And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. 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” (Luk 23:32-33).
A study of the two criminals crucified with the Lord Jesus reveals that they had much in common. For one, they shared the same privilege. It is probable that they were both Jews, for Roman citizens were rarely crucified. Also, the language of the repentant felon (v42) indicated his awareness of the Jews’ messianic hope. Their Jewish background would mean a familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures. Unlike the pagan world around them, they had Moses and the prophets and could respond in faith to God’s Word (see 16:29).
The criminals also shared in the same mockery. Matthew (27:44) and Mark (15:32) both tell us that they participated with the crowd in their insults of the Lord Jesus. But as we will see, one of the convicts persisted in his taunts while the other had a change of mind.
Quite obviously, they also shared in the same condemnation. The penitent felon made it clear that their condemnation was just: “We are getting what we deserve for what we did” (Luk 23:41 NET), a rare admission of honesty from someone sentenced to die.
But these two men also shared the same opportunity. It seemed providential for the Savior to be upon the middle cross, for His placement there gave both of them equal access to the One who was able to save them. And they were in desperate need of saving, with only hours left before they breathed their last.
Although they shared so much in common, there was one crucial difference that determined their destinies for eternity. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The story is really one of three cries, for the cries of the two criminals set up Jesus’ second cry from the cross.
A Cry of Blasphemy
“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (v39). The word “railed” in the Greek is blasphemeo. Some of the last words on this robber’s lips before slipping into hell were words of blasphemy. His remark was yet another dig at Jesus. But just in case, he decided to selfishly add “and us” to his salvation request. The fact that he used the order “save thyself and us” tells us that he was only thinking about physical salvation, not the salvation of his soul. He’d be happy to see Jesus come down from the cross so that Jesus could rescue him. But he didn’t believe it would or could happen.
His blasphemy was met with a rebuke, but not from Christ. “But the other [criminal] rebuked him, saying, ‘Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?’” (v40 NET). How could he be so cavalier in the face of death? He ought to be more afraid of the God he was about to meet.
But this second offender’s cry contained not only a rebuke but a sincere confession of his own guilt and a remarkable understanding of who Jesus really was.
A Cry of Faith
Something changed in the mind of this man. As noted before, he, like so many others, took part in the mockery of the Lord Jesus. But think about what this malefactor may have witnessed. Perhaps he listened to Jesus’ prophecy (vv27-31), which was an announcement of doom for this criminal’s fellow countrymen. No doubt, he heard the Savior pray for His executioners – “Father, forgive them” (v34). He likely was impressed by Jesus’ meekness and self-control, for though He was mocked by so many, He didn’t respond in kind (1Pe 2:23). Something turned this man’s thinking about Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, this felon saw some things about Christ that others had missed.
For one, he saw righteousness in Jesus. He not only acknowledged his own guilt, but Christ’s innocence: “We have been condemned justly, because we are getting what we deserve for what we have done, but this man has done nothing wrong” (v41 ISV). He had seen enough to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth had been unjustly sentenced to die. In this, he found himself in agreement with Pilate, Pilate’s wife and Herod, but he thankfully grasped far more about Christ than the three of them.
Additionally, he saw royalty in Jesus, for he prayed that he might be remembered when Jesus would come into His kingdom (v42). He believed the title above Jesus’ head – “This is the King of the Jews” (v38). Pilate’s title, though crafted to anger the Jewish leaders, may have been used as a link in a chain to bring this man to salvation.
We might also conclude that he saw resurrection in Jesus. Dead men don’t have kingdoms. To ordinary, unenlightened eyes, all anyone could expect Jesus to receive was a grave, certainly not a kingdom. But somehow, this criminal knew that the cross would not be the end for Jesus Christ. Somehow and at some point in time He would rise from the dead and enter into His kingdom. Again, if he was a Jew with a knowledge of the Old Testament, he may have been thinking of Daniel’s prophetic vision of the coming Messiah (“Son of Man”), to whom was promised a “kingdom which shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14).
With confidence we can also add that this malefactor saw (and found) redemption in Jesus. This brings us to his cry of faith: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (v42). He had faith that Christ would rise again and receive the promised Messianic kingdom, and he wanted to be with Christ in that kingdom. But note that he did not say, “Remember my good deeds.” He did not cry out, “Remember not my bad deeds.” He had nothing to commend himself to the Lord. He simply said, “Remember me,” which was a cry for mercy. And his redemption is a reminder to us all that salvation cannot come by works but is all by God’s free grace.
Scripture tells us that there is redemption through the blood of Christ (Eph 1:7), and this convict saw that blood shed. When the soldiers came to break His legs and hasten His death, Jesus was already dead. But he would have observed the piercing of Jesus’ side and His poured-out blood (see Joh 19:32-34).
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the free gift of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment, through Jesus, a pardon receives.
A Cry of Assurance
The repentant outlaw didn’t have to wait long for a reply. Jesus told him, “I tell you with certainty, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luk 23:43 ISV). This man was thinking of a future day when he hoped Christ would remember him in His kingdom. But Jesus spoke of something soon – “today.”
The Savior also spoke of something sure. He not only assured him that “you will be with me,” but began by telling him it was a “certainty.” This criminal hoped that Jesus would remember him in the future, but Jesus gave him a comforting promise to which he could presently cling.
But note that Christ also spoke of something sweet: “You will be with me in Paradise.” At that moment, they were together in pain, but before the day was over, they would be together in paradise. It was one thing for him to hope to be with Christ in His coming kingdom, but another thing to be assured that he would be with Jesus that very day in paradise.
It has become apparent, therefore, that Calvary’s first convert was a convict. Already at the cross, the Lord Jesus was gathering His people. And He wasn’t done. Before the day was over, the centurion and the soldiers would join the ever-growing company of the redeemed (see Mat 27:54). With nails pinning His hands and feet to the tree, Jesus showed indeed that He is mighty to save.
Whoever receiveth the message of God
And trusts in the power of the soul-cleansing blood,
A full and eternal redemption shall have,
For He is both able and willing to save.
O sinner, the Saviour is calling for thee,
His grace and His mercy are wondrously free;
His blood as a ransom for sinners He gave
And He is abundantly able to save.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.
 Most translations favor “Jesus” rather than “Lord.” The repentant thief is, therefore, the only person in the Gospels to address Him simply by His human name.
 Fanny J. Crosby (1820–1915)
 Elisha A. Hoffman (1839–1929)