39 And one of the malefactors that were hanged railed on him, saying, Art not thou the Christ? save thyself and us.40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.42 And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.43 And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.
This story which enshrines for us the second saying of our Lord upon the cross has often been regarded as one of the most significant narratives in the Gospels: first, because it gives us such a picture of the unique person of Christ; here was a dying man who at the same time was a forgiving God. Then, here is a picture of the transforming power of Christ who in an instant of time changed a robber into a saint. Most of all, we have here a message of the conditions of salvation which are ever the same, namely, repentance and faith. The first of these conditions is strikingly illustrated from the fact that the repentant thief was thinking of God and remembering that it was against a divine Being that he had sinned. Of this fact he reminded his companion, intimating that they might properly fear him into whose august presence they were so soon to be ushered. It is the very essence of repentance to regard sin, not as a mistake or a weakness, or as an injury to men, but as rebellion and insult against God. His penitence was further shown in his recognition that the penalty which he was suffering was just, and in his recognition of the innocent sufferings of Christ.
His faith was as remarkable as his repentance. He saw in the bleeding, dying Sufferer, One who is yet to return as universal King, and to him he addressed his prayer: |Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.| We do not know the source of such faith. The robber may have heard part of the trial of Jesus; he did hear him praying for his enemies; but whatever gave rise to his belief and trust, he regarded Jesus as a Saviour and Lord who was yet to reign and who could bring him to eternal glory. This story thus reveals to us the truth that salvation is conditioned upon repentance and faith. However, it contains other important messages also. It declares that salvation is independent of sacraments. The thief had never been baptized, nor had he partaken of the Lord's Supper. It is obvious that had he lived he would have carried out the requirements of his Lord by accepting these sacraments. He did, in fact, boldly confess his faith in the presence of a hostile crowd and amid the taunts and jeers of rulers and soldiers, yet he was saved without any formal rites.
It is further evident that salvation is independent of good works. The thief was pardoned before he had lived a single, righteous, innocent day. Of course, good works follow faith; they evidence its reality; but faith precedes and results in holiness. A life of goodness is an expression of gratitude for salvation already begun.
It is further evident that there is no |sleep of the soul.| The body may sleep, but consciousness persists after death. The word of the Master was, |To-day shalt thou be ... in Paradise.| Again it is evident that there is no |purgatory.| If any man ever needed discipline and |purifying fires,| it was this penitent robber. Out of a life of sin and shame he passed immediately into a state of blessedness. This was the promise: |To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.|
Again it may be remarked that salvation is not universal. There were two robbers; only one was saved. Jesus had heard them both speaking of him. He did not say |ye,| but |Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.|
Last of all, it may be noted that the very essence of the joy which lies beyond death consists in personal communion with Christ. The heart of the promise to the dying thief was this: |Thou shalt be with me.| This is our blessed assurance, that to depart is |to be with Christ,| which is |very far better.|