“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isa. 55:9
When many Christians ponder the account of the “thief on the cross” [actually “robber”], 1 they might overlook a powerful truth regarding the amazing nature of God’s forgiveness (Luke 23:39-43). Attention is typically given to the thief’s immediate presence with the Lord in heaven upon his death: “absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:8). Although this is a crucial truth to comprehend regarding the believer’s soul immediately upon death, another certain truth that could be drawn from the passage (Luke 23:39-43)–God’s profound pardoning of a sinner!
All four Gospels record Jesus crucified between two criminals, one on His right and the other His left (Matt. 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:32, John 19:18). During the initial hours of the crucifixion, both robbers hurled insults at Jesus (Matt. 27:44), but as their life blood drained from their dying bodies one of them was converted and believed in Jesus as Savior. Because the unregenerate robber continued to “blaspheme” Jesus [Luke 23:39], the newly redeemed one rebuked him:”…Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”(Luke 23:40-41). Only moments prior he was an unbelieving condemned criminal, but as a newly transformed saint he affirmed Jesus’ innocence rightly “fearing” God. Turning to his merciful Savior he humbly pled: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). When he uttered these words, Jesus revealed His compassionate heart. Even as Jesus was enduring His Father’s infinite wrath for the weight of the world’s sin, He mercifully said to the penitent sinner: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43).
Would it not be comforting to have Jesus personally assure your salvation? Think of the mercy and grace Jesus had for that criminal despite having the knowledge that his entire life up until that point consisted of violent lawlessness. This example defies human reasoning (cf. Jer. 34:34, Heb. 8:12, Rom. 5:8). To Jesus, the robber’s wretched past did not matter–He had wiped his slate clean. This incredible promise is indeed true for “all” who put their faith in Christ (cf. Jn. 6:37, 40). God’s grace is truly amazing!
Another potentially overlooked act of God’s forgiveness occurred the moment Jesus died on the cross, Scripture reads: “…the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs. After His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51-53). After witnessing the supernatural events which occurred the moment “Jesus yielded up His spirit”, the Roman soldiers assigned to oversee His crucifixion exhibited saving faith: “Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!”‘ (Matt. 27:54). These men were partakers in the most unjust event in all of human history [Jesus’ crucifixion], yet God mercifully granted them saving faith.
Furthermore, the remarkable conversions of the Roman soldiers contrasted the many unchanged antagonists of Christ, who repeatedly cast derisive insults at Himthroughout His mock trial and barbaric crucifixion. (Matt. 26:63, 27:11, 22, 29, 36, 39-44, 47-49). Unlike those hard-hearted detractors of the truth, God opened their hearts and eyes to recognize Jesus as the “Son of God” (Matt. 27:54, cf. Jn. 1:49, 20-28). Similar to the robber on the cross, God’s mercy and forgiveness are without partiality on the penitent (Acts 10:34, Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9, Jn. 3:8, Rom. 9:18).
In conclusion, we should be glad we cannot fully understand the extent and depth of God’s infinite love in forgiveness, especially since every sinner is undeserving of it. For if the granting of forgiveness was left to the judgment of men, surely no one would qualify. In essence, if Jesus forgave the life-long criminal that was crucified alongside Him and the flagitious Roman soldiers who partook in His own execution, then He will indeed forgive, bless, and restore Israel when she mourns and weeps for the One whom they had pierced (Acts 2:2:22-39, 3:12-26, Rom. 11:26-27, Zech. 12:10). Who God has chosen before the foundation of the earth was laid, will indeed respond to His irresistible grace: “ All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (Jn. 6:37). Amen!
1 R.C. Trench,makes the distinction: “kléptés and léstés…both appropriate what is not theirs. But the kléptés does so by fraud and in secret, the léstés does so by open violence. The former is a ‘thief’ and the latter is a ‘robber’…No passage has suffered more seriously by confusing thief and robber than Luke 23:39-43 [“the thief on the cross”]. R.C. Trench, Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament, Hendrickson’s Publishers Inc., 1989, pg. 171-172 –brackets added.