Summary: The thief on the cross is an example that we are saved completely by the grace of God as this hardened criminal received the promise of eternal life.
Many of you might remember Karla Faye Tucker. She was the first woman to be executed in the US since 1984. She was notorious as an accomplice to a brutal ax murder of a two people in the early eighties. Soon after being imprisoned, Tucker took a Bible from the prison ministry program and read it in her cell. She later recalled, "I didn't know what I was reading. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of my cell floor on my knees. I was just asking God to forgive me." Tucker became a Christian in October 1983. She later married her prison minister, the Reverend Dana Lane Brown, and held her Christian wedding ceremony inside the prison. In one of the last interviews she had, she gave glory to Jesus Christ in changing her life.
On February 3 1998, she was executed.
Some of her last words were as follows:
"...I would like to say to all of [the family of the victims] — that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this… Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. … I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you."
As the lethal chemicals were being administered she was praising Jesus Christ.
Turn from Karla Faye Tucker to the day of Jesus crucifixion. We find there another death scene - two more convicts facing death. Read with me Luke 23:39-44.
Who were these men? The scripture uses the word “robber”. We often hear about the “thief on the cross.” The word in Greek refers not to a mere thief but one he takes money or possessions with violence – something like a bandit. These were violent men, unrepentant and hardened in sin.
Therefore, their lives were ending on a cross just as they deserved. Without repentance they hung on their crosses and with great pain and anger they cried out. But who did they cry at? The Roman soldiers who crucified them? No! The Bible in Matthew 27:44 tells us that “the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” They were angry at Jesus of all people!
Let’s turn to the words of the first robber who is quoted by Luke.
He hated Jesus and said: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" Normally, when these words are spoken in faith, this is a wonderful prayer. But here there is no faith but only hatred. He mocks Jesus that he claims to be God but does nothing. Save us! It’s a wonderful thing to ask for salvation.
But what does he misunderstand about salvation? He wants Jesus to lift him off the cross so that he can live without this horrible judgment. But this man had a much bigger problem than physical death. He was living in sin without forgiveness and without hope. His life was headed toward hell and eternal punishment which is much worse than a day hanging on the cross. God won’t and can’t take him to heaven. THAT was the main problem this robber had and he was completely blind to it.
How many people today have the same attitude? They may not hang on a cross but they are miserable in guilt, in poverty, in pains, in a lack of peace – without joy. And what do they see: a Jesus who does nothing. A Jesus who is silent and letting them suffer through life. Therefore, they don’t trust in him or truly call on him or give him any worship. Instead they blame him and curse him and mock him.
But the whole time Jesus is hanging on the cross, he’s dying for them. He’s giving his life so that they can have a new life. Instead, they want Jesus help so that they can live their old life – continue to walk in the ways of the world and live for their own pleasures.
So many today want Jesus to be some kind of Santa Claus so that they can live a fun life on earth but without surrender to the control of God. And Jesus has nothing to say to this robber or to anyone who comes with such a request.
The second robber is no different.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that he was mocking and ridiculing Jesus along with everyone else. Jesus hadn’t done anything for him either!
But something happened in this man’s heart and he was dramatically changed. Notice very closely the steps towards this life change.
The first step came through this man's ears. What did he hear?
He heard these words: (Matt.) 27:39-43 “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" Some of those words came from his own mouth!