What did the Thief Believe to be Saved?
Recently in our 5 Minute Moments we’ve been thinking about “theological triage” (see Jan 16, 23 and 30). Last week we considered what a primary (salvation) matter was and how you could tell. That got me thinking, what did the thief, or criminal, on the cross necessarily believe that resulted in His salvation?
Read the story from Luke 23:32–43:
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
[vv. 34–38, the criminals witness great mockery against Jesus, including the criminals, Mk 15:32b]
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
What did the thief believe? Though in ordinary circumstances there is much fruit his faith would have borne (e.g. baptism, fruit of the Spirit, service in the Church), this passage is a helpful window into the bare necessity of belief in order to be with Jesus in Paradise—a real death bed conversion:
1. There was a change in the way he viewed Himself
At the outset of the story he heaped up insults upon Jesus for claiming to be the Christ, the promised King sent from God. Even as he faced the sentence of death for his own crime he still found the time to think of himself as better than someone else. Humans like to alleviate their own guilty consciences in this way! Yet as His standard of perfection moved from himself to Jesus, as He perceived Jesus’ innocence, he became painfully aware of his own sinfulness as a convicted criminal. When we move the standard of perfection from our own to God we necessarily see ourselves as sinners in need of saving.
2. There was a change in the way he viewed Jesus
At the outset he demeaned Jesus along with the crowd and his fellow criminal. As time passed and he gazed upon the Lamb without blemish who opened not His mouth, upon the blood, the anguish, as he listened to the different views about Him that the crowd expressed, , his view of Jesus radically changed.
From the crowd’s he’d learned of Jesus’ claim to be the Christ. He may have even been aware of Jesus prior to being crucified alongside of Him. Reading between the lines it is clear he perceived Jesus’ divinity and innocence such that he came to fear God.
He began with a high view of self and a low view of Jesus. He ended with a low view of self and a high view of Jesus.
3. He trusted in Jesus for entrance into Paradise (God’s presence)
Initially he’d joined the mockery of Jesus, yet through witnessing how he responded to this mockery, how he hung there—innocent, perhaps even something of Jesus’ persona, the criminal was led to believe that Jesus was truly the Christ, a King who offers salvation from sin and death, and a place in His eternal Kingdom to all who believe.
It is true this goes against what we now know of verses such as Ro 10:9, yet we must remember this was on the other side of the Cross, the side that no one could see.
Fearful of his own impending death and aware of his own sinfulness, believing that Jesus was the Christ who had power over sin and death (despite the circumstances which might suggest otherwise) He trusted in Jesus. In the bleakness of that crucifixion scene, with no other alternative for help, he asked Jesus to have mercy upon Him. Ultimately it was not just what the thief believed but who the thief trusted that he was saved.
Jesus’ response is telling, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If we put this all together we can simply affirm that to be saved one must:
· See themselves as a sinner in need of saving and fear God;
· See Jesus as the perfect Saviour from sin and death;
· Trust in Christ alone for salvation.
Christianity is simple but not simplistic and the thief helps us to see this on the very primary issue of the Gospel.
 Criminal or insurrectionist. Romans reserved crucifixion for the worst of crimes.
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