A Study of Luke 23:33
“And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.” (Luke 23:33)
The predestinated moment in time had come. Jesus was at the appointed hour, and according to the Eternal will of the Father, was crucified with two malefactors. Matthew and Mark describe them as thieves, while Luke and John do not. At the time our Saviour came to Calvary and was crucified He was, at least by public, opinion considered as worthy of death as were the two thieves He died with. He truly was “despised and rejected of men,” as said the Prophet Isaiah. With Him in this desperate and odious trial were two outcasts from civilization; one at the right hand and one at the left of the bleeding Saviour. Two base men; dying as He, yet for completely different reasons. And, from what we can learn from the Scripture, their condemnation and crucifixion was just and proper. From society’s standpoint they truly deserved to die the death of the cross. Of the thieves personal circumstances little is mentioned. But, there is sufficient for us to know that they died justly for their crimes and foul deeds. Justice had finally seized them in their mad pursuit. They died then, on the cross as a fit and proper punishment for their lawless actions.
A thief was certainly then, as now, a worthless wretch; a common robber and plunderer of other men’s goods and possessions. A thief was a depraved miscreant that would steal and filch, rather than engage in manual toil for an honorable living. Such a wanton individual as this was abandoned to a life of nefariousness and treachery; one of leeching off of others while satisfying his own incontinent lusts. If there is anything good to be said then for these two pillaging marauders who were crucified with Jesus our Lord and King, we know not what it might be, though we dare not point the accusing finger at them as though we had not guilt of our own. May God ever grant us grace to see too what base wretches we are, but for a sufficient Saviour.
A thief is a detriment and contaminant to society, and whenever apprehended, ought to be swiftly punished to the full extent of prevailing law. And so it was here. The time had come for the dire appointment to be met. As for Jesus, He was dying, both according to the Scriptures, and the eternal predestination of God. He was dying the innocent Lamb of God to save His people from their sins, and the heavens were sealed against His groans and cries. The blessed redemption of sinners was drawing on apace in the death of this innocent son of God. But for the mundane thieves, this was altogether another matter. They had come suddenly and swiftly to the end of their rotten rope, and death now invades their vitals. At some point they had been apprehended by the Roman authorities; thus patient justice had overtaken them, and now the horrifying vengeance of the law was being meted out against them in the extreme. Consider, then the obvious scene. Society bids them no sad farewells. There are none there to weep and lament their ignominious demise. No doubt few, if any, cared that the two were “shuffling off this mortal coil”, and if asked, all would probably say they were more than glad to see them die. The thieves had most likely done little in their lives that could be termed good, and rather had done only ill continually. These men probably spent the whole of their lives in fleecing others. They never paid any debt to a society they seemingly despised, at least if they could possibly shirk or avoid it. All their worthless life was consumed in taking by cunning and subterfuge what was not theirs, and now they forfeit their lives in a poor but deserved exchange. But such a strange circumstance as befell them in dying with the Son of God can hardly be understood in the light of their infamy. Dare we call it fate; or chance; or a stroke of luck that these two, of all the common criminals that the Romans expunged for their crimes, should ascend Golgotha with the Prince of Peace? Indeed not; for eternal wisdom had brought them here for this appointment, and keep it they must. But here they die, with the Son of God between them, as the most notable event to transpire in all of time took place.
If we were to take the thieves as examples, or figures of others, we might compare them to the total ruin of man and their (Adam’s Family) just condemnation. We will however, pass that by at this time even though it would be a profitable digression. Rather, for the sake of stricter observation of this subject, let us look first at the two thieves together. We cannot, to save our lives, find any appreciable difference in the two, search how we may. They were both thieves; they were both plunderers; they both abandoned society, and then abruptly met society’s justice. They were both dying, and they both deserved their agonizing punishment – the fullest extent of it. One thief cannot be said to be any better or worse than the other. They, no doubt, shared the same passions, the same perverted delights and dislikes. They were both outcasts of society, living on the fringes of humanity. They obviously enjoyed the companionship of those of like cruel practice – wicked and wasted men. But now they die; and yet there appears as a little glimmer of difference, a wholly new and subdued attitude in the one, while the other remains totally unchanged. Ah, the text must come to mind at this juncture, “Who maketh thee to differ?” And so we ask, what made these thieves to be different one from the other now in their worst extremity? From all obvious outward appearance these two purloiners seem to be the same. There can only be one answer then, and that is, God made the difference. From eternity it was the purpose of God in Heaven that one thief would, at the last, view his sordid circumstance vastly different than the other did. It was the eternally predestinated plan of God that one thief would, to the end, rail upon the Saviour in unrepentant shame, while the other would confess before God, man, and all spirits that he indeed hung there justly, receiving the due reward of his life of dastardly deeds. One thief would shamelessly plea, “If thou art the Christ, save thyself and us”, caring only to save his black soul from his momentary distress. The repentant thief however, pleaded no such thing, but rather, in his now immortal words, said, “Lord, remember me.” And, lest someone thinks mistakenly that we render credit to the rogue for his “about face” while on the cross, we hasten to point out that had not the Lord granted him repentance at this time he would be yet railing against Jesus with his fellow culprit. Acts 11:18, II Timothy 2:25.
The thieves were now dying as they lived; in open shame. But, in the secret counsels of their God, a work was being done in the life of one, while the other yet continued to foam out his own shame. To look at Jesus, at this time, one could scarcely believe that the thief could view Him as a Saviour, or King, or the Lord of Lords, and yet it was so. It was the very lowest and humiliating point in life of the Son of God. He had been stripped; He had been condemned, and now He was nailed to the tree of the cross between two lumps of the refuse of mankind. His disciples had fled; the sheep had scattered, and the Shepherd was crucified. Society had condemned Him; religion had condemned Him; the Roman legions had condemned Him; Pilate, Herod and Caiaphas had condemned Him, and but for the two thieves, He hung alone. The Father in Heaven had forsaken Him, and He cried out, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” Surely, no one could look upon this One and see any beauty in Him that they would desire Him, much less, that He could deliver them into the everlasting kingdom with the Father. Yet such was the case. Despite the shame and the suffering of the Son of God, one thief saw something, felt something, and knew something, for he was blessedly made to say, “Lord, remember me.” It is worthy of note that he did not ask for salvation, either temporal or eternal, or quick relief of his fierce pain and suffering, or for material things; only that in his imminent dying he would be remembered by his fellow sufferer. There can be little doubt that he knew Jesus as the Lord, both of heaven and of earth, the Conqueror of death, hell and the grave, for only a madman would seek such a favor from a mortal, who soon too would launch out to eternity. So, he sought to be remembered. How come this? We can only say, amazing grace, Divine mercy and the pleasure of God brought this one man to this position. Why does not the other thief see what this one does, or for that matter, why did not the whole assembly gathered there recognize the Christ of God? We can only say because one seemingly was a vessel of mercy while the other was appointed to be a vessel of wrath. Could there be any other explanation?
If we might here indulge ourselves in some speculation, let us think a moment what it might have been if some of today’s religious workmongers and arminian parsons had been there at the foot of the cross to hear the repentant thief say, “Lord, remember me.” What might those duty bound professors of will worship have said concerning such a plea as this? Surely, some would say, “Thief, if you have been a good man, God will save you.” Poor comfort this would be to a man who had wasted his life in self indulgence. How could he undo the past? Another might say, “Thief, you must be baptized in order to be saved.” Well, since he hadn’t, and surely couldn’t, this might pound against his soul as an anvil of destruction. This Campbellite notion could hold no appeal for a dying thief. And yet another says, “If you don’t belong to the right church, there is no hope.” This too would be dreadful doctrine to a poor sinner that had never even belonged to the wrong church, much less the right one. While another might say, “Hold out faithful to the end.” Oh, what wretched advice this would seem. He could not even begin to hold out, and how then could he persevere? Another might suggest a tithe would help resolve his dilemma before the Lord, but this sad fellow was much more versed in taking than giving, and surely he had nothing now to give. And so on, and on, and on. What good could any of today’s religious advice do this poor thief? All of the prating instructions of the missionaries, the soul savers, and workmongers could have availed this man nothing. For here he hung, dying, soon to bleed out his wretched blood, and breath out his last gasps, and fly suddenly into eternity. Yet this man could care now for none of this world’s goods or advice either, for that matter. He has now been, for all purposes, removed from society and its opinion of him. He is lifted up from earth in the most abhorrent manner, and now in his final hour he is looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith. And so he says, “Lord, remember me.” Could we possibly believe that anything else would be necessary for this poor wretch to be gathered into the bosom of the Father? We think not. This man had no good works, only wicked. He had no baptism, or church membership, or religious ties of any sort that we know of. A wanton, wasted life was his legacy, and yet he dared say, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” And what was the answer of our dear Saviour? “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” In one blessed sentence the King of Kings grants one of His little subjects a deed to eternal happiness and endless peace. Need more be said? Amen.
J.F. Poole – 1990