Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.


“Assuredly, I say unto you today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42).

The First Word that Jesus uttered from His cross was a prayer for His enemies. The Second Word was an answer to prayer. It was an answer addressed to a single individual. Jesus spoke to this man as if he was the only being in the world. What comfort this word must have brought! What a “balm of Gilead” it has brought to many even to this day!

To unpack this Second Word, we will answer three questions which relate to the one to whom the promise was made, the One who made the promise, and the nature of the prayer’s answer.


Who offered the prayer that brought this remarkable answer? A thief! On Calvary, Goodness is crucified between two thieves. That is Jesus’ true position: among the worthless and the rejects. He is the right Man in the right place. He who said He would come as a thief in the night is among the thieves; the Physician is among the lepers; the Redeemer is among the unredeemed.

The two thieves crucified on either side of Him at first blasphemed and cursed. Suffering does not necessarily make us better; it can scar and burn the soul unless it is purified by seeing its redemptive value. Unspiritualized suffering may cause us to degenerate. The thief on the left asked to be taken down. But the thief on the right, evidently moved by Jesus’ priestly prayer of intercession, asked to be taken up. Reprimanding his fellow thief for his blasphemy, he said: “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40, 41). Then, throwing himself on divine mercy, he asked for forgiveness: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).

A dying man asked a dying Man for eternal life. A man without possessions asked a poor Man for a kingdom. A thief at death’s door asked to die like a thief and steal Paradise. If Jesus had come merely as a teacher, the thief would never have asked for forgiveness. But since the thief’s request touched the reason Jesus came to earth, namely, to save souls, the thief heard the immediate answer: “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

“When shame and darkness covered Him and thee, / What didst thou see, / O thou great penitent of Calvary, / That thou couldst beg this boon as thy reward / For suffering? — When Thou comest to Thy Kingdom, Lord, Remember me!

“In that most darkest hour, / Of hatred born, / When Satan’s power / Showed Love held up to scorn, / What way / To thee came strength to pray? / Lord, when Thy Kingdom cometh unto Thee, / Remember me!”

It was the thief’s last prayer, perhaps even his first. He knocked once, sought once, asked once, dared everything, and found everything. When even the disciples were doubting and only one was present at the cross, the thief owned and acknowledged Jesus as Savior. If Barabbas had come to the execution, how he must have wished that he had never been released and that he could have heard the words of the compassionate High Priest.


Who offered forgiveness? Practically every part of Christ’s body had been fastened by nails or tortured by whips and thorns, except His heart and His tongue, and these declared forgiveness that very day. Who but God can forgive sins? And who can promise Paradise except Him who by nature is eternal to Paradise?

The arrangement that Jesus would hang between the two thieves fulfilled the Scripture that “He would be numbered with the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). But it was His right position. His enemies had long called Him “a friend of publicans and sinners,” and now, by crucifying Him between the thieves, they put the same idea into action. Jesus came to the world to identify Himself with sinners; their cause was His, and He wrapped up His fate with theirs. He lived among them, and it was meant that He should die among them. In a beautiful way, that position on the cross was a prefigurement of what has been happening every day since: some sinners have believed on Him and been saved, while others have not believed. Stalker observes that “the parable of the Prodigal Son is an epitome of the whole teaching of Christ, so is the salvation of the thief on the cross the life of Christ in miniature.”1

The final Judgment was prefigured on Calvary: the Judge was in the center, with the two divisions of humanity—the saved and the lost, the sheep and the goats—on either side. When Christ would come in glory to judge all humanity, the cross would be with Him then, too, but as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame. 


The promise made to the thief was the only word spoken on the cross that received an answer, and it was the promise of Paradise. But “when” would the thief receive the promise and be with Jesus? Since Jesus did not go to Paradise that day, certainly the thief would not precede Him. The answer emerges from the grammatical structure of the sentence. Change the punctuation, and the meaning changes. If the comma precedes “today,” one might conclude that the thief did go to Paradise that same day. However, if the comma follows “today,” the promise will be fulfilled when the “dead in Christ,” including the thief, will be raised at the last day (1 Thess. 4:16).

The promise made to the thief was a twofold assurance. First, Jesus gave assurance of an abiding fellowship with Himself. To be forgiven is more than a removal of a penalty; it is the restoration of a fellowship. They would be together in eternity. Second, Jesus gave assurance that those who turn to Him are saved instantly. Paul sums up Christianity in two things: repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Both of these are fulfilled in this penitent’s words. As one scholar asks, “Did ever the new birth take place in so strange a cradle?” The thief’s conversion is a wonderful testimony that God would not allow His own to be destitute of subjects.


The thief’s deathbed conversion will always be an encouragement to the worst of sinners when they repent. Though it is common for penitents to be afraid to come to God because they believe their sins are too great to be forgiven, the story of the thief on the cross should assure them that the mercy which sufficed for him is sufficient for all: “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). We should set no limits on the invitation of the Savior, for “him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37, KJV). AMEN.

1 James M. Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ (Michigan: Zondervan, 1984), 120.

Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.