Thief on the Cross

The story of the thieves on the cross is very well known among us.
The repentance of the thief on the cross is a powerful story indeed. It shows us that conversions can happen even at the last moment of life; that even the vilest criminal will be accepted by God if they come to Him; that no more than a request for salvation made in faith is required by God.

Two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one on the right hand, and another on the left. (Matthew 27:38; Luke 23: 33; Mark 15:27).
And one among them repented while he was on the cross and prayed for the mercy of Jesus. Jesus instantly offered him paradise.
Based on this Biblical incident, Catholic Church has canonized the thief on the right side of Jesus as a saint. They say that the name of the thief on the right was Dismas and the thief on the left was Gestas.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, Dismas was forgiven of his sins.

But Bible does not say specify which thief repented.
Both of them mocked Jesus, but later one of them repented and accepted the Kingship of Jesus. Tradition calls him the “good thief”.
The Bible records two sayings of the good thief. One was to his friend who also was hanging on another cross and the second was a prayer to Jesus confessing his faith in Him.
And we are focusing on the prayer of the thief to Jesus.

We often talk a lot about Jesus’s reply to the thief. But we seldom study the mystery contained in the prayer of the thief.
I am not sure how the thief came to these mysteries, but they are indeed deep revelations.
Perhaps, as many think, God has suddenly revealed a spiritual truth to him and he declared it.
I agree that God has intervened in his life with His Grace for salvation and the thief favorably responded to accept salvation. But I do not believe in the sudden revelation theory.
I feel that there is more in the confession of the thief.

First of all, let us see why they were crucified? Let me make my question clearer, why the thieves were crucified on that particular day with Jesus?
The thieves were criminals and Jesus was not a declared a criminal even by the Roman governor Pilate. Jews accused Him of religious blasphemy and rebellious talks against the Roman Empire.
But Pilate and Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee, examined Him thoroughly and could not find any crime in Him against the Roman Empire.
As for the religious blasphemy, crucifixion was not the punishment.
Pilate declared publicly that he found no guilt in Jesus.
Still Pilate succumbed to the pressure of the Jewish religious leaders and crucified Jesus.

For the Jewish leaders, Jesus was a threat to their authority.
The new spiritual kingdom preached by Jesus is a disruptive idea. Moreover Jesus often questioned the religious practices promoted by the leaders.
On the other day Jesus reached Jerusalem with a huge mass acclaiming Him as the King according to the Davidic covenant.
Jesus came to the Temple and lashed out all business establishments there.
Thus Jesus had become a serious threat to their authority and power; Jesus is a threat to their religion; Jesus is a threat to their business.
So, for them the death of Jesus was urgent.

John 19:31 says that Jesus was crucified on “the Preparation Day”. That is on the day before the Sabbath day. The sunset of the day is the beginning of the next day that is the Sabbath day.
Every week, preparations had to be made for the Sabbath. Food had to be prepared ahead of time. This led to the “Day of Preparation” becoming the common term for Friday.
In addition to it, it was the time of Passover festival.
Usually a crucified person may not die before the sunset of the same day. Death, usually take 6 hours to 4 days. The Jewish religious leaders knew it.
The dead “bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath”.
So the crucified criminals should die on the same day, and their bodies must be buried before the sunset. The next day is a day of rest.
So it is natural wisdom that no man must be crucified on the ‘day of preparation’ just before the Sabbath.
But for the religious leaders, the death of Jesus was so urgent that they decided to take the risk. They crucified Him on the day before the Sabbath.
Thus it was their responsibility to make sure that the crucified men are died and buried before the sunset. So they went to Pilate and asked him to break the legs of the crucified so that they may die early. The “bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath”. So their body must be taken away before the sunset.

The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died, and were known to precipitate death by fracturing of the legs, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to suffocate the victim.
This what we read in John 19:31.

That means there is risk in crucifying a person on the day before the Sabbath. The religious leaders were ready to take the risk.
But what about the crucifixion of the two thieves on the ‘day of preparation”. Why the urgency?
Surely it was the fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy.
God’s prophet Isaiah prophesied about it seven hundred years before this event.

Isaiah 53: 12 we read: “And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.” (NKJV)

Again in Psalm 22: 16, we read the same prophecy:

“For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet;” (NKJV)

Surely the crucifixion of Jesus along with the thieves is the fulfilment of this prophecy.
But there is more in it.

Crucifixion as a punishment

Crucifixion was not a Hebrew method of punishment. The worst punishment according the Hebrew law is stoning a person to death. Usually religious blasphemers and prostitutes were punished with stoning. Stoning was a hands free punishment. That is, none touch the accursed criminal.
Crucifixion was the most horrible, painful, tortuous, and humiliating form of execution in the Roman Empire. It was dreadful that no humans ever chanced it even for the whole world.
The crucifixion was done in a public place like a high mountain near the market, where people often gather. The painful death of the crucified was not a pleasant sight to watch. But it was a terrible message to the people. It was a warning to keep away from any crime that deserve crucifixion.

Usually Roman citizens were not crucified, because crucifixion was a shame to a person.
Crucifixion in Roman times was applied mostly to low level criminals, disgraced soldiers, and traitors to the empire.
The low level criminals include slaves who had escaped their masters and committed a crime.
The worst case for crucifixion was rebellion against the Roman Empire.
If anyone rebelled against a Roman military action or caught attacking Roman troops, or plotted to overthrow the Roman government, they will be treated as traitors and will be crucified.
Crucifixion was not merely a death by torture.  It was a symbolic statement that the Roman Empire has the ultimate power over people and the dominated people are nothing. 
Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion by considering the report that he claimed to be the King of Jews and that He was trying to gather people against the Roman Empire.
(Those who are interested to know why Jesus was crucified, please visit our video channel to watch the video titled, “Why they crucified Jesus?)

Why the thieves were crucified?

But why they crucified the thieves and who were they?
We have understood that mere thieves would not be crucified. It is not stated that they were slaves ran away from their master.
Then who were the thieves crucified with Jesus.
Matthew and Mark calls them thieves, but Luke, a more careful writer calls them malefactors or criminals. None gives more details about their past life or their crime.
So their conversation on the cross is the only key to their life.
It is recorded in Luke 23:39 that one thief said: "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us."
In Matthew 27: 41 we read that the Jewish chief priest, the scribes and the elders of the Jewish Temple said: “If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.
They accused Jesus that "He said, 'I am the Son of God.”
From verse 44 we understand that “Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.”
So they mocked Jesus saying that He claimed to be Christ, the King of the Kingdom of God and the Son of God.
That means, the whole mockery was about the Kingship and the Kingdom of God.

Jesus started His public ministry on earth proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4: 17 - NKJV)
Jesus ends His ministry on earth by declaring that He is the King of the Kingdom of God.
In Luke 23:3, we read, then Pilate asked Him, saying, "Are You the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered him, "It is as you say."

The whole story of Christ is about the Kingdom of God; the whole Bible is about the Kingdom of God.
Every incident recorded in the Bible is about the Kingdom of God.
This is the light we should use to read and understand the scripture.

That means, the statements the thieves made on the cross, even if it was to ridicule Christ, was about the Kingdom of God. They were speaking the same words of the religious priests and scribes.
Thus their sayings on the cross places them in a different social background.
Something here gives us the feeling that they were not mere thieves or robbers. They were more criminal than mere thieves, for the Roman Empire.
There was an urgency for the Roman Empire to crucify them too. And the crucifixion of Jesus, demanded by the Jews on the ‘day of preparation’, just before the Sabbath day gave them an opportunity to execute their crucifixion also.
And it fulfilled a prophecy about Christ, “And He was numbered with the transgressors”.

Who were the thieves?

Now, if they were not mere thieves, who were they?
They have been speaking about the Kingdom of God and Christ. They knew that Messiah would come to deliver Israelites from their enemies and to establish an unchanging and unending Kingdom.
And Jesus has been claiming that He was the prophesied Messiah. But now he is dying on the cross.
So they mocked Him asking to save Himself and to save them.

Why should Jesus save the thieves? Saving Himself to prove that He is really the expected Messiah is understandable. But why should he ever save the thieves?
Jesus came not to save thieves from the cross. Of course Jesus is concerned about their souls but not about their crime and punishments.

Thieves of certain categories, as said before, were crucified during those days. Runaway slaves deserved no decency from the government. Slaves were not considered as human being. Slavery must be maintained for the comfortable life of the rich Romans. Any rebellion against the master is a rebellion against the authority.
If a runaway slave steal or kill someone, it is an atrocious crime that must be punished immediately. Sometimes, the salves may steal their master’s horse to run away or to make a living after that.
But horses were expensive and master’s means of transport. Stealing horse was equal to rebelling against the master. All rebellion against authority was traitorous.
A murderous high way robber may also get crucifixion. But the crime must be interpreted in terms of traitor.
Still no Romans would be crucified. Romans cannot be humiliated.

But the words of the thieves on the cross give us the feeling that they were not mere thieves.
They were not runaway slaves; not horse thieves; not highway robbers.
They had the Kingdom of Messiah in their heart.
They knew about the claims of Jesus; they wished if His claims were true and they were disappointed to see Him beside them on a cross. Now they felt deceived by Jesus.
So they reminded Jesus about His claims of Messiah and the Kingdom. "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us."

All these circumstantial evidences lead us to the conclusion that the thieves on the cross were political enemies of the Roman Empire. They were rebels who fought guerrilla war against the Roman Empire.
For them, they were fighting for the freedom of their mother country, but they were traitors for the empire. The punishment for traitors was crucifixion.
There were no long trials and no opportunity for appeal for traitors. Once they are caught and accused of the crime, they will be sentenced to be crucified.
There will not be any waiting period for the execution. They will be killed soon and their death will be extremely painful.
They will be beaten and wounded. They suffer from hunger and sleeplessness. They will be humiliated to the point that they would wish to die soon. All kinds of cruelty that comes to the mind of the Roman soldiers will be executed on them.
They are traitors to the Empire. And they must be crucified soon.

The traitors are tied to a wooden cross or their hands and foot will nailed to it. Their hands will be stretched out. The cross is put upright on earth. He will lie there helpless and naked.
The crucified person would suffer hunger, thirst, the hot sun and the cold night. Scavenging birds would come down on him and tears away his bleeding flesh and eyes. He cannot escape from them because he is tied and nailed on the cross.
The helplessness of the crucified reveals the power and authority of the empire. The rebel is nothing before the empire.

It may take 6 hours to 4 days for a crucified person to die. Even after his death, the body will left on the cross for some days. The scavenging birds will be eating his flesh. This gruesome sight is displayed to the public as a warning against any rebellion against the established customs of the society and the empire.
They are in power. Nobody can help anybody to escape from the Roman authority.
The mortal remains of the crucified will be thrown into some ditch. His mortal remains will not get a decent burial.
A decent burial was important for the people then. Everybody wanted to have a decent burial. A good burial is a guarantee that they would get a warm welcome to the other world of rest.
But the crucified person is denied a decent burial and a warm welcome to the other world. He is accursed in this world and the other world.

But Pilate had to make an exception to Jesus. Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent and He has lead no rebellion against the Roman Empire.
In fact Jesus advised the people to pay tax to Rome: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's”. (Matthew 22:21 - NKJV)
Though Jesus, as the Son of God, and His disciples were exempt from paying the temple tax, they paid the tax in order not to offend the Jewish leaders (Matthew 17:27 - NKJV). 
Pilate examined Him thoroughly and declared: “I find no fault in this Man." (Luke 23:4 - NKJV)
More to all these, Pilate could use no authority over Jesus unless God permitted him to exercise. That is what we understand from the words of Jesus to Pilate: "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin." (John 19: 11 - NKJV)
That means, even while His only begotten Son was being crucified, God the Father was in control of all events.
So Pilate had to give exception to Jesus. He died on the same day he was crucified.
Joseph of Arimathea, a secret believer in Jesus got the permission from Pilate to take away His body.
And another secret believer, Nicodemus, joined him with a mixture of myrrh and aloes.
Both of them together carried away the body and buried in a nearby new grave. (John 19:38 - 42).
Thus the prophecy by Isaiah was fulfilled: “And they made His grave with the wicked-But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9  - NKJV)

I think I have digressed a bit from the main topic. We were thinking why the thieves were crucified?
The crucifixion of Jesus was on demand by the Jews. The death of Jesus was urgent for the Jews. It was done on the ‘day of preparation’ for Sabbath. So the Jews should bear all the consequences of it.
The crucifixion of the thieves was also urgent for the Roman government. And the crucifixion of Christ gave the Roman governor an opportunity to execute the punishment on the ‘day of preparation’ just before the Sabbath.
All these circumstantial evidences, including the urgency of crucifying the thieves and the spiritual mysteries shroud in the words of the thieves on the cross, points to the fact that the thieves were not mere thieves. They were rebels and traitors for the Roman Empire.


Now let us think about a Jewish guerrilla group known as Zealots. Who were Zealots?
Zealots were a Judean Jewish political aggressive group existed in the first century.
Their aim was to overthrow the occupying Roman government.
They were originated in Galilee and they existed from the time of Herod the Great until the fall of Jerusalem and the fortress at Masada.
They were jealously concerned about the national and religious life of the Jewish people. So they disliked peace and conciliation with the Roman authorities. They despised even Jews who were in peace with the Roman Empire. They used violence to force the Romans out of Palestine.
Though all Zealots were not violent, but most of them were.
Because of their violent tactics, the Zealots have been called the world’s first terrorists.
Extremists among the Zealots turned to terrorism and assassination and became known as “dagger men” (Sicarii - Latin). Some historians say that they frequented public places with hidden daggers to stab any person committing a sacrilegious act or anything provoking anti-Jewish feeling or persons friendly to Rome.
Jesus chose Simon the Zealot as His disciple. He also chose Matthew, a tax collector working for the Roman government. Both Simon and Matthew, were natural enemies. But Jesus brought peace between them.
Jesus was showing them a new way to work for a spiritual kingdom, the Kingdom of God.

In 70 A.D., after Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple burned to the ground, 960 zealot Jews took refuge in the fortress called Masada. From there they fought against the Roman army for three years.
In 73 A.D., the Romans destroyed the fortress and captured the city. But when the Romans entered the city, they found all the zealots committed suicide. Roman could not catch any one of the Zealots alive.

Zealots were religious people as well as terrorists of the time. They were the chief enemies of the Roman government. The Jews tried to present Jesus as a Zealot. They told Palate that Jesus came from Galilee in order to picture him as a Zealot. 
So Pilate send Him to Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee. Herod tried and found Him innocent.

Zealots were rebels for the Rome and hence traitors. They must be crucified.
Zealots were religious people. They were extreme in their faith.
Their main concern was the Kingdom established in Jerusalem which will be ruled by God.
Zealots were interested in the Kingdom Jesus preached but not in the means to achieve it. They listened to Jesus’s message about the Kingdom of God but could not agree with the way to attain it.

Thus we come to a conclusion that the thieves on the cross were not mere thieves, they were members of the religious fanatical guerilla group known as the Zealots.
They were equal in crime to Jesus. They were accused of rebellion against the Rome. And Jesus too was accused of the same.
That is why all of the three were crucified on the same day on the same place.
Let us remember the prophecy once again from Isaiah 53: 12: “And He was numbered with the transgressors”. (NKJV)
Jesus was equaled with the Zealots, the rebellious group of people.

The Revelation

This fixes the questions, who were the thieves, why were they crucified and why they were crucified along with Jesus on the ‘day of preparation’ itself.
This truth further throws fresh light on the confession made by one of the thieves on the cross.
A startling mystery is revealed through his confession.

Luke 23:42 Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." (NKJV)

As I already said above, the thief was a Galilean Zealot and He had heard about the Kingdom Jesus was preaching.
He too believed in the new Kingdom that will be established in Jerusalem.
But He chose another method different than that of Jesus. His concept of the Kingdom too was different from that was preached by Jesus.
Now on the cross, as he was crucified with Jesus, God’s powerful grace came down to him. He was predestined for salvation and at the right time he found God’s grace.
And by grace again, he could respond favorably to God’s salvation. He decided to choose the Kingdom of Jesus and leave behind the political kingdom of the zealots.

But Jesus was on the cross dying a humiliating and painful death.
He and his friend on the other side of the cross jeered at Jesus saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." They were sure that Jesus would not escape the cross.
But the good thief is not expecting a miracle, because a greater truth is revealed to him.
Jesus would die on the cross. But He will come back. He will come back as a King to establish the Kingdom of God.
So he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."
This was his salvation prayer. This was his decision prayer.
I believe that you would die on the cross. You might be buried. But you will defeat death and come back. You will come back as the King of Kings. And you will establish the eternal Kingdom of God.

Who has ever said a better salvation prayer? How long we people took to understand this revelation? How hard it was for us to understand this spiritual truth?

The Parable

Let us go back to a parable told by Jesus. It is recorded by Luke in chapter 19.
Verse 11 says that Jesus, His disciples and a great multitude was nearing the city of Jerusalem.
They thought that Jesus would establish the Kingdom of God very soon.
But Jesus had another plan. To explain the situation, Jesus told them a parable.
The parable begins by telling, "A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return.” (Luke 19:12 - NKJV)
Here the noble man is an aspirant for the kingship. The kingdom referred here is a province within an empire. Galilee was a province and Judea was another province under the Roman Empire.
Herod the Great was the appointed client king over Galilee and Judea during the birth of Jesus. Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea under Emperor Tiberius during the crucifixion.
The appointment as a king or governor over a province came from the Roman Empire. The aspirants usually goes to Rome to receive the appointment.
This is the social background of the parable.
Jesus is telling the audience that He is the aspirant King of the Kingdom of God, but before he actually take charge of the kingdom, He has to go the Emperor in Heaven and receive the authority from Him.
So the Kingdom of God will not be established soon, it is only inaugurated. He will go to Heaven and will return with authority and power from the Father in Heaven.
There will be a period of time in between the inauguration and the final fulfilment of the Kingdom.

This is the great mystery that the thief on the cross declares and confesses: "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."
Thief confessed publicly that Jesus is not going to die on the cross forever. The death on the cross is a temporary absence of the aspirant King. By death He will go to Heaven, receive the Kingdom from the Almighty King and will return to establish the Kingdom of God.
The thief prays to Jesus to remember him and accept him into the Kingdom when Jesus comes back and establishes it.
The thief is expressing his faith in Jesus as the King and in the Kingdom of God.

The blind Bartimaeus

There is another man who confessed the same faith. It was a blind man called Bartimaeus. His story is recorded in Mark 10. He was sitting begging on the highway side of the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

Mark 10:47 “And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (NKJV)

Seventeen verses in the New Testament describe Jesus as the “son of David.” But King David lived almost 1000 years before Jesus. Then, what does the phrase really mean?
Primarily, the title “Son of David” is a statement of physical genealogy. Jesus was born in the physical lineage of King David. The genealogical narration of Matthew proves that in His humanity He was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through Joseph, Jesus’ legal father.

The phrase “son of David” was also a Messianic title. When people referred to Jesus as the Son of David, they meant that He was the long-awaited Deliverer, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.

2 Samuel 7:16 "And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever." (NKJV)

God has promised David that his throne would be established forever.
This is an unconditional covenant made between God and David.
But the earthly kingdom of David could not last united after his son Solomon.
That means the promise of God was not about a physical kingdom. God was promising a mystical kingdom established by a descendent of David.
This king and his Kingdom was the hope of the Jews. They called him Messiah.
Thus the term "Son of David" became a title for the Messiah.
But the Messiah is more than a physical son of David. Jesus is the promised Messiah, the eternal King.
While David was an earthly king who advanced the kingdom of Israel in his day, the Messiah would rule for all eternity.
In fact the Davidic covenant promised that the Messiah, Jesus Christ would come from the lineage of David and the tribe of Judah and would establish a kingdom that would endure forever.

This is the mystery proclaimed through the words of Bartimaeus, the blind man: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
That means, he believes that Jesus is born in the lineage of King David, Jesus is the expected Messiah and Jesus would establish the kingdom of God. So he was instantly healed.
These are great confessions of men about the kingship of Jesus.


Let me cut short.
We have been learning that the thieves crucified along with Jesus were not mere thieves, they might have been Galilean Zealots, who rebelled against Roman Empire in order to establish a Jewish kingdom.
Jesus also spoke about a kingdom. But the Kingdom of Jesus was not earthly and it was eternal.
The death of Jesus was not an end to the kingdom, but only an interval period while the aspirant king would go to Heaven and receive the authority and power.
Jesus would come back and establish the Kingdom of God for ever.
One of the thieves received the Grace of God and he instantly responded favorably to it.
He proclaimed his faith in Jesus and the Kingdom of God. He was saved and accepted into the Kingdom.
The blind man, Bartimaeus, also believed that Jesus is the Messiah and he was healed.
These are great confessions that no man has ever equaled it.
Jesus is the promised Messiah, the King of Kings. His is the Kingdom of God. And He is sure to come again to establish the eternal Kingdom. Amen!

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