One of the most fascinating stories surrounding Jesus' crucifixion is the interaction He has with the thief on the cross, also known as the "penitent thief" or the "good thief."
The story of the thief on the cross — as well as the impenitent thief — is told in the gospels, though we will focus on the Luke 23 version of events, and the meaning of Christ's powerful words.
The Thief on the Cross: An Explainer
In that chapter, we learn that Jesus was crucified next to two criminals. Among the most memorable lines in this chapter is Jesus' proclamation to God on behalf of those abusing and afflicting Him. Christ said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Luke 23:33 (NIV) notes that the thief on the cross and the impenitent thief were beside Jesus, "one on his right, the other on his left." Christ suffered between these men, who had committed crimes, as leaders and other around Him sneered — but Luke tells us of the powerful interaction that unfolded between Jesus and the thief on the cross.
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Among those sneering was the impenitent thief, who, even in the midst of his own suffering, sneered at Christ, "Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39, NIV). Rather than join him, though, the other thief on the cross — known as the penitent thief — pushed back against his fellow criminal.
Luke 23:40-41 (NIV) has more on the man's powerful words:
"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 23:43: Jesus' Powerful Response
And that wasn't the end, as the thief on the cross turned to Christ and added, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
The response from Christ that followed is one that has sparked comfort, discussion and intrigue for more than two millennia. Jesus said in Luke 23:43 (NIV), "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." The central belief here is that Jesus was affirming that the thief on the cross would be with Him that day in heaven.
We don't see the impenitent thief embracing Jesus and truth, which is tragic, but it is amazing to see Jesus give peace to the thief on the cross by proclaiming, "Today you will be with Me in paradise."
There's much we can glean from Luke 23 and from this interaction between Jesus and the thief on the cross. Here are just a few lessons to take away from these powerful scriptures:
- It's never too late to change: The thief on the cross made the decision to accept Jesus right before his death. Despite his crimes and mistakes, Jesus accepted him.
- We must embrace humility. The impenitent thief wasn't open to believing in Jesus, and joined in jeering at Him. When we see others in this same state today, we must pray for them — and we must be sure our own hearts aren't filled with this same disdain for truth.
- We will be with Jesus when we believe in Him. Christ's proclamation to the thief on the cross, saying, "Today you will be with Me in paradise" is incredible and affirms that, no matter what, we can have forgiveness and be with Jesus after death.
Want to read more about the thief on the cross? Read Luke 23 on Biblica to explore the impenitent thief and the penitent thief. And if you want to learn more about the Bible, Jesus' life and his crucifixion, be sure to watch "The Bible" series right now on Pure Flix and discover the best Christian Easter movies. Don't have a membership? No problem! Get a free trial here.