Shortly before His death, Jesus spoke words of deep assurance to an unnamed criminal hanging beside Him. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This simple statement, spoken to a man at the end of his life as he paid the punishment for his crimes, offers unspeakable hope and comfort to all who come after.
Jesus’ interaction with this hopeless man thousands of years ago reveals core truths for us to celebrate each Easter season.
Here are 5 important truths we can learn from the thief on the cross.
1. We all must make a choice regarding Jesus.
Scripture tells us two men hung on crosses beside Jesus, one on His right, the other on His left. But it doesn’t tell us their backgrounds. Were they raised in Jewish homes to expect the Messiah? Were they familiar with Jesus’ teaching? Had they witnessed lives changed and wondered if theirs could be as well? Regardless, in this moment, two dying men faced a choice. One man believed Jesus held salvation in His hands and responded accordingly. The other mocked and rejected Him (Luke 23:39-42).
Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God offers each of us that same choice. Like the forgiven criminal, we can humbly accept God’s gift of grace and be welcomed into His presence. Or, we can reject Him and His gift. But we can’t accept one without the other. To receive the eternal life Jesus offers, we must first receive Him. When we receive Him, we inherit eternal life. As Scripture says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
2. No one is beyond hope.
It’s easy to categorize sins, listing some as almost inconsequential and others as damning beyond forgiveness, but Jesus’ interaction with the repentant criminal on the cross demonstrates this isn’t the case. We don’t know his history, but scholars believe he likely was a ruthless bandit or violent insurrectionist.
This is good news for all of us with friends and family who appear to be far from God. In the criminal’s request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom,” we witness his faith as he declared his belief in who Jesus was, and we see God’s power to transform, regardless of a person’s past. In Jesus’ response, “Today you will be with Me in paradise,” we see Christ’s readiness to forgive all who come to Him (Luke 23:41-43).
3. When we die, we go directly into Christ’s presence.
Many approach the end of their lives with fear, wondering what happens when they die. Do they simply fall asleep? Do they go to some intermittent place and linger for a while? Is there any way we can know for sure?
God, in His love and mercy, wants us to live and face death with confidence, not fear.
Christ’s interaction with the criminal on the cross illustrates a truth revealed in 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Hebrews 12:23. As Wayne Grudem writes in Bible Doctrine, “Once a believer has died, though his physical body remains on the earth and is buried, at the moment of death his soul (or spirit) goes immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing.”
Notice, Jesus didn’t say, “Truly, I tell you, once I return to earth, I’ll bring you into My presence.” Instead, He said, “Today you’ll be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Though we won’t receive our glorified bodies until Christ’s second coming, we can trust, based on Jesus’ words to this dying man, those who have relied on Christ for salvation will never be separated from Him—neither through death nor life.
4. Not everyone receives Christ’s free gift of eternal life.
Two men, both deemed worthy of death, hung by Jesus’ side, one on His left, the other on His right. Presumably, both had at least some indication as to who Jesus was, or at least, who He claimed to be. Considering the size of His following and all the miracles He performed, it’s quite likely both criminals had heard the stories—a man named Lazarus raised from the dead, leprous outcasts healed, light and life brought to the demon possessed.
But when faced with their mortality and the choice to receive or reject the soon to be risen Lord, only one man died justified, having been made right with God through the blood of His Son. The other, sadly, rejected God’s free gift of salvation and thus received the full measure of condemnation his sins deserved.
As we share the gospel, we should expect these same two reactions. Some will respond with saving faith but others will reject, not us, but Him. Our role is not to convince or cajole others into salvation, nor to feel guilty when our words appear to go unheeded. Instead, we’re to do as Jesus did—love and invite. The results are up to Him.
5. Jesus loves us.
Though I accepted Jesus’ free gift of salvation as a young girl during a neighborhood Good News Bible Club, I didn’t fully grasp the depth of His love until I saw “The Passion of the Cross” on the big screen. Seeing the intense agony Jesus suffered in order to give me life leveled me. It was the most radical, purest love I’d ever witnessed or ever will again.
With every excruciating breath, our Savior demonstrated sacrificial, selfless love. While in agony, He showed concern for His grieving mother below Him and committed her to the care of His disciples. When others mocked Him and gambled for His clothes, He interceded for them saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And when most of us would’ve focused on our pain, He noticed the spiritually destitute man dying beside Him and provided Him with unshakable assurance. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).