The Thief on the Cross
By R. L. Vaughn, 2015
Luke 23:33 And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.
On the 14th day of Nissan, circa AD 33, three men were executed on a hill outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha or Calvary.1
The Two Thieves
On the right and left crosses at Golgotha were executed two men convicted as thieves. They probably knew one another and may have even been partners in crime. There were bands of thieves around Jerusalem. They were not stealth stealers but violent criminals with no qualms about taking what they wanted by assault, bodily injury and even death (Luke 10:30). Their reputation was such that authorities were careful to arrest them by sending soldiers in a show of force (Luke 22:52).
The Man in the Middle
In contrast to the men on the right and the left, the man hanging on the middle cross had "done nothing amiss." He was the spotless Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. Yet, Jesus was identified as a malefactor (criminal) by the Jewish authorities (John 18:30). He was arrested as though he were a violent criminal (Luke 22:52), though he had been available to them in public teaching on a daily basis. He was by prophecy "numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12; Mark 15:28), and even replaced Barabbas, a convicted thief and seditionist who was sentenced to die that day (John 18:40; Mark 15:7). In the human view of Golgotha's scene, He was a "thief among thieves".2
The Early Hours
As the crucifixion began the third hour (about 9 in the morning), both thieves began to echo the words of the crowd.
Before the Sixth Hour
In an unexplained turnaround, one thief exhibits repentance and faith through his conversation with the other thief and with Jesus.
The death of Barabbas was expected to coincide with the execution of these other two. They may have participated in his crimes (he was a thief also, John 18:40) or they may have been independently arrested and sentenced. (The penitent thief's awareness of the other thief's just punishment indicates they were acquainted.) But Jesus Barabbas would not die this day. They find themselves sentenced to death with another Jesus who bore the superscription on his cross as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. While in the excruciating torment of the cross, Jesus had the heart, mind and will to pray for others. It is a remarkable that of the two thieves suffering the like punishment and agony, one thief reviled Jesus with the crowd while the other thief was turned to repentance and faith.
The thief had nothing to offer Christ. He had nothing in his past to offer. While Jesus walked the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem with his disciples this thief was intently occupied with his chosen illegal trade. He was no Peter, James or John. He defied the people and the law and had been captured and sentenced to die. He admitted that he had been justly condemned to the reward of his deeds. He had nothing in his future to offer. In fact, he had no future. He could not promise to "join the church," be baptized, or live righteously. This day he had been condemned to die - and die he would.
Salvation by Grace
What a marvelous picture of God's mercy and grace. A guilty thief, a malefactor worthy of death, with neither past good works to commend him nor future good works to amend him -- all he could hope for was "God be merciful to me a sinner."
The penitent thief was a sinner. He was receiving the just reward of his deeds. Jesus was a Saviour of sinners. He was giving a life a ransom for many. God was merciful. God's grace is the only explanation for Jesus's answer to this dying man, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." The trip to paradise would be a short one, and Jesus paid the fare.
1 which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull; someone wrote: "When the King James Version was written, the translators used an anglicised version - Calvary - of the Latin gloss from the Vulgate (Calvarie), to refer to Golgotha in the Gospel of Luke, rather than translate it; subsequent uses of Calvary stem from this single translation decision." This did not originate with the KJ translators.
2 Not that he was convicted as a thief, but that in all ways he was treated like them.
"I grant you, one penitent thief was converted in his last hours, that no man might despair; but I warn you, only one was converted, that no man might presume." -- J. C. Ryle
"Those who wait until the eleventh hour to repent often die at ten thirty." -- Unknown
In theory the two thieves had opportunity to hear all of Jesus's Seven Sayings on the Cross - i.e. they were still alive (John 19:28-33).
[From "Ministry and Music - Seeking the Old Paths" Blog, by By R. L. Vaughn, 4.2.2015. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]