One of the most remarkable passages in the Holy Week Gospel narratives regards the responses to Jesus on the part of the two criminals crucified on either side of him. Luke gives us this account:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:39-43)
It is clear from Jesus’ response to the second criminal that this man has been forgiven and will not be condemned in the afterlife. Some people might find this disturbing, since this man has demonstrated relatively little faith and repentance, which are crucial to a biblical concept of salvation. But there are several things to note about the faith of this penitent thief on the cross.
For one thing, he declares his faith in Christ publicly, and as Jesus said in one of his earlier discourses, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). Secondly, the thief demonstrates genuine repentance, acknowledging his life of sin when he says “we are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” As is clear from Scripture, there is no salvation without repentance (cf. Acts 2:38), so it is crucial that this man demonstrate true penitence. Although his remaining time on earth was very short at this point, he repented to the extent that he was still capable of doing so.
Thirdly, the penitent thief declares his faith in opposition to his fellow thief, who
“hurled insults” at Jesus. Apparently, the penitent thief himself had also verbally abused Jesus, given Matthew’s crucifixion account, where we read that just as the chief priests and teaches of the law mocked Jesus, “in the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Mt. 27:44). So after initially joining his fellow thief in mocking Jesus, the penitent thief had a change of heart, culminating in his plea to Jesus to remember him in the next world.
Fourthly, the penitent thief declares his faith that Jesus is indeed a king, citing Jesus’ coming “kingdom.” This he does despite Jesus’ extreme humiliation, having been beaten to a bloody pulp, and now writhing on a cross with a sign above his head mocking the very idea regarding which this thief is testifying sincere belief. Perhaps at this time even Jesus’ own disciples, who, with the exception of John, had by this time scrambled into hiding, would have been rather skeptical of Jesus’ messianic kingship. But not this penitent thief. He believed despite all appearances to the contrary. Now that is faith.