Many people base their salvation upon a thread of Scriptures pertaining to “faith-only” and usually tie it together with the present account in Luke 23.39-43, the thief on the cross. Usually, their contention is that the thief was saved because of his faith and accepted Jesus as his personal Savior. Therefore, all a person needs to do today to be saved is put their faith in Jesus. Unfortunately, this one example of a man saved under the old covenant just prior to the death of Jesus does not square with what Scripture says about salvation under the new covenant. Nor is it consistent with every example of a person being saved by the apostolic preaching. Therefore, a person desiring to know what they must do to be saved (a common question in the New Testament book of Acts also authored by Luke) must look elsewhere for that answer.
Why then does Luke include this unique incident of a contrite criminal? To confuse millions of Bible readers about how one obtains salvation? Nay, verily. Instead, Luke includes this incident to make a striking contrast. Those who are reviling Him, be it the Jewish authorities, the Roman soldiers, or the other criminal are calling on Jesus to “save himself” (v.35, 37, 39). It seems Luke highlights the fact that the cross is for the salvation of others, indeed, all of mankind (A theme of Luke’s; cf. 1.79; 2.31-32 7.1-10, esp.v.9). Further, Jesus is fulfilling His mission in providing salvation through the cross from the emarginated in society, even the prisoners and ciminals (cf. 1.52; 4.18-19; 7.22-23). This passage was not written to explain to people what they must do to be saved; it is written to show that Jesus never lost sight of the mission of Messiah even during the agony of the crucifixion.
All the voices are yelling, “Save yourself.” That’s not the point. The point is that Jesus through His substitutionary death on the cross is saving others. Even in this moment of His greatest weakness, as it were, He is accomplishing His greatest work: salvation for all mankind.
Many believe that both of the criminals began their final moments on their respective crosses by railing at the Son of God, joining in with the rest of those who mocked Jesus. This much can be gleaned from the parallel accounts (Matt 27.44; Mark 15.32). However, Luke records that one of the thieves had a change of heart, repentance. Key figures in church history such as Athanasius, Origen, Hilary, Chrysostrom, Theophylact, and Euthymius have held much the same view. Both of these thieves had crucified near Jesus, presumably equidistant and therefore were equally near Jesus. Both no doubt heard Jesus’ various sayings and had beheld His unjust suffering those six hours on the cross. Both were wicked men in need of salvation. Both were suffering acute pain and quickly approaching death. Both had equal opportunity to respond to the Messiah. Yet only one has a change of heart.
The one criminal is railing at Jesus, heaping up further insults on the Son of God. The tense of this verb indicates that this is something he kept on doing, as if he were continuing his activities which began at the first on the cross. The word itself is a form of the word for which we get “blasphemy.” This gives us an idea of the insults and slander which this man was speaking to Jesus. Part of the blasphemy is recorded by Luke: “Are you not the Christ?” This is a rhetorical question, the criminal expecting an affirmative answer. Of course you are the Christ and therefore you should be able to save yourself and us.
“But the other rebuked him.” In this action, we see this criminal’s repentance which will be dealt with more in detail in a moment. But he rebukes his fellow criminal: “Do you not fear God?” God, the just judge; shortly these men will stand before the throne of God and give an account for what they have done. It is interesting that the thief then says their punishment is them “receiving the due reward of our deeds.” In other words, this is justice, which the thief says in v.41. Hence, he connects God and justice in nearly the same breath. God is a God of justice, pouring out His judgment on nations in history and at the end will justly judge each man. This criminal says it is God’s justice that they hang on their crosses, but Jesus is different: He “has done nothing wrong.” Here is a critical theological point: as Jesus hangs on the cross, the One who knew no sin becomes sin on our behalf (2 Cor 5.21). He is taking upon Himself the just judgment of God. In other words, God is justly judging our sins, meting out in due measure His wrath, punishing our sins through the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus.
There are a number of reasons put forth by scholars as to why this criminal did repent. J. C. Ryle in his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels lists several of the reasons scholarship has put forth as to why this was: “Some say, as Bengel, that he was a Gentile; and some as Scott, that he was a Jew. – Some thin, as Suarez, that he had heard our Lord preach, and seen Him work miracles at some former period. – Some think, as Euthymius, that he had heard our Lord’s answers to Pilate, and been struck by them and so learned to believe in our Lord’s kingdom. – Some think, as Stier, that he was struck by the title put over our Lord’s head on the cross. – Some think, as Theophylact, that he was pricked to the heart by hearing our Lord’s prayer for His enemies, and by seeing our Lord’s patience under suffering.” Ryle accurately notes: “All these are purely conjectural ideas.” Luke records precious little concerning what they dying man thinks of Jesus and why he repents. But it would seem to be based upon his knowledge of the innocent man hanging before him that he makes a request.
What did this criminal know about Jesus? The criminal knows Jesus’ identity. “Jesus.” The name itself means “salvation.” And here is a criminal, nearing death, conscious of need for freedom from the great sins on his record and he turns to Jesus for salvation. This implies this man was familiar with the fact that Jesus could do something about his sins. Perhaps word had even reached the ears of this criminal that there is a man who forgives sins: Jesus of Nazareth.Some later manuscripts add the word “Lord” after “Jesus” but this seems to be an interpolation added later. The criminal knows Jesus’ intelligence. “Remember me” is the criminal’s plea. This implies this man is aware of Jesus ability to grant him divine favor, even the favor of a just God. He also seems to have some idea that Jesus will know him in the after and identify as a person who died in faith. The criminal knows Jesus’ instruction. “Your kingdom,” that is Jesus’ kingdom. Now it could be argued that the criminal knew Jesus had claimed to be a king because on a placard above the cross was written “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in three languages. But inferred is the man’s knowledge of the Messianic kingdom and Jesus coming “into” His kingdom, that is His rule and reign as the church’s cosmic sovereign ruler. Implied also is the Lordship of Jesus, ruling over His kingdom. Again, perhaps word of the Messiah has reached the ears of this criminal and kingdom thoughts have been planted as seeds finally sprouting vines of faith.
Because of the faith this criminal manifests, Jesus has a rewarding declaration for him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Truly” is “amen” in the Greek. “So be it.” “You” is emphatic; “you, even you.” “Today” for some reason is tricky with many scholars but means, simply, “today.” Not tomorrow, next week, or two thousand years yet future from when Jesus spoke these words. “Before the sun yet scorching the their tortured bodies set” (Pulpit). “Paradise” – This is the only occasion Jesus speaks of the resting place for the righteous in this language. It conjured up, for the Jews, thoughts of perfect Eden before the fall and “Abraham’s bosom” which we have seen Jesus use earlier in Luke (16.22). It probably refers to the place where God dwells (see 2 Cor 12.4) but if nothing else, it points to a splendid place of bliss and the pleasure of fellowship with God.
Again, this is not an account to point to establish doctrine concerning salvation for people under the new covenant. Luke deals with that in his next volume Acts. What we should take away from this account is that indeed Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and has the ability to forgive sins, something we have seen Him do earlier in Luke (5.20; 7.48). Here is a pentient criminal whom Jesus uses to once more demonstrate His authority and power.