put it off for a little while longer. The thief shouts down to us through all eternity that what we ask of God must be an immediate request. This means to pull away from the former life and to appeal to the compassion of Christ immediately.
This man made one request and that was to be in paradise. He wanted the assurance that his soul would go to a place where he could enjoy the experience and not suffer for his sin. For all of us to go the way of heaven we must pass through the gates of death. The only exception is for those who will be alive when Jesus returns. At that time the Bible says the dead in Christ arise first and then the living will be caught up to be with Jesus. It is a fearful thing to look death in the eye. When we cross over to eternity, unless we have asked Jesus to remember us, we will have no assurance that our soul will be in paradise.
The penitent thief would have been so foolish for not calling out to Jesus. He was running out of time and could do nothing for himself. For those who put off accepting Christ as Savior they may not realize that they are running out of time. Someday there will be an accounting and someday, hopefully, we will have paradise written next to our name.