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Last year around this time I was reading the crucifixion accounts in the Four Gospels and noticed something I had never seen before.

Read carefully:


Matthew 27:38, 44

Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. . . . And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.

Mark 15:32

Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.


Now read Luke’s account:


Luke 23:32, 39-43

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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. . . . One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying,

"Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

But the other rebuked him, saying,

"Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong."

And he said,

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

And he said to him,

"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."


So did both criminals revile and rail at Jesus--or only one?

The answer is Yes.

Both men attacked their Maker and King, but one man was changed while doing so.

God often gives preparatory grace before conversion, and I suppose (if asked) I always sort of assumed this was the case here. Both men were sinners; both were guilty of their crimes (probably robbery, perhaps insurrection). But I’ve tended to think that one was harder, one was softer. Perhaps dispositionally one was louder, one was softer. I’m not sure I would have explicitly put it this way, but I sometimes doubt the power of grace and assume that some are more likely to be saved than others.

But notice that according to Matthew and Mark, both men were mocking Jesus. Both were reviling him. Both were wagging their heads. Both used their remaining, dying energy to hurl verbal insult upon the only man who could save them.

But, in an instant, grace broke through.

As God open the one man’s eyes, he saw reality in new ways:

  1. He saw that God is to be feared in his holiness.
  2. He saw that he justly condemned for his sin.
  3. He saw that Jesus was innocent.
  4. He saw that Jesus was the king, ruling his kingdom from the cross.
  5. He saw that his only recourse was to appeal to Jesus and his mercy to be remembered in the kingdom.

May God grant each of us to see these truths afresh--whether for the thousandth time or for the first time.


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Comments:


11 thoughts on “When Was the Thief on the Cross Converted?”

  1. Matt Taylor says:

    Oh the mockeries and blasphemies that came from my heart at my Lord and Savior! Thank God for Jesus’ sacrifice that gives me forgiveness and the strength to overcome for my joy and his glory!

  2. micus-dc says:

    Good post, Justin. Perhaps righteousness and steadfastness in the face of fierce persecution and extraordinary suffering was another significant factor . . . as the men mocked him, they expected the dying man between them to lash out and respond to them angrily. Stories are told consistently of entire villages coming to Christ because a local missionary responded to the initial persecution with love and perseverance and not anger and hate.

    One also wonders if he had observed some of Jesus’ miracles and heard some of his teachings, only to write them off at first–then was prompted by the Holy Spirit to see Christ’s ministry in a new light as he saw the Son of Man being stricken, smitten and afflicted . . . yet turning the other cheek.

  3. Amen!! That’s a precious meditation!! Thanks!

    The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day. And there may I though vile as he wash all my sins away! Wash all my sins away! Wash all my sins away! And there may I though vile as he wash all my sins away! . . . William Cowper

  4. Roberto G says:

    That thief was granted faith to display Christ’s great power at his weakest moment. He was granted faith to display Christ’s overwhelming grace. That thief was granted faith as all who are saved are granted faith.

  5. MarkO says:

    “It is of contemporary relevance that a man who opposed God even to point of overt mocking would change dramatically within the final cadence of his efforts to breathe. What did he see or hear that melted his stony heart? Perhaps the other six sayings on the Cross are a clue. The demeanor, gentle, holy and determined, of the One hanging in the middle was the anvil in motion that crushed his stony heart that is now a soft, fleshy, trusting heart.

    “If that hardened criminal can be caused to change while his line fades why do I wait to make ‘the change’ while my line is bright and strong? Oh, that I might hang for just one sacred hour beside the One who died and lives for me.”

    http://aborrowedlight.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/nature-by-numbers/

  6. John Bird says:

    Yes,

    That’s a great observation. I heard a sermon in which that was brought out a few years back. The grace of God is truly amazing.

  7. Thanks, Justin.

    It’s interesting to think about the redeemed criminal becoming an evangelist of sorts (“Do you not fear God?”), perhaps prior to his conversion (“Jesus, remember me”…”Truly I say to you).

    Perhaps preparatory grace (“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” 1 Cor 12:3) loosens the tongue as it awakens the soul.

  8. Timothy says:

    There is a lovely chapter/sermon on this in JC Ryle’s Holiness, entitled Christ’s Greatest Trophy. Well worth a read

  9. Ron Lair says:

    something I’ve never given complete thought to. What was it that caused the man to go from reviling to worship? I guess we can only conclude God made the difference!

  10. Justin: came by way of Luke McDonald’s post. Great thoughts. Wish I had had them one week sooner. :) I do appreciate your insights but more-so glad I am that thief-one who is the recipient of God’s grace.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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