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“And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23: 42-43)

The Gospel of Luke records one of the most extraordinary stories of conversion – that of the dying thief on the cross (Lk 23: 32-43). This story teaches us that the Lord Jesus Christ has the power to save the most hopeless sinner even in the final moments of his life.

Our Saviour came to earth to save lost sinners (Lk 19: 10). In this account of the thief’s conversion, we see Jesus in great anguish and agony as He hung on the cross. Christ was suffering not only physical pain from the scourging and the crucifixion, but something far, far worse. He was bearing the invisible penalty of sin on the behalf of His people. Yet, in the midst of His own bitter sorrow and pain, He extended grace to the dying thief and assured him of a place in heaven.

We are told in Luke 23: 32-33 that the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified between two malefactors who were facing the same fate: “And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. 33 And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.” This was in fulfilment of the prophecy by Isaiah the prophet – that “he was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53: 12). Matthew tells us that the two thieves on either side of Christ joined the scoffing crowd at the cross in reviling Him: “The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth” (Matt 27: 44).

Within a short space of time, however, one thief’s heart was completely transformed. Along with the other thief and the jeering crowd, he had been cursing and insulting Jesus. How did his amazing conversion come about?

The thief literally “heard” a sermon. It was not a sermon that was preached but one that was clearly manifested in the majesty and meekness of Jesus as He faced the hostile crowd of religious leaders, soldiers and onlookers: “And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God” (Lk 23: 35).

Though He was insulted and jeered at, Christ did not respond with hatred or revenge. Instead, He prayed for His enemies: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (v 34a). It dawned upon the dying thief that Jesus was no ordinary man.

The thief could have begun to ask himself, “Is it possible that Jesus is really the Saviour sent by God?” It could explain His gracious conduct in the midst of such hostile and cruel treatment. Jesus’ mercy and kindness began to melt the thief’s hardened heart. Suddenly he saw everything clearly. He and his fellow thief were facing death because they deserved it, but the Man between them was innocent. He possessed the power to save Himself but He willingly took the place of sinners to die in their stead.

As the other thief continued with his railing, this thief now refused to join in the abuse. Instead he defended Jesus and rebuked the other criminal: “But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (vv 40-41).

As his life ebbed away, the thief wanted Jesus to take over his life. He uttered a simple prayer to the Lord beside him: “Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (v 42). It is interesting to note that the thief saw the Lord when His visage was marred by pain, sorrow and anguish. Jesus’ appearance was far from attractive (Isa 53: 2-5). Yet he believed in Him as the triumphant King Who would shortly come into His kingdom.

The thief was saved – in the very last moments of his sinful life – when he turned to Christ in repentance. Jesus responded immediately with comforting words of grace and salvation: “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (v 43). He received immediate pardon and entered heaven together with Christ, his new-found Saviour.

C H Spurgeon made an interesting observation: “Assuredly nobody preached a sermon to him, no evangelistic address was delivered at the foot of his cross, and no meeting was held for special prayer on his account. He does not even seem to have had an instruction, or an invitation, or an expostulation addressed to him; and yet this man became a sincere and accepted believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We thank God that the way to Christ is a simple one. The dying thief was saved by simply turning to Jesus and believing in His power to save. His conversion teaches us that even the vilest of sinners can be saved. The thief had lived a wicked life and had committed many violent crimes. But when he turned to the Lord in faith, he found grace in the last moments of his life.

The thief’s salvation reminds us of the much-beloved hymn, “There is a Fountain”:

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.

Is there any among us that has not known the Lord? Let us, like the dying thief, draw nigh to Him today. Christ will turn none away who comes to Him with a sincere heart of faith.

– Sis Helen Wee