"Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left (Matthew 27.38)."
Most Bible students believe these two thieves, crucified with Christ, had opposite destinies. One, say they, entered paradise that day with Jesus; the other was swept away to a reprobate's grim death. One reason given for these conclusions is, the Scriptures abound in contrasts and pairs of opposites. Examples are, Jacob and Esau; Cain and Abel; David and Goliath; sheep and goats; tares and wheat; the wise and the foolish; two in the field-one taken and the other left. There are others, but this serves to illustrate. This comparison is not conclusive, but deserves serious consideration. Another reason that carries some force is the arrangement of the thieves. One thief was on the right hand; the other was on the left of Jesus. Such are the arrangement when Christ shall separate the sheep from the goats. This too merits consideration. The conclusions in this article, however, are based solely on what the Scriptures say, not on inferences, illustrations or long held, popular notions. It is not important, personally, if the two thieves are both saved, both lost, or one saved and the other lost. All that can be important now is, what does the Word of God say on the subject? There are no novel doctrines herein to toy with. There is no axe to grind. What is the Word of God to us relative to each thief? That is the question to be answered here.
The Time Frame.
The death of the two thieves paralleled the foremost moment in the history of mankind. It was the specific hour, determined from eternity, for the slaying of the Lamb of God. The eternal sacrifice was offered. Stupendous events affirmed the awful episode. The old world, with all its types and shadows, was passing away; the new world was ushering in with blessings and redemption. The two thieves, wholly unaware of the unfolding scene, were exactly in the middle of what may be called ground zero. Surely they were not there by accident. Chance nor bad luck had landed them in this dramatic event. Neither was their part in this episode trivial. No! Each person; each event, was a piece of the whole fabric woven together at Calvary. The High Priests, the Roman soldiers, the motley mob, the frightened disciples, the two thieves, were all gathered together to fulfill their part in the death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Each individual and every event was etched in the predestinated scroll (Acts 4.25-28). No person, and no event, may be dismissed or ignored. A careful examination of the record, though brief, of the two thieves is thus in order, entirely as much as the record of all other parties then present.
The Four Records
The first four books of the New Testament contain many events in the life and death of Christ our Lord. Some are recorded in only one book. That does not mean they are of no importance but that their significance was passed by when the Spirit led the other three writers to pen their books. Some events are recorded in two books. This provides us with a varied account, though often the two records are nearly word for word. When an event is detailed in three of the records there are usually insights gained from the three which would be missing otherwise. For those matters found in all four books we must attach the highest significance. Even though, there are times that the four seem to conflict and additional diligence must be given. The account of these two thieves is found in each four books which begin the New Testament. To the best of this writer's knowledge, nothing more is said of them. Attention will now be given to the four records, but for reasons that will shortly be apparent, not in the order they appear.
John 19.17, 18
"And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst (John 19.17, 18)." Other than the mention of the breaking of the thieves legs, verse 32, nothing more is said by John regarding them. John's witness was chiefly occupied with Christ's interrogation before Pilate, the parting of His raiment by lots which the soldiers cast; Jesus saying to His mother, "Woman, behold thy son!" and saying "I thirst" and "It is finished." It should be mentioned that Jesus spoke to His mother prior to saying "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? Which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" as recorded in Mark 15.34 and Matthew 27.46. This took place at the ninth hour of the day. Except for this one brief mention in John of the thieves, he says nothing more of them. We can learn from John that Jesus died between two thieves but nothing more.
"Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left (Matthew 27.38)." Matthew's record differs little from that of John. Additionally, Matthew records the vilification and calumny Jesus received from those passing by on the road, from the chief priests, scribes and elders and finally the two thieves. "The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth (verse 44)." It is worthy of note, both thieves were at this time engaging in the vile treatment of Jesus as He hung upon the cross. Beyond this, Matthew has nothing more to say relative to the thieves. It can be seen from the records of John and Matthew, little can be learned of the two thieves. Only Matthew describes them as thieves (as does Mark, which shall be seen). Only Matthew relates their bitter denunciation of Jesus. Despite the brevity, the account of the two thieves was important enough to be mentioned by both these writers.
Luke 23.32,33; 39-43.
"And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left (Luke 23.32,33)." Luke gives a fuller account here and in the verses following, verses 39-43. It is from Luke's record we find that which has been held dear by believers for centuries; the description of the solemn, though brief, exchange between Jesus and the malefactors. Interestingly, Luke never calls these two dying miscreants thieves. He uses the word malefactors, the primary meanings of which is, 1.One guilty of a heinous offence against the law; a felon, a criminal. 2. An evil-doer; one who does ill towards another; esp. in antithesis with benefactor. (Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1999.)
The arrangement of positioning Jesus between the two thieves measurably brings the attitude of the enemies of Jesus into focus. By crucifying Jesus of Nazareth at the same time as the two robbers would seem to strengthen their argument He was equally worthy of death as were the thieves.
These two evil-doers were not simply common pilferers. Stealing would be only one of many crimes for which they were probably guilty. Our Lord's final hours, then, were kept in company with two of the baser sort. These were heinous offenders; felons; evil doers.
Can the contrast be more vivid? Painted on the canvass of public opinion was the brightest and the darkest of humanity. Between two malefactors, men who dissipated their lives in wanton abandonment, hung dying also the pure, holy, innocent, and perfect Son of God. On either side of Jesus, the right and the left, hung a son of Adam, each fully gorged with wickedness and self-gratification. All that is worthy of heaven had been nailed to a cross between two plunderers, themselves worthy of eternal flames and ruination.
Little wonder, then, the heavens became dark as a sable robe, that the Father drew the curtain of affinity between Himself and His dying Son. Truly, this was the hour of unholy darkness. Satan's boldest stroke seemed severe in the extreme. Jesus hung between two of Satan's foulest sons. Nevertheless, the wise purposes of God were unfolding with divine approval.
These two malefactors, or thieves, were probably common robbers who occupied the hills and highways surrounding Jerusalem and other cities. They were often seen in bands sufficient in number to terrify even a troop of Roman soldiers. It was such plunderers that are mentioned in Luke 10.30: "And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves.." It is possible, though without proof, that these two thieves were numbered among those of whom Jesus spoke. No matter, these were characters that had abandoned all respect for society and its requirements. Their punishment by death was just, even by their own admission (Luke 23.41).
In Luke's account of the crucifixion is found the first recorded words Jesus spoke while on the cross. They were spoken immediately after the mention of the two malefactors in verse 33. "Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots (Luke 23.34)."
Many Bible students have troubled themselves endlessly about the extent of this prayer of Jesus. Some feel He was speaking of Judas, the High Priest, Herod, Pilate, the Roman soldiers and all others involved in His death, from the least to the greatest. If this prayer was indeed unlimited, it might well have included the two thieves, but that is not for us to speculate on. What we may be certain of is, all for whom the prayer was intended were forgiven, as the Lord requested of His Father.
As the hours of agony drew on, there came the railing insults from one of the malefactors. (Both did so at first, Mathew 27.44) This was just prior to the sixth hour, so they had been on the crosses for some time.
A brief review describing the lives of these two railing thieves seems compelling. Their miserable lives were ebbing away on a Roman cross; the ultimate punishment for those deemed unfit to live according to Roman law. (Between them hung the most detested Jew who ever lived, according to popular belief, a belief fanned by the malicious hatred eating at the hearts of the High Priest and those in his company.)
If these thieves had family or friends in attendance we are not informed. What we do know is, the society of the day had bid them a terse farewell and good riddance. From society's viewpoint these rogues were unworthy of further life. They lived an undisciplined life of wanton abandonment. They were to die an unmourned death. If there had been a speck of worth or value in their miserable lives, no record of it is found. Beyond the gathering at Calvary, few knew, and probably fewer cared, that these two malefactors were being dispatched by a most agonizing death into eternity.
Another point of considerable interest is, despite the notoriety the two received as an after-testimony of their death, we do not even know their names. Were they Jews or Gentiles? Nothing more is known of them than the brief records the four writers have left us. Yet, despite the limits of these records, the story of the dying thieves has been held dear to the children of God for centuries.
This is the rest of the story:
"And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss (Luke 23.39-41)." Whatever else may be said of this amazing event, all must concur that the exchange of conversation during the crucifixion was astounding.
Suddenly, the two thieves no longer held a united opinion of Christ. Even more amazing is the brief time in which the breach occurs between them relative to Jesus. Matthew is specific in pointing out it was thieves, plural, which cast the same in his teeth, Matthew 27.44. Matthew 27.45 then says, "Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour." This fixes the time when the thief spoke to Jesus prior to the sixth hour, or at least thereabouts. How or why one of the thieves suddenly recanted his opinion is not at all difficult to understand. At the appointed time, in God's eternal plan, one of the thieves gave audible and visible evidence of an inward change. "Who maketh thee to differ?"
What these two renegades knew of Jesus; what they had heard of Him, or from His lips, cannot be known. There simply is no record to which we may turn. We cannot even be sure they had even the slightest knowledge of Him prior to this moment, though that seems doubtful. We may be sure of one thing; there was nothing at the moment, viewing Christ in His dreadful circumstances, that would incline normal reasoning to conclude He was indeed God; that this was the long-awaited Saviour of the Jews. Yet the record of Isaiah, written over 700 years earlier, was being fulfilled at that very moment: "As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men (Isaiah 52.14)."
Would anyone conclude this was the Messiah, unless God Himself so revealed it? From every appearance, Jesus was no more than another dying victim of Roman oppression over the nations. Beaten, bloodied, abandoned; alone and forsaken. The unaided eye, the natural intellect, nor common sense could possibly see in the tragic scene the full work of redemption being culminated in the death of Jesus of Nazareth. But the thief saw through all the dreadful occurrence and called upon his King.
"And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom (Luke 23.42)." Having rebuked his criminal compatriot (verse 40), the thief turns his final dying focus to his only hope. Reader, picture this event: here is a man who squandered life to the extreme. Not one complimentary assertion is available to hint at any worth in this debauched wastrel. This plea would have all the makings of a petition in extreme futility were it recorded anywhere except in the Bible. But here it is! Three dying men; all condemned as public enemies. One of them sees in another what most likely is the first glimmer of hope he ever entertained of better things. Suddenly, he cries out, "Lord, remember me!" The Eternal Rememberer had been petitioned.
Several things are strongly suggested in "Lord, remember me." The thief saw in Jesus authority. "Lord," he calls Him. If he properly understood the Lordship of Jesus seems unimportant. What he saw was one to whom he could address his last and only hope. What he hoped Jesus might perform for him not another soul on earth could do. Moreover, the thief expresses this supplication when every other hope could only be considered folly. How much, or how little, the thief saw of the deity of Jesus is not at issue. What is sure is, the thief sought the help of Jesus, which is unassailable proof God had first wrought in him a lively spirit. "Remember me." Does this not strongly suggest the thief believed that Jesus would be capable of remembrance, even after His death on the cross? Why else would he say such? Again, this lends credible support to the idea his understanding had been influenced by Divine power.
No person of reasonable intelligence can concoct a theory, worth any consideration, to explain the thief turning to Jesus for hope except by pure, free grace.
"When thou comest into thy kingdom." Only kings possess kingdoms! The thief recognized Jesus as a king; a king entering into His kingdom through death. Few, if any, have ever been blessed with such a radiant view of the full glory of Jesus as was here displayed.
Salvation had visited this trio at Calvary. How fitting! Since salvation has flowed forth from Calvary for centuries, it seems proper for it to begin there, and so it did! "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise."
Few Bible students deny this thief was transported to the presence of Jesus that day, no matter what they understand paradise to mean. Death swiftly hastened on, but joy unspeakable awaited the thief beyond the reach of death, the last enemy. Everlasting union with Jesus, King of Kings, satisfied the petition of the dying thief beyond all expectations. This was one sinner who was assured of eternal joy though he had nothing of value with which to bargain. This profligate was totally void of good works. He had no baptism, no law keeping. He was destitute of any claims on heaven. But, he had the sure promise of Jesus. So then, we consider his case happily closed. At some point, though obscured from public view, he was quickened into spiritual life; was blessed to repent, confess, believe and die in hope of eternal life. The Lord was his Shepherd.
The Second Thief.
There were two thieves crucified with Jesus. Of the one, we feel sure he rests securely with his Saviour evermore. Near unanimous opinion, however, consigns the other thief to the dark regions of eternal torment. And, so it would appear from what we have so far examined in the Word of God. But, there is more, and it must be considered as well.
May the Lord enable us to lay aside prejudice and long held opinions, for all the facts, if any are available. Next to be considered is the record of Mark.
"And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, and he was numbered with the transgressors (Mark 15.27,28)." Mark's record differs from that of Matthew, Luke and John by relating that these events fulfilled the Scriptures, specifically, Isaiah 53.12. Since Mark 15 refers to Isaiah 53.12, a point beyond question, then whatever can be learned there (Isaiah 53) must be conclusive in determining the final end of the two thieves, unless other Scriptures can be produced to prove the contrary. There is no other record of the two thieves beyond what is here offered, thus this cannot be done.
"Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 52.12)." See first from Isaiah that the word, transgressors, is used twice in the second clause of the verse. First, it was said that he was numbered with the transgressors, and second it was said that he made intercession for the transgressors.
Unless it can be proved Isaiah was speaking of two distinct sets of transgressors, an improbable task, then what is said throughout the verse, applicable to transgressors, applies equally to both uses of the word.
In Mark 15.27 the two were described as thieves, then in verse 28 they were called transgressors. Clearly the thieves of verse 27 and the transgressors of verse 28 are the same persons. Only dishonesty or ignorance (or both) can twist the meaning to say otherwise. Furthermore, Mark 15.28 says, speaking of the thieves of verse 27 and the transgressors of verse 28 (the very same persons), that the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, "And he was numbered with the transgressors." Therefore, this conclusion must be drawn-whatever Isaiah intended regarding those (transgressors) with whom Christ was crucified was intended of them both! This is fundamental. We cannot deny the thieves are called thieves, plural, and they are called, transgressors, plural. So then, whatever is said of thieves, plural, and whatever is said of transgressors, plural, must be said of both, unless evidence proves otherwise. (The argument that Mark only quotes the second reference to transgressors when affirming the Scripture was fulfilled will be treated shortly.)
A few words concerning the whole of Isaiah 53 are needful, for nowhere in the Old Testament, except possibly Psalm 22, is the death of Christ narrated more vividly. Verse 4 speaks of Him bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows. All the elect are meant here. Verse 5 speaks of Him being wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. Again, all the elect. Verse 6 mentions the sheep going astray; again, all the elect. Verse 7 speaks of the declaration of His generation and being stricken for the transgressions of His people. Once more the whole of the election are included. In verse 10 we are told He shall see His seed. The elect are His seed. Verse 11 says He will justify many and bear their iniquities. The many and the their are one with the elect. These few identities are sufficient to establish the point; the prophet was speaking by Divine direction of the elect, inclusively, and only the elect, exclusively. So too shall we find matters in verse 12, where the transgressors are mentioned twice.
Isaiah's first mention of the transgressors in verse 12 was that "he [Christ] was numbered with the transgressors" and his second mention is "...and made intercession for the transgressors." Moreover, between these two references to the transgressors he said, "...and he bare the sin of many." Can the honest reader possibly conclude Isaiah was referring to two, and possibly three distinct groups of persons? Is it probable that the first mention of transgressors is no way connected to the second mention of transgressors in the very same verse? Is there anything in all of Isaiah 53 to lead one to think that those many for whom Christ bare their sins excludes one, or both, the transgressors twice mentioned in this one verse? Certainly not!
Even were it admitted that possibly Isaiah did not intend the transgressors to be included in the "and he bare the sin of many" it would surely make Isaiah appear to have little grasp of the meaning of what he was trying to say. Furthermore, the intercession for the transgressors would seem highly out of place if it was not a priestly prayer for His (Christ's) own, the same as those for whom He bare their sins. This is a strange text indeed if the transgressors first mentioned were not the same as the transgressors last mentioned. And finally, since the two thieves in Mark 15 are denominated transgressors, plural, and twice in Isaiah 53.12 they are also called transgressors, plural, it can only mean that both were beneficiaries of whatever Jesus did for one. These are the facts emanating from the two texts, no matter the entrenched opinions and preconceived notions about these two transgressors, also called malefactors and thieves.
The Thieves' Conduct on the Cross.
While the texts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John indicate no repentance or conviction on the part of the other thief, the absence of such cannot outweigh the positive evidence of the wording of Isaiah 53. It must be concluded therefrom that Jesus made intercession for both transgressors with whom He was numbered. Moreover, the text also requires the admission that Jesus bare their (both transgressors) sins, despite what we may, or may not, know of their dying hours.
Many have proclaimed amazing grace when contemplating the apparent repentance of the one thief. Perhaps, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound than we might have first thought. So the record indicates when read without prejudice.
It has been suggested Jesus made intercession for only one thief and those who crucified Him, thus His prayer, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." This is possible, but not what the record reveals. The extent of the intercessory prayer of Jesus cannot by us be fully known now. It may include those who drove the nails in His body. It may include the mob, the priests, the Roman soldiers; one or two of the transgressors or thieves. It surely includes all for whom the Lord intended. But what does all that prove? Did the mob, the soldiers, the priests or anyone else exhibit any more repentance than the one thief? Because the evidence is not revealed does not mean it does not exist, for it must, unless it can be proven the intercessory prayer was spoken only for the one thief or transgressor. But, and notice well, Isaiah said he made intercession for the transgressors, plural. Since the only persons directly described as transgressors were the two thieves then certainly, certainly they two at least must be included. Both of them! Mark says the Scripture (Isaiah 53.12) was fulfilled when Jesus was numbered with the transgressors. Whoever these transgressor are (Mark says they are the two thieves) Isaiah says Jesus made intercession for them.
Although it may be difficult for some to swallow, this is the clear, positive, and only conclusion that can be drawn from an honest comparison of the two texts. The first mention of transgressors in Isaiah cannot be less than the two thieves or Mark was mistaken. And, since it is positive that both mentions of transgressors in Isaiah 53.12 are mutually the same, then Christ did indeed make intercession for both those with whom He was crucified. The construction of Isaiah 53.12 requires the careful reader to acknowledge that if this text is the one to which Mark refers, then both thieves (transgressors/malefactors) died with a hope of glory, while only one was mentioned as having confessed Christ.
If you accept the view that Matthew 21.29-34; Mark 10.46-52, and Luke 18.35-43 are speaking of the same incident, that of the healing of blind Bartimaeus, then you have a parallel situation. You cannot know that Bartimaeus had a companion that was healed unless you couple the texts of Luke and Mark with that of Matthew. Taken together, the story is clear; there must be two blind men healed.
When Isaiah 53 is viewed with Mark 15 it is difficult to deny the deliverance of both transgressors (thieves).
Whatever conclusions are drawn from the record, that one or both thieves were delivered, it is nevertheless, a wonderful story of amazing grace. The facts are, neither thief, nor any of us, has any claim on the mercy of God. Heaven shall be home for all the election of grace. None of them can or will be finally lost.
Elder James F. Poole
Volume 14, No. 4 - July-August, 2000