This article first appeared as a meditation in the March 15, 1975 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Christ's Remembrance of the Malefactor
"And Jesus said unto him, Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." Luke 23:43
How wonderful is the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! Thus this word of God must surely be understood! It is a fruit of our Lord's first crossword, His plea for forgiveness. True, the immediate fruit of that prayer was that the world was not destroyed! This, however, is surely another fruit of that amazing prayer, a manifestation of the wondrous power of Calvary.
This word is strikingly and beautifully introduced by the word, "Verily." Literally we read: "Amen, I say unto thee." How contrary is this word to all which human eye can see! Imagine: this man will be with Christ in Paradise this day! How apparently impossible this is! How wonderful is the power of the cross!
What a glorious word! Let us review briefly its background. The other Scriptural references are Matt. 27:33, 44, Luke 23:33, 39 and Mark 15:7, 27. From these passages we may conclude that these malefactors were highway robbers or plunderers, who had committed murder while committing robbery.
A deathbed conversion—is it preferable? Some may think a deathbed conversion preferable. Of course, a conversion is always wonderful. But it surely is not preferable. Of course, "deathbed conversions" are possible. Scripture does record this incident. We add, however, that this is also the only mention of such a conversion in Scripture. Besides, it is certainly not preferable to be saved at the last moment and to have served the devil all of one's life. And, thirdly, no sinner can choose the moment of his conversion. Conversion is strictly a work of God's sovereign grace.
The background for this incident is recorded in the verses 40-41. We read: "We are in the same condemnation, or judgment." It is obvious that the malefactor refers to all three, including the Lord Jesus Christ. This is evident from what we read in verse 41: "for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss." All were in the same condemnation; all had been sentenced to die the death of the cross. However, "we indeed justly." The malefactor and his companion deserved their punishment. To this must be added one more thing: these malefactors were Jews. Romans were not crucified. They knew about God; they also realized that they stood upon the very brink of hell. They knew what confronted them. A more appalling and hopeless situation is hardly conceivable.
The word of Christ to the malefactor is surely far above his expectation. He recognized in the middle Sufferer Israel's King and Messiah. He also realized that his entrance into that kingdom was wholly dependent upon that middle Sufferer. For the rest, his petition is rather indefinite. What was his conception of that kingdom? When would he enter it? I assume that he conceived of this as occurring sometime in the future. And Jesus answers him that today he would be with Him in Paradise.
One cannot fail to notice the difference between the malefactor's plea for mercy and Jesus' answer. The malefactor speaks of Christ's kingdom. And Jesus replies that he would be with Him in Paradise. Jesus was, not entering that day into His kingdom. That must wait until His ascension and exaltation at the Father's right hand. That this malefactor would enter into Paradise emphasizes the Old Dispensational aspect of his salvation. He is saved as in the Old Dispensation. Even as Lazarus was taken up into Abraham's bosom, emphasizing that he was saved in hope, together with all the saints of the Old Dispensation, so also this malefactor was saved as in the Old Dispensation, looking forward to the day, not many days hence, when Jesus would enter into His kingdom of glory, and be crowned King of kings and Lord of lords. Nevertheless, what a glorious salvation would be his. He would enter Paradise with Jesus. Heaven is immortal fellowship with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. If there be no night there, it is only because the Lamb is the light of that glory. If there be no tears there, it is only because He has washed them away from our eyes. If our sins will be forever a thing of the past, it is only because we can trace it all to the cross of Calvary. Today he will be with Jesus in Paradise. This is Christ's glorious word addressed to the dying and penitent malefactor.
How amazing, first of all, is the malefactor's recognition of the Christ! Let us visualize the scene. Jesus is hanging upon a cross between two malefactors. In the midst of them, He is considered the chiefest of sinners. And He hangs there as the object of universal ridicule and contempt. He is universally rejected by the church and by the world, by Jew and Gentile; also His own disciples have forsaken Him. There is none that pities Him; also the malefactors, both of them, joined in this hellish chorus of hatred and contempt.
What a glaring contradiction we have here! Jesus is surely the King of the Jews. This we know. And now He hangs upon a cross. Whoever heard of a king whose followers all flee and forsake him? Are not power and glory always and inseparably, associated with a king? Is a king ever without a kingdom? Is shame ever the way to glory? Must one die in order to live?
Hence, how amazing is this petition of this murderer! What singular and amazing light is his, that he should recognize in this Man of Sorrows the King of Israel! In the throes of the death-agony of a cross, suffering excruciating agony, in the midst of all that sea of hatred and ridicule, he recognizes in this Jesus of Nazareth the King of Israel! What an amazing phenomenon!
Secondly, how amazing this is when we view this malefactor in distinction from his companion in crime! Remember, their circumstances are exactly the same. They were both Jews, children of the covenant, acquainted with the fundamental truths of Holy Writ, They were both in the same condemnation, guilty of the same crime, and their condemnation was just. At the beginning they both railed on the Christ. What, then, should distinguish the one from the other? Indeed, the one is surely not more deserving then the other. How must be explained that, while the one increases his railing, this malefactor lapses into silence and then utters his petition for mercy. Perhaps you say that the Spirit worked this in his heart. And this, of course, is true. Yet, what happened that this sinner should be convicted of his sin and attain unto the consciousness of this petition?
Finally, this word becomes all the more startling and amazing when you consider the silence of the Christ. Until the malefactor uttered his petition not a word had been addressed to either of them by the dying Saviour. The only word uttered by Christ until now had been the first cross word. The Lord had not preached to them, had not, shall we say, erroneously, offered grace and salvation to them, had made no attempt to convict them of sin. How long this occurred after their crucifixion we do not know; but there must have been sufficient time to bring this malefactor to the consciousness of sin and to lead the other evil doer to his increased railing and blasphemy. To recognize in this Jesus of Nazareth the King of Israel as entering His kingdom is amazing in itself. To recognize Him as such in distinction from the other murderer is surely equally wonderful. But that this should occur without one word being addressed to either of them by the Christ is surely above all natural understanding.
How wonderfully effectual is the power of the cross!
One may well ask: how must we account for this tremendous difference between the two malefactors? To say that the Holy Spirit worked this repentance is true. This lies in the very nature of the case. This condemned evildoer surely did not attain unto this of himself. Still, however, the question remains: but how was this work of God wrought in the consciousness of this sinner? To this question there is but one word: the power of the cross. Jesus had not uttered a word. When we speak of the power of the cross, we mean that the Holy Spirit wrought this in connection with the cross of Calvary; power proceeded from the cross through the operation of the Holy Spirit.
Only, however, this power of the cross is antithetic. It is always antithetic—see I Cor. 1:18 and II Cor. 2:14-16. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that this two-fold, antithetic power of the cross, always such throughout the ages, should also be revealed at the cross itself. Indeed, it was the power of the cross that wrought in the consciousness of the penitent thief; he was drawn to the Christ of Calvary. He was saved through God's sovereign mercy. But it was also the power of the cross that wrought in the other malefactor.
How must this be understood? Please notice that we read of the other malefactor that he railed on the Christ, that is, he blasphemed Him. Blasphemy, now, is directed against God, is hatred and contempt of God. Why did this murderer blaspheme the Christ, spit out his hatred against Christ because he hated God? Is the man insane? Why does he spend his dying moments railing against and blaspheming God as revealed by Christ? Christ has said nothing; He had certainly done the man no wrong. What was there about this Christ that called forth from this murderer his increased railing and blasphemy?
The answer to this question is obvious. He knew he was condemned justly. All he wanted and desired was to be released from the cross, not from sin but from the result of sin, and then he would have continued in his way of crime. He hated God and he knew about God. Christ, however, had done nothing amiss. Yet, Jesus suffered silently and in all obedience. This murderer hated Christ because he hated God. He hated Christ because Christ here was the perfect Servant of Jehovah, because Christ suffered obediently for God's sake. The sight of that perfect Servant of Jehovah, Who suffered for the sake of the righteousness of God, incensed this murderer and called forth his increased railing and blasphemy.
And now we also understand the other malefactor. To him too, this Jesus of Nazareth was the Servant of Jehovah. Hear him say this: "we, indeed, justly, but this man hath done nothing amiss." And as the Christ suffers, in silent obedience, for God's sake, because He loves the living God, against Whom this malefactor had sinned, the Holy Spirit works in his heart, convicts him of sin, reveals to him his iniquity, lays him prostrate in the dust, opens his eyes and enables him to see in that Jesus of Nazareth the One Who suffers and dies, not for His own sin (He has done nothing amiss), but for the sins of others. And the plea is pressed from his dying lips: "Lord, remember me, when Thou comest in to Thy kingdom." This is the wonder of grace. This is the power of the cross, the divine word that calls, through Calvary, out of darkness into His marvelous light. Do we hear this word of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord? In Him and because of Him and through Him is life everlasting, glory without end.
Rev. Herman Veldman (1908-1997) was born in Chicago, IL on April 22, 1908. He attended the Protestant Reformed Seminary, graduating in 1932. He was ordained into the ministry in September of that year.
He served in the following Protestant Reformed Churches:
Pella, Iowa - 1932-37
Creston, Grand Rapids, Michigan - 1937-41
Kalamazoo, Michigan - 1941-50
Hamilton, ON Canada - 1950-51
First, Edgerton, Minnesota - 1953-1959
Hope, Redlands, California - 1959-63
Hope, Walker, Michigan - 1963-66
Hudsonville, Michigan - 1966-1971
Southwest, Wyoming, Michigan - 1971-78
He received emeritation in 1978 and passed into glory on January 22, 1997.