The Merciful, Selfless Love of Jesus: Christ’s Remarkable Redemptive Love, Part 4

(copyright, Marcelo A. Tolopilo)

Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom! And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise’”(Luke 23:38-42).

Nothing to offer

Certainly one of the most sublime expressions of Christ’s merciful, selfless love is seen in the grace the Lord Jesus extends to the penitent thief who was crucified alongside Him.  This man could offer Jesus nothing in exchange for His love. He could not offer the Lord a reformed life (He was condemned and dying!). He could not offer Jesus a single tomorrow (He literally had none to give). He could not promise to make right the wrongs he had perpetrated (He was powerless and devoid of assets). He could not offer Jesus a future life of obedience (His life was wasted and spent). By the end of that very day, his lifeless, mangled body would lie in a pauper’s grave abandoned, forgotten, unmourned. This thief was a most desperate, hopeless, and helpless sinner. His only plea to Jesus was a plea for mercy.


While the gospel of Luke beautifully reveals the thieve’s penitent spirit, interestingly the gospel of Matthew (27:44), as well as the gospel of Mark (15:32), tell us that towards the beginning of the crucifixion—and perhaps well into the process —both criminals were berating the anguished soul of Jesus with insults and derisive demands for deliverance. And yet as the torture of the crucifixion ground on and no deliverance came, amazingly in the midst of this ordeal, one of the thieves experienced a remarkable transformation. This broken man experienced an acute conviction of his own sin (Luke 23:41). He affirmed the Lord’s utter innocence (Luke 23:41); he recognized Jesus as the true King of Israel who would rule triumphantly over His people, and he called out to the Lord Jesus as his only hope (Luke 23:42). Essentially, he went from cursing and deriding Jesus to becoming a worshipper of the Lord. How did this remarkable metamorphosis occur?

Jesus truly died in a remarkable way

While we are not given a great deal of detailed information about what transpired in the hours of the crucifixion, we can make several observations from the text that help us understand how this man was transformed from a violent thief to a disciple of the Lord. The key to this man’s conversion hinges on the way Jesus died. Jesus truly died in a remarkable way and this thief had a front row seat to see and hear it all in its astonishing beauty. For example, he observed Jesus quietly taking all the merciless verbal abuse from every quarter of the cynical crowd: from the Roman soldiers, from the religious leaders, from the multitude, and even from himself and his criminal cohort hanging on the other cross. Jesus took the abuse with grace and dignity, just as He had taken the physical blows, the scourging, the stripping, and outward humiliating shame of this cruel Roman execution. And as the thief watched Jesus dying with such grace and dignity, a metamorphosis began to occur in his heart.

Jesus was in control in an out-of-control situation

You see, Jesus didn’t return the insults of His sneering enemies. Neither the crude Romans, nor the hateful mob, nor the self-righteous leaders of Israel, nor the foul mouthed convicts could engage this man’s fury. He was in control in an out-of-control situation. In fact, the only words the thief heard pouring from Jesus’ mouth were prayers, and not just any prayers. Wholly absent from the Lord’s lips were prayers for God’s wrath to fall upon His enemies. The prayers Jesus uttered were ongoing, repeated, passionate prayers for God’s mercy to blanket His torturers! “But Jesus was saying (i.e., saying continually, repeatedly), “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These were the prayers of a righteous man for certain.

Jesus was no mere man

And so as this thief watched and listened to Jesus die, he began to think this was no mere man. He was regal in the midst of unimaginable horrors. Now there was real power! Any goon could inflame a crowd with rhetoric. Jesus exhibited control, love, and grace when the mob had turned against Him, when He was under the pressure of intense suffering. The thief had buckled under that pressure; he himself  had verbally accosted Jesus (Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32)! He had never witnessed such virtue at play as when he observed Jesus dying. There was only one conclusion to draw: Jesus was who His sentence proclaimed Him to be. In spite of all the apparent contradictory evidence, Jesus was the King of Israel! His preaching matched His virtue.

Seeing is believing

This thief was transformed by what He saw. Just as he was self justifying at the beginning of this ordeal, at some point in the crucifixion process he became acutely aware of his own sin (Luke 23:40, 41). What’s more, as he wrestled with this newfound sense of self awareness, in a moment of spiritual clarity he must have recognized the significance of Jesus’ Jewish name. It is the Hebrew word “Yeshua” which literally means “Salvation”, “Deliverer”. Jesus was God’s deliverance from sin, and in a simple but profound moment he surrendered his heart; he called out to this saving Messiah. 

Stunning faith-filled words

And since Jesus was God’s anointed King, this former thief knew, he understood, he grasped, he fully believed that Jesus the King would not be thwarted, nor denied His Kingdom even by the rebellion of Israel, or a Roman cross. This is why he humbly requested to be remembered for good on that great future day of Christ’s coming and Kingdom. And so, we have his stunning and faith-filled words ringing out in stark contrast to his initial unbelief, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”(Luke 23:42).

And then in the most bitter moment of life, as he hung near death, as he swallowed the bitter pill of a wasted sin-wrecked life, he called out to Jesus and heard the sweetest words that ever alighted on his mind and conscience, “And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise’”(Luke 23:43).The Lord’s promise to this man was for today” not only the future, but “today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Essentially Jesus told him, “I’m about to storm heaven to the praise of God and His angels, and today you will be by my side; you will be with Me!.” 

My friends, like this former thief, we bring nothing to Jesus but our brokenness, and He—by the power of His merciful love—gives us cleansing and the certainty of heaven with Him. Praise the name of Jesus!    

“Nothing in my hand I bring, 
Simply to thy cross I cling; 
Naked, come to thee for dress, 
Helpless, look to thee for grace; 
Foul, I to the Fountain fly; 
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.”  

Rock of Ages, Augustus M. Toplady

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