Updated: May 5, 2021
Luke 23:39-43 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 "And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." 43 And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
We read in the Gospels that Jesus was not the only person to suffer and die on Good Friday. Two others were hanging on their own crosses with Jesus in the center. These men were being being punished for their crimes as either (1) robbers, bandits, highwaymen or (2) revolutionaries, insurrectionists, guerillas, terrorists (see BDAG Greek Lexicon), or perhaps both. The point is that these men were serious criminals just like Barabbas (remember he had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder and had been released rather than Jesus). Matthew tells us that along with the religious leaders both men initially reviled the Lord (Matt 20:44). However, according to Luke one of them repented. Presumably as the long and terrible ordeal dragged on, this man had a change of heart as he observed that the Man hanging next to him was not like anyone he had ever seen. Peter writes about the Savior's demeanor on the cross: "when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously . . . " (1 Peter 2:23). Ordinarily, a convicted criminal hanging on a cross would utter blasphemies against God and cursings against man. The innocent Savior did neither.
And so right there on the cross this convicted criminal repents and acknowledges Jesus as his Lord! Instant conversion! Jesus then instantly grants the man eternal life. This is an incredible story of grace. When Jesus died, He went to paradise, and the repentant criminal joined Him there! There was no time for baptism, no time for good works, and no time for a life of devoted discipleship.
What do we learn from this?
1. There is always hope for salvation, right up to the moment of death. There is such a thing as a "death bed conversion." I believe there will be people in heaven who, right before slipping into eternity, acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and are saved. We should never assume that people we think were unsaved are now in Hades. They might not be.
2. This unequivocally proves that salvation is all of grace through faith and not of works. To those groups who think that baptism or other good works are essential for salvation, we can point them to the repentant thief. One moment he was lost, the next moment he was saved. He confessed Jesus as his Lord, "Lord, remember me . . . !" A few hours later he was in Paradise.
3. There is no such thing as "soul sleep." Some groups think that when a believer dies, the soul of that person "sleeps" until the resurrection. Jesus doesn't say that. The implication is clear: upon the death of this thief he would be conscious and in the presence of the Lord.
4. No one is outside the grace of God. This man was one of the most unlikely candidates for eternal life. I think that the very prominent theme of Jesus' love for sinners in the Gospel of Luke reaches its high point here. This man was the chief of sinners (even worse than Zacchaeus, or the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears, or the Prodigal Son).
This tender moment on the cross is what the Gospel of salvation is all about: clear, simple, free, and instant.