I have often encountered many no doubt sincere, but uninformed or misinformed believers who have been taught or assumed that the thief on the cross beside Jesus did not “understand theology”. He has often been cited by those same believers to advance the idea that one can be saved apart from saving knowledge of the gospel and the case of the thief proves it. This assertion, I intend to demonstrate is entirely inaccurate. And therefore, it advances a false doctrine which whether intended or not, supplants the truth of gospel by undermining it, claiming it is not of “first importance”.
What Did The Thief Know?
In approximately six quite inhuman hours, enduring excruciating pain while hung and or nailed to a cross, with every muscle in spasm, major nerves on fire, bones coming out of joint, writhing in unrelenting pain, gasping for breath, the thief on the cross came to realize quite abit about the man dying in every greater agony beside him! In those horrific six hours of unimaginable pain, that thief moved from openly insulting the Lord Jesus, to publicly defending and confessing Him as “Lord”! Quite a significant movement in understanding and faith indeed!
We must understand what that Thief , by sovereign grace alone, came to realize and believe. We must understand this in order to understand and uphold the integrity of the gospel itself.
I. “We deserve our fate”
Here is the first prequisite for the gospel – acknowledge our real sin. Although he was initially mocking Jesus out of his bitterness due to his terrible fate, over some time while hanging beside Jesus, something changed in his understanding. His own sin and the awful impending judgment of God – a fate far worse and terrifying than the inhuman suffering he was currently experiencing, began to overwhelm him. In that profound spiritual illumination, the insults and mockery ceased. Overwhelmed by the gravity of his doubly wretched condition, he now perhaps for the first time, admitted ‘I deserve my fate’. Undoubtedly, during his trial, beating and crucifixion, like most if not all would, this thief had no doubt been vehemently protesting and declaring his innocence, not his guilt in a futile attempt to evade the most extreme, barbaric form of ancient punishment known to man. But for some reason, though his mind was surely being numbed by the searing, screaming pain his body was in, perhaps slowly over time, or all it once, his real guilt overwhelmed him! And he openly admitted his guilt before God and man.
“God be merciful to me a sinner!”
II. “This man has done nothing wrong”
Far too many just glibly read or gloss over scripture. They miss the rather profound spiritual insight inherent in this statement. I mean, C’mon, everyone “knows” that no one is perfect. Right? Wrong. As the sovereign Spirit of God moved in and on this dying thief’s heart, understanding and spiritual insight grew within him! This savagely scourged, bloody pulp of a man dying beside him was innocent. Not just of a specific crime meriting that particular punishment. But innocent of any crime! Thus truly and uniquely “innocent”.
Believing Jesus was sinless, was and is an essential doctrine in and of saving faith. A sinner could not possibly atone for other sinners. Only a spotless lamb, without blemish could do so. The thief came to understand and believe this. Thus, he came to understand an essential gospel truth!
III. “Lord remember Me…”
Surrounded by mockers, scorners and scoffers, we can only imagine what it meant to Jesus in His unspeakable anguish to hear anyone audibly address Him as “Lord” at that moment. An affirmation of who He was, in such a context, as if to underscore why He was enduring such hell. Surely this was the the very first-fruits of His suffering. The sign on His cross “King of the Jews” while true, was intended only as mockery. The mocking jeers of the Pharisees and Romans offered no comfort. Most of His own disciples had fled, with the exception of John. A few women were no doubt horrified by the brutal disfigurement of the man hanging in front of them. But in the midst of all that, like a beam of light in a dark place, the word…no, the cry of a humble, repentant heart spoke aloud those most precious and crucial words…LORD!
“If you will confess with your mouth the LORD Jesus Christ”
IV. “Remember me when You come in Your kingdom”
The profound depth of true spiritual insight now expressed by this thief reached its apex. The thief now understood that this man…this innocent man…this God/Man who was and is “Lord”, who was really physically dying beside him, would rise again! You see to ask a dying man to remember you in a future context, presupposes something, doesn’t it? It presupposes a resurrection! But not just a vague general resurrection. But a resurrection and exaltation/enthronement as King. Of a real, coming kingdom! The thief came to understand and believe, to publicly declare and profess faith in the dying, sinless Saviour who would rise again and come into His own real kingdom as King of it!
“And believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead”
Q. How could this dying thief come to recognize all of of this? Only by the grace of God! Jesus’ own disciples didn’t “get it” yet. The Jews didn’t. The Romans didn’t…except for one for and to whom the sovereign Spirit of God also revealed the same truth. The other thief didn’t get it. But this thief did! Was it because he was so much more spiritually astute than the others? Was he more virtuous? More intelligent? Hardly! There is only one answer here. Acts 18:27 states it perfectly and succinctly “…who through grace, believed”. Period.
V. Substitutionary Atonement:
Please note the following:
I. Since Jesus did not deserve to die, would rise again and rule a real kingdom, then the death Jesus did die MUST have been substitutionary – for others, not for Himself. His death therefore must have been accomplishing a truly profound, significant and eternal purpose! His death must therefore be unlike any human’s death before or after. His death must have been as unique as this singularly innocent God/Man and “Kurios” was!
“I delivered unto you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins”
VI. Grace, Grace, Grace
If a convicted criminal, deserving of capital punishment, who admitted he deserved it, who brought nothing of value or virtue to the table, by way of any merit or works he performed had any hope of his being “remembered” by the resurrected Lord and coming King in a future kingdom, then that thief had to have obtained an understanding of the concept of grace! How else could a guilty sinner have any hope of being allowed to enter the resurrection and kingdom of the coming King of glory? Sound theology? Absolutely!
“For by grace are you saved through faith – and that is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest anyone should boast”
Make NO mistake about it. The thief on the cross in fact did come to understand quite a bit of essential spiritual…gospel truth. No one is saved apart from such understanding. God has only one gospel – the gospel of His Son, the gospel of grace which is the gospel of the substitutionary death, resurrection, exaltation and return of His Son as King and Lord.
By: John M. Platanitis Feb 11, 2017