The record of the thieves on Calvary, and the discussion which took place as they hung on the cross, is extraordinary. Despite the enormity of his crimes and the extremity of his circumstances, one of the thieves on the cross was guaranteed a place in the kingdom, the fruit of a changed heart and a right disposition before God. This intriguing story is rich in encouragement, an exhortation to acknowledge our mistakes and seek God’s help. It is a story that reassures us that no matter what state we find ourselves in before God we should never give up hope nor underestimate His ability to save.

Outside the city of Jerusalem, on the hill of Calvary, three crosses stood stark. Upon those crosses were three men, lifted high in agony, each impaled upon a cross. A horror of great darkness began to settle like a blanket of oppression over the land. A vile rabble of evil men surrounded them, unleashing a sordid torrent of jeering abuse. Gathered around the base of one of the crosses was a frightened and distraught little cluster of anguished souls. Bereft of hope and almost of reason itself, a little band of weeping women and terrified disciples stood aghast at the incomprehensible scene before them.

This scene, dreadful enough in itself, was made all the more monstrous by the fact that the man cruelly suffering before them was none other than the Son of God himself. He was the kindest, meekest and most loving man the world has ever known. In the words of the apostle Paul, this was one who took upon himself the form of a servant, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:8).

Representative Men

The interaction between our Lord and the two thieves is referred to in each of the four gospel records. We are not told a lot about these men or their backgrounds; however some interesting details can be gleaned from subtle variations in the respective accounts. The two men are described in Matthew 27 and Mark 15 as being “thieves”. The word literally means “a robber or brigand” and is derived from a root word meaning “to plunder”. It conveys the idea of one who steals openly and violently. These men were hardened criminals.

These two men are representative of two classes of people and their relationship to Christ. Both these men were in trouble, and whilst one responded effectually, one did not. It is appropriate that the symbol of a thief is used as a graphic description of the position of the human race before God. Every time we offer anything less than a perfect offering to God, we rob Him (Mal 3:8). As we look upon those thieves we acknowledge that symbolically it should be us hanging there upon that tree, condemned to death because of sin, because we’ve robbed God. In a sense, we appear in that scene, represented by one of those two men. The question for each of us is— which man?

This story reassures us that no matter what state we find ourselves in before God, no matter what crimes and guilt we may carry upon our conscience, there is no limit to the ability of our God to save. With God all things are possible. But it also cries out that that ability to save is predicated upon our willingness to acknowledge our state, to acknowledge His righteousness, and to ask for His help.

The Lord was led out to the hill of Golgotha, and there crucified. As the brutal nails were driven home and they hoisted him cruelly into place, the passers-by began to rail on him in vindictive scorn (Matt 27:39–40).

Sadly, as those men heaped their derision upon our Lord, the two men either side of him both joined in. Matthew 27:44 tells us that “the thieves also cast the same in his teeth”. Human sentiment would like to imagine that they could have found some degree of sympathy for him, some fellow feeling for a man suffering like themselves—but they added to his grief. It’s the typical reaction of an animal in pain, to turn and bite and rend and tear, even those who venture close to help.

Edersheim tells us that there was a phenomenon “noted by historians, that those on the cross were wont to utter insults and imprecations on the onlookers, goaded nature perhaps seeking relief in such outbursts.”

A Pinnacle of Love

This incident is drawn upon by the apostle Paul in a very interesting way in Romans 15 where he holds up the example of the Lord as the benchmark of how we should care for others. As the supreme pinnacle of self-sacrifice, he utilizes the example of one who “did not please himself”, but cared “for his neighbour”, even in the face of being “reproached” (Rom 15:1–5).

There is actually only one place in the Lord’s life where this verb “reproached” is used in the context of others reproaching Christ, and that is in the incident of the thieves upon the cross. It is the same word translated as “reviled” in Mark 15:32, and is the phrase “cast the same in his teeth” in Matthew 27. Even in that extremity, even in that state, the Lord was able to put aside his own desperate needs and save one of those two men, his neighbour. A reference back to the whole context of the 69th Psalm quoted by the apostle amply illustrates the beautiful precision with which the divine pen extracts the essence of this Messianic Psalm in its reference to the sacrifice of Christ.

The spirit of this scene is captured for us by Isaiah 53. The words of verses 3–4 are spoken on behalf of Israel, and could have been written as it were for these two thieves upon the cross. “He is despised and rejected of men…We hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not…we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”

In verse12 the prophet declares he was “numbered with the transgressors”. We are left in no doubt as to whom the prophet is referring here as the Gospel of Mark quotes these words directly and applies them to the two thieves (Mark 15:27–28).

An Indelible Impression upon John

John’s description of the scene is different from that of the other three gospels (John 19:18). Whereas the other gospels describe these men as thieves or as malefactors, in John’s record there is no description of who these people are, just the fact that there were “two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst”. In verse 32 the same approach is apparent, as he refers to “the first and the other which was crucified with him.” John does not see two thieves, he just sees two other men, and Jesus in the midst. As he stood there, his eyes transfixed upon his Lord, Jesus in the midst, deep in his memory burned the events of an earlier day, recorded in Matthew 20:20–23.

In that incident the mother of John and James approached her Lord, worshipping, but with the request that her two sons would sit, the one on his right hand and the other on the left in his kingdom. Having first checked her impulse, “Ye know not what you ask”, the Lord turns to her two sons. Can you drink my cup, can you be baptized with my baptism?—a reference of course to his crucifixion (cp also Luke 12:50). Confidently the two young men assert, “We are able”.

We can sense the import of the Lord’s reply, words heavy with meaning: ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with my baptism. And so they did. The apostle James was the first to lose his life in the service of his Lord. John was the last. As they stood there on that earlier day with their mother they had no comprehension of what they were asking. Later, as John stood at the foot of that cross and gazed with tear-filled eyes upon the agony of his master, he didn’t see two thieves, he saw only two others, on either side one and Jesus in the midst. In his grief he began to understand a fundamental principle of life—that suffering comes before glory.

A Dawning Response

Gradually, as the minutes and the hours of that terrible day ticked by, silence fell upon the awful scene. During the passage of those long and tortuous hours, one of those two men began to think. We don’t know what it was that worked upon that man. Perhaps it was the extraordinary behaviour he witnessed in the Lord. He had watched as that man was stretched out upon his cross. And as the nails were first driven deep into his flesh, in that first extreme searing burst of agony, he heard the words wrung from those anguished lips: “Father, forgive them… they know not what they do”. He watched that man maintain his integrity, his purity of speech. He watched him caring for others all through that day. Perhaps it was the fear of approaching death, as his own life flashed before his eyes, and he began to contemplate his own future, the awfulness of the grave yawning before him, without hope.

Whatever it was, this man began to think as he had never allowed himself to do before. He knew about Jesus of Nazareth: there was not a person in the land who did not know about Jesus of Nazereth. In a situation such as this there is no escape from the brutal reality of truth, nowhere to hide. He contemplated his position, his behaviour, his condemnation to death, and understood why. He saw Christ whom he knew to be an innocent man. There may be times in life when God in His mercy brings us to that point—when perhaps for the first time in our lives we see ourselves as we really are, when suddenly we can see the awfulness of a future without Christ, without hope. It is in that state that we begin to appreciate our desperate need.

Slowly as the hours passed by, this man approached that state. Yet he needed something to draw it out, a catalyst that was provided when his bitter-souled companion burst out again in words of sneering derision, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (Luke 23:39). These words jarred horribly upon the awakened senses of his companion, agitating him until as the record says he “answering, rebuked him” (v40).

His response in verses 40–42 is truly remarkable: “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.” Remember that every breath he drew was a gasping agony, every word he uttered a triumph of sheer determination. Yet the fullness of what he conveyed in those few words is astounding. Forth from this man emanated an outstanding declaration of the principles of the truth.

Most significantly, he acknowledged that whereas Christ had done nothing wrong, in his own case the condemnation was just and right. Of Christ he says, “This man has done nothing amiss”— “nothing out of place”, as the words literally mean. But we are in this condemnation “indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds”.

This is the declaration the Father seeks from every one of us, a declaration of the righteousness of God in condemning us to death! Here in the words of that thief is the epitome of the declaration God seeks from us as we approach the waters of baptism. We acknowledge His righteousness and our worthiness to die, and we go down into the waters of baptism as a symbol of the crucifixion of the flesh. That thief, hanging upon the cross, is a fitting depiction of our natural state.

If the story ended there it would merely be a declaration of our worthiness to die. But it would also be like half a baptism, like going down into the waters of baptism and staying there dead, justly condemned to death. But the wonderful thing about this story is that it does not stop there. This poor man, having been brought to this wretched state, turns to gaze upon his Lord, and there he sees life and hope! As he hung there naked upon the cross, in pain and shame and abject confession, when he turned to Christ, that man could see safety and salvation.

Herein lies the wonderful power of this story, as it exhorts and encourages us to turn with that man, to have the vision he had, to look upon our Lord and see that hope. But it requires from us the same belief, and the same determination to ask for help. We can feel the beseeching intensity and earnestness of those words in verse 42: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom”.

Those broken words were a resounding declaration of a triumphant faith. This man believed in the resurrection, that Jesus Christ was Lord, the son of David who would be king, and that the kingdom would come. Above all, he had implicit faith that Christ was able to save him. This man was the living demonstration of the principles of Romans10:6–13, a heart that believes and a mouth that confesses. In the words of verse 13: “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. The Lord heard that call, as he always does. With words of deep comfort he answered: “Truly, I say to you this day, thou shalt be with me in Paradise”.

The Paradise of God

Why did the Lord reply in that way, with this apparently obscure reference to Paradise? Why didn’t he just reassure him he would be in the kingdom? The answer lies in the scriptural meaning of the concept of paradise.

The word “paradise” is a direct transfer of a Persian word pardeis, or paradeisos. It occurs in both Old and New Testaments, and means a grand enclosure, a garden enclosed by walls. Persian gardens were famous throughout the Middle East. In recent years archaeologists have uncovered remains of these truly impressive gardens. To the middle of dry and arid deserts, the mighty Persian kings transported water hundreds of miles through underground conduits. This water was then brought to the surface within enormous walled gardens. There, in defiance of blistering sun and scorching winds, they planted trees and plants, sometimes over hundreds of acres. They created havens of greenery and coolness, water and tranquility, places of exquisite beauty and restfulness.

The use of the word pardeis in Scripture is highly significant (refer Song of Sol 4:13; Neh 2:8; Ecc 2:5). Brother Thomas says in a wonderful section in Eureka Volume 1 about Paradise: “From these examples we may know what the Hebrews understood by a pardais, namely a tract of land well watered, and abounding with choice trees, pleasant to the eyes, and yielding luscious fruits and fragrant flowers.” It is a beautiful symbol of the kingdom, and eternal life. The theme is based upon the original paradise created by God, upon the enclosed Garden of Eden of Genesis 2. It is the theme of Eden restored.

The fullness of this theme is revealed in Revelation 2:7, in the letter to the ecclesia at Ephesus. There the one like the Son of man promises: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The word “tree” is xulon, a wood or forest of trees, leading to the forest of the trees of life referred to in Revelation 22:2.

Why did the Lord particularly choose this symbol of trees in a garden full of fruit as being the best way to convey to that man, in those circumstances, a promise of life? The answer lies for us in the scene itself. There, outside the city of Jerusalem, stood three trees by a garden (John 19:41). But these trees were dead. Hanging upon those dead trees, were three dying bodies. Under the Law of Moses dead bodies upon a tree were a curse that defiled the land (Deut 21:23).

In effect the Lord was saying, “I will remove your dead body from that dead tree, the curse that defiles this land, and I will give you to eat of the precious fruit of immortality that grows upon living eternal trees, glorious in the paradise of God.” What an unbelievable contrast between that man’s dying frame and his sordid past, and the exquisite beauty of immortality, and a place in the paradise of God.

The exhortation from this story is two-fold. The first is a message of great hope. There may be times when we feel like that condemned man, battered and dying upon that tree, justly condemned—but we should never give up, never lose hope, but trust in God’s almighty power to save. The second is a message of urgency—turn to the Lord for help before it is too late, before the day of opportunity has ebbed away.

If it issues from faithful hearts the genuine plea, “Lord remember us”, will always be heard. Brothers and sisters, can we comprehend what it will be like when the Lord does come into His kingdom, to hear those welcome words, “I say unto you today thou shalt be with me in Paradise”?