The Bible tells of many acts of extraordinary faith. In the Old Testament, Abraham’s act of faith in offering up his son stands out to me as perhaps the greatest example of faith. But in the New Testament, I don’t even know the name of the person who, to me, displays the greatest act of faith.
The one who impresses me most is the dying thief on the cross.
Now, perhaps the dying thief had nothing left to lose and so decided to make a sort of deathbed decision for Christ. This would surely take the gloss off of his faith. But such a thought only makes sense if we skim over the example of the dying thief without paying close attention to the context.
As we’ll see, even though the dying thief believed shortly before his death, the timing could not have been less fitting for faith. Even still, the thief could not turn away from the glory of the crucified King beside him.
In this conversion, we have a specific fulfillment of Christ’s prayer on the cross. As soon as Christ had uttered, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), the Father answered that prayer by turning a once-reviling criminal (Matthew 27:44) into a Christ-glorifying saint.
While the soon-to-be converted criminal was not directly responsible for Christ’s death, he nevertheless joined with those who were, and was thus indirectly addressed when Christ asked for God to forgive “them.” When the dying thief who was to be converted was doing his worst against Christ, Christ was doing his best for him.
The conversion of the one criminal was stunning and testifies to the power of Christ’s prayer and the grace of God. Why? This criminal’s faith did not come at a time such as when Christ turned water into wine or performed miracles, such as walking on water, opening the eyes of a blind man, or raising Lazarus from the dead.
When Christ was on the cross, did anyone publicly cry out, as John the Baptist did, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)? But by vocalizing his faith in Jesus while he was on the cross, this is essentially what the dying thief did.
A Theology Course on a Cross
Perhaps the dying thief was simply like the rocks Jesus said would cry out if his followers fell silent (Luke 19:40) — rocks could speak of Jesus’s trustworthiness and glory but couldn’t enjoy him themselves. This does not seem to be the case. The dying thief shows that he has a rich theology on the cross, but he ends up receiving an even richer theology before dying — a theology of hope.
As the criminal beside him railed at Jesus, commanding him to save them all, the thief who was eventually saved rebuked the other criminal. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” (Luke 23:40). At this point, the thief shows he was a fine theologian indeed, for he spoke of the fear of God.
But his theology gets better. He admits that the sentence they are receiving is a just sentence. In other words, he knows he is a sinner. “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Again, his theology rises even higher. He has the boldness, knowing he is a sinner and that God is to be feared, to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom (Luke 23:42).
Improbable Faith and the Reward of Hope
Quite frankly, this is one of the greatest acts of faith displayed anywhere in God’s word. While so many of Christ’s disciples had abandoned him because they believed that he was not the true Messiah sent from God to redeem Israel, this criminal believed that a crucified man beside him had a kingdom!
The thief was not putting his faith in the resurrected Lord of glory, but in a man under God’s curse (Galatians 3:13). How does the dying Christ respond to all of this? How does Christ respond to such faith? He offers him hope! “He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:43).
How long the thief had left to live while on the cross is unknown. In one sense, that is not important. What is important is the hope he received when, moments before, he had absolutely no hope. This is the beauty of the gospel. It takes the most hopeless situation, even the warranted crucifixion of a criminal, and offers the very opposite— life.
Believe in the King, Not in the Kingdom
The thief had hope in death. But his hope was not simply that he would experience life after death. It was, in fact, much better than that. He was told by Christ himself that he would be with Christ in paradise. Many in the world are content to affirm their hope in life after death, even speaking of “heaven,” but how many are willing to place Christ at the center of heaven? How many, like the dying thief, want to get to heaven because they believe that heaven is Christ’s heaven, and want to be with him?
Often we hear from irreligious people that they will simply believe before they die, like the dying thief did. Well, perhaps. But we should not underestimate what was involved here in the salvation of the thief. He did not believe in Jesus as a last-second effort to cover all of his afterlife bases. No, the dying thief believed that this crucified, cursed man was a King, and a Savior, and a Treasure.
It is faith like this that is rewarded with hope, not the hedge-your-bets, precautionary “faith” some suppose they will accede on their deathbeds. The thief, and any who join him, receive a confident expectation of unimaginable goodness to come, which has its center and greatest value in Christ alone.