Crucifixion was the best thing that could have happened to him.
No, I’m not talking about Jesus. I’m talking about the repentant thief next to Him on the cross. Presumably, he’d led a pretty miserable life, resorting to criminal activities that gained for him the death penalty. As he woke up that morning, he was probably looking back upon his life with bitterness and regret, knowing he had wasted his potential and squandered his talents. What he didn’t see coming was an encounter with a man who would alter the course of his eternity.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (Luke 23:42) the thief requested a few short hours after being crucified next to Jesus. What he didn’t realize was that Jesus was coming into His kingdom right then. This was why Jesus had come into the world, to die for the sins of everyone, including this thief.
But how did he know to ask Jesus about His kingdom? How did he know Jesus was a king in the first place? How did he come to saving faith in such a short amount of time?
The answer is a bit surprising. He didn’t hear it from Jesus’ disciples or other followers. Rather, Jesus’ enemies were the ones who told him who Jesus was, albeit unwittingly. The thief heard the taunts of the passersby, the chief priests and elders, and the Roman soldiers. He read the sign above Jesus’ head. He heard Jesus praying for forgiveness for His enemies. He could see this Jesus was no ordinary criminal. No, correct that. He could see that Jesus was no criminal at all. While the third man crucified that day hurled insults at Jesus and tried even in his last hours to save himself, Jesus instead was praying for salvation for His enemies. This was no mere man. There was more to Him than meets the eye.
When the soldiers mocked Jesus before crucifying Him, they put a scarlet robe on Him, pressed a crown of thorns into His head, put a reed in His right hand, and mocked Him as the “King of the Jews.” Then when they had crucified Him, they nailed the sign above His head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The passersby went a step further and quoted His own prediction as they taunted Him: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt 27:40). The chief priests, elders, and scribes derailed Jesus as well. “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God'” (Matt 27:42-43).
Do you see what’s happening? Even as they mock Jesus, they are spreading the Gospel! By quoting Jesus’ words back to Him, they are speaking the life-giving words necessary for the salvation of this criminal. He heard the taunts and read the sign. He realized that Jesus was in fact a king, the Son of God. He believed through the cruel mockery of those watching. It’s ironic, really. The chief priests were so upset over Jesus’ “blasphemy,” as they saw it, that they had Him put to death so people would stop believing in Him. Yet even as He hung upon the cross, He was still bringing others to faith in Him. And what means did He use this time? The tauntings of His enemies.
Romans 10:17 reminds us that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The criminal on the cross heard the words of Christ, spoken both by Jesus Himself as well as His enemies who themselves didn’t believe in Him. And those words of Christ brought him saving faith. This criminal, rejected by society as unsalvageable, was promised eternal life by Jesus Himself.
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
What a beautiful promise! And to such an unworthy man, nonetheless. If the Holy Spirit can even use the mocking and taunting of nonbelievers to work saving faith in a hardened criminal’s heart, how much more so can He use our words when we speak the Gospel? Don’t be afraid to speak of your faith. Live your faith and speak it at all times and in all places.
After all, you never know who might be listening.