Christ and the Two Thieves
Adapted from a Tract by
J. C. Ryle
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (40) But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? (41) And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (42) And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (43) And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:39-43
There are few passages in the New Testament that are more familiar. And it is right and good that these verses should be well known. They have comforted many troubled minds. They have brought peace to many uneasy consciences. They have been a healing balm to many wounded hearts. They have smoothed down not a few dying pillows. Wherever the Gospel of Christ is preached, they will always be honoured, loved, and remembered.
Let us spend some time once more in these verses. Let us look into the leading lessons which they are meant to teach. I cannot see the state of your heart before God, but I can see truths in this passage which no man can ever know too well.
I. First of all, we are meant to learn from these verses, Christ’s power and willingness to save sinners.
This is the main doctrine to be gathered from the history of the penitent thief. It teaches us a very wonderful lesson,—it teaches us that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.
Consider: can any man’s case look more hopeless and desperate, than that of this penitent thief once did?
He was a wicked man,—a wrongdoer,—a thief, if not a murderer. We know this, because only such were crucified. He was suffering a just punishment for breaking the law. And as he had lived wicked, so he seemed determined to die wicked,—for when he first was crucified, he railed at our Lord along with the other thief.
And he was a dying man. He hung there, nailed to a cross, from which he was never to come down alive. He could not move hand or foot. His hours were numbered. The grave was ready for him. There was but a step between him and death.
If ever there was a soul hovering on the brink of hell, it was the soul of this thief. If ever there was a case that seemed lost, gone, and past recovery, it was his. If ever there was a child of Adam whom the devil made sure of as his own, it was this man.
But see now what happened. He stopped railing and blaspheming, as he had done at the first. He began to speak in another manner altogether. He turned to our blessed Lord in prayer. He prayed to Jesus “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He asked that his soul might be cared for, his sins pardoned, and himself thought of in another world. Truly this was a wonderful change.
And then mark what kind of answer he received. Some would have said he was too wicked a man to be saved. But that was not the case. Some would have imagined it was too late: the door was shut, and there was no room for mercy. But it proved not too late at all. The Lord Jesus gave him an immediate answer,—spoke kindly to him,—assured him he should be with Him that day in Paradise: pardoned him completely,—cleansed him thoroughly from his sins,—received him graciously,—justified him freely,—raised him from the gates of hell,—gave him a title to glory. Of all the multitude of saved souls, none ever received so glorious an assurance of his own salvation, as did this penitent thief. Go over the whole list, from Genesis to Revelation, and you will find none who had such words spoken to them as these: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Consider how the Lord Jesus never gave so complete a proof of His power and will to save, as He did on this occasion. In the day when He seemed most weak, He showed that He was a strong deliverer. In the hour when His body was racked with pain, He showed that he could feel tenderly for others. At the time when He Himself was dying, He bestowed eternal life on a sinner.
Now, is it not a right to say, Christ is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him? (Heb 7:25) Behold the proof of it. If ever a sinner was too far gone to be saved, it was this thief. Yet he was plucked as a brand from the fire.
Is it not a right to say, Christ will receive any poor sinner who comes to Him with the prayer of faith, and cast no one out? Behold the proof of it. If ever there was one that seemed too bad to be received, this was the man. Yet the door of mercy was wide open even for him.
Is it not a right to say, by grace you may be saved through faith, not a result of works: (Eph 2:8,9) fear not, only believe? Behold the proof of it. This thief was never baptized. He belonged to no visible Church. He never received the Lord’s Supper. He never did any work for Christ. He never gave money to Christ’s cause. But he had faith, and so he was saved.
Is it not a right to say, the youngest faith will save a man’s soul, if it only be true? Behold the proof of it. This man’s faith was only one day old, but it led him to Christ, and preserved him from hell.
Why then should any man or woman despair with such a passage as this in the Bible? Jesus is a physician who can cure hopeless cases. He can bring dead souls to life, and call the things which are not as though they were.
No man or woman should ever despair! Jesus is still the same now that He was two thousand years ago. The keys of death and hell are in His hand. When He opens no one can shut.
Are your sins more in number than the hairs of your head? Have your evil habits grown with your growth, and strengthened with your strength? Have you up till now hated good, and loved evil, all the days of your life? These things are sad indeed; but there is hope, even for you. Christ can heal you. Christ can raise you from your low condition. Heaven is not shut against you. Christ is able to welcome you, if you will humbly commit your soul into His hands.
Now, please consider this question: are your sins forgiven? If not, I set before you this day a full and free salvation. I invite you to follow the steps of the penitent thief: come to Christ, and live. I tell you that Jesus is very pitiful and merciful. I tell you He can do everything that your soul requires. “Though your sins are like scarlet,” He will make them “white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Is 1:18) Why should you not be saved as well as another? Come to Christ, and live.
Or by God’s grace, are you a true believer? If you are, you ought to glory in Christ. Do not glory in your own faith, your own feelings, your own knowledge, your own prayers, your own improvements, your own diligence. Glory in nothing but Christ. The very best of us knows but little of that merciful and mighty Saviour! We do not exalt Him and glory in Him enough. Let us pray that we may see more of the fulness there is in Him.
Are you one who wants to try to do good to others? If you do, remember to tell them about Christ. Tell the young, tell the poor, tell the aged, tell the ignorant, tell the sick, tell the dying,—tell them all about Christ. Tell them of His power, and tell them of His love. Tell them of His doings, and tell them of His feelings. Tell them what He has done for the chief of sinners. Tell them what He is willing to do to the last day of time. Tell it to them over and over again. Never be tired of speaking of Christ. Say to them, broadly and fully, freely and unconditionally, unreservedly and undoubtingly, “Come to Christ as the penitent thief did: come to Christ, and you will be saved.”
II. The second lesson we are meant to learn from this passage is this,—if some are saved in the very hour of death, others are not.
This is a truth that never ought to be passed over. Let us consider it carefully. It is a truth that stands out plainly in the sad end of the other wrongdoer, and is only too often forgotten.
What became of the other thief who was crucified? Why did he not turn from his sin, and call on the Lord? Why did he remain hardened and impenitent? Why was he not saved? It is useless to try to answer such questions. Let us be content to take the fact as we find it, and see what it is meant to teach us.
We have no right whatever to say this thief was a worse man than his companion. There is nothing to prove it. Plainly, both were wicked men. Both were receiving the due reward of their deeds. Both hung by the side of our Lord Jesus Christ. Both heard Him pray for His murderers. Both saw Him suffer patiently. But while one repented, the other remained hardened. While one began to pray, the other went on railing. While one was converted in his last hours, the other died as bad a man as he had lived. While one was taken to paradise, the other went to his own place, the place of the devil and his angels.
Now these things are written for our warning.
There is warning, as well as comfort in these verses, and what a very solemn warning too.
They tell us loudly, that though some may repent and be converted on their death-beds, it does not at all follow that all will. A death-bed is not always a saving time.
They tell us loudly that two men may have the same opportunities of getting good for their souls,—may be placed in the same position, see the same things, and hear the same things; and yet only one will take advantage of them, repent, believe, and be saved.
They tell us, above all, that repentance and faith are the gifts of God, and are not in a man’s own power; and that if any one flatters himself he can repent at his own time, choose his own season, seek the Lord when he pleases, and, like the penitent thief, be saved at the very last,—he may find, in the end that he is tragically mistaken.
And it is good and profitable to bear this in mind. There is a huge amount of delusion in the world on this very subject. There are many allowing life to slip away, who are unprepared to die. Many admit that they ought to repent, but are always putting it off. And one grand underlying reason is that, deep down inside, most men suppose they can turn to God just when they like.
They misinterpret the parable of the labourer in the vineyard, which speaks of the eleventh hour, and use it as it never was meant to be used. They dwell on the pleasant part of the verses we are now considering, and forget the rest. They talk of the thief that went to paradise, and was saved, and forget the one who died as he had lived, and was lost.
Please be careful that you do not fall into this mistake. Look at the history of men in the Bible, and see how often these false notions are contradicted. Mark well how many proofs there are that two men may have the same light offered them, and only one use it; and that no one has a right to take liberties with God’s mercy, and presume he will be able to repent just when he likes.
Look at Saul and David. They lived about the same time. They rose from the same rank in life. They were called to the same position in the world. They enjoyed the ministry of the same prophet, Samuel. They reigned the same number of years.—Yet one was saved and the other lost.
Look at the world around you. See what is going on continually under your eyes. Two sisters will often attend the same ministry, listen to the same truths, hear the same sermons; and yet only one will be converted unto God, while the other remains totally unmoved. Two friends often read the same religious book. One is so moved by it, that he gives up all for Christ; the other sees nothing at all in it, and continues the same as before.
Hundreds have read Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress” without profit; —with Wilberforce it was one of the beginnings of his piritual life. Thousands have read Wilberforce’s “Practical View of Christianity,” and laid it down again unchanged;—from the time Legh Richmond read it he became another man. No man has any support for saying, “Salvation is in my own power.”
I am not trying to explain these things. I only put them before you as great facts. And I ask you to consider them well.
This is not meant to discourage you. Rather, it is to warn you of a great danger; not to drive you back from heaven;—but to draw you on, and bring you to Christ while He can be found.
I want you to beware of presumption. Do not abuse God’s mercy and compassion. Do not continue in sin, I urge you, and think you can repent, and believe, and be saved, just when you like, when you please, when you will, and when you choose. I would always set before you an open door. I would always say, “While there is life there is hope.” But if you would be wise, don’t put off anything that concerns your soul.
I want you to beware of letting slip good thoughts and godly convictions. If you have them, cherish them and nourish them, for fear that you lose them for ever. Make the most of them, for fear that they take to themselves wings and flee away.
Have you an inclination to begin praying? Put it in practice at right away. Have you an idea of beginning to really serve Christ? Set about it at once. Are you enjoying any spiritual light? See that you live up to your light. Do not treat opportunities lightly, for fear that the day come when you will want to use them, and not be able. Do not wait any longer, lest you become wise too late.
You may say, perhaps, “it is never too late to repent.” That is right enough, but late repentance is seldom true. And you cannot be certain that if you put off repenting, you will repent at all.
You may say, “Why should I be afraid?—the penitent thief was saved.” That is true, but look again at the passage which tells you that the other thief was lost.
III. The third lesson we are meant to learn from these verses is this,—the Spirit always leads saved souls in one way.
This is a point that deserves particular attention, and is often overlooked. Men look at the general fact that the penitent thief was saved when he was dying, and they look no further.
They do not consider the evidences this thief left behind him. They do not observe the abundant proof he gave of the work of the Spirit in his heart. And these proofs, if traced out, will show that the Spirit always works in one way, and that whether He converts a man in an hour, as He did the penitent thief,—or whether by slow degrees, as he does others, the steps by which He leads souls to heaven are always the same.
Let us try to see this clearly. Let us completely shake off the common notion that there is some easy royal road to heaven from a dying bed. Let us look into how every saved soul goes through the same experience, and that the leading principles of the penitent thief’s religion were just the same as those of the oldest saint that ever lived.
i) See then, for one thing, how strong was the faith of this man.
He called Jesus, “Lord.” He declared his belief that Jesus would have a kingdom. He believed that He was able to give him eternal life and glory, and in this belief prayed to Him. He maintained Jesus’ innocence of all the charges brought against Him. “This man,” he said, “has done nothing wrong.” Others perhaps may have thought the Lord innocent,—no one said so openly but this poor dying man.
And when did all this happen? It happened when the whole nation had denied Christ,—shouting, “Away with him, away with him … “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15)—when the chief priests and Pharisees had condemned and found Him guilty of death,—when even His own disciples had forsaken Him and fled,—when He was hanging, faint, bleeding and dying on the cross, numbered with transgressors, and accounted accursed. This was the hour when the thief believed in Christ, and prayed to Him. Surely such faith was never seen since the world began.
The disciples had seen mighty signs and miracles. They had seen the dead raised with a word,—and lepers healed with a touch,—the blind receiving sight,—the dumb made to speak,—the lame made to walk. They had seen thousands fed with a few loaves and fishes. They had seen their Master walking on the water as on dry land. They had all of them heard Him speak as no man ever did, and hold out promises of good things yet to come. They had, some of them, a foretaste of His glory on the mount of transfiguration. Doubtless their faith was the gift of God, but still they had had much help.
We are not told the dying thief saw any of the things just mentioned. He only saw our Lord in agony, and in weakness, in suffering, and in pain. He saw Him undergoing a dishonourable punishment; deserted, mocked, despised, blasphemed. He saw Him rejected by all the great, and wise, and noble of His own people,—His strength dried up like a potsherd, His life drawing close to the grave. (Psa. 22:15; 88:3.) He saw no sceptre, no royal crown, no outward dominion, no glory, no majesty, no power, no signs of might. And yet the dying thief believed, and looked forward to Christ’s kingdom.
Now would you know if you have the Spirit? Then carefully consider the question I put to you this morning.—Where is your faith in Christ?
ii) See, for another thing, what a right sense of sin the thief had.
He says to his companion, “we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” He acknowledges his own ungodliness, and the justice of his punishment. He makes no attempt to justify himself, or excuse his wickedness. He speaks like a man humbled and self-abased by the memory of his past iniquities. This is what all God’s children feel. They are ready to admit they are poor hell-deserving sinners. They can say with their hearts, as well as with their lips, “We have left undone the things that we ought to have done, and we have done those things that we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.”
Now, would you know if you have the Spirit? Then mark this question.—Do you feel your sin?
iiI) See, for another thing, what brotherly love the thief showed to his companion.
He tried to stop his railing and blaspheming, and bring him to his senses. “Do you not fear God,” he says, “since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” There is no surer mark of grace than this. Grace shakes a man out of his selfishness, and makes him feel for the souls of others. When the Samaritan woman was converted, she left her water jar and ran to the city, saying, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29) When Saul was converted, immediately he went to the synagogue at Damascus, and testified to his brethren of Israel, that Jesus was the Christ.
Now, would you know if you have the Spirit? Then where is your charity and love to souls?
In one word, you see in the penitent thief a finished work of the Holy Spirit. Every part of the believer’s character may be traced in him. Short as his life was after conversion, he found time to leave abundant evidence that he was a child of God. His faith, his prayer, his humility, his brotherly love, are unmistakable witnesses of the reality of his repentance. He was not a penitent in name only, but in deed and in truth.
Let no man therefore think, that because the penitent thief was saved, men can be saved without leaving any evidence of the Spirit’s work. Let such an person consider well what evidence this man left behind, and take care.
It is sad to hear what people sometimes say about what they call death-bed evidences. It is distressing to see how little satisfies some persons, and how easily they can persuade themselves that their friends are gone to heaven. They will tell you when their relation is dead and gone, that “he made such a beautiful prayer one day,—or that he talked so well,—or that he was so sorry for his old ways, and intended to live so differently if he got better,—or that he craved nothing in this world,—or that he liked people to read to him, and pray with him.” And because they have this to go upon, they seem to have a comfortable hope that he is saved. Christ may never have been named,—the way of salvation may never have been in the least mentioned. But it does not matter; there was a little talk of religion, and so they are content.
In what follows there is no desire to hurt the anyone’s feelings but it is important to speak plainly on this subject.
From his experience Ryle can say the following: “Once for all, let me say, that as a general rule, nothing is so unsatisfactory as death-bed evidences. The things that men say, and the feelings they express when sick and frightened, are little to be depended on. Often, too often, they are the result of fear, and do not spring from the ground of the heart. Often, too often, they are things said by rote; caught from the lips of ministers and anxious friends, but evidently not felt. And nothing can prove all this more clearly, than the well-known fact, that the great majority of persons who make promises of amendment on a sick-bed, if they recover, go back to sin and the world.”
When a man has lived a life of thoughtlessness and folly, something more is needed than a few fair words and good wishes to give hope about his soul, when he comes to his death-bed. It is not enough that he will want the Bible be read to him, and prayer be made by his bedside; that he says, “he has not thought so much as he ought of religion, and he thinks he would be a different man if he got better.” All this is not enough, to make anyone rightly feel happy about his state.
It is very well as far as it goes, but it is not conversion. It is very well in its way, but it is not faith in Christ. Until conversion is seen, and faith in Christ, no Christian should dare feel satisfied. Others may feel satisfied if they please, and after their friend’s death say, they hope he is gone to heaven. But it would be wiser to hold our tongue, and say nothing. We should be content with the least measure of repentance and faith in a dying man, even though it be no bigger than a grain of mustard seed; but to be content with anything less than repentance and faith, seems very close to infidelity.
Now, what kind of evidence do you mean to leave behind as to the state of your soul? Take the example of the penitent thief, and you will do well.
When we have carried you to your grave, let us not have to hunt up stray words, and scraps of religion, in order to make out that you were a true believer. Let us not have to say in a hesitating way one to another, “I trust he is happy: he talked so nicely one day, and he seemed so pleased with a chapter in the Bible on another occasion, and he liked such a person, who is a good man.”
Let us be able to speak decidedly as to your condition. Let us have some standing proof of your penitence, your faith, and your holiness, that no one will be able for a moment to question your state. Depend on it, without this, those you leave behind can feel no solid comfort about your soul. We may use the form of religion at your burial, and express charitable hopes. We may meet you at the cemetery, and say, “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.” But this will not change your condition. If you die without conversion to God,—without repentance,—and without faith, your funeral will only be the funeral of a lost soul.
IV. We are meant, in the next place, to learn from these verses, that believers in Christ when they die, are with the Lord.
This you may gather from our Lord’s words to the penitent thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” And you have an expression very like it in the Epistle to the Philippians, where Paul says he has a desire to “depart and be with Christ.” (Phil 1:23.)
To meditate on this subject is very full of comfort and peace.
Believers after death are “with Christ.” That answers many a difficult question, which otherwise might puzzle man’s busy, restless mind. The abode of dead saints, their joys, their feelings, their happiness, all seem explained by this simple expression,—they are with Christ.
The state of departed believers is a high and deep subject, such as man’s mind can neither grasp nor fully understand. We know their happiness falls short of what it will be when their bodies are raised again, and Jesus returns to earth. Yet we also know they enjoy a blessed rest,—a rest from labour,—a rest from sorrow,—a rest from pain,—and a rest from sin. But it does not follow because we cannot explain these things, that we cannot be persuaded they are far happier than they ever were on earth. We can see their happiness in this very passage, “They are with Christ,” and when that is seen it is enough.
If the sheep are with the Shepherd,—if the members are with the Head,—if the children of Christ’s family are with Him who loved them and carried them all the days of their pilgrimage on earth, all must be well, all must be right.
We are not told what kind of place paradise is, but we can ask no brighter view of it than this,—that Christ is there. All other things in the picture which imagination draws of paradise, are nothing in comparison to this. How He is there, and in what way He is there, we do know not. Let the believer only see Christ in paradise when his eyes close in death, and that will be enough for him. Well does the Psalmist say, “In your presence there is fullness of joy.” (Psalm 16:11)
Now, it may be that you do not think much about your soul. It may be you know little of Christ as your Saviour, and have never tasted by experience that He is precious. And yet perhaps you hope to go to paradise when you die. Surely this passage is one that should make you think. Paradise is a place where Christ is. Then can it be a place that you would enjoy?
And, it may be you are a believer, and yet tremble at the thought of the grave. It seems cold and dreary. You feel as if all before you was dark, and gloomy, and comfortless. Fear not, but be encouraged by this text. You are going to paradise, and Christ will be there.
V. The last thing we are meant to learn from these verses is this,—the eternal portion of every man’s soul is close to him.
“Today,” says our Lord to the penitent thief, “today you will be with me in paradise.” He does not talk about a long period of time,—He does not talk of his entering into a state of happiness as a thing “far away.” He speaks of today: “this very day, in which you are hanging on the cross.”
How very near that seems! How awfully near that word brings our everlasting dwelling-place. Happiness or misery,—sorrow or joy,—the presence of Christ, or the company of devils,—they are all that close to us. “There is but a step,” says David, “between me and death.” (1 Sam 20:3)There is but a step, we may say, between ourselves and either paradise or hell.
We, none of us, realize this as we ought to do. It is high time to shake off the dreamy state of mind in which we live on this matter. We are prone to talk and think, even about believers, as if death was a long journey,—as if the dying saint had embarked on a long voyage. It is all wrong, very wrong. Their harbour and their home is close by, and they have entered it.
Some of us know by bitter experience, what a long and weary time it is between the death of those we love, and the hour when we bury them out of our sight. Such weeks are the slowest, saddest, heaviest weeks in all our lives. But, blessed be God, the souls of departed saints are free from the very moment their last breath is taken. While we are weeping, and preparing the coffin, and the last painful arrangement being made, the spirits of our beloved ones are enjoying the presence of Christ. They are freed for ever from the burden of the flesh. They are were the “wicked cease from troubling, and … the weary are at rest.” (Job 3:17)
Consider that the day that believers die they are in paradise. Their battle is fought;—their strife is over. They have passed through that gloomy valley we must all one day experience;—they have gone over that dark river we must one day cross. They have drank that last bitter cup which sin has mingled for man. They have reached that place where sorrow and sighing are no more. Surely we should not wish them back again. We should not weep for them, but for ourselves.
We are warring still, but they are at peace. We are labouring, but they are at rest. We are watching, but they are sleeping. We are wearing our spiritual armour, but they have taken it off for ever. We are still at sea, but they are safe in harbour. We have tears, but they have joys. We are strangers and pilgrims, but as for them, they are at home. Surely, better are the dead in Christ than the living. Surely, the very hour the poor saint dies, he is at once higher and happier than the highest upon earth.
It is to be feared that there is a vast amount of delusion on this point: That many, who are not Roman Catholics, and profess not to believe purgatory, have, notwithstanding, some strange ideas in their minds about the immediate consequences of death: that many have a sort of vague notion that there is some interval or space of time between death and their eternal state. They imagine that they will go through a kind of purifying change, and that though they die unfit for heaven, they will yet be found worthy of it after all.
But it will not stand. There is no change after death. There is no conversion in the grave. There is no new heart given after the last breath is taken. The very day we go, we launch for ever. The day we go from this world, we begin an eternal condition. From that day there is no spiritual change. As we die, so we will receive after death. As the tree falls so it must lie.
This ought to make the unconverted think. Do you know you are close to hell? This very day you might die, and if you died out of Christ, you would open your eyes in hell, and in torment.
And it ought to make the true Christian realize that he is far nearer heaven than he thinks. This very day, if the Lord should take you, you would find yourself in paradise. The good land of promise is near to you. The eyes that you closed in weakness and pain, would open at once on a glorious rest, such as human language cannot describe.
And now, to close, a few words in conclusion.
Is there a humble-hearted and contrite sinner among us?—Are you that one? Then here is encouragement for you. See what the penitent thief did, and do likewise. See how he prayed,—see how he called on the Lord Jesus Christ,—see what an answer of peace he obtained. Why should you not do the same? Why should you also not be saved?
Is there a proud and presumptuous person of the world among us?—Are you that one? Then be warned. See how the impenitent thief died as he had lived, and beware for fear that you end up the same. Abandon this false confidence, lest you die in your sins! Seek the Lord while He may be found. Turn and repent: why will you die?
Is there a professing believer in Christ among us.—Are you such an one? Then take the penitent thief’s religion as a measure by which to prove your own. See that you know something of true repentance and saving faith, of real humility and fervent charity. Do not be satisfied with the world’s standard of Christianity. Be of one mind with the penitent thief, and you will be wise.
Is there someone who is mourning over departed believers.—Are you such an one? Then take comfort from this Scripture. See how your beloved ones are in the best of hands. They cannot be better off. They never were so well in their lives as they are now. They are with Jesus, whom their souls loved on earth. Abandon your selfish mourning! Rejoice rather that they are freed from trouble, and have entered into rest.
And is there some aged servant of Christ among us.—Are you such an one? Then see from these verses how near you are to home. A few more days of labour and sorrow, and the King of kings will send for you; and in a moment your warfare will be at end, and all will be peace.