If you want a short and powerful story that teaches the gospel of grace, you can’t beat the story of the thief crucified next to Jesus (Luke 23:39–43; Matthew 27:38–44).
In actuality, two thieves were crucified next to Jesus. One trusted Him and received salvation, and the other did not. In this article, we will walk through the story of the first thief, the repentant one (sometimes called the penitent thief), in four parts.
1) Both thieves mocked Jesus
Crucifixion, by design, drains the life and energy out of a body. Matthew tells us in his account that the two thieves used the little breath they had to mock Jesus (Matthew 27:44). In doing so, they adopted the same behavior as the religious leaders and other onlookers who witnessed His death (see Matthew 27:39–43).
Jesus was not surprised to hear the mockery or to be crucified between two thieves (see Isaiah 53:12). Jesus quoted and fulfilled Psalm 22 when He prayed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). The same psalm also says: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Psalm 22:7–8).
2) The repentant thief recognized his sinfulness
While one thief hurled insults at Jesus, saying “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”, the repentant thief chided him: “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” (Luke 23:39–41).
What a stunning transformation. The thief no longer mocked Jesus, now he defended Him. What changed? We don’t know when the repentant thief began to fear God, but we find clues when we look at the Scriptures and think what the thief experienced alongside Jesus.
John narrates that Jesus died before the robbers (John 19:32–34). This means that the repentant thief was able to observe everything that happened when Jesus was on the cross, including His cry: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We do not know what the thief thought when he heard these words, but it’s not difficult to imagine that something like the following went through his head: “If He was ready to forgive the man who drove the spikes into His hands and feet, maybe He was ready to forgive me.”
3) The repentant thief believed in the Lord Jesus Christ
After an internal transformation, the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The thief believed that Jesus was a king with a real kingdom. Normal kings don’t die on crosses, and certainly have no kingdoms after death. So, the thief believed that this king was more than an earthly king, He was a Savior King able to take him to His heavenly kingdom.
4) The repentant thief was saved by Jesus
Jesus answered the repentant thief with the most hopeful words possible: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). A thief who woke up in the morning on his way to hell had his eternal destiny changed with a simple plea to the Savior. “Jesus, remember me.”