Day 6: The Penitent Thief
Devotional by Jeremy Hamblen
Read Luke 23:32-43
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33And 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. 34And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”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.”
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.
If there’s one thing we know in Houston, it’s disaster. Hurricanes, floods, ice storms, and heatwaves – each season comes with its own slot on the roulette wheel of catastrophe. If you’ve ever done relief work in these situations, you know there’s an uncomfortable strangeness to the frozen nature of time at ground zero: people still in the clothes they wore to bed, dishes in the sink, and personal effects indiscriminately strewn about. Still, no one apologizes for the mess, and no one makes mention of it – it’s just the nature of rescue. When disaster strikes, we come just as we are.
The thieves on the cross were headed for disaster. Like Jesus, these violent robbers had been beaten, nailed to a wooden beam, and hung in public humiliation. This was only the beginning of their slow march towards a protracted death by asphyxiation – the real cruelty of the infamous Roman crucifixion. Staring down the inevitable outcome of their just desserts, each breath shallower than the last, one of the thieves noticed…something.
The Man on the middle cross had stuck out since sunrise. His demeanor was different, the measure of brutality He received was different, and the case against Him especially seemed different. But here He was, praying for their forgiveness, even as the abuse continued to pile up. It was then, suddenly, miraculously, that one thief turned penitent, proclaiming the innocence of Jesus, admitting his own guilt, and calling out the guilt of others. Naked and ashamed before the perfect Lamb, with nothing to bring and no time to make right, his unvarnished request was his profession of faith.
He came just as he was.
It’s easy to try and add to the Gospel because God calls us to so much more, but it all starts and ends with faith. We don’t need to try to clean ourselves before collapsing into His mercy because it is only by His mercy that we are cleansed, and it is offered to us on mercifully simple terms: grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That’s all the penitent thief needed on the cross, and because of the cross, that’s all Christ requires of us, no matter how far we are, and no matter how late we feel. All we have to do is come, just as we are.
“Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”
1. Anyone can make a promise, but Jesus’ words, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” carried significant meaning because of His authority. In fact, His authority was a primary reason He was on the cross (He taught as one with authority, acted as one with authority, and claimed to be a King). How can Christ’s authority over our lives and our world bring us comfort and joy?
- Many people try to use the story of the penitent thief as a reason they can “beat the system” by waiting until their deathbed to repent and turn to Jesus. What would you say to someone to caution them against this outlook?
- The penitent thief was Jesus’ last companion on earth, crucified together at a conversational distance. The thief defended Him in His presence, and then petitioned His forgiveness directly. Jesus responded in kind. Even in that brief and final encounter, the thief’s rescue was about a relationship – just between the two of them. What can this tell us about the importance of our relationship with Jesus in our everyday lives?
Enjoy this extremely uplifting Gospel presentation by folksy-Scottish preacher Alistair Begg who imagines the scene in Heaven upon the entry of the penitent thief.