Scripture tells us that our Lord was to be ‘numbered with the transgressors’, and so He arrived at Golgotha ‘where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst’, John 19. 18. These two are not named but are identified as thieves, ‘malefactors’, possibly the companions in crime of Barabbas who had ‘committed murder’ and whom Pilate had endeavoured to be crucified instead of our Lord.
What a hostile place that Golgotha would be to our Lord, a place which was to be the hour of triumph for His enemies and also of the oppression of ‘the powers of darkness’! Not only did He have to endure the physical torment of crucifixion, being fastened by iron spikes hand and foot to a cross, suspended between heaven and earth in shame, with all the weight of His body tearing at the wounds in His hands and feet and with breathing becoming more and more difficult and painful as the hours passed, He also had to endure the mockery and reviling of hostile men. He ‘looked for some to have pity, but there was none, and for comforters’ but He found none, Ps. 69. 20. ‘They that passed by reviled him … likewise also the chief priests, mocking him … the rulers also with them derided him’. He who once had been the theme of angels’ worship became the song of the drunkard, and even in their last hours, the two men dying with him mocked and reviled him, casting their reproaches ‘in his teeth’. As the hours of his suffering passed, however, one of the thieves had a change of heart. We should note:
Neither of the two men crucified with our Lord would have had any hope or consolation in their dying hours. In thinking of their condition we are obviously not referring to them physically but spiritually. Thieves they were, malefactors, possibly violent men if they had been the companions of Barabbas, and unwitting blasphemers as they cursed the Christ of God. Not only had they been condemned by the law of the land, even if it were a Roman judge following Roman law, they were also condemned by their own Jewish law, for God of old had pronounced a curse upon any of His people who were executed by public hanging from a tree. ‘Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’, Gal. 3. 13; Deut. 21. 22-23. To die under the curse of men and also the curse of God would have been to die comfortless – no hope of ‘paradise’ for these two malefactors and, apparently, not much fear of God as they hung there either. Paradise for the Jew was another name for ‘Abraham’s bosom’, the place in death where the souls of the righteous dead were supposed to go. A certain rich man, our Lord told us, died and went to hell, but the poor beggar, Lazarus, died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man, in torments, longed for the peace and comfort which was denied him because he was not in Abraham’s bosom and wishes to warn his brothers to live in such a way as to ensure their own reception into paradise. For a condemned thief, cursed by God as well as by man for his crimes, there was even less prospect of paradise. All that was left for him was a terrible death and torment afterwards. One dare not imagine the torrent of abuse they would have heaped upon their tormentors and upon their companion. Their condition was hopeless and their attitude vicious and godless.
Yet the one crucified between these two thieves was entirely different. From Him came no cursings, mockeries, threats or oaths. ‘When he was reviled he reviled not again. When he suffered he threatened not’, 1 Pet. 2. 23. Instead, He prayed for those who crucified Him. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Instead of thinking of His own suffering, He thought of the sufferings of His mother. ‘Woman, behold thy son’, He said, committing her into the care of the disciple whom He loved. In what exalted company was this man put to death! To hang next to the Son of God Himself, to suffer in His presence, to hear His gentle words, to breathe His compassion and care – what a privilege indeed! God in His sovereign grace had ordained that this man should die next to His beloved Son, the One who was sinless and who died in the strong assurance that God would not leave His soul in hell, nor would He suffer His ‘holy one’ to see corruption, Ps. 16. 10. Here was a God-given opportunity for a dying man to see how wretched and sinful he was in the presence of the One who was ‘holy, harmless, undefiled’.
As the process of crucifixion went on, there was a change in attitude for one of these thieves. Both of them had reviled our Lord at the beginning of their suffering, Matt. 27. 44; Mark 15. 32. Yet Luke records that, at an early stage in their torment, ‘one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us’, to which the other replied, ‘Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?’ Luke 23. 39-41. A change of attitude has come over him, revealing a change of heart. He seems to be horrified at the thought that his partner-in-crime would link them both to the innocent man next to them. ‘Save thyself – and us?’ Has he begun to be moved by the patient suffering of his companion? Surely it is just the fear of God that must come upon everyone as we die? No, not necessarily so. Not everyone dies in repentance. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ is the advice of one godless poet. Yet one of those thieves, but only one, shows the reality of conversion. First of all, he confesses his own sin – ‘we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds’; second, he has a profound understanding that Jesus of Nazareth is totally different to him – ‘this man hath done nothing amiss’. Then again, he has come to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth, suffering under the mocking title ‘the King of the Jews’, really is the Christ of God, the promised Messiah, for he believes that after His death, this same Jesus is going to come in His kingdom, Luke 23. 42. What astounding faith! To believe that someone who is apparently dying helplessly and in shame is going to return in power and glory is astonishing. Finally, he turns to this Messiah of God for hope in a hopeless situation. ‘Jesus’, he prays, ‘remember me’.
Can there really be any doubt that the Spirit of God has brought this man to repentance and faith in his dying hours? Our Lord’s response doubtless brought great comfort to this repentant, praying sinner. ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’. When the final day of his life on this earth had dawned, the thief had had no prospect of paradise, but as dusk falls he is full of hope. And what a huge privilege was promised to him! ‘Today’ – blessed urgency; ‘thou’ – blessed pity; ‘with me’ – blessed company; ‘in paradise’ – blessed felicity. ‘Paradise!’ Was he worthy of it? No. Yet the grace of God had brought him into the presence of Christ, had brought him to a change of heart leading to repentance and faith, and had given him the hope all dying men and women need. And we, too, must make the same journey of faith to Jesus Christ. Though we have sinned and are not worthy of His grace, we must all come to the point where we confess our sin and unworthiness, acknowledge that the Christ of God is as unlike us as gold is to coal in His sinless perfection and cast ourselves upon Him for our hope of eternal bliss.
Only one thief came to the Lord in repentance and faith. The other seems to have died unrepentant. Yet isn’t it wonderful to know that, e'er our Lord breathed His last and lay down His life for us, He saw one come to faith in Him. Would it be right to say that the first sinner to die repentant and believing in Christ after our Lord’s death, the first one to enter eternal bliss with Him, was a Gentile sinner? There was little to comfort Him at the cross, and there were few who believed in Him. But surely here was one soul that brought Him comfort at such a time. ‘Jesus, remember me’ prays the firstfruits of His propitiatory work, the first sheaf of a harvest of a ‘countless multitude on high that tune their songs to Jesus’ name, all merit of their own deny and Jesus’ worth alone proclaim’. Our Lord had ‘poured out his soul unto death; and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors’, Isa. 53. 12. There, in the midst of His own sufferings, our blessed Lord relieved the fears and agonies of a sinful man, when, in effect, He said to him, ‘Come unto me, and I will give you … rest’.