Chaplain’s Corner: What Prompted the Criminal’s Conversion?

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In the Gospel of Luke, a unique account is relayed regarding the crucifixion that appears in none of the other Gospels—the conversion of a crucified thief:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Luke, a historian writing for a Roman official, obviously deemed this exchange important in order to include it in his account. And in this Gospel, as in Scripture as a whole, no words are superfluous. Indeed, this passage must be given additional consideration, because it is not collaborated by the other Gospel accounts, which portray both criminals as hostile toward the man-called-king hanging between them.

Holding the complementary accounts of this episode side-by-side, we see a thief whose heart undergoes a miraculous change while undergoing a tortuous, agonizing execution. What accounts for that change? We can only do so much reading between the lines, but by reflecting on what this thief experienced while hanging upon a cross, we can shed some light on what was happening within the man.

First, the simple fact that he was undergoing an execution meant to maximize physical and psychological suffering would give him ample time and reason to reflect upon hard realities. Crucifixion resulted in asphyxiation—slowly, gradually. Through that agonizing process, our thief would have plenty of opportunity to reflect on the circumstances that brought him to that point—plenty of time to rage at religious hypocrites, Roman oppressors, and the helpless man who claimed to be king alongside him; plenty of time to despair that, by the close of the day, he would no longer be a part of this world.

Second, the raw hostility of the crowd likely mirrored the tumult of his own heart. At first, he carried the same hostility toward the cross-borne man next to him. Yet such hostility by the onlookers toward the bleeding, broken, dying man next to him may have also prompted the question, “Why?”  They mocked Jesus Christ’s claim to be king, but what crimes merited his cross? The Romans typically put signs above each cross with the condemned man’s crimes, but Jesus’s sign carried no crimes, but the title “King.” Even as highly significant titles—king, Christ, Chosen One—were used to mock and deride Jesus, so were phrases of vast importance—“he saved others”—casually inserted into the jeers.

Third, the criminal opposite our thief likely exposed the absurdity of their position. As he watched his fellow thief hurl invective toward Jesus Christ, he saw a man—like himself and the sadistic, sanctimonious onlookers—who had no fear of God. The absurdity lies in the fact that the other thief is mere hours away from facing a whole different sort of judgment. Certainly, the crowds could embrace the illusion of their relative safety and sanctity with feet securely on the ground, but illusions fade away at the doorstep of death.

However all of these circumstances, thoughts, and emotions combined in the grace of God to change this man’s heart, he came to own that his own judgment—before men and before God—was justified. He was receiving the due rewards for what he did—for the wages of sin is death. As he surveyed his descent deeper and deeper in the depths of his own sin over his life, he likely reached a point of desperation.

Not only was his life devoted to sin—heck, the sign hanging above his head identified his exclusively by his sin—but what could he do now? Could he use one hand to feed the hungry or the other hand to help an elderly man to walk? Could his impaled feet walk in paths of righteousness? Could the same tongue that cursed God through life and cursed the man called king next to him offer any defense before the judgment seat of God?

If the man who calls himself king truly “saved others,” and if he was willing to pray for the forgiveness of those who crucified him—might he be willing to save a man known only by his crime and could do nothing to improve his standing? Might there yet be hope for a thief who spent his life robbing God of the glory due his name?

Likely pushing upon his impaled feet to get enough air to speak, he cried out “Jesus.”  He didn’t use the more common and polite term, “Teacher,” nor did he use any of the exalted terms used as mockery toward Jesus. He addressed the man who claimed to be a king by his first name—the same intimate, naked term given to the Savior prior to his birth, which means “God saves” because he would save his people from their sin. At birth and death, people would call upon his name. And in this instance, to call upon that name was akin to confessing that name as well.

As if this intimate form of address was not shocking enough, the thief then did something that was totally out of character for him—he asked for something rather than taking it. Now nailed to a cross, he was helpless to do anything but ask that Jesus remember him when—not if—he came into his kingdom. The desperate hope of this thief was likely that of many Jews at that time—that at a vague, future time, God’s kingdom would come and he would be a part of it. He did not realize the time was at hand.

Jesus turned and said “Truly” (from the Greek word for Amen—attesting to the truth of a statement), “I say to you”—expressing the same intimate tone as the thief. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” It likely took a moment for the profundity of that statement to grip the thief’s heart.  Today? Are you really saying that on the same day when I close my eyes upon a scene of humility, agony, hostility, and judgment, I can open them upon a vast scene of glory? And if all this is true—if the true king is willing to be addressed by a criminal, let alone save him, then there is no greater comfort or vision of glory than the knowledge that he would be with Jesus in that paradise.

To earthly eyes on that day, three limp, lifeless bodies were eventually removed from their crosses—that of a thief, who cursed God until he died; another thief, who would never be known as thief again, but by the name of God (Rev. 22:1-5); and a king who became obedient unto death on a cross, that at his name every knee might bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In a sense, this thief owes his life to a prayer—“Father, forgive them.” The great, 20th century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once remarked on the “glorious indefiniteness” of the word “them.” Scripture never specifies who exactly Jesus was praying for, but we do know that one of the Roman soldiers confessed faith in Christ upon his death, a number of priests and religious leaders later confessed faith in Christ, as well, and that even a thief on a cross was given a place among “them.” As Spurgeon notes, there is even room in that “little big word” for us to crawl in, as well.

With eyes of faith, we know that while one cross carried a criminal known as “thief” that day, another cross carried his crimes. His trespasses were nailed to that other cross with his Savior.

At some point—perhaps before the specter of death—you, too, will feel the weight of your sin and the judgment you deserve. Do you fear God? Remember this good news—that God shows his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Cry out to Jesus and, by his grace, crawl into the little big word. It is fitting that as Jesus’ prayer was answered in lives like that of the dying thief, his final words to the thief began with the Greek word for “Amen.” May that be his final word over you, as well.