When I’m really pondering something, I’ll occasionally stay up into the wee hours of the morning, reading and studying. I think I’m really more of a morning person, but the easiest time for me to focus is any time the house is quiet, and everything is still. Last night was one of those occasions.
I started the evening studying something else, but a few tangents later I found myself reading and rereading the story of the two thieves crucified alongside of Jesus. When I finally made myself go to bed, this story still weighed heavily on my mind. When I woke up again this morning, it was still there.
“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, 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. 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 23:39-43, KJV).
Two thieves were crucified next to Jesus. One, rebellious and defiant to the end, continued to mock instead of yield. As far as we know, he died and received the unhappy reward deserved by all mankind. But the other thief reacted differently. In his desperation he turns to Christ, and these five verses contain, in my opinion, the most compelling conversion story of the entire New Testament. That is not to say that the others are any less important, but Jesus’ dealings with this condemned man illustrate the Gospel to us in a simple yet incredibly vivid manner.
This thief doesn’t necessarily have the most dramatic conversion story in the world, but to my mind, that makes this all the more remarkable. People seem to love dramatic conversion stories, and I understand why. I think we’re all a little amazed at God’s power when we see someone who has had a Damascus Road experience like Saul/Paul. We look at those kind of people and marvel at what God can do: how He can take someone from the depths of sin and transform him into a great servant of Christ. And on some level, it makes perfect sense in our minds that God would save us to serve Him. We should, after all, serve Him.
But make no mistake: God does NOT save us because we can do something for Him in return.
That’s what makes the thief’s conversion so amazing. Here was a man who had lived the life of a common criminal. He was no one, nothing. And here he was, caught, condemned, despised by society, and rightfully so. This pitiful creature was facing the end of his earthly life, and he knew it.
He saw the Son of God about to suffer in the same manner, but knew that He was innocent and saw Him for who He was.
And with that, he cried out to the Savior. He had no good deeds upon which to bargain with the Almighty. He had with him no incentive with which to earn His favor. And he had no time left to reform, to serve Him, and to do great things for Him.
Empty handed, and with no other hope, he simply turned to Jesus Christ. He called out to Him, in great faith—the faith of one who saw the gravity of his situation and clung to Christ as his only resort for rescue—and asked, with no right to do so,
“Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42, KJV).
Master, don’t forget me, was his presumptuous request. To which the Savior replied,
“Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, KJV).
There was nothing for Him to do but to believe that Jesus Christ was his only hope. He trusted Christ to save him, and he was saved.
It is amazing enough to look at what God can do after we’re saved, the way He transforms us when we place our faith in Him. But perhaps more incredible is the fact that He saves us at all: the fact that He extends such mercy when we can do nothing to deserve it.
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-7, KJV).