The Penitent Thief
Francis Bourdillon, 1864
"One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: 'Are you not 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 our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.'
Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'
Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise!'"
What a promise! What a change! "Today shall you be with Me in Paradise!" There he hangs, the poor dying thief; his body is racked with pain; his strength is failing; he is ending a life of crime by a death of shame. A few hours more — and all will be over. How sad a sight! Surely those even who have known his evil deeds must pity him now. They might well pity him until Jesus spoke; but they need not pity him now. For now all is changed. "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise!"
That very day, as soon as the breath leaves the body — his soul would be in the place of eternal felicity. Soon, very soon, every pain would be past forever; soon he would be where sin and grief and shame and suffering cannot come; soon, before another sun would rise, that very day. How wonderful is the grace that led this man to repentance, and accepted a repentance so late! In the very act of dying for sinners — Jesus saves this soul. When every hope seems gone — this sure and blessed hope is given.
What measure of light did this dying man have? What did he feel about himself? What did he believe about Christ? We know no more than this — he felt himself guilty; he believed that Jesus had done no wrong and that He was a king and that He could help and save him even in his last extremity. "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!" Thus, with his expiring breath, he sought mercy of Jesus — sought it in penitence and faith — sought it and found it. No time was left for learning more, no opportunity given for serving God. He must come just as he was — he must come without a moment's delay; and he did come, and he was not refused, and the words of Jesus were made good, "Him that comes to Me — I will never cast out" (John 6:37).
Why should any trembling sinner doubt now that Jesus will receive him? Why should any fear that he has sinned too long to be forgiven, and neglected too many offers of grace to be now received? All we are told of this man is that he was a thief, a criminal — we know no more of him; and this no doubt he had been to the last, for he was now suffering death for his sins.
Yet no sooner does he cry to Jesus — than he is graciously heard. One true prayer after a life of sin — and what an answer does it receive! "Today shall you be with Me in Paradise!" Not merely, you shall be saved from the eternal punishment which your sins have deserved; you shall not go to the place of despair; but, "Truly I say unto you: Today shall you be with Me in Paradise!"
"Truly I say unto you" — it was quite certain. "Today" — it should be at once, without delay. "You shall be with Me" — the Son of God would take the poor thief to Himself, to be where He Himself was going to be. And that was "in Paradise" — the Paradise of God, the place of perfect rest and happiness. Let no heart that is smitten with a sense of sin, fear to go to the same Savior. The words still hold good, "Him that comes to Me, I will never cast out." But it has been well said that there is one such instance recorded — that none should despair; and only one — that none should presume.
There is no encouragement here to put off repentance to a dying hour. This was a signal instance of saving grace — but it is not God's usual way of dealing. Some seem to think that a death-bed must of itself make a total change in all a man's feelings, and that then the sinner will certainly repent. There is a double mistake here. A death-bed and time to prepare for eternity — are not always given; and when it is given, even a death-bed without the grace of God will not lead to repentance. One thief repented — but the other blasphemed. Yet that wretched man was in exactly the same case as the first thief, but the near prospect of death wrought no change of heart in him; with his dying breath he railed upon Christ, and died as he had lived. Oh, let none abuse the grace of God, or trust to a death-bed repentance.
There is another thing which we should bear in mind. Though the penitent thief had sinned against what light he had and therefore was guilty — yet doubtless his light was small compared with that which is enjoyed in a Christian land. We have no reason to think that he had ever seen Jesus or heard His words, until the time when he saw Him hanging beside him on the cross. How many are there now who are hearing of Christ continually, or might hear if they would go where His gospel is preached — and yet do not seek Him or repent of their sins! Will there be no difference made, in the great final account — between those who have heard of a Savior but once, and those who have been within hearing of the gospel all their life long?
We find here therefore, both warning and encouragement.
The warning is, not to put off the great concern to a dying hour, but to seek Christ at once.
The encouragement is, that at all times, even in a dying hour, while yet there is space for calling upon Him — He is willing to be found by those who seek Him.
There is no contradiction between these two. We may trace the warning as well as the encouragement in that gracious invitation of God by the prophet Isaiah: "Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon!" (Isaiah 55:6-7).