The story of the penitent thief is recorded in only one of the Gospels – that of Luke in chapter 23, if you are unfamiliar with it here it is:-
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:”Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 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 are deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”” 23:39-43.
Have you ever considered that the only person to have accepted Christ as their Saviour on the day of the crucifixion was a “thief”?
The word usually translated thief suggests a political dimension to the crime(s) they were being crucified for. If you asked for political status in Roman they would crucify you. It is generally assumed that the two thieves were Barrabbas’ accomplices, and that Barrabbas’ crucifixion was due at the same time and Jesus replaced him. One can imagine that the two thieves were less than pleased that the man who had got them into this mess had been released but they were still to die. Some of this frustration may have re-directed at the one who replaced him on the cross – Jesus. So when the Gospel of Mark states that both of the criminals abused it could have been that initially both railed at Jesus.
The other possible explanation is that Mark’s source of information was further from the cross and could not make out the words of the second (penitent) thief for all the noise made by Christ’s enemies. Note, Mary the mother of Jesus and the women who are recorded as being with her are described as being in the distance.
In order to understand why the penitent thief changed his mind one has to know what he was suffering. One has to know how crucifixion kills its victims. Firstly, the loss of blood through the pierced nails; secondly, the weight of the body pressing down on the lungs makes it difficult to breathe, never mind having an intelligent conversation. Thirdly, in order to breathe one had to place ones weight on the nail[s] through the feet which causes excruciating pain in the legs. It was designed to give a long, lingering, and painful death. He would have plenty of time to consider his own mortality. Presuming he was a zealot then it is quite possible he had a good knowledge of Scripture and sought solace in it. He might have recited Psalm 22 [see also Part 1] to himself because he might have thought that God had forsaken him. When he came to the verse that stated that the psalmist’s bones were out of joint, he might well have thought that it applied to him. But when he came to the verse that says that they cast lots for his clothing then he might have begun to realise that it was Jesus that the psalm was written about. Also, because the thief was facing the crowd he would have witnessed the venom with which Jesus’ enemies attacked him.
Though the Crucifixion took place on the eve of the Passover, because the ‘thief’ would have been considering his own standing, or lack of it, before God, his mind might also have turned to the Day of Atonement when the High Priest had to had to cast lots for one of two goats to be sacrificed and only perfect animals could be sacrificed. The other was released and became the scapegoat. Could this be why he said to his fellow thief that “this man has done nothing wrong.” Did he see a parallel in the choice between Jesus and Barrabbas, with Barrabbas going free?
Was it any single one of these, or a combination of them we do not know. But when we get to heaven we can ask him.
David G. Rose.