The story of the thief on the cross is absolutely fascinating! It evidently distills the meaning and purpose of life down into a single, miraculous event: a dying criminal, with little time left to change course, sadistic and malicious even in his final hours, does an amazing about-face, and is welcomed by Christ Himself into Paradise! (Lk 23:43) He’s become a mystery and a marvel to countless scholars and theologians over the centuries.
We begin by noting that this man, as he is being crucified along with Christ, appears at first to be merciless, cruel and selfish; he sees another poor soul dying next to himself, beaten and scourged beyond reason, throbbing and writhing in agony, and chooses to mock Him, joining in with the jeers and taunts of those who have condemned Him to death. (Mt 27:39-44) The suffering of a fellow human becomes another fiendish distraction from his own pain, misery and hopelessness.
Then, inexplicably, he does an absolute U-turn; as his fellow criminal angrily demands that Christ deliver them all (Lk 23:39), this thief chooses integrity and honesty; he decides to stop resisting his fate, to accept his punishment as justly deserved and publicly rebukes his comrade in evil. (40) He evidently chooses to live his remaining hours, as painful as they will be, in the fear of God; he confesses to his crimes before all, that both he and his fellow are guilty and justly condemned, fully accepting both his own personal guilt and also his horrible suffering. (41a)
He then claims that Christ, “has done nothing amiss.” (41b) He is publicly acknowledging the fact (how he comes upon this awareness is a mystery for the ages) that Christ is suffering unjustly, and he does so in the presence of the top religious and military leaders of his day, those who have openly and fiercely condemned Christ and imposed His suffering. This is actually a confession that Jesus Christ is Who He claimed to be: the Son of God (otherwise Christ is a wicked blasphemer and suffering appropriately).
As he chooses Christ, siding with Him against the world, he is effectively turning from all of the false religion, likely pushed upon him his entire life, and doing so without apology or shame. Apart from Pilate (Jn 18:38), this thief may have been the only living soul who publicly defends Christ in the course of His mock trial, sentencing and death; we know of no other who proclaims His innocence and purity from a place of weakness, willing to suffer for it in this darkest hour.
He is also, consequently, bravely accusing Rome itself of profound injustice, attacking its foundation and honor. This is no small thing, since he does so from a position of extreme vulnerability, knowing any of these religious leaders or soldiers standing about below him with little else to do, are capable of making his own suffering much more unbearable if they so desire. He is choosing, in his final moments, to suffer with and for Jesus Christ.
Then this dying thief asks a dying Man, with only a few more moments to live, for an undeserved and unusual favor: to remember himself in His coming kingdom. (43) In this request he confesses publicly, against all physical evidence before him, that this dying messiah yet has a future, eternal kingdom, and that He will reign eternally victorious within it.
He sees somehow that Christ hasn’t come to overthrow Rome, as even His closest followers still seem to believe, and acts as if he trusts that Christ Himself knows what He is doing, what He is about, and what He is up to. He treats Christ, even as He is dying a cruel and unjust death, as though He is utterly sovereign, in complete and absolute control of all things, that He is dying for a divine purpose. We don’t say these kinds of things in this way, especially to the dying, apart from a clear vision of the eternal kingdom of God and how it operates.
This thief is effectively confessing Christ to be Lord of all, King of Heaven and Earth; it amounts to treason against Rome and blasphemy in the religion of his people, crimes for which he very likely knows the gruesome penalty, yet he does this anyway, seemingly without hesitation.
In the process, this thief also addresses Christ as His personal Lord; he willingly subjects himself to Christ, the King in this coming, eternal, spiritual kingdom, effectively agreeing to obey, submit to and follow Jesus Christ as well as he can in his remaining time on Earth, and then out into eternity. To the soldiers milling around below him, this is, again, the ultimate act of treason.
Not only does He confess Christ as eternal King, he also claims that he himself will be present in this future kingdom, and requests to be uniquely acknowledged by Christ in this eternal state. Among with the millions who will be present for eternity, he wants to be known for something, remembered, valued — and feels the liberty to ask Christ for this personal gesture. It suggests the thief has a sense of the generosity and love of Christ, of His grace, mercy and kindness towards himself personally; he finds Christ approachable, reasonable, true and faithful. It is a precious insight into the divine character which many of us are still missing.
This amazing about-face may well have been informed and supported by stories this thief has heard about Christ before his capture and arrest, which the Spirit brings to mind as he hangs beside the Savior, as well as by his personal observations of Christ on the cross, yet the availability of the raw data itself doesn’t account for the breathless transformation: no one else at this scene, not even the apostles themselves, appear to have yet comprehended what this dear man does.
Finally, we must observe that this thief is not running from Christ, but to Him, wanting to be with Him in eternity. Evildoers don’t do this (Jn 3:20), only the justified and transformed can do this. (21) This thief is showing us all He has no fear of Hell, or of being discovered and exposed in death; he evidently believes he has been forgiven of his life of crime, of his own selfishness and cruelty, even of that malicious jeering he’d been hurling at Christ only moments before, and that he is now completely justified before God.
There is only one way to arrive where this thief does: we must see the living Christ as our own personal propitiation before God; we must see Christ become our sin (2Co 5:21) and reconcile us to God and Himself, imputing perfect righteousness to us. (Ro 4:23-25) It must be that this thief is watching his own personal justification happening right before his very eyes, as Christ Himself suffers for his own sin (1Pe 3:18), bearing his own sins in His own body as He hangs right beside him on the tree (1Pe 2:24) … he believes on Christ and is instantly and eternally healed, and he knows it.
Given his starting condition and the events shortly following, it seems stunningly miraculous for this thief to have made such profound statements and confessions; it is evidence of a deep, supernatural work of grace, repentance and faith within him, as he is born again by the Spirit of God. It is a true deathbed conversion; in his last hours he emerges triumphant, demonstrating to all through the ages what believing in Christ looks like, how receiving Him transforms the soul. (Jn 1:12-13)