THE PENITENT MALEFACTOR
Luke 23:39-43 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 art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this Man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.
The dictionary meaning of a "malefactors" is immoral evildoers or criminals. This was a true translation, but Matthew and Mark narrow this broad meaning down to a specific type of criminal - thieves. The two malefactors were guilty of thievery, and for their crime, they were sentenced, by the Roman magistrates, to death by crucifixion. Since their sentence was to be carried out on the same day as that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, they were crucified, one on the right hand, and the other on the left of Jesus (Luke 23:33). Also, many of the Jewish people that passed by, as well as their religious leaders, and the Roman soldiers, all mocked Jesus as He hung on the cross of Calvary. Matthew tells us that the thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth (Matt. 27:44, Also See Mark 15:32). Although this translation is unclear in the usage of today's language, the meaning is that these thieves exhibited the same upbraiding reproach toward Jesus as the others that mocked Him as described in the preceding verses.
In the lesson text, we find one of the malefactors experienced remorse for his actions and expressed his penitence to Jesus. And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, If thou be Christ, save Thyself and us. Whether this thief had previously heard about Jesus is not known. However, hanging on a crucifixion cross, the shadow of death loomed eminently over him and he was willing to grasp at any straw that might save his life. His wicked heart had not been changed; he was not repentantly seeking forgiveness for his sins. He dared Jesus to save Thyself and us. Without any concern for eternal salvation, this thief was telling Jesus to prove to the world that He was the Savior by intervening and bringing about salvation from temporal death.
The other thief rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? All three, Jesus and the two thieves, had been condemned to die. This thief was rebuking the other by assuring him that he would soon be facing God, his Creator, and, because of this fact, he should have great fear within him because of the sinful life that he had been living. By his berating reply, one can see the repentant attitude building in this thief. He had almost three hours to think about it, since the crucifixion took place at about the third hour of the day (nine o'clock), and the death of Jesus occurred at the sixth hour, or noon. It seems that during this time he had a change of heart. He continues his rebuke by telling the other thief that they had been justly condemned: we receive the due reward of our deeds. Then referring to Jesus, he further reproves the other thief by assuring him that this Man hath done nothing amiss. Whether this thief had heard of Jesus' wonderful teaching and compassionate miracles, is not known. It could be that he was convinced of Jesus' innocence by the manner the members of His family and His disciples demonstrated their devoted love and concern for His torturous crucifixion.
The fact that this one thief knew Jesus to be the promised Messiah and the Son of God, is the important point of this lesson. This should be the attitude of all men and women of the world. As soon as one hears about our Lord, and believes Him to be the Savior, like this thief, they should immediately seek to obey His teaching and become His devoted follower. With his heart humbled and submissive, this thief recognized his sinful condition and prayed to Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. Matthew Henry summed up the repentant attitude of this sinner in a manner that we all must have in order to be forgiven of our sins and enjoy the hope of eternal salvation. He wrote that, while there is life, there is hope, and while there is hope, there is room for prayer. Noting his sincere repentance, Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise. His sins were forgiven and he was saved simply by the power of the words spoken by the Son of God, just as He forgave the sins of the woman that humbled herself and washed Jesus' feet (See Luke 7:36-48). So Jesus still saves today, all that obey the conditions of His New Testament doctrine as spoken by His apostles on the Day of Pentecost!