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Luke 23:39–43

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at [Jesus], saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong’” (vv. 39–41).

Two criminals were crucified at the same time as Jesus, one on either side of our Savior (Luke 23:32–33). Matthew 27:44  and Mark 15:32 tell us that these two men took part in the mocking and reviling that the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers heaped on Jesus. Yet one of these men did not die with cursings of our Savior on his lips. As we see in today’s passage, one of them recognized the justness of his punishment and put his trust in the Lord Jesus.

At some point during the crucifixion, one of the criminals turned to the other, who was still mocking the Lord, and asked him whether he feared God, since he was under the same sentence as Jesus (Luke 23:39–40). The only difference between them and Christ, he said, was that they were being justly executed for their crimes but Jesus was not, since He had not done anything wrong (v. 41). Luke does not tell us how the repentant criminal came to his conclusion; perhaps it was because he was impressed by Jesus’ composure. Of course, we know that he ultimately came to faith by the work of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit must regenerate a sinner and grant faith to him if he is to believe in Jesus unto salvation (John 3:1–15).

Then the criminal who recognized Jesus as innocent turned to our Lord and asked Christ to remember him when Jesus came into His kingdom (Luke 23:42). Note that this request manifested the criminal’s saving faith. He knew facts about Jesus and believed them to be true—that Jesus is a King with a kingdom and that His death would not keep Him from inheriting that kingdom. Then he put his trust in Jesus by asking the Lord to bring him into that kingdom; he asked to be counted among the righteous who are saved and dwell in Paradise—that is, heaven. Jesus answered the prayer of faith right there, promising to bring him into heaven that very day (v. 43).

The promise of Christ to the penitent criminal demonstrates that despite all appearances to the contrary, He was in full control of what was happening and could save even when He appeared most powerless there on the cross. John Calvin comments: “In this way he shows that he never was deprived of the power of his kingdom; for nothing more lofty or magnificent belongs to a divine King, than to restore life to the dead. So then, Christ, although, struck by the hand of God, he appeared to be a man utterly abandoned, yet as he did not cease to be the Savior of the world, he was always endued with heavenly power for fulfilling his office.”

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

It is never too late to believe in Jesus while we still draw breath. At the same time, none of us can be sure that we will be cognizant enough on our deathbeds to believe for the first time if we have never trusted in Christ. It is incumbent on us to believe today and to call others to do the same. J.C. Ryle, the nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool, wrote, “One thief was saved that no sinner might despair, but only one, that no sinner might presume.”


For further study
  • Psalm 106:4–5
  • Luke 1:37
  • 2 Corinthians 6:2
  • Hebrews 7:25
The bible in a year
  • Ezekiel 41–42
  • 2 Peter 1

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From the November 2023 Issue
Nov 2023 Issue