He’s been called the Penitent Thief, the Good Thief, and the Grateful Thief. He’s one of the two unnamed criminals crucified with Christ.
All four Gospel’s mention the two criminals. “Two criminals were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (Matthew 27:38). “They crucified two criminals with him, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27). “When (Jesus) arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on the right and one on the left” (Luke 23:33). “They crucified him and two others with him, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle”(John 19:18). This historical fact must have been particularly important for all four Gospel-writers to take notice.
The rocky hillside, just outside the city of Jerusalem, was the place of death. Like today’s execution chamber, Calvary, also called Golgotha or The Skull, was the place where criminals met their final fate.
With “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19) nailed to the “old rugged cross,” beaten, bloody, naked, a crown of thorns upon his head, “those who passed by were yelling insults at him, shaking their heads, and saying, ‘Ha! The one who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross!’ In the same way, the chief priests with the scribes were mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others, but he cannot save himself! Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, so that we may see and believe.’ Even those who were crucified with him taunted him” (Mark 15:29-32).
As the dying criminals mocked, slandered, and ridiculed Jesus, they had a front-row seat to the Messiah’s substitutionary sacrifice. Both of them heard Jesus’ seven final statements (Luke 23:34, 43; John 19:26; Matthew 27:46; John 19:28, 30, 46). From just a few feet away, both outlaws watched as the Old Testament prophecies were miraculously and marvelously fulfilled. Standing before the judge, Jesus had been silent (Isaiah 53:7, Mark 15:4-5). He’d been beaten and spat upon (Isaiah 50:6, Matthew 26:67) yet “willingly submitted to death” (Isaiah 53:12, John 10:14-18). The one on the left, and the one on the right both heard Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing”(Luke 23:34, Isaiah 53:12, Psalm 109:4) and they watched as the soldiers gambled for His coat (Psalm 22:18).
One of the convicted felons continued “to yell insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other answered, rebuking him: ‘Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ ” (Luke 23:39-42).
They had equal access to Jesus. With ring-side seats, they saw and heard as redemptive history was unfurled. Both men deserved death. Both died as criminals. One cussed Christ while the other confessed Him. Today, one burns in Hell, the other worships in Paradise.
The Penitent Thief recognized Jesus as the King! He believed in an eternal kingdom, and he begged King Jesus for entrance, for mercy, for grace, for pardon from his many transgressions!
Racked with excruciating pain and with the weight of mankind’s sin and shame heavy upon His heart, Jesus spoke tenderly. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Grace! Great grace! Undeserved! Unwarranted! Amazing!