A thief! and dying, too! and yet found mercy! Yes, even he found mercy! Well has it been said, that the fact of a poor sinner finding mercy at the eleventh hour is left upon record in order that none should despair; and that but one fact is recorded so that none should presume!
From what is stated in Matthew's Gospel, it is clear that up to a certain point both thieves were alike. Each was equally at enmity with Jesus; for we there read that, when he was upon the cross, the chief priests mocked him, with the scribes and the elders, saying, "He saved others." This much they admitted, and this too, to their own condemnation! They added, "Himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel" said they, "Let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God." Hence it was not only an upbraiding of Christ, but it was challenging God the Father. We are told, moreover, that "the thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth." (Matt. 27:42-44)
Hence we see the bitterness of spirit of which they were both the subjects, and how great their hatred and sarcasm! But now mark the change; and who was it that made the change? Who? It was none other than God the Holy Ghost whose distinct office it is to "convince of sin," as well as to "give repentance unto life," and to reveal Christ as the sinner's only Hope set before him in the gospel.
Now by turning to Luke's gospel, chapter 23, we read of what doubtless followed the reproach and the sarcasm mentioned by Matthew in his Gospel. "And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." (verse 39) As his anguish increased, and the time of his death drew nigh, he became the more excited and angry. Hence he was the more indignant with Jesus. This, it would appear, was overruled for good; for the very spirit he showed and the language he used, stirred up his fellow-sufferer, coupled as, in all probability, it was with what he saw of the meek and lowly spirit of Jesus. He had heard the cry, and now he felt it, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (verse 34)
Hence we read, in regard to the other thief's treatment of Jesus that he "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." (verse 41) Here, in all probability, being truly convinced of his sin, he acknowledged the justice of his sentence. He had ceased excusing himself, or denying his guilt. He saw and felt himself a transgressor, and that as it were in a moment, because it was God's doing! The moment the Holy Ghost took the man in hand, he wrought effectually and savingly; for he not only brought him to a sense of his sin, and so an acknowledgement of it, but he turned his eyes, and his heart Christward!
Moreover, he put into his heart and drew from his lips a marvelous plea! He made him, in a moment, a bold beggar, not indeed a careless one, a haughty one, a daring one; no, but an earnest, an ardent, a resolute beggar! He saw, as it were, in the twinkling of an eye how matters stood. He felt he was in the very presence of a suffering, dying Redeemer! All that he had ever heard of him was brought vividly before him as in a moment! He felt, too, that he himself was a dying man and that shortly he should, as the just reward of his misdeed, be in the place where hope never comes. Hence he says within himself, "Notwithstanding all I have ever been, and all I have ever done; and in spite of the folly and the sin to which I have just given way in upbraiding this great and innocent Sufferer, I'll make bold, I'll venture, I'll try; it's now or never! I've not a moment to lose! He can but refuse and reject me! I shall be no worse off then now!"
And then, not upon the ground of promise of amendment, for such in his case would indeed be the height of folly, he being a dying man. Nor upon the ground of excuse, or reasoning; but with a simple look and an ardent plea, "He said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." (Lk. 23:42) What a prayer! "Lord!" Then he acknowledged his deity! "Remember me!" What a venture! According to man's mode of doing things, he might have thought that he should be remembered in wrath, in vengeance, in just retribution! "Remember" him, of all men, who had just reproached the great and gracious Sufferer. "When thou comest into thy kingdom." Then he acknowledges his rightful authority and kingdom of which he was about to take possession.
May we not presume that this was previous knowledge now sanctified and brought home as in a moment by the Holy Ghost? And should not this encourage the Lord's servants to "sow beside all waters," not knowing when or how that information may be applied to the heart and conscience with saving power?
"And Jesus said unto him, verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." Oh, what boundless love! What wondrous grace! What marvelous compassion! What! no upbraiding? no censure? no reproach? No, not a particle! And, in that very act of pity, tenderness, and mercy, his last dying act, he secured to himself adoring admiration. Oh, how that pardoned thief loved, admired, and adored from that moment to all eternity.
He who talked with and accepted that dying thief just as he was, and pledged himself that he should be with him that very day in paradise, is the self same Almighty and ever-adorable One whose name and whose fame we proclaim; "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever."