105. The Thief on the Cross (Luke 23:39-43)

Audio (16:46)
Gospel Parallels §249

Titian, detail of 'Christ and the Good Thief' (1566)
Titian, detail of 'Christ and the Good Thief' (1566), oil on canvas, 54 x 59 in., Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Italy

"39  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: 'Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!' 40  But the other criminal rebuked him. 'Don't you fear God,' he said, 'since you are under the same sentence? 41  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.' 42  Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' 43  Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" (Luke 23:39-43, NIV)

This brief passage relates one of the most amazing prayers and promises in the entire Bible. I encourage you to meditate on its meaning and learn from it.

Angry Insults from a Dying Criminal (Luke 23:39)

"One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: 'Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!'" (Luke 23:39)

Hanging on crosses at Jesus' right and left hand are two criminals, Greek kakourgos, "'criminal, evil-doer,' one who commits gross misdeeds and serious crimes."1162 Other Gospels call them robbers, Greek lēstēs, "robber, highwayman, bandit"1163 (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27). Though they could have been common thieves, they also might have been the kinds of highwaymen that swooped down on lonely groups of travelers from Jerusalem to Jericho, stripped them of their possessions, and left them for dead, as in the case of the victim in the Good Samaritan (10:25-37). The same Greek word is used to describe them. Bandits like these two were the terror of travelers. Those who were able, traveled in larger parties.

One of these highwaymen, dying on a cross on one side of Jesus, now takes up the cat-calling begun by the soldiers, "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" It was probably much like the cruel teasing of inmates that goes on in prisons today. It represents a general jab at authority of any kind. A pulling of everyone down to one's own level. The thief is making fun of Jesus' inability to do anything despite the exalted title of "Messiah" that has been used concerning him. Where is this talk of "Messiah" now? he sneers. You're dying just like us. Death is the great equalizer.

The verb used to describe the thief's taunts is Greek blasphēmeō, primarily, "to demean through speech," an especially sensitive matter in an honor-shame oriented society; "to speak in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates, maligns. Slander, revile, defame."1164

This Man Has Done Nothing Wrong (Luke 23:40-41)

"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.'" (Luke 23:40-41)

These taunts are making the other condemned brigand very uncomfortable. The word blasphēmeō can refer to reviling humans, but also to "speak irreverently, impiously, disrespectfully of or about ... God." The second bandit has not lost his faith, for he asks, "Don't you fear God?" To stand by and participate in such an unrighteous act as to execute an innocent man is an impious, sinful act, and the second brigand refuses to desert his sense of right and wrong.

Remember Me in Your Kingdom (Luke 23:42)

"Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'" (Luke 23:42)

By any measure, this statement is astounding! Jesus' disciples have fled or linger disillusioned at the margins of the crowd. Their hopelessness is echoed by the men on the road to Emmaus, "... they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:20-21).

But here on the cross to one side, a fellow condemned man, life ebbing out of him, looks across and sees not another dying man, but the Messiah himself. Somehow, he understands that Jesus is not an impostor, and that he will still receive the Kingdom that belongs to the Messiah.

I recall Joseph saying something similar to Pharoah's cupbearer, prisoner to fellow prisoner, when Joseph predicted that the cupbearer would be released from prison: "When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison" (Genesis 40:14).

How can this quality of faith exist at such a dark time? Already the darkness is falling over the whole land, and yet a dying thief believes.

Did he confess his sins? Yes. "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve" (Luke 23:41). Does he repent? Not verbally, but I think so. His repentance and hope prompt his plea for mercy, "Remember me...."

Isn't Baptism Required for Salvation?

But was he baptized? Isn't baptism a requirement for salvation? Jesus certainly commands baptism. In the Great Commission he says,

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19)

The command is even stronger in the longer disputed ending of Mark's Gospel:

"Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:16)

The importance of baptism is also implied by Peter on the Day of Pentecost. In response to the question, "What shall we do?" Peter responds, "Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

But things don't always follow the prescribed order. At the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, the Holy Spirit comes upon Gentiles who believe the words Peter is saying to them. So Peter baptizes them after the Holy Spirit comes upon them.

The common denominator here is faith. It is found in the statement, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16). It is found in the question at Pentecost, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:38). And it is found in the believers at Cornelius' home.

The thief on the cross believes; his prayer to Jesus is bursting with faith. He has more faith that day than any other human observing this gruesome scene.

So far as adults are concerned, nearly all Christians would agree that baptism accompanies faith, and should follow as soon as appropriate after faith (at least it seems to in all the examples we see in the New Testament), but I would contend that baptism itself does not save.1165 Paul writes:

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

We could multiply references to the primacy of faith, such as, "whosoever believes in him... (John 3:16, 36; 6:40), "your faith has saved you" (Luke 7:50), and many others. It is not that you can or should separate baptism from salvation. You shouldn't. They go together. Nor should one construct doctrine from exceptions. But the thief on the cross gives us an illustration of saving faith apart from baptism, and that is instructive to us as we seek to understand this mystery of salvation.

How about Deathbed Conversions?

The example of the thief on the cross is often cited as the precedent for deathbed conversions. And so it is. I don't doubt that the thief had attended one of Jesus' outdoor teachings and come to some sort of faith there. And so have many who repent and confess Christ on their deathbeds. The difference between "some sort of faith" and "saving faith" is true repentance and the commitment to Christ that repentance implies.

It is possible, I believe, to be saved at one's deathbed. But I've seen too many people who say, "I'll follow Christ later. But now I want to have fun." And some of them don't get a chance to repent on their deathbeds. Some of them are taken in accidents or from heart attacks, and never have a chance to repent at the end of their days. Yes, deathbed salvation is possible -- the thief on the cross indicates this -- and it may even be real (God only knows the heart), but it must not be relied upon.

Today You'll Be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)

"Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" (Luke 23:43)

What a wonderful promise Jesus gives the believing thief: presence with Christ in paradise! Our English word "paradise" is a transliteration of the Greek word paradeisos, and that comes from an Old Persian word pairidaeza, "enclosure." In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament the word is used especially for the Garden of God in the creation story (Genesis 2:8-10, 16, etc.), and this translation moves the word from secular parks to the sacred Garden of God. Judaism of Jesus' day equated Paradise with the New Jerusalem, and saw it as the present abode of the souls of the departed patriarchs, the elect, and the righteous.1166 In the New Testament the word paradise is used three times:

"Today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

"And I know that this man -- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows -- was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." (2 Corinthians 12:3-4)

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." (Revelation 2:7)

In 2 Corinthians 12:3-4 Paul seems to equate the "third heaven" with paradise. I think we can identify paradise with heaven and be pretty safe. Jesus is promising the believing thief that he will be with Jesus in heaven "today."

Implications for Soul Sleep

A few Christian groups teach a doctrine known as "soul sleep." Essentially, the doctrine holds that at death the soul "sleeps" and is not conscious until the resurrection. Indeed, there are a number of times when "sleep" is used as a euphemism for death.1167 But three passages make it quite clear that the soul is not unconscious until the resurrection:

"Today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

"We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:8)

"I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far." (Philippians 1:23)

How about passages that indicate that Jesus "preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19; 4:6) after his crucifixion and before his resurrection? No matter how you understand these verses, they don't prevent Jesus in the Spirit from ushering the thief into heaven.

How about the Apostles' Creed which states, "He descended into hell" based on Acts 2:31; Matthew 12:40; and Romans 10:7? Philip Schaff observes that the phrase "descended into hell" is a later addition, and that the translation "hell" is "unfortunate and misleading." The original Greek term hadēs (Latin infernus) is much more comprehensive than "hell" (Greek gehenna), and refers to the place of the dead.1168 The Apostles' Creed affirms that Jesus actually died and was buried, in contrast to the Gnostics who taught that he only "appeared to" do so. There is no conflict with the Apostles' Creed and our belief that the thief was with Jesus in paradise immediately upon death.

Faith and Promise

We know what an encouragement the account of the Thief on the Cross has been to Christians down through the ages. But how about Jesus, dying alone on the cross? What did it mean to him?

I believe the Father blessed his Son with this strange companion during his last hours -- a believer, and a very strong believer at that. Jesus had often chaffed at the unbelief he saw around him. His disciples themselves sometimes exhibit "little faith" (12:28; Matthew 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). Jerusalem as a whole doesn't realize the hour of their visitation (19:44). But occasionally, Jesus encounters someone with great faith. A Roman centurion tells him that he doesn't need to physically come to heal his servant; all he had to do was speak the word and he has authority to have it accomplished (7:2-10). Jesus is amazed at the man: "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (7:9).

If you've ever taught, you know how encouraging it is for a teacher to have a student who grasps what you are trying to communicate. Even if many fail to understand, at least your prize student understands, and that brings great satisfaction. The centurion is one of those prize pupils; the thief on the cross is another. Neither of them is acceptable to the Jewish religious leaders -- one a Gentile, the other a criminal. But both have great faith, and both, I am sure, bring joy to Jesus' heart.

Jesus is forsaken, in a sense, even by the Father (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; quoting Psalm 22:1) as he bears the sins of the transgressors and takes on himself the wrath and punishment of God that makes us whole (Isaiah 53:5). But he does not die alone. The Father gives him a believer to be with him. A believer with mighty faith. A believer who can look past the raw wood and nails and blood to the heavenly kingdom that Jesus will inherit. And he is a believer who wants "in." Jesus answers him as life on earth wanes, "Yes, you'll be with me there -- today in paradise. We'll go together, you and I."

What faith!
What a promise!
What a privilege!
What glory!


Father, you never leave yourself without a witness. Even Jesus' close disciples faltered in their faith. But then you raised up a thief who had great faith and received a great promise. Please strengthen my faith. I am often so upset and confused by the buffeting winds of my life. Let me be unmoved. Let me see beyond them to Jesus. By your grace, may my faith bring some joy into your breaking heart as did the thief's faith to Jesus. In his holy and precious name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"He said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" (Luke 23:42-43)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Why do you think one of the criminals on the cross insulted and mocked Jesus? What human trait prompted him to do this? (Luke 23:39)
  2. Why does the other criminal rebuke him for his insults? On what grounds does he try to stop him? (Luke 23:40-41)
  3. What did the thief have to believe about Jesus to cause him to ask him, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). What are the elements of his faith?
  4. Did the thief confess his sins? Was he repentant?
  5. How do you think the thief's request make Jesus feel?
  6. What are the elements of Jesus' promise to the thief in 23:43?
  7. What are we disciples supposed to learn from this strange exchange on the crosses above our heads? What does Jesus intend us to get out of this?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[1162] Kakourgos, BDAG 502.

[1163] Lēstēs, BDAG 594.

[1164] Blasphēmeō, BDAG 178.

[1165] 1 Peter 3:21 is not arguing that baptism saves a person devoid of faith, but that the baptism itself is an "appeal of a good conscience toward God" or "the pledge of a good conscience toward God," depending upon how you interpret the Greek word eperotēma.

[1166] Paradeisos, BDAG 761. Marshall, Luke, p. 872-873. Joachim Jeremias, paradeisos, TDNT 5:765-773.

[1167] Luke 8:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 15:18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15; 5:10; etc.

[1168] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Associated Authors and Publishers, reprint 1973), Vol 2, §§140-141, footnote 26.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text