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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
The Penitent Thief
THE two malefactors who were crucified with Christ had been ringleaders in Barabbas's robber band. And had Barabbas himself not been pardoned by Pilate that morning, he also would have carried his cross out to Calvary that day and would have been crucified upon it. But when Barabbas and his hand are called thieves and robbers it is but due to them to give them the benefit of the doubt. In our noble British law and administration there is a deep and a fundamental distinction taken between ordinary criminals against all civilised society, and political criminals against this or that foreign government for the time. We give up swindlers and murderers when they flee to our shores, but we provide a safe and an honourable asylum for political refugees and state criminals, as we call them. Now all the chances are that Barabbas and his band had begun simply by being rebels against Rome, as, indeed, all the Jews were everywhere in their hearts. Though no doubt their repudiated, outlawed, exasperated, and hunted-down lives had by degrees made Barabbas and his hand desperate and reckless, till they had become in many cases pure thieves and robbers. David in the cave of Adullam is not a bad picture of Barabbas at the beginning of his life of outlawry. For every one that was in distress came to David, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, and he became a captain over them; and there were with David about four hundred men. Only, no doubt, David was a far better captain than Barabbas ever was. David, no doubt, kept his men in far better hand, till he turned them out such splendid specimens of soldiers and mighty men of war, and the best law-abiding citizens in all Israel. But David had only Saul to overthrow, whereas Barabbas had Cæsar.
The Evangelist Luke had perfect understanding of all things from the very first. And no doubt he knew all about the early life of Barabbas and his band. And especially, I feel sure, he would make every possible inquiry concerning the early days of this remarkable man who is discovered to us in this Gospel as the penitent thief. But it would have been out of place in Luke to have gone into this man's whole past life at the moment when he is fixing all our eyes on the crucifixion of our Lord. At the same time, it is as clear as daylight to me that this is not the first time that this crucified thief has seen our Lord. He knew both our Lord's life and teaching and character quite well, though he had cast it all behind his back all his days up till now. He knew that our Lord had done nothing amiss all the time that he and his companions were fast ripening for the due reward of their deeds. There was not a Sabbath synagogue, nor a passover journey, nor a carpenter's shop, nor a tax-gatherer's booth, nor a robber's cave in all Israel where the name, and the teaching, and the mighty works of Jesus of Nazareth were not constantly discussed, and debated, and divided on. And Barabbas and his band must have had many a deliberation in their banishment about Jesus of Nazareth. Is He indeed the promised Messiah? Is He really David's Son? Is this really He who is to overcome and cast out Cæsar? If it is, we shall join His standard immediately, and He will remember us when He comes into His kingdom. Week after week, month after month, year after year, this went on till their hearts became sick and desperate within them. A hundred times Barabbas and this one and that one of his band had disguised themselves as fishermen and shepherds to come down to hear our Lord preach and to see the mighty works that He did. Nay, for anything we know, this man may at one time have been one of our Lord's disciples, quite as well as Simon Zelotes and Judas Iscariot. In his early, and enthusiastic, and patriotic days be may have been one of John's disciples. He may have seen Jesus of Nazareth baptized that day. He may have been baptized himself that day. He may have heard the Baptist say: "Behold the Lamb of God!" He may have been among the multitude who sat and heard the Sermon on the Mount. He may actually have closely companied with our Lord for a season. Till he was at last one of those who went back and walked no more with Him, because our Lord would not be taken by them and made a king. But, go back to Barabbas's band as he did, I defy him ever to forget what he had seen and heard down among the cities, and the villages, and the mountain-sides, and the supper-tables of Galilee and Jewry. This man, and many more like him, went back to their farm, and to their merchandise, and to their toll-booth, and to their robber-cave, but they took with them memories, and visions, and hearts, and consciences, they could never forget. As we see was the case conspicuously with this thief on the cross.
And all this went on: our Lord finishing the work His Father had given Him to do, while Barabbas and his band were fast ripening for their cross; till, as God would have it, our Lord and Barabbas, with these two of his band, were all taken and tried, and were sentenced to be crucified all four on the same passover morning. Now, when a man is on his way out to his own execution he would be more than a man if he paid much attention, to the circumstances attending the execution of his neighbours. At the same time, this thief was no ordinary man. 'This is Jesus of Nazareth,' he would say to himself. 'This is the carpenter-prophet I used to steal into His presence to hear Him preach. I once thought to be one of His men myself to deliver Israel.' And then as men among ourselves do on the morning of their execution, the psalms and hymns of his boyhood came back into his mind. Till he did not hear the mockery and the insults of the people who filled the streets as he went on and said to himself: "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions. For thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth. Thou puttest my feet also in the stocks, and lookest narrowly unto all my paths; thou settest a print upon the heels of my feet. We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us; for we have sinned against the Lord our God; we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God." Till, by that time, the terrible procession had got to Golgotha. And all the way, as already in the high priest's palace, and in the Prætorium, and now at Golgotha, all hell was let loose as never before nor since. And Satan entered into the two thieves, and into this thief also. And no wonder that they both cursed and blasphemed and raved and gnashed their teeth and spat upon their crucifiers, as all crucified men always did, so insupportable to absolute insanity was the awful torture of crucifixion. And all the time God was laying on His Son the iniquity of us all, and all the time He was dumb, and opened not His mouth. "Save Thyself and us!" the two crucified and maddened men both cried to Him; the one in fiendish ribaldry, and the other out of a heart in which heaven and hell were fighting with their last stroke for his soul. Till this one of the two thieves at last came to himself. And the thing that made him come to himself was this: Our Lord had never opened His mouth. He had neither cursed, nor gnashed His teeth, nor spat at His crucifiers and revilers. But, at last, He also spoke. And it was the same voice-the thief had never heard another voice in all the world to compare with it! For, looking up into the fast-darkening heavens, our Lord exclaimed, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." That benediction of our blessed Lord did more to benumb the agony of body and mind in this thief than all the wine mingled with myrrh the women of Jerusalem had made for him and for his fellows to drink that morning. "Father, forgive them!"-it absolutely broke the thief's hard heart to hear it. And as his hardened companion still reviled our Lord hanging beside him, the now penitent thief looked across and said to his old companion and fellow-malefactor the words that all the world knows.
John Donne, in a Lent sermon that he preached at Whitehall, dwells on what he calls "The despatch of the grace of God in the case of the penitent thief." The per saltum character of the thief's repentance and faith, and the full and immediate response of our Lord to his so-sudden repentance and faith, make a fine sermon. The kingdom of heaven suffered violence that day at this thief's so suddenly repentant and so believing hands. He took heaven, so to speak, at a leap that day. The swiftness of the thief's repentance, and faith, and confession, and pardon, and sanctification, and glorification, is something very blessed for us all to think about, and never to forget; and, especially, those of us who must make haste and lose no more time if we are to be for ever with him and with his Lord in Paradise. Let all old and fast-dying men have this written up, like Augustine, on the wall over against their bed-"There is life in a look at the crucified One." For we may not have time nor strength for more than just one such look of despatch.
And, then, if you would see the most wonderful believer this world has ever seen, come to the cross of Christ, and to that cross beside it, and look at the penitent thief. He was a greater believer than Abraham, the father of believers. Greater than David. Greater than Isaiah. While Peter, and James, and John, with all their privileges and opportunities, are not worthy to be named in the same day with this thief. For they had all forsaken their Saviour that awful day and had fled from Him. It was of the thief, and of his alone and so transcendent faith, that our Lord spoke in such praise and in such reproof to Thomas eight days afterwards, and said, 'Blessed is he in heaven with Me this day, who saw nothing but shame, and defeat, and death in Me, and yet so believed in Me, and so cheered Me that day.' For our Lord never, all His life, got such a surprise and such a delight as He got on the cross that day,-not from Peter, not from the Syrophænician woman, not from the centurion, not from Mary Magdalene, as He got on His cross that morning from the thief who hung beside Him. There was nothing, after His Father's presence with Him, that held our Lord's heart up all His life on earth like faith on Him in any sinner's heart. And now that His Father also has forsaken Him; now that He is so absolutely deserted and so awfully alone; it is this thief's faith, and love, and hope that is such a cup of cold water to our Lord's fast-sinking heart. All faith and all hope on Christ were as dead as a stone in Peter's heart and in John's heart. Mary Magdalene herself, with all her love, had given Him up as for ever dead. But not the thief. It was at the very darkest hour this world has ever seen, or ever will see, that this thief's splendid faith flashed up brighter than the mid-day sun that day. Some say that Paul will sit next to Christ in Paradise. I cannot but think that Paul will insist on giving place to this very prince and leader of all New Testament believers. Anybody could have believed and laboured all their days after being caught up into the third heaven, and after seeing Christ sitting there in all His glory. But Christ was still on His cross, and His glory was as black as midnight, when all the faith of the church of God found its last retreat and sure fastness and high tower in the thief's unconquerable and inextinguishable heart. Paul deserves a high seat in heaven, and he will get all that he deserves, and more. But the penitent thief could say, "I am crucified with Christ" in a sense that even Paul could not say that. And however high the thief's throne in heaven is, the whole church of angels and saints will acclaim that he is worthy. Well done! O greatest and bravest-hearted of all believers! Well done!
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'The Penitent Thief'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/t/the-penitent-thief.html. 1901.