What We Can Learn from the Thief on the Cross About Repentance
- Heather Riggleman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2022 21 Jan
If you knew you only had a few more minutes, maybe hours to live, what would you want? What would be most important to you? I often wondered what such a moment would like as I reflect on the story about that first Good Friday when three men were sentenced to die. Two were thieves and the other was Jesus.
Shortly before His death, Jesus’ last moment with the thief provided deep assurance that he would be saved when Jesus stated, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” That statement echoed around the world tenfold and has provided unspeakable hope to all—that we would be saved from ourselves. Jesus’ interaction with the thief on the cross reveals several lessons we can learn as followers of Christ.
What Happened with the Two Thieves Crucified with Jesus?
Scripture tells us Jesus willingly took our place on the cross so that we might be saved. In the Spring of 33 AD, Jesus was stripped, whipped, mocked, and beaten, before being crucified. But He wasn’t alone. There on the hill, nailed to a cross on both sides of Him were two thieves. Though we don’t know their names, for the purpose of this article, we will name them: Haughty and Humble. Together they mocked Christ along with the crowd. They teased Jesus stating if He was the one true King—then why didn’t He get off the cross and save Himself.
Yet, as time passed, Humble realized Jesus wasn’t an ordinary man. Nor was Jesus a man deserving of such a painful and lowly death. By studying the facts of Roman crucifixion, you’ll find that crucifixion was about a lot more than pain and punishment. Their goal was absolute humiliation. It was also a means of producing social conformity. The thief on the cross knew he deserved to be crucified while at the same time, realizing Jesus didn’t. Scripture tells us:
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “'Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us! But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).”
Looking at the three crosses on Calvary, the greatest drama of humanity unhusked God’s plan of redemption. It is summed up simply as: “One man died with guilt in him and on him. A second man died with guilt in him but not on him. The third died with guilt on him but not in him.”
It is remarkable that while Christ was in excruciating pain of the cross, He had the heart to comfort this thief. It’s a miracle moment unfolding and yet, a stark reminder of how we can choose to accept or reject God. This is one of the many lessons followers of Christ can reap from this story. We can either accept the call to repentance or we can ignore it.
What We Can Learn from the Thief on the Cross Who Rejected Jesus
We don’t often think too much of the thief ‘Haughty’ who rejected Jesus. Scripture doesn’t give us his background. Nor does it say exactly why he wasn’t sentenced to death by crucifixion. The Greek words used to identify both thieves in the Gospels describe both as thieves, robbers, criminals, wrongdoers, and rebels. The Greek word used in the books of Matthew and Mark includes the idea of “plundering by violence.” And Luke’s description suggests a person who is an “evil-doer. By all accounts from these descriptions, Haughty and Humble were desperate and wretched men who lived by harming others. Why is this important? Because Jesus offered to wipe the slate clean—Jesus offered salvation. He offered hope and a kingdom to come home to. The three things we can learn is this:
We are all deserving of a sinner’s death. Like Haughty and Humble, every person who has ever lived is a sinner. Regardless of how society judges sin, it doesn’t compare to the holiness of God.
No matter how society judges the severity of our sin, compared to the holiness of God, we are all violent, hardened criminals. Our sin has earned the death penalty. Throughout his last moments on the cross next to Jesus, we see he suffered to death without humility and without faith. “For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).”
We all must choose a side. We all have a choice when it comes to Christ. No matter our background, no matter how dark and dismal—God is there offering a way out. But it’s up to us. We can either die an angry, bitter, person without hope or we can choose life. We cannot sit on the fence. Failing to choose Jesus is choosing to reject Him. Everyone will choose and everyone will go to one of two destinations because of the choice made. We can either be the thief who rejected Jesus or the one who humbly came to Jesus.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son" (John 3:18).
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/gabrielabertolini
What We Can Learn from the Thief on the Cross Who Repented
As the thief Humble was about to die, he turned to Jesus for forgiveness and Christ accepted him. This shows us it’s never too late to turn to God—even in our darkest hour. This pivotal moment also teaches us our deeds don’t save us, only faith in Christ.
The humble thief acknowledged his sin. He believed in Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if he had heard the stories of Jesus through the rumor mill. Did he know that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? Did he know Jesus healed others? Did he understand that Jesus’ kingdom wasn’t a physical kingdom coming but one that saves our souls? Perhaps had Humble had heard the legends and the rumors. Or perhaps, he was so contrite in the way he lived—he saw the hand of God on Jesus. Either way, Humble asked for mercy and forgiveness. And Humble trusted Jesus with his eternity. Jesus then comforted Humble with hope: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).”
Through Humble’s Story We Learn:
Christ receives the humble: The humble thief acknowledged his crime of living in sin. He believed the testimony about Jesus and Humble trusted Jesus with his eternity.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom, (Luke 23:42)”
Jesus confirmed Humble’s hope. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43).”
Only through Christ can we be saved: Through Humble, we learn that all sinners are in need of a Christ and no matter the number of our sins—regardless of how minor or extreme, it’s never too late to accept Jesus. It’s never too late to come home (Ephesians 2:8-9; Revelations 22:17: Hebrews 9:27). It’s never too late for the Holy Spirit to move the heart towards Christ.
Through Humble we learn how to accept Jesus: We must accept this gift, but how do we do this?
You must admit you are a sinner: Confess to God and repent, turning from your sin to God. See Acts 3:19.
You must believe that Jesus is God’s Son: Trust Him as the Savior that paid for your sins on the cross. See John 20:31.
You must believe that Jesus was resurrected: Confess to Christ that He is Lord of your life. See Romans 10:9-10.
“Believe” means to “have faith in; to put trust in.” Believing in Jesus is more than just intellectual acknowledgment. It means you turn your life over to His control and make Jesus your Lord! May we all remember the lessons we learned from the day Jesus changed the world: “One man died with guilt in him and on him. A second man died with guilt in him but not on him. The third died with guilt on him but not in him.”
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/olegkalina
Heather Riggleman is a believer, wife, mom, author, social media consultant, and full-time writer. She lives in Minden, Nebraska with her kids, high school sweetheart, and three cats who are her entourage around the homestead. She is a former award-winning journalist with over 2,000 articles published. She is full of grace and grit, raw honesty, and truly believes tacos can solve just about any situation. You can find her on GodUpdates, iBelieve, Crosswalk, Hello Darling, Focus On The Family, and in Brio Magazine. Connect with her at www.HeatherRiggleman.com or on Facebook.