It is surprising to read that even at the point of death, these two robbers found the time to revile the Christ. Luke’s account preserves the mockery of one of the men, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself—and us!”[v] Truly, the depravity of the human heart runs deep. Paul was right when he wrote, “…There is no one righteous, not even one…Their throat is an opened grave; they deceive with their tongues; the venom of asps is under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness…The fear of God is not before their eyes.”[vi]
But the story doesn’t end here. One of the robbers who previously joined the chorus of mockeries had a change of heart. After hearing his companion’s words, he “answered and rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, because you are undergoing the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for what we have done. But this man has done nothing wrong!’”[vii]
Why the sudden 180-degree turn? Why this unexpected defense for Jesus? It is only by God’s grace that this man’s eyes were finally opened. The Lord removed the veil so that he could finally see Jesus for who He really was.[viii] He recognized His uniqueness when he saw the great crowd of people following Him, and of weeping women on the road to Calvary. Why were they weeping?[ix] They were weeping for Jesus! He must have thought, “Why are these women wailing for a criminal? What kind of man is this that a great crowd is hurt to see Him die?”
Then he heard Jesus address the women. He spoke tender words for a man condemned to die.[x] And on the cross, he heard Him pray for His persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[xi] He may have asked, “Where does His peace come from? How can He ask for their forgiveness after the injustices He experienced?”
And he saw his silence and meekness amid the mockery and insults, pain and suffering. This man is totally in control. He can face death without fear.
And suddenly it hits him! Everything falls into place. He realizes Jesus’ innocence. People followed and mourned for Him because He was not a criminal. He did nothing wrong. He was gentle and kind, forgiving and composed because His conscience was clear. [xii]
And faced with the righteousness of Jesus, the robber saw his own wretchedness. His heart was gripped with the fear of God. He saw his wrong and acknowledged that he deserved the penalty of death.
And finally, he believed that Jesus is the Christ, Savior and King. The man understood that his body is doomed, but he sought salvation for his soul from Christ. He pleaded with the King to remember him when He’s back in His Kingdom in heaven. He sought the unimaginable but divinely possible by grace—a sinful criminal accepted as God’s righteous child.
And Jesus, full of mercy, responded, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”[xiii] How is this possible? Peter has an answer, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, in order that he could bring you to God…”[xiv] Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for God’s people. He took the death penalty of the unrighteous and freely gave His very righteousness to all who believe so that they can become blameless, holy and acceptable before God.
The repentant man on the cross teaches us a great deal about salvation. Firstly, we are never saved by the good things that we do, by our religiosity or charity. He is the perfect example. If God had a scale and weighed his righteous acts against his sins, he does not deserve to enter paradise.
But Jesus gave Him access to heaven! Paul explains, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.”[xv]
To this attitude, Paul adds, “I do not declare invalid the grace of God, for if righteousness is through the law (human works), then Christ died to no purpose.”[xvi] That is, if we can gain our salvation by being good here on earth, what’s the use of Jesus’ death on the cross? Why don’t we just spend all our energy doing good to reach God?
Secondly, we receive this salvation by grace through faith. Faith is the channel by which God declares us righteous, sinless, acceptable. Faith in what? Faith in Jesus. This faith begins with an understanding of who Jesus is—that He is holy, God’s Son, Lord, King, Savior, Christ. And it extends to an acknowledgment of who we are—sinful, wretched, filthy creatures deserving of death.
It is a faith that clings to and trusts in Jesus alone for one’s salvation. It turns away from man-made ways and institutions to reach God, admitting that there is nothing one can do to enter His presence. And finally, this faith submits to Jesus’ Lordship. It says, “I bow down before You, Lord.
You are now King over my life. I turn from my sinful ways. I give up the self and let you rule over every aspect of my being. Not my will but Yours be done.”
And thirdly, Salvation is ultimately the work of God, not man. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”[xvii] God chooses us, draws us to Jesus, by grace gives us faith, declares us righteous, slowly transforms us into Christlikness and promises glorious perfection at His return. There is really nothing we can boast about. It was even said that humanity’s only contribution to the story of redemption is sin.
But the repentant robber’s story is a reminder that even the most vile among us is never too far away from God’s grace. All it takes is a heart of faith that is willing to acknowledge one’s need of Christ and willing to submit to His Lordship in one’s life.
If you have not yet done this, I invite you to seek Christ, trust in His salvation and submit to Him as King! God bless you!