Judy and I have been married for nearly fifty years with contingency plans to go another fifty. We have known each other since junior high school, so that makes our acquaintance nearly sixty years. Our lives have melded together; we are one in many ways. We think alike and can often read each other’s thoughts. However, it would still take single-spaced typed sheet on legal sized paper to list differences between us. No two lives are the same, no matter how close they may be.
In the same way, no two people are brought to Christ in exactly the same way. No two conversions are exactly the same. And yet, everyone who has come to Christ, everyone who been born again, converted, redeemed… Everyone who has come to Christ is a picture of every other person who has been drawn to the Lord. And for this reason we look at the living faith of the dying thief this morning. Here is a man saved by the grace of God, who is just like all of us in a few ways. And I hope that he will be just like many others before the Lord returns. Obviously, there were three men who died at Calvary that day. Besides the Saviour there was a rebel who died in his sins and there was this repentant thief.
First let’s consider the person himself.
I call him a “thief” because that is what some of the other gospel writers call him. But Luke calls him a “malefactor” – which is a bit more general term. “Malefactor” means “evil-doer,” “criminal,” or “wrongdoer.” Some commentators suggest he was a murderer or a revolutionary – an enemy of Rome. But I like word “malefactor,” because it leaves the door open for me and you. I have never been a murderer or a revolutionary insurgent. Perhaps some of you have never even been a thief. But we have all been “malefactors” – wrong-doers, both in the eyes of man and God.
This malefactor was nailed to a cross on the top of a small hill outside Jerusalem. And from there he saw things which apparently he had never seen before. For example, he got his first really good look at himself. While the nails were being skewered through his hands and feet, tacking him to his cross, he might have thought that he was somebody important. Perhaps he had been a “BAAAD” man; a bully, a thug, a school-yard delinquent, if not more. Or more positively, perhaps, he pictured himself as a non-conformist, a martyr, a rebel with a cause. Sure, he was not perfect, but he liked to think of his imperfections as the things which made his life interesting or admirable. But, after only a few minutes of crucifixion, the white paint began to peal off the filthy mud of his life. In the early minutes of their mutual torture, he had been cursing Christ, like most of the rest of the people there. But after a few minutes, he changed his mind and began rebuking his partner in punishment. “Doest not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” “Due reward for our deeds” – of what had that man been guilty? Has the death penalty ever been appropriate punishment for theft? Was this man nothing more than a common thief? That is all we are told for sure. But he was saying that he was worthy of death.
Death is precisely the punishment proscribed for sin in any variety – from shoplifting to kidnaping. “The wages of sin is death.” “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”
Sometime between his crucifixion and verse 40, this thief caught a sight of himself. What gave him that insight? There was no mirror of any kind. What enlightened him. Was it the pain that he was feeling? I have my doubts, because pain usually numbs rather than sharpens the senses. This crucifixion involved excruciating pain, but it was not the key to his enlightenment. Then was his transformation brought about by the specter of death? I doubt this too, because he knew he was going to die before the nails tore through his flesh. Was it the death of his precious mother, and the warnings she said to him at the time? Was it because of all the preaching, gospel singing, and Christian literature been reading? No.
What brought him to see himself was the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Not a single Christian in this auditorium today has ever been crucified, but you were brought to see your sin in exactly the same way as this man. He came under the conviction of sin by the operation of God. Some of our children and grandchildren are, as yet, unconverted – despite clearly knowing the details of the gospel. The problem in some cases is that those children haven’t been brought to understand their sinfulness. I’m not talking about mentally understanding that they have broken the rules of God. This they know. Rather, they have not yet been broken by the Holy Spirit of God who gave those rules to man. Before the application of the medicine there must be the diagnosis of disease. “Jesus came not to heal the healthy but to raise to life the spiritually dead.” This man did not see himself in that condition until the Spirit of God had worked upon his heart.
Also, from his new vantage point, he saw eternity for the first time. Was this man relatively young? That is the way that I picture him. Young people mistakenly think they will live forever, or at least until they are 29. Generally speaking, they don’t think in terms of eternity. And they certainly don’t like to think about Hell and eternal torment. It often takes some dramatic thumping on the head to make people sit up and notice. But there is an eternity in front of every living soul. The atheist fills his mind only with wishful thinking about an eternity without a wrathful God.
My mother has been gone for many years, as perhaps has yours – and father, and other beloved relatives. Did your mother or aunt wear a particular scent – a perfume – which you still identify with her? Did she like a special flower which when you see or smell it your mind reaches back to her? Are there things which pop up in your heart from time to time which automatically bring you back to that person who was once a special part of your life? There is a spiritual similarity. When God created man, it was in His own image. Despite man’s fall and spiritual death, there is something which God initially planted which He can stir at any moment which will bring us back to our original creation – and Creator. And I think that is what He did in the heart of this crucified thief. “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” It may have been a bit late, but there was still time to look into over horizon towards eternity.
And, of course, this man also saw CHRIST. Can you picture Jesus carrying His cross toward Calvary? He was so tired. He had been beaten. He was dehydrated. He was dying. And then the Romans drafted a stranger to help carry the cross. While picturing that horrible scene, do you see the other two victims of the crucifixion also there? How did they get to the top of the hill? The same way as our Saviour. Sure they were there.
So didn’t this man see the Saviour all bloodied and beaten? Didn’t he hear the Lord talk to the women at the side of the road? I picture Christ being the first of the three to be crucified. Then when they drove in the nails through the feet of Christ, this man didn’t hear a peep out of Jesus. He was as a sheep before her shearer, perfectly silent. And when he and his companion in crime had been cursing the soldiers, Jesus was praying for them. This man heard the priests, “He saved others, but himself he cannot save.” Yes, Jesus did save others. This man heard some of the reports about Jesus’ miraculous power. “No man can do these things except God be with him.” He heard or read what was on the sign above Jesus’ head – “This is the King of Jews.” What if this was the truth? This man saw Christ at His lowest point, yet by grace God he still saw the Lord’s saving power. “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
Think about the Dying Thief’s Living Faith.
If the Apostle Paul had been at Calvary and seen all the things that transpired… If the Holy Spirit had led him to go beyond the Old Testament when he recorded the heros of the faith… If these two variables had been met, then certainly this man could been included in Hebrews 11. This is remarkable faith, equivalent to Abraham looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. “Lord remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
How many people that day were looking up at the three crosses, while clinging to faith in Christ? Some of the Christian ladies were there at the outer fringes of the frenzied mob. The Apostle John appears to have been there for while, probably standing close to the ladies. But neither John nor the ladies were standing beside this thief urging him to have faith in Lord. This poor malefactor was a sinner among sinners that Wednesday morning. Most of the soldiers were heathen idolaters, considered little better than spiritual dogs by the Jews. But then the spiritual leaders of Israel were behaving just like Romans if not worse – laughing, cursing, blaspheming Christ, taunting, jeering. The witnesses to the crucifixion of Christ were 98% hate-filled, unbelievers. This malefactor went against the current to put his faith in the Lord. What can be the explanation for that? It is the Lord.
There was little to recommend Christ to him in first place. Most people were astonished at Him – “His visage was so marred more than any man.” His form was marred more than any of the sons of men. There was no beauty in Him that this malefactor should desire Him. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Most rational people were hiding their faces from Him, esteeming Him not. Yet this badman, one out of hundred, said, “But he was wounded for my transgression.” “(Jesus) came unto his own, and his own received him not” – and yet this man received him. And to him was given the power to become a son of God, because he believed on his name.
And when he did cast himself at the foot of the Lord, he was quick to confess. He was not satisfied with a secret faith, but made an open confession. Is it possible to be a secret believer? “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shalt believe in thine heart…. “Whosoever, therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.” “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: but he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.” Baptism has as part of its purpose, a confession of faith and relationship to Christ. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give you two bits for the profession of a man who refuses baptism and membership in one of the Lord’s churches. But in the place of that opportunity for this dying thief, I do accept his confession. After all, the Lord Jesus Himself, said, “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
Some people use this great man of faith, as an excuse for waiting until death before coming to Christ. But that is a terrible mistake. Only by the grace of God did this fellow reach that Roman cross. As a thief, he often brushed shoulders with death. And when death approached there wasn’t the slightest earthly help to lead him on to God. He came frighteningly close to eternity without hope in Christ. The facts are irrefutable: very, very few people come to Christ in their old-age. “Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” “Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.” What this man shows us is that God is great to save. He does not teach us to put off trusting Christ.
I like what Spurgeon said about this man: “He breakfasted with the Devil, then he lunched with Christ on Earth. But he had supper with the Saviour in Paradise.” It doesn’t matter what it took to bring him to point of faith in Lord. What matters is that the Holy Spirit brought him to the point where he did come in repentance and faith. Then he made public his new relationship to the Lord.
Have you ever joined this man at Calvary?