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What Do We Know about the Thief on the Cross?

Three crosses stood at Golgotha, a skull-shaped hill known as The Place of the Skull. There would be three men crucified together that day long ago. Jesus had been accused, questioned, tried, stripped of his clothing, beaten, spat upon, and made to carry the cross until he could no longer handle the weight. Simon the Cyrene was given the task of carrying the cross for Jesus. The two other men accused and sentenced to crucifixion would encounter the Savior that day. One man would believe, and the other would not.

Where Does the Bible Mention the Thief on the Cross?

Scripture only shares minor details about the men on the crosses beside Jesus. “Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.” (Matthew 27:38 NIV) Who were these men? Matthew called them rebels. Mark referred to the men as rebels. Luke referred to the men in a different way. “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed” (Luke 23:32 NIV). The gospel of John includes minor mention of the men.

Yet, in each account, the two are referred to as being on the left and right of Jesus.

This positioning of Jesus in the middle can be a reminder that Jesus stands in the gap for us.

Do We Know What the Thief Did to be Crucified?

Both men who are referred to as “thief,” or “criminal,” “rebel,” or “revolutionary” are nailed to crosses and crucified. Although the Bible doesn’t name the exact charges brought against the two, there would have been enough evidence, according to leaders, to have them tried and killed.

Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment. The body was often left on the cross until death and asphyxiation. This harsh form of death was supposed to prevent crime. Leaving the body on the cross for a period allowed others to see the effects of the punishment and hopefully prevent them from breaking the laws of the Romans. Seeing a person nailed to the cross and left to die would be horrendous.

Scripture doesn’t give the exact wording against the two men crucified beside Jesus. In those times, criminals could include slaves who had escaped and committed crimes.

Could the two men have been robbers? Maybe they incited violence with their words and actions? The Bible doesn’t give the answers to that question. The specifics of their crimes are not as crucial as their response to being on the cross next to Jesus.

Jesus was accused of sedition, which can mean inciting people to rebel against the state’s authority.

Why Did Only One Thief Respond to Jesus?

Even as Jesus was suffering a cruel and inhumane death on the cross, he was still able to minister to others. As Jesus and the two men waited for their bodies to breathe the last breath, there was interaction through words. Imagine the sounds of the people crying and wailing as they witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. The sound of the nails pounding into his body. The moans and cries each time the hammer hits the nail securing Jesus to the cross caused more tears to flow from the crowd. The shock and horror witnessed by his family and followers were heartbreaking.

As the men awaited their death, one spoke with harsh words. “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 NIV).

The other man spoke with a different sentiment. “But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God.” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41 NIV).

This interaction reminds us that there will always be believers and non-believers. On the cross that day, one man chose to believe. The other man did not choose to believe even while dying.

The man who believed Jesus spoke. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ”

Jesus answered him,  “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”(Luke 23:42-43 NIV). Prayer and repentance are vital in our relationship with God. The one thief asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus went to his kingdom. The other thief hurled insults at Jesus.

The interaction between the men reminds us that even on our deathbed, we can choose to believe and follow Jesus. Criminals can repent and seek God. There is always hope found in the Lord.

How Did the Thief on the Cross Die?

Crucifixion was a cruel and lengthy process. One definition of crucifixion shares that it was a method of extreme punishment. The person had supposedly been accused, tried, and convicted. The sentence was death. The criminal would have been tied or nailed to a large wooden beam in the shape of a cross. The person would be left to die.

Jesus had already been beaten mercilessly before he was made to carry the cross and journey to Golgotha. His body had been flogged and therefore was already losing blood.

The other two men were also nailed to a cross. Arms outstretched and nails hammered into the feet and hands, the pain was excruciating.

Some historians record the feet being almost parallel, while the knees were doubled, overlapping each other. This positioning would prolong suffering and death.

Loss of blood, suffocation, and pain were parts of crucifixion.

Scripture doesn’t tell who died first. Whether it was the man on the left or the man on the right of Jesus, we know they died from the crucifixion.

The Bible shares that Jesus rose from the dead after three days. Jesus is the Son of God. The other men on the crosses that day are not mentioned again. Further details of the timing of their death or whether the family was there to support them and take care of the bodies are unknown.

Jesus fulfilled the plan of the Father. The Bible says it was nine in the morning when they crucified Jesus. Scripture shares how darkness came over the sky at noon and stayed until three in the afternoon. “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:37 NIV).

The pain and agony endured by Jesus and the other two men on the crosses are part of the resurrection story. While the exact crimes of the men on the cross on either side of Jesus are not given, we do know that Jesus listened as they spoke to him. One thief believed, and one did not. In today’s world, there are believers and doubters. As children of God, we are called to share the gospel’s good news. Sharing the hard parts enables us to share the glory of the risen Lord.

A Prayer for Good Friday

Father, thank You for Your Son, Jesus Christ. He endured the pain and agony to save us from our sinful, and that pain way is more than we can ever imagine. Help us to remember the sacrifice and love You have for Your children. May we show Your love and glory in all we say and do. In the name of Jesus, Amen.